Madness and Glory (38): Triumvirate

The story of Phillipe Pinel father of modern psychiatry

Posted Jun 03, 2019

This is a work of historical fiction.

Chapter 38

He could be with her again. Riding the rough road from the farm to the asylum buildings, he thought about seeing her at home. More than once in a week, he went there, waited in the parlor room until she entered, moving with fluid strides toward him. He liked watching the springiness of her hair, her curls bouncing slightly side to side when she asserted a point, or fluttering backward with a denial, still twirled by her when thoughtful. Sometimes, as they talked, he felt treated to the sight of changing highlights on her hair when the sun’s rays flickered through the window behind her chair or when she stood up and walked in pursuing light about the room. Her mouth, arched cleanly at the top and corners, danced vivaciously as she spoke of her thoughts and hopes for him, for herself, laughed about Jean-Luc, discussed the increasing establishment of true liberty, bright spots in the social scene. It tightened and turned down slightly as she talked of distressing governmental events and the never-ending war. He thought about watching her upright carriage and the easy flowing movement of her well-curved hips whenever she rose and left the room to get their mocha. It was all for looking, delightful looking, not for kissing or caressing. Not yet, he was not ready for that yet.

“My father says he has not been able to do anything about the conspirators so far because of their power, Guillaume. But things for the moment appear better here in Paris. I don’t know whether it will last, but people seem to walk straighter in the streets, look more confident. The banks of the Seine are still green. And I am going to teach in one of the free government schools.”

Her pleasure and naturalness made him feel more natural, too. He noticed and appreciated things he for so long had ignored, like the greenery and life on the banks of the Seine. New things, previously undetected, came to his eyes and ears. Not the frighteningly intense sensations of his breakdown, but awareness as he passed of the sway of wildflowers blowing in the fields, the busy staccato call of a small bird, a resonant summons of a larger one. Molded shapes of the Bicêtre buildings, curves, crevices, and edges he had missed before, looked bluntly honed or balanced or invitingly smooth or strongly wedged. When he talked with Denis, as much as was possible now, he noted his broad expressiveness. His face showed, by turns, suspiciousness, curiosity, outrage, amusement, and sometimes even frank sympathy.

He visited Jean-Luc, too, helped with his many household chores, went with him on walks, played games of tric-trac, sticks and marbles. A few times, Genevieve came with him, and on a warm weekend day, Suzette Rochereau agreed to their taking the boy to the Bois for a picnic.

“Shall we go into the deeper woods?” Jean-Luc asked the two of them as he wiped crumbs of a creamy nougat cake off his mouth. “They look crackly and cool to walk in, I’ll bet they have plenty of secrets.”

“I don’t know about secrets,” Genevieve said,” but they are lovely and do look cooling. Let’s clean up and we can go. Do you agree, Guillaume?”

“Yes, of course.”

As they proceeded to pick up the remains of their picnic, two men passed on ambling chestnut horses along one of the natural byways through the park. Jean-Luc noticed them immediately.

“Oh, can we go riding instead? I am good on horses.”

Not since the time before Guillaume got sick had he and Genevieve ridden for pleasure together, and the idea was immediately appealing. They found out, however, that Jean-Luc only had ridden a few times bareback on cart horses when his father needed help with loads of costumes and theatrical materials. He would do fine, he swore up and down, riding horses like those chestnuts.

It was a day in late August and soft hushed tones came from a breeze through the leaves of the tall trees around them. They walked through the woods a short distance to a stable on the edge of the Bois where, for a small amount of money, they were readily provided with three fine animals. Jean-Luc’s horse was as tall and spirited as the other two, and he proudly demonstrated his quick-study ability to handle it. Several times, when he pulled a little too sharply on the reins, the horse turned its head to look at him with moist, shining black eyes. Jean-Luc thought the horse was very smart, reminded him of a wise old man named Jacques Chiron he used to visit in his neighborhood.

“Guillaume,” Jean-Luc asked as they rode three abreast slowly through a darkly shadowed portion of the woods, “what is it like to be insane?”

Genevieve started. Guillaume remained silent for several minutes as they continued to ride. “I have been insane,” he said, finally, “but I didn’t know that while it was happening.”

“Funny not to know you’re insane when you are. I always know when I am doing something wild.”

“It’s not like that. It’s not just doing wild things. That can be part, a very small part. There’s torture in your head, you see. And in your body there’s unbearable terror. You cannot think, and there are—” He looked up at the fluttering leaves, shook his head. “And there are hideous sounds.”

Genevieve reached over and brushed her hand over his closest one on the reins. Jean-Luc, a learner, pushed onward.

“What does that feel like, the torture in your head and body? Is it like fire?”

“Sometimes...” Again Lalladiere was silent before continuing, “It’s like being in a field of salt. Your throat is parched and nothing around you grows. The salt grains, when they touch you, and they do all the time, burn your skin, your insides, your mind. Or they freeze you, pelting your face like hailstones and clinging there. If you lie down in the field, as you must because it is so difficult to stand and resist, the salt enters every opening—your nose, your mouth, your behind. It clouds your thoughts, makes breathing difficult, and feels like it is shriveling your bowels. You lie dying in a field amidst the remains of an army of men. Does the salt also savor? I suppose it might, in ways I have not been aware of. Sometimes, it seems the salt is cleansing, but it perfuses and clings, inside and out, and”—He stopped again, gazing at Genevieve. Her face, as she rode, showed both sympathy and distress.

“—And,” he went on, his face deeply frowning,” you do degenerate things. Worst of all, if you try to plow this field of salt, if you try alone to do something about the devastation you feel around you, it rises up in a massive cloud mass and buries you.”

Jean-Luc now was quiet. He pulled brusquely on the reins and again his horse looked back at him, reproachful and protecting.

“One more question. Why don’t animals become insane?

This time, Genevieve answered, “I am not sure they never do. But the question is well put, Jean-Luc. It appears it’s something primarily humans do, don’t you think, Guillaume? A sickness of the human mind.”

Jean-Luc’s own mind was now full of troubling thoughts, perhaps he heard more secrets than he counted on.

“Let’s all of us canter through the woods.” he said. “I can do it.”

Guillaume and Genevieve agreed, and the three of them spurred their horses to a faster pace. Erect in their saddles, gaits rolling evenly together on smooth and shiny chestnut horses, they could be seen going deeper into the wooded trial, a rhythmic, perfect looking band.

Later, Lalladiere said: “I can never do it right, Dr. Pinel, never accomplish anything.” They were talking about his activities on the farm. “To complete something is not in my power, in work or with people.”

“We have not seen that. They tell me you work well on the farm, do everything on time, controlled and orderly.”

“They never tell me. Nobody says.” He looked embarrassed, then serious.

“Always I want too much,” he said slowly.

“What do you mean? How, too much?”

“I expect too much from other people.”

“Here, too? Do you expect much more from me?” Pinel had learned to recognize indirect accusations, his accepting understanding helping to move the discussion to an often more poignant, meaningful plane. It happened.

“My mother,” Lalladiere said.

“Yes, what about your mother? You talked of her before.”

“My mother said that I sucked her dry. Hung onto her nipples just for my pleasure. Perverse, disgusting pleasure. Can you see? I was born evil, even as an infant I wanted perverse pleasure.”

Pinel was silent. What is this? he thought. The mother again. Disturbing disclosure, but does it have anything to do with Lalladiere’s insanity? He thought of his friend Gerard who killed himself when going to live with his parents.

Lalladiere went on. “Curious, too curious. Always I was trying to get or see something I shouldn’t have. Always, when I got older, climbing up her legs, she said. She had to push me away.”

Pinel blanched. Perverse from infancy, and later as well? He remembered Denis saying Lalladiere’s mother made that accusation during her visit. No, not likely at all. The mother, probably bordering or worse on insanity herself, might have been the perverse one. And she blamed an innocent child.

“It may not have been the way your mother said. She may have distorted the circumstances.”

“My mother loved me,” Lalladiere said, trembling. “She cared for me.”

When the meeting was over, Lalladiere was still trembling and upset. Dr. Pinel had made an aspersion on his mother, a forbidden aspersion, and one he had evoked. He needed his mother, a need she told him was love. But later, as he pondered its truth in his cell, he found he felt much better. It had been important for him to tell Dr. Pinel what his mother said to him, or suggested by her actions, not just at particular periods but as part of her never-ending litany about his evildoing, her cold pushing him away, not accepting his need or what she erratically called love. The doctor’s introduction of doubt, although not an absolute rebuttal, was reassuring. It coincided with his recent glimmerings of belief in worthiness, a possibility that he was, after all, not the lowest of the low.

At dinner at the Rastons the next day, he was quite animated. He spoke at length—Camille Raston assenting frequently between mouthfuls—about how it appeared that the Revolution, despite its faults and excesses, had removed the degradation of the people. The current war was, he insisted, brutal and unnecessary. He wondered why a country as glorious as France seemed to be prolonging death and destruction, fighting beyond the need for survival. Genevieve and Veronique Raston also criticized the national involvement in warfare. Camille, agreeing, offered sadly that wars often functioned to preserve national unity. Lalladiere pointed out they also allowed for profiteering, and proceeded to spell out some of the many loopholes in government financing where corruption could enter in. Camille Raston, not familiar with those details, listened with concentrated attention. Veronique, easily distracted from eating, noted her husband’s and also her daughter’s interest, and listened attentively herself. Lalladiere’s knowledge and clarity impressed her. She knew before that he was quite smart and allowed herself the thought, constricted but edging to expand, that Genevieve may not have been wholly wrong to continue to see something in him. “He actually is a little like Camille,” she thought, “and he maybe even will recover. But we must take great care.” To her surprise, she couldn’t help smiling slightly when she saw Lalladiere, turning toward Genevieve to compliment her about something she said, at the same time placed his hand on hers.

Holding Genevieve’s hand on the table top, Lalladiere felt warm and protective. But, after a few moments that feeling unaccountably troubled him. He thought of the talk with Dr. Pinel, trying to recapture that reassuring loosening of the lifelong hold of his mother’s savage recriminations. Something else was pulling at darkened edges of his mind. He couldn’t tell what it was, but as they all talked, he began studying Genevieve’s father. A straightforward, dedicated father. Perhaps it was something about his own father, Victoire Lalladiere.

Pinel, after the meeting with Lalladiere, pondered what he had heard. The mother constantly blamed her son, accused him of perversity. Although Pinel still felt troubled about looking for clues about parents related to illness, an idea all of society abhorred, there was little doubt that Lalladiere’s words were true. He showed intense pain speaking of what his mother had done. Could such actions, repeated over and over, be a factor causing the fury, the violence, the extreme joy, the inconsolable despair?

He searched his mind for medical explanations, precedents. Nothing he had heard, seen, or read connected parents with insanity. It was a strange mystery. Then he remembered Anne-Catherine Helvetius’s question regarding the possible madness of Ulysse’s, or Odysseus’s mother Anticlea. Were the mad passions of Anticlea the cause of Odysseus’s supposedly faked but at some point palpably real insanity? His plowing of a field of salt? A flood of ideas from his storehouse of knowledge, his conviction about the meaningful lessons from antiquity, came to him. “Here it is”, he said to himself. “Herakles, the great strongman, his madness induced by a mother goddess, the god queen, Hera. That ecstatic and dramatic god, Dionysus, went mad and wandered all over India. He was brought up, mothered, by the mad Ino who, I remember, was also made insane by mother Hera. Three times, counting Odysseus, the venerable Greeks linked a mother or mother god to madness. What about that? Did the stories point to a noteworthy intuitive understanding? Maybe so. Perhaps a mother, whether she were aware of it or not, could have something to do with insanity.”

The next time meeting with Lalladiere, Pinel thought to test his newly acquired hunches but he found him, as he was some time before, completely silent. Lalladiere, though better, had retreated from his feeling of closeness to the doctor. Shadows of his father, of something unknown, flitted through his overly busy, now coherent, mental world. He needed to remember something, he believed, but trying when in Dr. Pinel’s presence filled him with great anxiety. A trampling herd of horses would, it seemed, be released within him if he so much as gently touched the enclosure gate inside. Pinel attempted to get him to speak. Sensing it was better for the moment not to push the topic of his mother, Pinel asked about work on the farm, the recent dinner at the Rastons. But at that time, and for several days following, Lalladiere felt unable to express more than opening and closing salutations.

“I have observed,” Pinel said, after a week had passed,” that you have remained largely silent since you told me things your mother said to you.”

Lalladiere nodded slowly. “Is that because,” Pinel continued, risking the re-opening of a sore, “you were upset speaking to me about disturbances in your family?”

It was simple but powerful connecting, the tying of observed ends together, as Pinel practiced often. Almost miraculously, that produced a desirable effect. The trusted doctor’s understanding, correct and non-judgmental, of a reason for his blocking fear gave Lalladiere courage and the memory came in a rush:

“My father came into the room with a light-haired woman. I was sleeping. He laid her on the bed right next to me, got on top of her. Started pumping up and down.”

Pinel was transfixed, suddenly saddened. He said nothing. What kind of disturbing story was this? Was it true? He was hearing more about untoward parents than he could possibly have expected. Or believed.

“When did this happen?” he asked, recovering.

“I don’t know how old I was. Very, very young, I think.”

“Who was the light-haired woman?”

“I didn’t know her. It wasn’t my mother.”

“Did you know what was happening?”

“I don’t think so. No. Help me, I have an image of them in my mind right now.”

“Tell me what that is.”

“Groans, there were groans. I thought he was killing her. They were fighting.” His body stiffened, a look of pain crossed his face.

“Fighting?”

“Yes,” his voice softened, becoming almost imperceptible, “they were right next to me. I turned away. I felt arms grasping each other, saw legs thrashing above my back.”

“This was not fighting. They were, I am sure, not fighting.”

“Yes,” Lalladiere said sadly, “I know.” Saying it all out loud, describing it, and the doctor’s matter-of-factness reassured him. “I finally began to understand that much later.”

“Finally? How often did it happen?”

“Constantly. They never looked at me. It went on for years.”

“Where was your mother?”

“She was always drunk, sleeping in the other room. I tried to tell her after.”

“Yes, and what did she say?”

“She didn’t believe me. She scratched and bit me, put bleach on my mouth for telling lies about my father.”

“Bleach, a poison?”

“Scorched my lips.”

“It must have been hard for you to think straight.”

“Yes. And there was another thing,” Lalladiere said with tears in his eyes.

“Another thing? What was that?”

“When I watched them, I felt more.”

“More? What did you feel? You said you turned away.”

“Sometimes I looked. And I had feelings, sensations, all through my body. Hot, tingling. I didn’t know what they were. Stirred up, tight pressure. Later, I was bursting, aroused. It was overwhelming. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.”

Pinel stayed talking with Lalladiere for some time that afternoon. Mind-bursting actions, he thought, from both mother and father—the father even more severe. Never having done such a thing before, but not knowing what else to do, he went over with Lalladiere all of the details of the story about his father, its repetitive occurrences, and Lalladiere’s viewpoints and reactions, both as a child and a grown man. That had a calming effect.