Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Madness and Modernity, Bobby Baker & The Peril of Diagnosis

In The Cockroach Catcher is a Chapter called “The Peril of Diagnosis”, in which I highlighted three cases where a definitive psychiatric diagnosis was in the end more a hindrance than an aid, as that focused all attention on the cure of the symptoms and little else on the resolution of the underlying psychiatric problems.
........In one of the letters from my contacts at the clinic, I was told that Jane had to be admitted to a hospital in London. Her weight was so low that she was on tube feeding.

News of a famous heiress just flashed through this morning’s news and the psychodynamics of Jane’s Anorexia Nervosa suddenly became clearer. The heiress witnessed her uncle’s murder and was anorectic ever since. Jane was home when her father died in mother’s arms with a massive haemoptysis (coughing up of blood, a rare but not unknown effect of lung cancer, generally a massive bleed). It must have been very traumatic.

How dim of me. That was bereavement, a slow suicide by someone who felt less worthy to survive........

I recently visited the Wellcome Collection for their Madness and Modernity exhibition: about mental illness and the visual arts in Vienna 1900.

It was an interesting experience looking back at “treatment modalities” of mental disturbance in one of the most cultured city in Europe at the start of the 20th Century. There was an ancient Chinese saying: 50 steps laughing at 100 steps – a reference to a deserter who ran 50 steps from a battle field laughing at someone who ran 100 steps. Are any of our present day methods any better than what the Viennese dreamed up over a century ago? At least the mental patients (yes, still patients) then had somewhere specially designed and safe to practise their art and be contained. Will the next generation of psychiatrists laugh at what we are currently practising?

It was no coincidence that right next to the Madness and Modernity exhibition is the show of
Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental illness and me, 1997-2008.

Bobby Baker Wellcome Trust

Bobby Baker is a successful performance artist who had suffered acute psychiatric problems including self harming, which she captured over a period of 10 years in hundreds of 'diary drawings'. These paintings (158 drawings, selected from a total of 711) and commentaries demonstrated her anger with the mental health service and any viewer thinking of entering psychiatry might be put off forever.

Bobby was told by the first psychiatrist she saw that she suffered from
borderline personality disorder. (Time article link)
As her story unfolded in her drawings, one gets an uncomfortable feeling about the state of our psychiatric service and wonders if we are even at the 50th step. She has triumphed over some of life’s most frightening experiences despite all.

Bobby Baker Wellcome Collection

“As my ability to function improved, hell became more firmly encased in my skull. I’ve formed the opinion…..that psychosis is a metaphor for extreme suffering. My delusions led to paranoia that a network of professionals was constantly searching for evidence that I was wicked. …….Medication didn’t help – it just made me fatter and fatter.” Bobby Baker Wellcome Collection Exhibition pamphlet.
As a psychiatrist, I could not help being curious about the lack of an early history, having just come from a room showing a replica of Freud’s couch. According to Freud most mental disturbances have roots in one’s early childhood.
The puzzle was solved when I read in the Observer of an interview with her:

“I don't know how but I must ask about her father next - the classic therapist's question is, in her case, inescapable. Again, a picture speaks first. In Telling Keith, she is weeping, her tears bizarrely swirling upwards. Her mouth is open and a sea floods out - in the middle is a tiny, drowning figure. ‘That's my father,’ Baker says. ‘I know,’ I say. I know because, in her autobiographical show Box Story she told audiences about a summer holiday in Brancaster, Norfolk when she was 15 and had just received her surprisingly good O-level results. Telling her father her news was 'the best moment in my life' and he gave her the happiest of hugs. She asked whether he was coming to lunch? Not straight away, he replied. He would have a dip first. A bit later, they heard a woman's voice shouting, ‘Help! Help! Help! A man's been washed out to sea.’ Her mother leapt to her feet shouting, ‘My husband! My husband!’”
Kate Kellaway Observer, Sunday 28 June, 2009.

Like my own patient, Bobby Baker suffered from bereavement.

You won’t be able to see the Madness and Modernity as it has finished, but the Bobby Baker drawings are on show at the Wellcome until the 2nd of August. Those running our psychiatric services should perhaps have a good look as they may well be featuring in a future Wellcome Exhibition.

Slide Show: Guardian.

Can They Draw: From Picasso to Matisse
Picasso, Medicine and Lloyds
Picasso and Tradition
“Wake-up Call” to British Psychiatry

Bipolar and ADHD: Boys and Breasts
Antipsychotics: Really?
New Link:
Jobbing Doctor: What a way to run a service.


Anonymous said...

I went to the Bobby Baker and I must say I was very moved and felt sorry that she had to work so hard at getting better.

Anonymous said...

I thought the same thing as you when I went to the Bobby Baker exhibition - How could she wake up one day with a BPD? It just didn't make sense. Thanks for this post


Cockroach Catcher said...


We have moved too far from the days when we spent much time trying to understand patients and perhaps Freud did overstate his theories.

Even Kandel, the Nobel laureate agreed that there is much in the psychoanalytic approach as it is about understanding the patient. It was scary enough for Bobby Baker. She needed much understanding.