Thursday, January 28, 2010

Music and Madness.

I was drawn to this book, 'Music and Madness', by the very title. I had seen it several times on the bookshop shelf, and very conscious of the power of music on the soul, and very aware of the 'madness' that is shielded in 'normality', I requested this as a gift from my sister for Christmas.

The book, in essence, is an account of Ivor Browne's personal and professional life, and how he has come to discover the truth behind much of what society deems 'madness'. Esteemed psychiatrist and holder of a plethora of credentials, this book is written in a style that is far from imperious, but is, rather, accessible, personal and and humane.

He begins by giving an account of his own childhood and development to adulthood, and how his father, set up 'the field', a space at home where they grew vegetables, camped, swam, had parties and engaged in numerous creative activities with friends in the area. He goes on to say how he didn't quite fit in with others his own age, how he was made to feel that he let his father down and how he seemed to 'march to a different beat', quite literally.

Music was his passion, and through music, he lost himself and found himself. His discovery of music gave meaning and direction to his life, but when as a result of tuberculosis, he was unable to play the trumpet anymore, he was forced to think of some other career. Having dropped out of school at an early age, he describes how he 'fell into' studying medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons, which didn't require the Leaving Cert, but had its own entrance exam. And from medicine, he branched out into psychiatry, as this was the only area in which he showed any interest. However music continued to influence him profoundly, particularly jazz music and Irish traditional music, which he believed had much in common with each other. Also the fact that he identified with these musics of the minorities, perhaps showed his ability to empathise, qualifying him for a life of psychiatry.

Because of Ivor Browne's own background and failure to comply with the prescritive education system in Ireland at the time, he was enabled to understand the shortcomings of such a system, and question the practices which were so embedded at the stage where he encountered them. As he travelled and worked beyond Ireland, he became aware that this was particular to Ireland, and that in other countries, people were encouraged to think independently and come up with solutions themselves. This way of thinking hugely influenced his way of working and went on to benefit numerous people under his care. Understanding is his way, and understanding the inner world of a psychotic, by gradually building a relationship with them, enabled him to help them in a positive way, rather than treating them with psychoactive drugs or even harsher methods of physical intervention.

One part of the book that I found quite heavy was the section on 'Breaking the Mould' and 'Definitions of Living Systems'. whereby he draws up the work of much scientific research and philosophical thought through the ages in order to come to what he believes determines the evolution of living systems and understand something of the nature of how we are formed out of the matrix of relationships and environmental influences we absorb from the moment of our conception. While there was much in this section that I didn't quite understand, I understood the reason for its inclusion as it added scientific and historical weight to Browne's argument, allowing him to draw up his own conclusions based on a very wide range of research, again refusing to fall in to the thinking of any one scientist or movement.

Having studied Community and Mental Health in Harvard and being inspired by what he saw, he endeavoured to use some of these practices in Ireland, and set up the first Community Assosiation in Ballyfermot, and was also heavily involved in a similar project in Derry, the Inner City Trust, which rebuilt the city of Derry, most of the impetus coming from the young people themselves, which Browne had learned is the key to change.

In fact change is the central message of this book. 'Change oneself and one's world changes', cites Browne. However, because change involves both work and suffering, many people resist change. The change that he espouses is very much a message of hope, and in his final chapter, he says that 'true human behaviour, the natural state of the human being, only exists when our spiritual nature is awakened, for we are, in essence spiritual beings'. Browne describes his own journey towards this realisation, and his honesty and openness regarding his own suffering along the way, made it all the more meaningful.

This was a wonderfully engaging read, about a subject that needs far more discussion in Ireland. His system of working, through understanding, and 'unfreezing' our inner lives, as writer Colm Toibin describes in the introduction, was a much more humane approach to healing what might be otherwise labelled as 'mad'. Such groundbreaking work needs to continue if integration and change within the system, and within the self, is possible.

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