R. D. Laing
R. D. Laing; drawing by David Levine

In theory the publication of a substantially revised edition of R. D. Laing’s The Self and Others, and the reissue of his first and I suppose still most celebrated book, The Divided Self, now more than ten years old, should provide as good an occasion as any for a retrospective survey of his work and an attempt at a critical assessment. But in practice this seems both difficult and discouraging.

Why is that? It is not as though reading Laing is discouraging or uncongenial. He is an attractive, even seductive writer—a point to which I shall return, since it calls for closer examination. In England The Divided Self must be counted as the most widely known of all recent psychiatric writing, popular or specialist; and although paperback psychiatry—I use the phrase as a loose categorization, not as a disparagement—is a much more highly developed genre in the States (where Laing’s works have had to compete with the productions of writers as varied as Norman O. Brown, Eric Berne, Erich Fromm, Hannah Green, and Ken Kesey), the recent Politics of Experience has probably reached a wider readership than any.

Wider, but not necessarily broader. It seems a rather curious readership. For Laing, as everyone knows, has become a cult figure; and this fact imposes on the reviewer of his books a burden not merely of trying to understand the points that Laing is making, and of testing them against his own judgment and experience, but of attempting to discover the basis of their appeal to people not otherwise apparently interested in psychiatric theory.

Commentators on Laing frequently lump his writings together, as if each book were saying much the same thing, or at any rate as if the basic message were homogeneous. By doing so they indicate that they must have a high tolerance of inconsistency. Perhaps an approach of that kind has advantages; those who are very squeamish about inconsistencies will not expect to get much from Laing,1 and there are in any case rewards for one’s industry in reading right through the canon, in that obscurities in one book are illuminated by discussions in another (the somewhat diffuse and possibly underrated Self and Others is helpful in this regard).

But the opposite also happens, so that what one felt one had mastered becomes obscured by later writings—not strangely, perhaps, if one sees Laing’s output as representing a personal odyssey—and one is left with a total picture that surprisingly seems less than the sum of its parts. In view of these ambiguities it seems a wise plan (though not an easy task) to examine in rough chronological order the way that he has presented some of his central ideas. Let me try to describe, obviously in a very much simplified form, something of the shifts of emphasis.

In all his more formal writing Laing is evidently concerned with the struggle between the core or essential nature of a person and some deforming, inimical forces—inimical at any rate to the continued survival of the core in an undistorted form, though the forces are not perhaps necessarily malevolent. Survival in this struggle ensures a state of “ontological security” in which one will “encounter all the hazards of life, social, ethical, spiritual, biological, from a centrally firm sense of one’s own and other people’s reality and identity” (The Divided Self, p. 40). Failure to achieve this security results in various concessions having to be made at the expense of one’s own sense of well-being, one’s identity, one’s integrity, or one’s sanity: terms, it must be said, that appear to become somewhat blurred when Laing is writing loosely.

Where, then, is the denaturing “enemy” located? In spite of some considerable overlap throughout the books, there does appear to be an increasing “distancing,” or removal from the center, in locating this enemy. Thus in The Divided Self (1960) the enemy is represented by some unaccepted, possibly unacceptable, parts of the self. (The concept of one part of the self repudiating another part has of course an immensely long intellectual history, besides being central to Freud’s thought.) But in The Self and Others (1961) there is already a markedly greater concern over interaction with others in producing pathology (cf., for instance, the chapters on “collusion” and on “driving the other crazy,” a concept referred to below). This is further developed in the 1964 book on families of schizophrenics, where the “enemy” must, I think, be seen in the pathological communication between parents and children within the family circle. Finally, in The Politics of Experience (1967) it is society that attempts to clap a strait jacket of conformity on children at their birth, devastating their potentialities, curdling the milk of human kindness.

Although this scheme is oversimplified, I think that the progression is undeniable; it is even true that up to a point The Self and Others is concerned with interaction between two people (“dyadic relationships”), whereas the later book on families (as one might expect) never deals with fewer than three people. The changes of viewpoint are not made very explicit by Laing, except for some comments in the 1964 Preface to the English paperback edition of The Divided Self, the tone of which is like much of The Politics of Experience. It may be that the omission of this preface from the new American hardcover edition represents some theoretical or ideological backtracking.


Omitted from the foregoing scheme are two works of collaboration: the examination by Laing and D. G. Cooper, under the title of Reason and Violence (1964), of three philosophical works by Sartre, and the development, in conjunction with H. Phillipson and A. R. Lee, of a set of symbols for describing dyadic relationships (Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research, 1966). Neither volume would ordinarily be supposed to be about madness—though the former is intermittently concerned with alienation, and the latter with distorted communication and perception. For it is, of course, on his approach to madness, and especially to one puzzling form of it, schizophrenia, that Laing’s serious reputation rests.

The basic purpose of The Divided Self, not only his first but up to now his best organized book, is “to make madness, and the process of going mad, comprehensible.” The work is in three parts, the first being a very necessary theoretical introduction to the second and third that deal respectively with schizoid and with schizophrenic patients. Laing’s approach, as he states at the outset, is “existential” and “phenomenological”—terms whose somewhat individual use he exposes in his discussion of a crucial question: In what language are the inner experiences of people, and particularly mad people, to be discussed? His own dissatisfaction with the psychiatric and psychoanalytic language in which he was himself trained is quite clear:

The most serious objection to the technical vocabulary currently used to describe psychiatric patients is that it consists of words which split man up verbally in a way which is analogous to the existential splits we have to describe here. But we cannot give an adequate account of the existential splits unless we can begin from the concept of a unitary whole, and no such concept exists, nor can any such concept be expressed within the current language system of psychiatry or psychoanalysis….

How can we speak in any way adequately of the relationship between me and you in terms of the interaction of one mental apparatus with another?… This difficulty faces not only classical Freudian metapsychology but equally any theory that begins with man or a part of man abstracted from his relation with the other in his world…. Only existential thought has attempted to match the original experience of oneself in relationship to others in one’s world by a term that adequately reflects this totality. [The Divided Self, pp. 17, 18]

The terms that Laing subsequently employs to describe his patients—terms such as self (whether true or false, embodied or unembodied, divided or undivided), security and insecurity, self-consciousness, reality and unreality, inner and outer—are for the most part close to popular speech and far removed from psychiatric jargon; but more importantly for him they are the language of experience—one of Laing’s key words—and not merely of observation, description, classification, or categorization. (In another context he criticizes psychiatrists for seeming to be more concerned with a patient’s behavior than with his experience.) Moreover they are terms of intrapersonal or interpersonal experience rather than of “it-processes.”2 The latter two-thirds of the book—the schizoid and schizophrenic case histories—can be taken as a demonstration of the advantages in using this kind of language when attempting to make the experiences of such patients intelligible.

Within these chosen limits this demonstration is brilliantly successful. The memorable vignettes with which the book is crammed—of James, David, and of Peter, whose complaint was that “there was a constant unpleasant smell coming from him,” of the more flamboyantly mad Joan and Julie, self-described as “the ghost of the weed garden”—distinguished the book as something of a landmark in descriptive writing on the fragmented personality, and in any event as an astonishing and admirable performance for a man of twenty-eight.

Particularly moving, perhaps, is the sense of pain that these case histories convey. The defensive maneuver, whereby, as Laing describes it, the self is divided, aims at preserving the “true self” while offering to the world both as ambassador and hostage a compliant persona (the “false self”). But the loss of integration is evidently extremely painful to bear. Most painful of all, it would seem from the case material, is the feeling of being split into a mind and a body, usually involving an identification with the mind and an alienation from the body. It is not perhaps surprising, in view of the widespread distribution of schizoid character traits, that the clinical material of The Divided Self evoked a cry of recognition from thousands of readers who felt that the dimensions of their own sense of alienation had been charted for the first time.


There are, of course, hazards in linking the structure of one’s theory so closely to the inner experience of going or being mad. Although, as I have hinted, Laing’s comments on the difficulties of finding language in which patients are to be discussed are often acute, they appear to be part of a less plausible attack on abstractions in general; he seems to have a horror of any abstraction that is not immediately intelligible in the language of the patient’s inner experience. There may indeed be dangers in abstraction or reification, as he suggests, but there are also dangers in anthropomorphizing, as psychoanalytic theoreticians know.3 In his attempts to make even the apparently most bizarre statements that patients make about themselves meaningful in some way, Laing is led rather dangerously in the direction of saying that their statements are in a certain sense true.

To make this claim outright would be to neglect the extent of phantasy; and it would be a poor theory that went all the way in identifying a patient’s phantasies about himself with the truth about himself. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in his next book, The Self and Others, Laing begins with an examination of the phenomenon of phantasy: in effect, a critique of a psychoanalytic paper on unconscious phantasy. By this time Laing shows that he has been influenced by some recent, but now very well-known work on the interpersonal aspects of the causation of schizophrenic behavior and experience: H. F. Searles’s 1959 paper on “The effort to drive the other person crazy,” and the work of Gregory Bateson and others (1956) in developing the “double bind” hypothesis. Searles lists six modes of driving someone crazy within the context of a relationship; each of the six techniques (e.g., exposing the other person simultaneously to stimulation and frustration, or to rapidly alternating stimulation and frustration) “tends to undermine the other person’s confidence in his own emotional reactions and his own perception of reality.”

The thesis of Bateson and his co-workers at Palo Alto is more complex and harder to summarize; but the “double bind” situation involves two or more persons, one of whom is defined as the “victim.” The “victim” is caught in a tangle of paradoxical injunctions (instructions) in which he cannot do the right thing. Each of the contradictory injunctions is likely to be backed up by bribes or threats (sometimes of a devastating kind), and to be conveyed to the “victim” by different means and at different levels of communication (e.g., by gestures at variance with words), making a robust repudiation of the trap by its “victim” impossible. Sometimes indeed the injunctions masquerade as attributions (statements by one person as to what another person is, or is like): “You love me, don’t forget that.” The suggestion of Bateson et al. is that the double bind pattern is highly characteristic of the childhoods of schizophrenics.

Like the double bind, The Self and Others is hard to summarize; but much of the book is devoted to classifications, with examples, of ambiguous and incompatible injunctions and attributions. In the second edition (1969), called Self and Others, the language has been very much sharpened by an entire rewriting.

The influence of Searles, Bateson, and others is seen even more clearly in what some consider Laing’s most accessible and straightforward book, the study of “Families of Schizophrenics,” which he wrote with Aaron Esterson in 1964 and which appeared as the first volume of Sanity, Madness and the Family (there are to date no further volumes). This presents extended examples of family dialogue and polylogue in eleven families each of which includes a girl diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Laing and Esterson make plain in the Preface that in their view schizophrenia is not a fact but an assumption or hypothesis—though their exact purpose in drawing this distinction is rather less clear. They begin with some definitions, derived ultimately from Sartre’s usage:

Events, occurrences, happenings, may be deeds done by doers, or they may be the outcome of a continuous series of operations that have no agent as their author. In the first case we shall speak of such events as the outcome of praxis; in the second case, as the outcome of process…. What happens in a group will be intelligible if one can retrace the steps from what is going on (process) to who is doing what (praxis). [p. 8]

The book is a study of family interaction, and this interaction is investigated in a series of interviews with various combinations of family members; most of these interviews were recorded on tape. Each of the eleven families studied contained a woman between the ages of fifteen and forty who had been diagnosed as “schizophrenic” by at least two senior psychiatrists and who was regarded as such by the staff, and whose condition was not complicated by specific factors such as brain injury, epilepsy, subnormality, brain surgery, electrotherapy beyond certain stated limits. The above criteria were applied to the new patients admitted at two hospitals, provided that at least one parent was alive and resident in the United Kingdom. The families studied were the first eleven to satisfy the criteria.

Within the limits set by the size of the book the presentation is exemplary. There is no doubt that for most readers these eleven families, with their stifling atmospheres, their subtle emotional blackmail systems, their killing by kindness, become palpable, so that the deforming pressures to which the daughters were exposed are easy to grasp. And by the end of the book most readers will have gained the impression that Laing and Esterson are offering an explanation of what went wrong: that these parents, through their insensitivities, their pathological phantasy systems, and their anxieties, first drove and then kept their daughters crazy. But is this what Laing and Esterson are saying? Apparently not; in the Preface to the second edition they state, or restate, that their aim was a much more modest one:

We set out to illustrate by eleven examples that, if we look at some experience and behavior without reference to family interactions, they may appear comparatively socially senseless, but that if we look at the same experience and behavior in their original family context they are liable to make more sense.

The sense of anticlimax, which I cannot believe I am the only reader to have felt on meeting these words, as well as an unfamiliar note of bluster in the new Preface, suggest that Laing and Esterson have been forced into a partial retreat, possibly from criticisms that there were flaws in their techniques for fostering scientific objectivity (their lack of a control group, for example). The material that they have presented in this highly original study seems at any rate much more fertile than the conclusions that they are prepared to draw from it.

The Politics of Experience was published in 1967, but most of it had already been presented in public in the form of articles or lectures during 1964 and 1965. It is not really organized as a book, being diffuse and somewhat short-winded. Nor is there the development of a continuous argument; rather, it is a series of discussions each linked to a single topic and strung together by the concept of “experience.” But even in the individual chapters the treatment tends toward aphorism. The topics range from brief criticisms of schools of psychotherapy and of educational institutions, another attempt to describe the schizophrenic experience, to two chapters dealing implicitly and explicitly with the possible positive values of the psychotic experience. The book ends with an extended prose poem, rich in autobiographical allusion, called “The Bird of Paradise.” Though it is somewhat surprising to find it in the book, it is undeniably interesting—perhaps rather like finding a lock of some medical author’s hair in his textbook on alopecia.

Besides being diffuse it is an intemperate book. No doubt it will be said—as Laing himself says in the Preface—that things have now come to such a pass as to justify the stridency. There is certainly a fashionable element in the denunciations, whether they are addressed to the institutions of society, the “often fibrillating heartland of senescent capitalism,” or to the human beings who inhabit it: “we are all murderers and prostitutes.” Occasionally the language becomes dithyrambic; here is the voice of the bard in best Messianic-Ossianic vein:

I am a specialist, God help me, in events in inner space and time, in experiences called thoughts, images, reveries, memories, dreams, visions, hallucinations, dreams of memories, memories of dreams, memories of visions, dreams of hallucinations, refractions of refractions of refractions of that original Alpha and Omega of experience and reality, that Reality on whose repression, denial, splitting, projection, falsification, and general desecration and profanation our civilization as much as on anything is based.

There is not much sustained argument in the book. If indeed the deforming, inimical agents are not to be seen in one’s unaccepted, repudiated impulses, or in parental misattributions, or in particular mystifying, confusing patterns of family interaction, but are produced by the nature of modern society itself, this is a much harder process to exemplify, illustrate, and indeed to identify, though it is easy enough to roar against. Society, Laing claims, has processed us all on Procrustean beds.

But are these deforming influences of society at large to be found in every family, and in the pressures exerted by every institution? Laing does not really bother to clarify this. He seems indeed to believe that man is born in original innocence but is irremediably maltreated by everything that shapes his growing up. Continuing to live in a society is only a daily renewal of this distortion, deformation, alienation.

He talks rather airily of realizing the extent of our alienation as “the essential springboard for any serious reflection on any aspect of present interhuman life,” but—apart indeed from some murmurs against the psychiatric profession, certainly not wholly unjustified—he does not say how this is to be done. The family, psychiatry, capitalism are vaguely attacked. There seems to be a confusion of various myths and fables, such as the myth of Primeval Innocence, or an updated version of the Emperor’s New Clothes in which Laing, speaking for the innocence of childhood, declares that the Emperor is really wearing a strait jacket.

These and other myths are worth examining for it seems to me that the mythopoeic element in Laing is the source both of his diffuse appeal and of the difficulty that is often experienced in getting him into focus. The views that are implied by the impetus of much of Laing’s writing (though I am left in some doubt how far Laing still holds them)—that most psychotic behavior is intelligible and meaningful within the sphere in which the patient has to operate; that a psychotic breakdown can be in itself a means to recovery; that the statements of psychotics about themselves are in a profound way true; that society itself literally traumatizes its children into psychosis, just as in one of his earlier formulations (later abandoned) Freud conceived of fathers as literally seducing their daughters into neurosis: these seem to me to be romantic myths which contain a strong wishful element and have just enough truth in them to prevent that distressing fact from being easily recognized. Some of them are at any rate no worse than their antagonistic positivist myths (e.g., that all “psychiatric” or emotional disorders will be found to have a biochemical cause). I wish however that they had not been confounded in Laing’s work with other, more trite, observations and aspirations, such as that life in an industrial society is often frustrating to personal development, or that doctors should treat their patients more humanely, and so forth.

In any case it is often possible to be impressed with a point that Laing is making without the necessity of being stampeded into sharing all his conclusions. He notes, for instance, that in the case of those who are regarded as “long-standing schizophrenics” medical and nursing reports tend to become more stereotyped as time goes on (Sanity, Madness and the Family, p. 146). The insinuation is that the continued institutional treatment of such patients makes them into automata; but the laconic or repetitive reports may also have something to do with the prejudices and laziness of medical personnel who find that new cases claim more of their time and interest them more than old ones.

Similarly, one can be appalled by “the statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have doomsday weapons” (The Divided Self, Preface to English paperback edition) without accepting a definition of psychosis that would include them but omit many of those now in mental hospitals. What is undeniable is that the temptations and anxieties of high office dull the imagination to an alarming degree and fail to place a check on insensitivity and cruelty. But this has been known since the Pharaohs. To redefine “psychotic” is scarcely going to help those in mental institutions. 4

As to the direction in which Laing’s work is taking him: it is hard to guess. It will be a pity if his impressive but at the same time exasperating gift for aphorism and paradox, and his sense of how to appeal to the Zeitgeist, should tempt him to abandon the more tedious tasks of rendering his views clearer and more sharply argued and of resolving some of the ambiguities that undoubtedly lurk in them. For I cannot myself think it entirely coincidental that someone who has written so sensitively about the forcing of people into unacceptable, untenable positions should seem to find himself so often misunderstood by those he is trying to reach; nor would I have thought it a very gratifying position to be acclaimed, as surely Laing is acclaimed, by another, more popular, readership that is unable to render a convincing account of his views.

This wide gap, to which any cult figure is exposed, between his followers and those as yet unconvinced, is unlikely to be bridged by his latest work, though it may put everyone in a better temper. Knots (1970) is a series of dialogues between “Jack” and “Jill” (or of meditations on their respective points of view) in which they explore the dilemmas that result from their feelings and their expectations concerning each other.

JILL I am frightened
JACK Don’t be frightened
JILL I am frightened to be frightened
   when you
   tell me I ought not to feel

   frightened to be frightened
   not frightened to be frightened

not frightened
   frightened not to be frightened
   not frightened to be not

The vers libre format and the highly abstract formulations enable certain points to come across: the symmetry or near-symmetry of the emotional patterns, or their circularity which preserves the structure of the emotional clinches and prevents either partner from breaking out:

JACK Forgive me
JACK I’ll never forgive you for not
   forgiving me

But Knots seems to me to be a fairly extravagant way of making a few simple points for which a plain prose style is the natural medium. In the Preface Laing writes rather grandly: “The patterns delineated here have not yet been classified by a Linnaeus of human bondage”; but I suspect that Laing’s models for elegant bondage may have been the classic paradoxes of the philosophers (“Zeno,” “Achilles and the tortoise,” “Epimenides the Cretan,” etc.) rather than anything classifiable by Linnaean taxonomy.

I doubt in any case if it contributes much to the greater themes raised in Laing’s earlier work. The question of the nature of schizophrenia is still of course unresolved;5 and I do not imagine that the discovery of some enzyme lesion or genetic defect as a proven etiological factor in schizophrenia would now very much influence the nature of Laing’s explorations. No doubt some people will be more impressed by “praxis” as a subject to be investigated while others will be drawn to a study of “process.” Although failure of members of the same profession to communicate with each other is naturally worrying, there are many ways in which doctors and others can go about seeking understanding.

Thinking about process and praxis I was reminded of an anecdote in Thurber concerning a man who began to see double and consulted a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist decided that the man’s problem lay in his inability to make up his mind as to which of two girls he was in love with. The distracted fellow then called on a great eye-man, who cleared up the condition with certain eye drops. Thurber told the story to S. J. Perelman, who commented: “The story is incomplete. Which girl was he in love with?” I think we may take it that in the area that Laing is exploring it will be a long time before the story is complete.

This Issue

February 11, 1971