Got Your Tongue



From Louis Wain’s schizophrenic cat drawings.

From the psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s transcripts of his sessions with Edith E., a young woman he took on as a patient in 1954 and later wrote about in The Divided Self. Laing, who was born on this day in 1927 and died in 1989, is remembered for his progressive thinking on sanity and madness. He struggled to make sense of Edith, whose schizophrenia was so abstruse that on paper it amounted to “an intolerable mass of incoherent data.” To draw her out, he tried to react to her comments as spontaneously as possible, sometimes addressing himself to a doll he’d brought in. Edith admitted to hearing voices that instructed her to disrobe or to go to a certain subway station, where she would, one voice said, see someone beaten to a pulp; she talked at length about mouths, tonsils, and sucking, and once claimed that her mother had cut her into pieces and that Laing was her “new, good mother.” The case is discussed in further detail in Alan Beveridge’s Portrait of the Psychiatrist as a Young Man, a study of Laing’s early work from which the following exchange is taken.

EDITH I’ve no tongue. I’ve a tongue but it’s not my actual tongue.

LAING You have a tongue in your mouth anyway.

EDITH Yes, I’ve a tongue in my mouth, but it’s not my actual tongue. I’ve no actual tongue. 

(I was a bit lost at this point.? Tongue = nipple (= penis). Tongue = nipple seemed from yesterday to be more important. She had apparently lost her “tongue” hence “couldn’t speak.” Had she been weaned? Bitten off and swallowed nipple? How lost it? Castrated?) but what level of regression to work on?)

LAING Well I’m glad to hear that in a way. One tongue in your mouth is enough for anyone.

EDITH I’ve a tongue in my mouth. (It peeks out from between her teeth rather coyly.)

LAING You won’t lose that tongue. The other tongue never really belonged to you anyway. You must have pinched it from somewhere … You’ve at least ten nipples anyway.

EDITH I was married.

LAING To your father?

EDITH To Dr Laing … Dr Laing cut out my tongue in Africa. (I had previously suggested that her mother had cut out her tongue for marrying me in Africa—when she said “Dr Laing cut out…” I was completely taken by surprise … silence for some time.)


LAING I came here to see you but you were out with your mother and I had to go away. (reassurance)

EDITH Yes. They told me there was a hole in the ground. They are going to take my brains out. I have beautiful teeth.

LAING And no one is going to take a razor to them.

EDITH I’ve no teeth.

LAING It’s a terrible thing for a baby to dash her gums against granite breasts.

EDITH Yes, it’s a terrible thing. I was born in Poland this morning.

LAING If only you could have pinched your father’s pole. You’re a baby piper.

EDITH My father gave me a kilt.

LAING And the bone under the kilt?