John Foot

John Foot

John Foot is professor of modern Italian history at the University of Bristol and has written several books on contemporary Italian history. He writes a blog for the Italian magazine Internazionale and has written for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books. His latest work, The Man Who Closed the Asylums, explores the astonishing impact of Franco Basaglia, perhaps the most successful of Europe’s anti-psychiatrists to reshape the asylum system.

Interview: Thomas Roueché
Portrait: Sarah Metcalfe

Thomas Roueché How did you come to work on Franco Basaglia?
John Foot I knew who Basaglia was, but only as a figure of the zeitgeist. I was in Trieste in 2008 for work I was doing on memory and it was the anniversary of Italy’s Law 180, the so-called “Basaglia Law” that called for the closing down of the mental asylums in 1978. So they had all these events in Trieste: films shown very late at night that were very shocking, and then there was an amazing theatrical performance in the town about [the asylum in] Gorizia. I suddenly thought, there is no book on this, just some very technical writing. So that led me to apply for funding which, seven or eight years later, ended up with this book. It was quite a long and complicated trajectory and I collected an enormous amount of material. That was the genesis of it. The book came out in Italy first and then it came out in English. It is potentially going to come out in Korea and Brazil. One of the things I have discovered about Basaglia is that he is well known in lots of different bits of the world – Holland, Brazil, Korea, Japan. His example inspired a lot of people.

TR It seems interesting to come to the topic from the question of memory. There are so many layers to how Basaglia has been understood or written about, whether from a hagiographical perspective or the dismissive perception of unleashing chaos. 
JF Yes, that objection is still felt very strongly in Italy and in other places. Many people still think that Basaglia and the Marxists just abandoned the patients. That is a very strong narrative. After the book came out, quite a common reaction was, this is all very well, but you don’t understand that he abandoned the patients. Then at the same time there is the perception that he was the greatest man who ever lived, some sort of saint, that he liked to hug patients and so on. Which is rubbish as well. 
He didn’t particularly like to hug patients; he was quite a hard-nosed political activist. He knew what he was doing; it wasn’t about him liking the patients or not liking the patients. It is another way of making his message a lot less dangerous, by making him into this kind of miracle worker. It takes the politics out of his ideas. So those were the kinds of streams that I was fighting against. I had to go back to basics and question everything – all the stereotypes and received stories about this man.  

TR Your focus on the people around Basaglia, what you call his équipe, is interesting because he seems like the kind of person who garnered a lot of attention as an individual. Was he particularly charismatic as a man?
JF Yes, he was charismatic. In 1969 he appeared on TV in a documentary talking to students, and from that moment on he was famous. His fame was rooted in his writings and his work, but it was also because of his personality. He was a powerful writer although he could sometimes be a bit rhetorical, technical and highly philosophical. But I think it was above all linked to what he created inside the asylum. When people went and saw Gorizia, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing, and that message went out across Italy and the world. He was also very good at using mass media: documentary, music, art, everything. He wasn’t proud about utilising everything he could get his hands on to get the message out. He got a lot of criticism for that, to be honest. Some of the other places had reformist asylums, like the one in Perugia, and they were extraordinary in terms of reforming their care, but they didn’t get their message out at all. They were not very interested in doing that. So now no one knows about Perugia, but everyone knows about Basaglia, Gorizia and Trieste. You know, he could be quite the pain in the arse; he was quite the authoritarian. He was hard work and didn’t like people disagreeing with him. He was a tough taskmaster; he would want you there at seven in the morning and want you to stay there all day. If someone didn’t turn up for a meeting they would get told off. 

TR I am interested in how Basaglia related to the political context of Italy at the time.
JF Apart from briefly being involved with the Socialist party in the 1940s, he was not in a party. So he wasn’t a political militant in that sense; he expressed his politics through what he was doing. He freed up the patients and changed mental health, that is how he did his political work. His most notable alliance was with a [centrist] Christian Democrat in Trieste. 
I think towards the end of the 1960s he also became very radicalised and read a lot of Mao. So he went quite a long way to the left, while still working with the mainstream and always being an institutional figure. He was always a director of an asylym, so he was someone who held a lot of power. Later, in the 1970s, there were a lot of people in the movement who spouted slogans and that could be quite damaging. “There is no such thing as mental illness” and that sort of thing. He was always a bit weary of that kind of rhetoric. Although he was a man of the left, when he eventually went to Rome to get the law passed, he knew that compromise was Important. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but they knew that the law was also a victory. They had to go there with a really moderate politician to convince the Christian Democrats, who were right in the heart of the system, to change the system and close down something that created a lot of jobs.

TR It was an incredible change.
JF It was very controversial; people didn’t want to let mad people out. They didn’t want them to be living next door; they didn’t want auntie back from the loony bin to live with them. They were quite happy with going to see her every month, taking her some flowers. It didn’t bother them, but when auntie comes home – bloody hell! So the process of getting halfway houses open and the like was often very unpopular locally, even in Communist areas. It was a hard political battle, house by house, patient by patient. 

TR As you say, the Communist Party wasn’t straightforward in its support.
JF Basaglia changed their minds; he convinced them. The movement convinced them. They were very much in opposition at first – they believed in asylums. They thought this was a good way of treating people, but over time they changed their position. So by 1978 they voted for the closure of the system, but it was a long process. Basaglia had to get close to higher-level Communists, who were important in convincing the unions. If you read the documents the unions were terrible: they didn’t want to move out of the hospital; they didn’t want to open up the centres. They were always talking about their own jobs. Most of them were really anti-reform. 

TR One of the things I kept thinking about, reading the book, was how people like R.D. Laing here in the UK have always been associated with the counterculture. What is interesting about Basaglia is that he makes a journey from the edge to the centre. But the influence of 1968 on both of them is fascinating. 
JF The key difference is that Laing is counterculture, while Basaglia was much more jacket-and-tie director of the asylum who looked to transform the system from within. There were countercultural aspects to it, certainly. But Laing was out Of the system altogether. He left the system in 1965 and founded Kingsley Hall, an amazing place in London which accepted people with mental-health problems but was also the centre of the counterculture. Basaglia visits there because he is interested, but he also writes that if you leave the system you’re never going to change anything. The two men followed very different roads, even if they worked together. They were friends; they were enemies; they had a very interesting relationship. There’s a lot of research still to be done on this in some ways. But they went down different roads towards change. I would argue that Laing was much more effective in actually changing the form of psychiatric practice. Laing was a brilliant writer and also a brilliant practitioner, especially in the early period, although he is often bad-mouthed today.

TR [The French psychotherapist Félix] Guattari is also interesting as another point of comparison, again with a direct link to 1968.
JF France is very important. Basaglia’s message was very powerful in France, where there is more of a tendency not to close the asylums, but to change them from within. From 1964, Basaglia is saying, “Close, destroy, close, destroy” and that’s one of the extraordinary parts of his message. Basaglia hates [Gilles Deleuze and Guattari’s] Anti-Oedipus. He thinks it is just obscure and I think he is a little bit jealous of its influence They were working in very similar ways, but that is easily forgotten in the interplay of egos and high theory. Laing as well. I still haven’t got to the bottom of why Basaglia’s books were not translated into English; it’s a mystery. Basaglia’s L’ istituzione negata [the negated institution] was an Italian bestseller that didn’t get translated. I found some reports from publishers in America, but I don’t know why it wasn’t bought up in England. Some say Laing blocked it. There was rivalry and jealousy. 

TR It’s an understandable point of rivalry.
JF Basaglia had got Laing’s book published in Italy and so those texts were circulated, French texts, British texts, they were all being translated. But Basaglia never appeared in English in the 1970s and I think this was a real shame. We are trying to get it translated now.  

TR It is interesting that at this moment it is happening across all these different countries. 
JF In that period, all of them were travelling a lot and visiting other places. I mean, Basaglia goes to Scotland and France all the time; he goes to Germany. They are spreading ideas, visiting, picking up examples, reading articles and books. Basaglia is a kind of a magpie, picking up lots of theory and practice, which he meshes all together. He goes to Scotland to see a therapeutic community there and really likes it. But he thinks it is a bit performist, so he takes it back to Italy and makes it much more revolutionary. He is not interested in meetings in a circle, where patients discuss, “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with you?” His therapy is closer to shouting, “Let’s smash down the walls!” He takes a model and radicalises it. He gives the patients power. He probably wouldn’t have done that had he not seen that in action in Scotland – and he sends his team there, to the middle of nowhere, to look at this weird hospital. The story is also about the publishers; they are making huge amounts of money out of this. Suddenly everyone is buying all these books. They are becoming bestsellers, selling 700,000 copies, and it’s weird, but it’s big business. 

TR I guess Laing is interesting in that sort of way as well. He has that type of general reader.
JF If you read the books, he is an amazing writer. But they are pretty highbrow; they are difficult to read but they sold like hot cakes. I think there was such a gap in values at that time. When people visited the asylums, they were shocked at how horrible and disgusting they were. In this modernising society that is making claims to freedom, there are places that have remained brutal, with people chained up and in cages, being tortured ritually – and when they die no one cares. In a democratic country, people come across naked people on the floor lying in their own excrement and ask themselves, what’s going on? I think that is one of the powers of image and that’s why they published lots of photography. To get that message out there. They brought the filmmakers in to shock people.

TR It is easy to forget the point they are starting from: a world in which asylums were just a part of day-to-day life.
JF One hundred thousand people were in asylums in Italy. That is a lot of people; it is more than in the prisons. That is another pretty amazing thing: Italy was the first country in the world to close its criminal asylums.  

TR And many of these people just had learning difficulties or Down’s syndrome.
JF Yes, or there was nothing at all “wrong” with them. They might have smashed some windows when drunk, or shouted at a teacher, and it wasn’t just the asylum system. There was a galaxy of institutions for “subnormal” children. Then, with the closure, the whole system needed custodial-type institutions for all kinds of different abnormalities. People were put into asylums because they were alcoholics. It seems really weird to us today.  

TR It’s also interesting, the paradox at Gorizia with Basaglia and his team running an institution they think shouldn’t exist.
JF I mean, they created a really nice hospital; it was a nice place to be. That was one of the contradictions of the movement, because they actually wanted to close the asylum down. Basaglia was very dogmatic in that sense; he did not want to create a nice hospital. In fact, he was very worried about such a thing, which he called a “golden cage”. §

The Man Who Closed the Asylums, published by Verso, is out now.