The Prisoner in the Asylum: Living in Harmony

The introduction and master post to this series of posts about The Prisoner can be found here.

When I wrote about A, B and C I commented that sometimes that is taken to refer to psychedelic drugs but instead I took the approach that it could refer to ether abreaction. The reason I did that was that I already had the psychedelic experience marked down for this episode, and in fact didn't have much choice in the matter because the episode actually says it is a drug-induced experience fuelled by a Western town set that has somehow appeared next to the Village but nobody has remarked on it up until now.

Surprisingly there are a few other things in this episode touching on mental health which I must just mention.

The Kid suggests a type which has largely disappeared from our society except for in the tarot deck, namely the fool, or the holy fool. You would of course be quite right that he comes across here as much more psychopathic but to end up being a holy fool you have to have been through a lot. The same typology is found in the 'gentlemen of the road' fed at religious houses, who all without exception have a tale to tell and let me tell you this tale is never ever pleasant.We even see an eccentricity of dress which we may see in these men - I would suggest that the holy fool typology dates from a time when society didn't understand mental illness or trauma and atributed a religious significance to strange behaviour.  My mother had a vocabulary formed in an age where people generally had no notion that words can actually hurt but she would have described the type of men (they are always men, for sociological reasons) I mean was n'er do wells - they create absolute havoc around them and while some of them end up in hospital or homeless, many of these men somehow always have a partner and at least a roof over their head. Everyone else looks at this relationship and it's usually histrionic to a level that most people can only dream of, but nonetheless I think think this typology is a part of society and it's always what the Kid makes me think of. Psychiatrically they often get diagnosed with a major mental illness such as bipolar or else borderline personality disorder. The key difference between Number 6 and the Kid is that Number 6 will have better coping skills and be better able to function in society, despite being chronically distrustful of people.

The core therapeutic matter here though is still about getting Smith/Number 6 to play his part in society and take on responsibility. Naturally he will only do this under his terms and this is what we all love him for. You will of course say that I am skewing the content of the episode towards my interpretation here because I'm happily ignoring the attempts to get information out of him, the question of violence and the heap of bodies, and you would be right. Instead I'm choosing to focus on the issues of loyalty and 'working for me', which we could interpret as patronage.

I have mentioned occasionally during these posts about the effect working in the old hospitals had on the staff and the complex web of relationships which somehow kept them going. When Number 2 talks about working for him it may not actually mean a job as such, it may mean a task presented as a favour. I don't think it can be over stressed how ridiculously run the old hospitals were - the ward my mother worked on in Kent had over 100 beds. Well, not beds, they were mattresses on the floor because the patients all had uncontrolled epilepsy. That is except for the row of padded cells for the disturbed patients. And get this - she would be the only member of staff. Naturally in this situation the actual running of the hospitals was done by the patients and since there were patients who really didn't need to be there expect that they'd been in hospital so long they couldn't face living anywhere else and these people were given a role called trusty (I think this is a word borrowed from prisons originally) and that carried with it certain privileges. A trusty is essentially the kind of mole that Number 6 so often discerned among the other Villagers - we tend to assume they are in employment but you can get the same behvaiour by giving someone a few minor privileges and making them think they are special or even pretty much staff:

'[The psychiatric hospital in the 1950s was] a well-ordered an intricately woven social fabric where patients and staff became interdependent whilst still maintaining their relative institutional roles. For example, patients became an important part of the work force; there arose over time what Bateman and Dunham (1948) called an 'employee culture', one of whose effects was to work against the possible discharge of the patients involved.' Liam Clarke: The Time of the Therapeutic Communities: People, Places and Events. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, 2004, p. 37.

However the main subject of the episode is the hallucinogen-induced and scenery-supported experience of Harmony. It is utterly bizarre that hallucinogens made the move from lab to university campus to psychiatrist's office with a supposedly therapeutic purpose, and yet it keeps coming back. Currently there is a push to use MDMA to help treat PTSD. However in line with most of the psychiatry suggested in The Prisoner being psychiatry as known to the chattering classes I think the obvious reference here would be the LSD therapy which actually happened in the sixties:

'I considered that, if one had time to go easy on this and really work it out, it could be a really useful therapeutic agent. But it needed quietness and a lack of hysteria over a period of time to begin to get the hang of how this could be employed. I used it in my practice in Wimpole Street for several years. I got into a habit of giving it to some patients of mine or someone else every other week. I incorporated it into my whole work. [...] There was a lot to think about in the relationship of the altered states of mind that acid put you into and the way people got confused and lost and shipwrecked in psychotic states of misery. How could they get out of it? Was there a possibility if someone was stuck in a sort of hell world - which I felt was too socially risky to try out in any depth, but I asked myself this question - was there a possibility that acid could release someone from being caught in this hell and allow a movement to occur, which they might, in the presence of other people, move themselves back into a balanced, sane world, if they've ever been in it before?' Bob Mullan: Mad to be Normal - Conversations with R D Laing. Free Association Books, London, 1995, pp 225 to 226.

Again as so often in this show the episode stands as a caution about the misuse of psychiatry because LSD and other street drugs can notoriously cause drug induced psychosis and so could do more harm than good. 

Here's a video from the fifties showing psychotic symptoms induced by LSD:

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