11 May How a small Non-profit started screening a feature film across the U.S.: Mad to be Normal | Los Angeles Premiere w/Cocktail Reception & Panel Discussion
Mad to be Normal | Los Angeles Premiere w/Cocktail Reception & Panel Discussion May 26th at the Moss Theater
As I sit down to write this I am also preparing to head to Los Angeles in the morning for a sound check at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica, which is the sort of thing I never really expected to do when I got involved in mental health activism. I also never expected that my friends and I would be involved in running the main US theatrical release of a feature length film. When you work at an organization like ours though (and I use the term “work” loosely, it’s a labor of love), you have to get a little creative.
The organization I work for is called Gnosis Retreat Center, and the movie I am going to do a sound check for is Mad to be Normal: The Story of R.D. Laing and Kingsley Hall. It’s a biographical film about R.D. Laing, the 1960’s counter-culture figure and anti-psychiatry movement leader who had the radical idea that madness was a meaningful experience, and something to be gone through and experienced rather than suppressed.
I and my colleagues at Gnosis have been promoting the movie because we believe in its message, and because Gnosis was founded in order to keep Laing’s ideas alive. Mad to be Normal has turned out to be the perfect vehicle for doing so, as people who have never even heard of Laing can watch it and walk away with a solid idea of who he was and what he represented. It has also turned out to be a perfect way to spread the word of what we as an organization are doing, which is trying to create a non-coercive sanctuary for people going through difficulties where medications will not be pushed on them, and their experiences will be seen as meaningful and important.
Gnosis receives no public funds to aid us in doing this, mostly because we haven’t sought them. We don’t want the red tape and conditions that come with such money because we don’t want it to make us into something we don’t want to be. We do not want Gnosis to be a place where the measure of a person is how far along they are in their recovery, how much their symptoms have been reduced, or how well they can hold a job. We want it to be a place free of such pressures, where people can simply live. This can be a hard proposition for grant giving agencies and state funding sources to swallow.
Because of this we have had to rely on the wonderful people in our community, something we have had no shortage of. We have had many fundraisers and a surprising amount of success for a small crowd funded project, but the movie isn’t really a fundraiser. When we show the movie, we’re just trying to break even. So far, we have shown it in San Francisco, and are about to show it in Los Angeles, with plans shaping up to show it in many other major US cities. The funds we make from ticket sales cover travel expenses, theater rentals, event advertising, and promotional materials, but the real value we get out of showing the movie is that it inspires people.
After showing the movie in San Francisco we had many people reaching out to us asking how they could help. The people who reached out came from different backgrounds, had different experiences, and offered us different resources. They could see the value of what we are trying to do through the film, and that for us is the real reason to show the movie.
It’s not hard to see why Mad to be Normal is so inspiring. The movie acts as a window into Laing’s life and work, and it gives viewers a look into Laing’s most famous experiment, Kingsley Hall. Kingsley Hall was a radical experiment in communal living based off of ideas that Laing had laid out in his books. There was no treatment, it was simply a place to live, both for the people who came seeking support and for the people who were there to provide it. Even the building itself had roots in radical activism, before Laing took it over it was where Mahatma Gandhi stayed when he was in London, fighting for Indian independence.
Such places are still seen as controversial today. I should know, I worked in a similar house called Soteria-Alaska, which was inspired by the original Soteria project founded by Loren Mosher in San Jose, which in turn was inspired by a visit Mosher made to Kingsley Hall. I can remember some of the comments I got from my more traditional minded classmates while working there. “There’s no locked doors? You let people cook? How could this be safe?” I felt that they didn’t understand because they had not seen it. They didn’t understand that in order to preserve people’s liberty and personal autonomy you have to be able to accept some level of risk. That’s the beauty of this movie, it does a good job of getting that message across in a way that can be immediately felt.
We live in a culture that in many ways values safety and conformity above liberty and personal autonomy. This is why restraint, of both the physical and chemical variety, are still used in mental health settings. We abhor the risk that comes with trying to create a real connection with another person, a person whose experience may appear alien and frightening to us. Laing understood this, and pushed back against it. That is what Gnosis Retreat Center is trying to do in carrying on his legacy.
Even while working so hard on the movie events like “Mad to be Normal | Los Angeles Premiere w/Cocktail Reception & Panel Discussion”, Gnosis is still serving the local community. Recently we launched a program called Gnosis In-Home Services. The basic idea behind this is that we bring the Langian house to you, by coming into your home and offering non-coercive support when you are having a hard time. The team that is working on this is the same team that is working on the house project, and it is made up of some truly amazing people.
I belong to the younger generation of people working on the Gnosis project, which is mostly comprised of passionate graduate students who want to make a difference in the world. The older generation that guides us is an amazing mix of therapists, psychoanalysts, scientists, authors, and activists, some of whom worked with Laing on his original projects in London when they were the same age as the students they now guide.
Three such leaders of this project will be speaking after the screening in LA and answering audience questions about what it was like to work with Laing. They are psychoanalyst and author Michael Guy Thompson, physicist and author of “The Tao of Physics” Fritjof Capra, and shamanic practitioner and author Nita Gage. They are there to set the record straight as it were, and create an interactive experience after the movie to really make it come alive.
It’s important to us as a group that people who see the movie really understand who Laing was. So often when people talk about Laing they focus too much on him as a celebrity, and as an acid guru of the 1960’s. He was that certainly, but he was so much more. He had a deep compassion for people with altered and distressing experiences of reality, and a talent for truly connecting with people that was unmatched.
I’ll never forget my first reading of Laing’s book “The Divided Self,” in which he lays out his views about madness and it’s individual meaning. There was something profoundly sad in his writing, but also profoundly hopeful.
One passage in particular has stuck in my memory. In it, Laing quotes a lecture from Emmanuel Kraeplin, who is often seen as the father of modern psychiatry. In the lecture Kraeplin had brought a young man who was struggling onto a stage in front of his students, and had asked him some questions. After the young man answered in his own way, Kraeplin declared to the class, “Although he has undoubtedly understood all the questions, he has not given us a single piece of useful information. His talk was…only a series of disconnected sentences having no relation whatever to the general situation.”
Laing read the transcript from this lecture, and came away with a very different opinion than Kraeplin. Regarding the young man’s responses to Kraeplin, Laing said “What is the boy’s experience of Kraeplin? He seems to be tormented and desperate. What is he ‘about’ in speaking and acting this way? He is objecting to being measured and tested. He wants to be heard.” This was the key difference between Laing and most of the psychiatric establishment, he listened.
I have no doubt that there will be some who see Mad to be Normal and thoroughly enjoy it, but walk away feeling uninspired by it, safe in their presumption that the psychiatry of today is far more humane than it was during the 1960’s, when Laing’s words gained traction. I believe that in all of the ways that matter most, psychiatry has not budged an inch from where it was in the 1960’s. The focus is still on repressing experience instead of understanding it, and we are still stuck in a failed medical metaphor which most people don’t realize is only a metaphor. It is not something that should ever be taken literally. That is why Laing’s ideas are more important today than ever, and why this movie is so important now. R.D. Laing is overdue for a comeback, and at Gnosis Retreat Center we are doing our best to make that happen.
We are doing this in a variety of ways but we could not do it without the support of the wider community members who are interested in the project. We have been approached by so many people wanting to help. Parents of children who are struggling, people with lived experience of such struggles themselves, therapists, social workers, and people who currently work in the medical model but feel something isn’t quite right. All have come to us to help and all have been welcome, because when you’re trying to create something like this outside the system, you need all the help you can get.
For anyone who would like to be such a person, or if you would like support from us in a struggle you are going through, I would encourage you to come see the movie and start a conversation with us if you can. You can also find us at GnosisRetreatCenter.org and on our Gnosis Retreat Center Facebook page. We have been able to do so much while being poor in financial and physical resources, but rich in community and friendship. Considering what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, I think that in itself is profoundly beautiful. As Michael Guy Thompson, our executive director says, “The reason that friendship and community are important to those [who are] alienated is because intimacy makes us whole again, by providing a sense of belonging to something and someone bigger than myself.”
Mad to be Normal will be playing at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater in Santa Monica California on May 26 Th from 6pm to 9pm. To learn more or buy tickets to the event, visit www.madtobenormallosangelespremiere.eventbrite.com
Connor Tindall is currently a graduate student in the PsyD program at the California Institute of Integral studies, and he is a life coach at Gnosis Retreat Center. Previously he worked as a resident assistant at Soteria-Alaska, another radical non-coercive community.
Tickets available at https://madtobenormallosangelespremiere.eventbrite.com
Mad to be Normal | Los Angeles Premiere w/Cocktail Reception & Panel Discussion
Shows at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica on May 26th. Author of The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra, Psychoanalyst and author, Michael Guy Thompson, and Shamanic practitioner and author, Nita Gage (personal friends of R.D. Laing) will be present for the Cocktail Reception meet & greet, and panel discussion to discuss the movie.
Mad to be Normal | Los Angeles Premiere w/Cocktail Reception & Panel Discussion