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Rescuing R.D. Laing

In response to:

The Rise & Fall of a Half-Genius from the November 14, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

I am writing to correct some errors and misconceptions that crept into Rosemary Dinnage’s review of my book The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing [NYR, November 14, 1996]. Regarding Laing’s training as an analyst, Dinnage remarks that the Tavistock Clinic in London—where Laing worked as a registrar, and later as a researcher and editor—was a “hive of opposing factions.” That is simply incorrect. When I spoke to John Bowlby, a month or so before his death, he informed me that the tensions that prevailed at the Tavistock Clinic and Institute of Human Relations during Laing’s stay were administrative or personal in character, and not the kind of sectarian warfare that prevailed at the London Institute of Psycho-Analysis, where Laing trained as an analyst from 1956 to 1960. Though it trains hordes of psychotherapists, the Tavistock is not, and never was, a psychoanalytic training institute, having no ties to the International Psychoanalytic Association. I fear Rosemary Dinnage conflated or confounded my accounts of Laing’s concurrent involvements with these disparate institutions. While no one on this side of the Atlantic is likely to notice this, your English readers might, and may reproach me, moreover, for being inaccurate and cavalier as a consequence.

A closely related point concerns Laing’s attendance at training seminars at the London Institute of Psycho-Analysis. Dinnage alleges that Laing never attended lectures. But this is an exaggeration, and an unfortunate one at that. By his own admission, Laing stopped attending the seminars of Dr. Herbert Rosenfeld, a leading Kleinian, because of the growing antipathy between them. However, he did attend other seminars, for the most part. When he did not, it was due at least as much to failing health and a keen desire to finally finish The Divided Self. Defiance of authority was not the issue, though Rosenfeld’s sympathizers, who tried to delay Laing’s certification, tried to make it seem that way, I gather.

Regarding Laing’s separation from his first family, Rosemary Dinnage notes that “like most male biographers, Burston says little about his subject’s feelings for his children.” Admittedly, I was reticent on this score, though not for lack of interest or desire to say more. The fact is that after interviewing Anne (Hearne) Laing, and two of her children, and Jutta (Werner) Laing, and sending them copies of a preliminary draft, they wrote to inform me that they did not welcome any further inquiries or correspondence from me, and refused me permission to quote anything I had previously gleaned from discussion with them. Prudence and tact compelled me to say little on this point. But contrary to the impression conveyed by Rosemary Dinnage, I made it abundantly clear that the failure of his first marriage was a source of considerable guilt, anguish, and malaise, and added considerable vehemence to his scathing remarks about the family in The Politics of Experience.

Regarding Mary Barnes and Kingsley Hall, Dinnage asks whether Laing’s theory of therapeutic regression and eventual rebirth of personality—which Laing termed “mentanoia”—is therapeutically effective, and what forms it might take, and adds that “these are important and avoided questions.” Avoided by whom? By the general public? The mental health professions? Absolutely. By me? Certainly not. Though I approach it guardedly, I confess, I devote quite a lot of space to this topic, and anyone interested in it will likely pick up some useful information and ideas on this score. I am less generous with Laing’s later theories of intrauterine trauma, treating them as symptomatic of Laing’s decline, on the whole—and with good reason, I think.

Admittedly, in likening Laing’s contributions to those of Freud and Jung, I may have overstated my case somewhat. In my defense, I suppose, I could reply that owing to their flair for self-promotion, and the zeal of their numerous disciples, their originality has also been greatly exaggerated. For better and worse, Laing never developed a system, a school, a “technique,” and his gifts for self-promotion were nullified, in his own lifetime, by his self-destructive tendencies and changing fads and fashions. Successful or not, I have tried to rescue his ideas from the wreckage of his life, without succumbing to spineless idolatry or wholesale invalidation. If people have sufficient judgement and generosity, there is still time to do something useful with the astonishing gifts he left us. Why wait another twenty or thirty years till he comes back in vogue?

Daniel Burston
Department of Psychology
Duquesne University
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Rosemary Dinnage replies:

I would agree that at the time R.D. Laing was at the Tavistock Clinic it was somewhat less a hive of opposing factions than the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, whose quarrels Professor Burston describes well. The great schism over Melanie Klein’s theories did, however, spill over to some extent, as when visiting Kleinians gave seminars at the Tavistock. Laing also regretted the divide between the departments working with adults and with children, which meant that families could not be studied. I also had in mind what John Bowlby told me about his own uneasy position at the Tavistock. Professor Burston’s second point seems even more a case of nit-picking than his first; but I hereby amend my sentence to “R.D. Laing missed a great many lectures.” Professor Burston’s own words are that “Laing’s instructors were complaining about his frequent absences from their lectures.” I am puzzled by Burston’s insistence that the only relevant causes of this were ill-health and Laing’s need to finish his book, since he goes on to say that “Laing’s childhood experience and adolescent precocity predisposed him to distrust authority and to pursue his own path.”

Regarding Laing’s relation with his children, I could not be aware that Professor Burston was prevented by family members from publishing material on that subject. He does, certainly, say that Laing’s denunciation of the family may have been connected with the separation from his own first family; however, I still find emphasis on “guilt, anguish, and malaise” over the separation rather thin on the ground. In the chapters covering the first years after it, he gives the subject only two sentences.

On the question of therapeutic regression to very early experiences in order to begin again from the “true self,” I can only re-emphasize that this concept, written about by both D.W. Winnicott and Laing, is indeed avoided. How many serious mental health workers, in or out of hospitals, base their therapy on it?Possibly it is too demanding for both therapist and patient, except in the quack form practiced by “rebirthers” and such.

Finally, there is no need for Professor Burston to defend himself for placing Laing alongside Freud and Jung. It’s an idea; perhaps posterity will agree. In any case, Burston has indeed rescued Laing’s best work from a messy overlay, so let us, as he says, do something useful with it.

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