Remembering RD Laing

At the height of his fame in the 1960s and 70s RD Laing was, as they say, something of a household name, albeit in certain kinds of households; he was a pillar of the zeitgeist, his books were to be found on the most unlikely shelves; he appeared on the cover of glossy magazines; thousands flocked to hear him speak, many to seek his counsel.  He was the man, so the popular view had it - and indeed still has it today - who said that the mad were sane and the sane mad, who thought that madness was a mystical journey, who thought mothers drove their children psychotic, the psychiatrist who was anti-psychiatry.

By the time of his death in the summer of 1989 playing tennis in the south of France he had effectively been disbarred from medical practice because of his predilection for drink.  The one organisation he founded, the Philadelphia Association, tired of his anarchic approach to management and to his flirtation with the therapeutic fringes, had parted company with him. (A mass Sunday afternoon ‘rebirthing’ at the Inn on the Park was, for many, the last straw.) He was on his third marriage, had fathered 10 children.  His books were increasingly idiosyncratic, not to say self-indulgent.

It can be argued that within the fields of psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and psychology, it has been Laing’s fate to be largely ignored.  He has been a victim of what psychoanalysis calls ‘scotomisation’ (no pun intended), whereby something that is too painful to contemplate is ignored.  A well-regarded study zof the Independent Tradition in British psychoanalysis by a leading British analyst made no mention whatsoever of him, surely among the most independent of minds. One comes across many psychotherapists, including those who claim to be interested in the phenomenon of psychosis, who have not even read his seminal book on the subject, The Divided Self. Even critical voices seem reluctant to acknowledge him.  Richard P. Bentall, for instance, in his otherwise fine and questioning book, Understanding Madness, seems to me to owe more to Laing’s spirit than Bentall can bring himself to acknowledge. (Bentall, like others,  also continues to use the unfortunate, indeed inaccurate term ‘anti-psychiatrist’ in talking of Laing, when it was a term Laing hated and, he claimed,  one he urged his colleague David Cooper not to use.)  

On the other hand something of a cottage industry has emeérged posthumously  around his figure - at my last count there were at least three biographies, three volumes of memoir and reminiscence, a book of interviews carried out during his last years, four critical studies and one television documentary. A feature film, apparently, is now planned with Robert Carlyle in the role of Laing.  At least some of his own books remain in print and the Philadelphia Association continues the work begun by Laing and colleagues, at Kingsley Hall in 1965  in providing places of genuine refuge and asylum and freedom from unwanted and sometimes unwarranted intervention to those in states of serious emotional distress. 

Like so many others, Laing was the beneficiary of Glasgow’s fine public library system, ‘eating his way through the library from A to Z’, as he put in his own memoir Wisdom, Madness and Folly,  published in 1985.  It was in this way, while a broken wrist prevented him playing sports, that he came across Freud, Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietzsche.  Later he would encounter Heidegger, Sartre, Genet and Dostoevsky too and find a convivial forum f∂or his thinking in the Glasgow-based Abenheimer-Schorstein discussion group, named after two of its members, which studied Continental philosophy, much of it theological including Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers and Paul Tillich. Laing apparently read parts of what would become The Divided Self to the group before he left for London.  The group was also attended by John Macquarrie who would later be the first (along with Edward Robinson) to translate Heidegger’s magnum opus Sein und Zeit - Being and Time - into English.

Intellectual heritage
Laing’s intellectual heritage was therefore very much a European one but it was also informed by a Scottish scepticism that can be traced back, at least, to David Hume. In its questioning of the traditional - and philosophically dominant - Cartesianism Laing’s thought, at least in its early variant, shares many aspects with another rather neglected Scot, John Macmurray.  Macmurray took issue with the notion of an isolated hunman monad and argued treat we were, rather, ‘persons in relation’, to cite the title of one of his better known books.  For both Laing and Macmuray, we are always social beings, always in relation to others however much some people may try to escape this, often with disastrous consequences in the case of those designated mad, as Laing showed time and time again.

It was this sceptical heritage which gave rise to Ian Suttie’s courageous challenge to psychoanalytic thinking, The Origins of Love and Hate, published in 1935, just after the author’s premature death. Appalled by what he regarded as the conceptual mess and the egotistic hypotheses of the Freudian framework he urged a radical reversal. ‚ There was, Suttie claimed, a ‘taboo on tenderness’ throughout Western culture and the Freudian theoretical edifice was part of this, although not its actual therapeutic practice. There was a deep contradiction between the two.   Not surprisingly  Suttie’s book  is little known or talked about within the psychoanalytic mainstream and has been kept alive only on the margins.

Another free-thinking Scot, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre published a short interrogation of the concept of the Freudian unconscious in 1958, two years before Laing’s The Divided Self.   Like Laing and Macmuray, MacIntyre saw in Freud’s thinking a revised Cartesianism with the Unconscious as the new ‘ghost in the machine’. Freud’s theories, he remarkedÙ, were descriptions posing as explanations.  While never returning to the field of psychoanalysis, at least to my knowledge, MacIntyre became a significant influence on that strain of psychotherapy that acknowledges the essentially ethical nature of the undertaking, a view whose most articulate exponent is  Peter Lomas, a contemporary and one time colleague of Laing.

(The contribution to psychoanalysis of two other Scots, Ronald Fairbairn and JD Sutherland, is of a more orthodox order. The former sought to develop what would become known as object relations theory but he did so very much within a revised Freudian framework, seeking to retain as much of the founder’s schema as possible.  Fairbairn’s analysand (and later biographer), JD Sutherland,  spent much of his life running the Tavistock Clinic before returning to Edinburgh to found the Scottish Institute for Human Relations.  It was Sutherland who dismissed Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, which Laing had loaned him, as ‘a very interesting example of early 19th century psychopathology’. )

The significance of sceptical Scots - or a Scottish scepticism - within the Philadelphia Association, the one organisation founded by Laing (and others) in 1965 and chaired by him until 1981, is also noteworthy.   One of the other founding members of the Association was the psychiatrist Aaron Esterson, later to write with Laing Sanity, Madness and the Family and the author of his own study ‘in the dialectics of madness’,The Leaves of Spring.  Another psychiatrist Hugh Crawford, who had known Lai≠ng in Glasgow, returned to the UK from Canada in 1968 and would run some of the PA’s community houses for many years before his premature death in 1980.  Although publishing little, Crawford was a huge influence on many in the PA network and beyond, through his teaching and conversation, especially about the nature of dwelling and how the PA houses might foster this to the benefit of those who came to live in them..   One of those greatly influenced was the psychotherapist Robin Cooper who also worked in PA houses for many years and was a mainstay of the PA during a bitter split in the mid 1990s before his tragic death in a climbing accident in France at the age of 57.

Persons and families
Laing’s project for many years was to develop what he called an existential-phenomenological foundation for a science of persons and to set out a description of the experience of those labelled schizophrenic.  Such people, Laing argued in The Divided Self (1959)_ and Self and Others (1961), suffered from ontological insecurity, a lack of faith in their own reality and the reality of others which led them to create false self systems to fend off psychological and emotional catastrophe.  Laing wanted to make madness and the process of going mad comprehensible, and to a great many people, including many of those afflicted, he did so convincingly.  

Sanity, Madness and the Family, written with Aaron Esterson (1964) is an exemplary phenomenological account of the lives of families where someone had been diagnosed schizophrenic.  Their conclusion was stark: ‘if one looks, in the way we have, at the experience and behaviour of the person whose experience and behaviour are invalidated, they take on a complexion very different from that seen from the usual clinical psychiatric vantage points, or dis-vantage points’ 

The Politics of Experience (1967) recognised in its title that experience is not some neutral, objective fact. It was, rather a terrain of struggle. at least for those whose experience was being invalidated. Laing’s talk, ‘The psychotherapeutic experience’  in that book is one of the few things that really ought to be on every psychotherapy training reading list.  The irreducible elements of therapy, Laing wrote, ‘are a therapist, a patient, and a regular and reliable time and place .  But given these, it is not to easy for two people to meet.

These books remain original and provocative four decades after they first appeared. They are moreover far from difficult to get to grips with. Unlike so many of those who have come after, Laing is not an obscure writer.  He just needs attention.  After this the writings become more diffuse, self-indulgent even, but still capable of insight and acute observation.

As a man Laing could be mean and cruel, especially to those close to him.  But he clearly also had a remarkable ability to relate to people, men and women, in extreme states of suffering.  The story about Laing taking off his clothes to be - to get into some communication - with a woman who was naked and mute in a hospital room, is one story that happens to be true.   (How many of us would even contemplate this, let alone do it?)  ‘What do you do when you don’t know what to do?’, Laing would sometimes say, reminding us that sometimes there is no…thing to be done except wait, attend, be thoughtful, be present.

At a time when a great deal of psychiatry and psychology is convinced of the biological basis of mental suffering and of the (largely) chemical or technical answers to the problem, Laing’s best work stands as a challenge, a voice that there is another way of making sense of these matters and other ways of helping people deal with them.  So too Laing’s insistence that there was indeed meaning in madness and that the discourse of the disturbed might well make sense if listened to in the right spirit continues to be valid. So, if often he was wrong and at times absurd, unlike Auden’s Freud he may not have become a climate of opinion, but he contributed to the making of one that is at least a little more sceptical, tolerant and humane.

Paul Gordon

(This article first appeared in The Psychotherapist, October 2009.)