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Leeds: Anti-Psychiatry

Kum-Kum Bhavnani

Read out at the October 2004 Commemoration
Kum-Kum Bhavnani lives in California, USA

I first encountered Peter Sedgwick through his subtle paper on Laing and Anti-Psychiatry. As a close-to-Marxism undergraduate student at Bristol university in the 1970s, I had eagerly embraced the radical critiques of psychotherapy that insisted that radical therapy meant "change [in society] not adjustment [by people to the dehumanizing impact of society] ". Alongside that I had rejected any labeling of people as "schizophrenics". Once I read Peter’s essay in the Robert Boyers’ Salamagundi special edited collection on R.D. Laing in 1973, slivers of doubt started to enter my thinking, but I studiously ignored them.

I then met Peter in Leeds in the mid-1970s at a meeting at Leeds Trades Centre. At that time I was teaching at Leeds Poly and he was at Leeds University. On being introduced to him I immediately started to harangue him with my questions about his writings on Laing – not knowing now as I do now that often those who harangue with the utmost vigour are those who can have some of the strongest doubts – at a time when he was working on completing his wonderful PsychoPolitics. Peter’s courteous acknowledgement of my arguments stopped me in my tracks. I had always thought that people in I.S. were ones who harangued as harshly as I was doing, and yet here he was, talking in his soft-spoken manner with me and engaging with my arguments, not dismissing them.

After this we became fast friends, watching the television series Bill Brandt together…going for rides in his motor cycle side-car… marching on anti-fascist demonstrations shouting "They shall not pass"….going to York to Schizophrenia Association meetings for families of people diagnosed with schizophrenia and listening, just listening to the pain, sorrow and bewilderment being expressed at those meetings…. and visiting him when he moved to Bradford, riding on my little Honda 90, about which he was most respectful.

Peter’s determination to be true to the information he sought out about schizophrenia demonstrated to me the importance of integrity in one’s work, and I hope I have never deviated (even though he did love deviants and all that brought with it!) from that. I also learnt from his humility – which was never a false modesty but a genuine desire to learn from others – which I first came across not only in his discussions with me but also at those meetings in York with the Schizophrenia Association. He learnt, I think, a lot about ‘race’ and racism in our times together – certainly he was one of the few white people with whom I could talk frankly about such matters.

Peter’s commitment to Marxism defined him, and my Marxism became more and more critical for me. In Leeds I worked with the IMG and he worked with IS, and yet we routinely wondered why we often had more in common with each other than with some of our other comrades. Once I moved from Leeds in 1979 he and I kept in touch through phone calls and a few visits, as he constantly urged me to write in a public way, to share my ideas, to develop my politics.

I miss him and I wonder what he would have thought of me as I am now. With two small children, committed to a wonderful man in the USA, working as an academic, a Marxist and a determined optimist. I hope he would like me– and would still come to me and whisper, as he once did at a very important and serious meeting at which he had spoken powerfully:

"Kum-Kum – a word in your shell-shaped ear? – let’s escape and go have a drink?!"

I will drink to you, tonight, Peter. With love.