Context: Research for Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control
Location: Via telephone
Interviewee: Dr David Owen (now Lord David Owen)
This interview, with Dr David (now Lord) Owen shows a far more caring side to William Sargant – and hopefully puts paid to some of the more ‘out-there’ rumours about him and his treatments (‘he wasn’t a Doctor Sinister, you know’). Is it possible for both Sargant-haters and the Sargant-lovers to be correct? Actually, I think it probably is.
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The fact is [William Sargant] was an extremely controversial figure. He was not averse to – he was such a dominant personality that he, I mean he wouldn’t ask a patient: he would say ‘You’re better, aren’t you?’ And they would say ‘Yes, Doctor Sargant.’ And then he would put a tick. And then that particular ECT or whatever it was, was successful. A normal scientist would say ‘How are you feeling today?’ and they would say something and he would make a judgement about whether or not they were better. But Sargant would say ‘You’re better today, aren’t you!’ (laughs)
That meant that his terms as a researcher – he was not really always the best of, of the highest standard as an objective researcher. That, I think, is a valid criticism of him.
Did he think he was a researcher at all?
Well, he wrote many, many papers. He was a prolific publisher and he used every form of technique to get his view of psychiatry across. Like, you would sit in the consulting room with him and the doorknob would turn, and Sargant would say ‘He’s better!’ And I’d say ‘He hasn’t even walked through the door yet!’ And he’d say ‘Ah – but did you see the way he turned the doorknob? He’s better! That would have been very slow a week or a fortnight ago.’
This is the downside about him. What he was, was an optimist. It was said that he had a very serious depression when he was a registrar at St Mary’s. I think that the advantage of that is that he did understand what it was like to be depressed, and a lot of psychiatrists don’t understand it…
For me [working alongside William Sargant] was particularly interesting because I might well have ended up doing psychiatry. [Sargant] was very difficult to be – most people were either positive or negative about him. They aren’t in-between about Will. I consider that he was, for all his flaws and faults – and they were quite considerable ones – a great man. And I think one of the keys to his greatness, was that he understood.
As neurologists we used to deal with terrible pains and he used to say to us, ‘How often have you seen somebody commit suicide because of pain?’ Answer: practically never. Occasionally but very, very rare. ‘How many times have you seen somebody commit suicide on depression?’ Frequently. Ipso facto, according to Sargant, that explains why depression is such a bloody awful illness. ‘That is what people forget, what they don’t understand. This is a terrible, terrible thing. Absolutely demoralising, you just can’t live with it.’ Therefore, he would say, ‘OK, I take risks! In order to relieve them of the depression. I double the dose of the antidepressants, or I run the risk of slight liver thing’ (the drugs then were in those days questioned as to whether they had some adverse effects, especially on the liver.) … Some would say that that was a reason for dropping the drugs. For Sargant it was not at all. He would weigh up the effect of that with the depth of their depression. And if he thought their depression was very serious he would carry on with the drugs. Or double the drugs. And he would be quite open about it. He’d say ‘I think you have to assess this question of side effects vis-à-vis how ill and depressed they are. This is not just a question of making a judgement, “this drug has a side effect therefore I can’t use it”: if this drug has an effect that can help this person, then they should do so.’
So he was a therapeutic optimist, not necessarily a rationalist, and I think this did lead him to making some claims for the treatments. He over-claimed. And then his style in dealing with the analysts who didn’t believe you should have any physical methods… – he would, run a sort of vendetta, I’m not sure if that’s the right word – a vitriolic denigration of the analysts, whereas most psychiatrists who support methods of physical treatment would still say, ‘Well, there’s a role for psychiatry and maybe even analysis.’ But this led to him being absolutely hated by anyone who thought psychotherapy had any meaning and value in psychiatry. He polarised opinion and probably did a little harm to physical methods of treatment by this record of over-claiming, this therapeutic optimism, and then this sort of bravado. But great men don’t come packaged neatly, do they? … And he IS the father of physical methods of treatment! …
He never brainwashed me! I remained catholic with a small ‘c’ on the treatments.
Did Sargant ever mention his work with the military, or intelligence agencies, to you?
No. I didn’t know him well enough to know that. And I never really kept up with him once I had become a politician. There were some aspects of him which I found – not my bag, really.