assessing historical sources, contemporary thinking about psychoanalysis in 1921, Shell Shock, women activists, Women's Club
From time to time one stumbles across a piece of writing, a lecture, a work or object that unclouds another lens into our vision of times gone-by. Until recently I had never heard of Ethel Mortimer Langdon, nor of Sydney’s Women’s Club which was quite active in the first decades of the twentieth century. For that I have to express gratitude to the souls beavering away at the National Library to build its web-site ‘Trove’. The newspaper collection is getting larger by the minute. The search engine is easy to navigate and the online press-clipping service that results is well ordered. Typing the word ‘psychoanalysis’ into the search engine then trawling through the findings one by one was enough to do it.
I retrieved an account of Ethel Langdon’s lecture from the newspapers and from thence went to the National Library catalogue to find the published copy. It is a little rambling. She appears to have padded it out. She repeated herself, often. But what she has to say about psychoanalysis and psychotherapy as a new form of treatment for anyone – including herself – is clear and important, as people began contemplating its development in the post war years. Her lecture and her audience put paid to the notion that in the early 1920s knowledge and interest in psychoanalysis was the province of an exclusive club of doctors, a few lay personages and the avant-garde. It appears that people were beginning to think about the unconscious, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy as an option for their own mental distress.
In the Mental Workshop is the published version of a lecture given by Ethel Mortimer Langdon to the Women’s Club in Sydney on 5 April 1921. Langdon’s interests covered migration and resettlement and, together with her husband, she was connected with the formation of the Returned Soldiers League ( RSL). While residing in Ireland she was involved with Dublin’s Public Health System, Housing, Child Welfare and the development of the British Mental Deficiency Bill and its extension to Ireland by the Medico-Psychological Association of Great Britain and Ireland. Langdon had had her own troubles and breakdown, and appears to have received treatment in the United States. There is more to learn about this woman and her activities.
There is little information about the Women’s Club other than that gleaned from the online press. It appears to have been founded in about 1900, drawing together professional and educated women actively interested in social and political reform. Members met for lectures, educational events and socialising. By 1922 its membership was about 200.It is not surprising that members of the Women’s Club were interested in psychoanalysis. Knowledge of Freud’s work had reached Australia by 1911 when a group of interested folk in Sydney began to read his work. Freud himself had sent a letter of encouragement, urging that his work spread to all parts of the world.
After the war ended in 1918 people began talking about their feeling that the world they had known before the war was lost, that Armageddon had been upon them, that the task now was to develop a new order. What was to happen next was anyone’s guess as the European world watched their political leaders mete out a brutal punishment to Germany at Versailles and the League of Nations formed. In Melbourne, Mr Fitchett, the editor of the religious paper, The Southern Cross, predicted the Soviet Regime in Russia would be the new enemy. The Great War’s killing machines had devastated and shattered the bodies and souls of the men who returned home. During the years of fighting, and afte,r German, British and Allied soldiers alike presented doctors with a new syndrome – hysterical conversion reaction, breakdown, shell-shock, war neurosis – paralysis of mind. Doctors on both sides began to throw out Freud’s theory that psychosexuality was central to development. Trauma could be treated by analysis, dream interpretation hypnosis – and catharsis.
Ethel Langdon took up these matters in her lecture. Firmly disassociating herself from spirituality, spiritism and the supernatural, she set out to elucidate ‘the cause, cure and effect on present day life on diseases of the mind’. There was no magic; no smoke and mirrors in this. Psychoanalysis, she explained, had developed from Freud’s extension of ideas suggested to him during his time in France under the tutelage of Charcot. Langdon cited psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, defining psychoanalysis as a ‘method which makes possible the analytic reduction of the psycho-contents to its simplest expression, and the discovery of the line of least resistance in the development of a harmonious personality’. In shell-shock, she explained, the patient has not lost his senses, but has become jarred and out of harmony’. It symptoms were as varied as the people experiencing them including
‘loss of memory, insomnia, terrifying dreams, emotional instability, diminution of self-confidence and self-control, attacks of unconsciousness, or of changed consciousness sometimes accompanied by convulsive movement resembling epileptic fits, incapacity to understand even the smallest matters, obsessive thoughts, usually of the most gloomy and painful kind, in some cases, incipient delusions’.
The war had moved from the field into the interior of the mind. One might endure calmly face enormous dangers on the battlefield only to succumb to unconsciousness when one reached safety. Indeed it may well be that soldier and tank commander, Wilfred Ruprecht Bion, was able to face enemy fire during the Great War, as he has related in his autobiography, The Long Weekend. In later years as he worked his way through memories of these times, he was ‘in hell’. Shock and disturbance was far more serious than it first appeared.
The main worry was wrong and insensitive treatment, Langdon stated There was need for careful assessment of the patient’s disposition, character and earlier personal experiences was essential – for the degree of shock and trauma was contingent on the mind experiencing it.
Langdon also argued that the discoveries and benefits from psychoanalytic treatment of people traumatized by war should be extended to the civilian population and impressed upon her listeners the necessity to recognise trauma and emotional distress as being states of disharmony with oneself – and treatable with psychotherapy.Amongst us there are many people who have some idiosyncrasy or who are not quite normal; to label these insane would be absurd, and so it would be an equal sin to call those who, owing to the war and their nerve drained condition, have been forced to abandon their work and who have to be re educated back to civilian life.She advocated treatment for children ‘showing abnormal tendencies or retarded mental activity ‘when symptoms seem to have no hereditary connection with the parents….A child’s difficulty is generally caused chiefly by his inability to adjust himself to his environment and to adjust his environment to him’.
Langdon praised plans to establish a Chair of Psychiatry at Sydney University. It was essential. It would ensure scientifically proved standards of treatment were established and maintained rather than allowing charlatans and pretenders into the arena. The study of psychiatry, she stated, would ‘bring more knowledge of the wonders of prevention by means of diagnosis and re-education and cure of mind ailments by active scientific means, not just by detention and isolation, not only to the scientific but also to the lay mind.
In 1923 Langdon’s published lecture reached the editor’s desk for the second edition of the Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy. A one sentence review dismissed it. Langdon said nothing new about the subject. For a Historian it is revealing comment. One might wonder whether the editor, Challis Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University, Sir Francis Anderson was being a little dismissive of a woman’s contribution. His marriage to feminist and activist Maybanke Anderson suggests otherwise. Langdon’s lecture held nothing new for his colleagues and him. As a marker of current thinking around war, shell shock, psychotherapy and the potential contribution of psychoanalysis in the domestic sphere Langdon’s lecture is valuable source material.