“I actually wanted to help,” says R.D. Laing, of his lifelong psychiatric work, to Bob Mullan in Mad to be Normal (with the qualification “maybe sentimentally or of some schmucky compassion for other people”).
I thought it would be a nice idea to spend my life to be respected by one’s fellow man, make enough money to live off and do something possibly that would make a contribution to the commonweal such as casting some light on this dark subject.
It is indeed a nice idea; and in Laing’s case an idea that not so much went wrong as soared and shrank and went in circles and attacked its owner and flew off over the horizon, or the cuckoo’s nest. Laing’s once spectacular career as writer, psychiatrist, performer, and guru declined so sharply that, though he died only seven years ago, already there will be people who have never heard of him, or will just have vague associations with bells, bangles, incense, and drugs. “The culture of the 1960s and R.D. Laing appeared to be a marriage made in heaven,” Mullan writes; but it was more a Faustian pact than a marriage. The 1960s chewed Laing up and spat him out again, and for the rest of his life he had to struggle to keep up with his early, dazzling success.
In The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing, Daniel Burston of Duquesne University argues that Laing already deserves serious reassessment, and even claims that his work approaches the importance of Freud’s and Jung’s. The biographical part of his book takes up barely two thirds of it, and leads on to a close examination of Laing’s theories and influences. Mullan’s book, on the other hand, was destined to be an official biography, but the project was cut short when Laing died of a heart attack at sixty-two and Mullan was refused further access to source material. It is published as a series of very full interviews by a highly informed interviewer, and in fact makes a more lively read than Burston’s book—especially if mentally heard in Laing’s ripe Glaswegian accent and with unlimited four-letter words. There is a certain justificatory bias in the book—Laing was concerned to set the record right in the face of rumor and myth—but on the whole his justifications convince. (Mullan of course did not pose right-on questions like “Why do you drink?” or “Are you happy?” He does ask why Laing had ten children by four different women; understandably, the answer is vague.)
The titles of both these books make reference to madness, and perhaps not just because all Laing’s early work was concerned with it, but implying that he himself was brushed with it. Burston’s title is in fact taken from Baudelaire’s Mon cå?ur mis à nu:
J’ai cultivé mon hystérie avec jouissance et terreur. Maintenant, j’ai toujours le vertige, et aujourd’hui, 23 janvier 1862, j’ai subi un singulier avertissement, j’ai senti passer sur moi le vent d’aile de l’imbécillité.1
But Laing was no more mad than Baudelaire: simply, like the poet, damaged, Romantic, horrified by the world, drawn to excesses. It was his upbringing that was shadowed by a kind of madness; his formidable intellect clearly was sharpened in order to decode it, and to make decoding it a life’s project. Laing gave conflicting accounts of his childhood, and his son Adrian, who has written an admirably cool account of his father’s life,2 plays down the weirdness of his grandparents’ household. Certainly 1930s life in a Glasgow tenement was no caring-and-sharing affair for anyone. But the Laing household seems to have gone somewhat beyond your average dour Scottishness. Laing gives a flavor of it in his autobiographical Wisdom, Madness and Folly. No friend or neighbor or schoolmate ever entered the family apartment, of course; in these circles you “kept yourself to yourself.” Not only were there no siblings for “wee Ronnie,” but the parents slept in separate rooms (mother and son in one), and Amelia Laing, extraordinarily, kept her pregnancy secret from everyone until the actual birth. Afterward her story was that she had no idea how conception could have occurred. When the teen-aged Ronnie once used the word “fuck” in front of her, she fainted.
Life was ruled by punishment, sometimes thrashings—admittedly not uncommon in a country where the tawse was used in schools long after beating was discontinued in English state schools. Whenever the boy sinned, the character of his dissolute grandfather was brought up against him (ironically, in later life the attribution seems to have been lived out all too well). Laing tells Mullan a particularly revealing anecdote about the tenor of his childhood in Mad to be Normal. Walking with his father and his one-year-old daughter in Glasgow in the 1950s, he ran to pick the baby up when she fell over. “My father turned to me and said, ‘You know, your mother would never have done that if that had been you, she would have given you a good smack for falling.”‘
There is perhaps an even worse deprivation for children than such lack of tenderness; there is what Laing calls truth-deprivation. Survivors of truth-deprivation cannot claim the sympathy that survivors of other kinds of child abuse can; and some never become clear about what happened to them, or quite what to make of anything. Others, like Laing, make it their heroic lifelong task to distinguish true from false—but at a price. The English psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, whose influence on Laing seems to have been greater than Laing acknowledged, wrote in a letter to Benjamin Spock that “some of my most hopeless cases have had mothers who alternate between interference and neglect”—the alternation being in itself a kind of mystification for the child. As for interference, his mother, Laing wrote, insisted on coming in to wash him in the bath until he was well into his teens, when, forcibly, she was dragged away by her husband.
Both Mullan and Burston cite an incident that Laing recalled as crucial. In Self and Others he presents it as a case history. A seven-year-old is accused of having stolen a pen; he denies it, but the mother tells the father that the boy has confessed, so he gets a thrashing. “He began to think that he could remember having actually done it after all, and was not even sure whether or not he had in fact confessed.” The mother finds the pen, admits it to the child, and tells him to “kiss your mummy and make it up.”
He felt in some way that to go and kiss his mother and make it up with her in the circumstances was somehow twisted. Yet the longing to go to her, embrace her, and be at one with her again was so strong as to be almost unendurable. Although he could not articulate the situation clearly, he stood his ground without moving towards her. She then said:
“Well, if you don’t love your mummy I’ll just have to go away,” and walked out of the room.
The room seemed to spin. The longing was unbearable, but suddenly, everything was different yet the same. He saw the room and himself for the first time. The longing to cling had gone. He had somehow broken into a new region. He was alone. Could this woman be connected to him? As a man, he thought this incident crucial in his life: a deliverance, but not without a price to pay.
The truth, held to fast enough, shall make you free; but not necessarily happy. (The contradictions and implications contained in such incidents as this were to be analyzed almost algebraically in his books.) And Laing conspicuously left out of his whole psychological model the necessity for good early mothering, as emphasized by Winnicott, and by John Bowlby, another of his teachers; he hadn’t had it, so who needed it? What he had got instead was an apprenticeship in observing “mad” behavior and “mad” family interactions.
In Mad to be Normal Laing tells Mullan that from early on he felt that his piano studies might be a way out of his home life. “There was going to be some way I was going to get out of that house as quickly as I could, even though I realized it might take me over ten years to do so.” The parents were ambitious for this only child; in terms of the English (and Scottish) class system one might compare Laing to Lawrence, also the son of a dissatisfied mother, contemptuous of her husband, who focused everything on her son. Wee Ronnie moved on into a good grammar school, where his precocious interests, he told Mullan, were in theology, psychology, and philosophy. And opposite his home was the local public library, one of what was once a glorious network. When Mullan asked him how he came to discover Kierkegaard, so powerful an influence on him, Laing said that was simple: he was working his way through the alphabet and had reached K. He was also reading Sartre, Husserl, Heidegger, Marx, Hegel, Freud, Camus, Sophocles. Nietzsche was a particularly strong influence. To Mullan, Laing twice repeats the last words in Nietzsche’s collected works: “I deny the Lie.” He emphasizes “that sense of demystification, right into our physiological system, our flesh and blood and the way that our body operates, embedded in this mass of confusion that is put over as the truth.”
In a television program that appeared some years ago, Laing talks—as he strums the plaintive “St. James Infirmary”—of how he found in music “a connection with the heart of humanity.” But his escape was not in fact made by becoming a professional musician but by going to Glasgow University and becoming a doctor. Medicine attracted him, he said, because it “offered entry into the secret rituals of birth and death”—besides, literature, philosophy, those were what you read anyway, without needing to take courses. He qualified as a doctor at twenty-four, began to specialize in neurosurgery, then started a psychiatric career in military hospitals. Laing’s plan had been to go to Switzerland to study under Karl Jaspers and to marry his French girlfriend—but things went awry. He was drafted as an army doctor (this was in 1951, when National Service existed in England), and married a nurse whom he had made pregnant.
It was in these army hospitals, and later in civilian ones, that Laing saw a variety of very sick patients and encountered the kind of treatments that disgusted him. It was before the era of psychiatric drugs. Beds were packed tight into the wards and discredited treatments such as insulin coma were routinely administered. In some units he found patients allowed no possessions of their own and staff forbidden to talk to them. Psychiatry was in any case a somewhat despised discipline, suitable for those who could not make it into surgery or similar specializations. Although Laing, as he makes clear to Mullan, was primarily interested in madness as a philosophical puzzle emerging from his existentialist-phenomenological reading (What is “sane”? What is “real”?), he did have that “schmucky compassion for other people” he spoke of; and childhood in the Laing household had equipped him with antennae. Clearly he knew how to be with people (preferably mad ones, because they had no pretenses): they talked to him, he sat with them, he stored away material that was to emerge in his writing. In Mullan’s book, among the very high-level discussions of his philosophical interests, there is a quite different sidelight on the “being with another person in a completely open-hearted, unguarded way” that he referred to in the television film:
Once open to the presence of someone else—and this is completely unconscious—…you start breathing together, like a mother and baby are breathing together. There is a rhythm of breathing which is a duet of breath. Well, people can be completely changed around in about 20 minutes if you tune into the way they are breathing, and without saying anything to them you entrain your rhythm and your movements and everything else to where they are at in their vital functions and breath, and without them knowing it they go away feeling much more relaxed and they don’t know what’s happened to them.
When he felt suffocated psychologically, Laing was inclined to get asthma.
He went on to spend six years at the prestigious Tavistock Clinic in London, where he was considered brilliant but corrupted by unsound Continental ideas—definitely a loose cannon. The place was a hive of opposing factions and, Laing felt, more used to treating polite neurotics from the suburbs than the kind of patients he had been seeing. As he never attended lectures, there was a move to delay his certification, but the more enlightened analysts supported him: “Dr. Laing is by far the most intelligent candidate I have yet had,” said one; holding him back, said another, would suggest “that we are incapable of being flexible enough to meet the needs of a specially brilliant student.” D.W. Winnicott wrote slightly differently:
If there is nothing in this man that will make him want to go on developing, no amount of prolongation of the teacher-student relationship will have any effect. In my personal opinion it is likely… that Dr. Laing needs freedom from the student position in order to make the next step in his personal analysis, and it is this and not the teaching trick that will produce the result.
This was a crucial comment. Though Laing went into analysis as part of the training deal,3 he considered, he says to Mullan, that there was nothing much wrong with him. Yet from about the end of the 1960s his life and writings gradually fell apart—drugs, drink, divorces, incoherent appearances on platforms, eccentric or tedious books, and eventually a demand from the General Medical Council that he withdraw his name from the register of practicing physicians. A word that is noticeably absent from writings about Laing, and from his own works, is “depression”—or sadness, grief, pain, any of those. Adrian Laing in his biography of his father says that both Laing and his analyst agreed that they had deferred the question of his depression during the four years of treatment—which is like a doctor saying he had avoided staunching the bleeding in an emergency-room patient. In his television interviews, and in some photographs, Laing has an expression of extreme sadness.
But instead of going on the trail of this, he was writing The Divided Self: the book that was turned down by a dozen publishers, was damned with faint praise by his colleagues, and in the end sold over seven hundred thousand copies in the English paperback edition alone. It was finished in 1958 and published in 1960, and it is relevant to look at some of the books that were pouring out in the years leading up to it. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness came out in English then, and Rollo May et al’s Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology, which contained Binswanger’s seminal paper “The Case of Ellen West.” Waiting for Godot appeared in 1956; Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness came out in an English translation in the Fifties. Gregory Bateson, Hughlings Jackson, Jay Haley, and others were writing on schizophrenia, Margaret Mahler on autism and childhood schizophrenia. Merleau-Ponty, Tillich, Buber were becoming known to English readers. Lionel Trilling’s The Opposing Self (1950) could declare that Wordsworth, through all his poetic life, “was haunted by the fact that he existed”—a statement that would scarcely have meant anything to an earlier generation of critics.
Nevertheless more than a century of preoccupation with the concepts of existence, identity, self, had preceded it; self divided, single, multiple, conscious, unconscious. From Romanticism onward the self was taking the place of the religious concept of soul. Keats had written of the suspension of self, or negative capability. Matthew Arnold wrote of “The Buried Self” and Hopkins of “selving.” Doppelgängers became common currency, and turn-of-the-century psychology mulled over dissociation, multiple personality, the puzzle of moiå?å¬té, or me-ness. Laing’s actual title—though he claims in Mullan’s interview not to remember its source—may have been taken from William James’s marvelous chapter “The Divided Self” in The Varieties of Religious Experience. And in his book Doubles, Karl Miller has argued that, from James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner in 1824 onward, Scottish writers in particular have been obsessed with this theme of doubleness. Consider Laing’s fellow countryman James Boswell: What was he preoccupied with but sorting out a confusion of identities? But the vocabulary of ontology was not yet available to him.
Just as Freud had soaked up these influences in order to “discover” an unconscious self, Laing inherited them, along with postwar existentialism and the thoughts of the great and solitary Kierkegaard (Burston notes that Laing assessed colleagues according to whether or not they appreciated The Sickness Unto Death—an excellent criterion). And once the fissility of personality had been established, the work of relating the bits to one another waited to be done.
In The Divided Self and Self and Others (which were conceived originally as two volumes of one book), Laing saw a pattern in the jigsaw pieces that was recognized by thousands of readers. He borrows the language of phenomenology to present madness—and the pockets of mad unease in sane people—as it is felt when experienced, rather than as clinically labeled. “What is ‘existentially’ true is lived as ‘really’ true” is the underlying message of The Divided Self. “When someone says he is an unreal man or that he is dead, in all seriousness, expressing in radical terms the stark truth of his existence as he experiences it”—that is all that madness is, the confusion of metaphor with literal fact. Laing describes the maneuvers of a beleaguered self—depersonalization, petrifaction, the maintenance of a false self to protect the precious original.4 He scrutinizes the shaky boundaries between persons, coins the term “ontological insecurity”—and readers who knew nothing about schizophrenia recognized parts of themselves. Many of us, if not most, can see the ontological tightrope we walk, once it is pointed out; those who are baffled or impatient in the face of such terms are perhaps missing a dimension. As Winnicott has said, “We are poor indeed if we are only sane.”
When Laing writes that the self can feel like an enemy, or a vacuum, when he quotes someone saying that “All of me that can be an object-for-the-other is not me,” he is rewriting William James in a new language. James’s “Consciousness of Self” says,
One patient has another self that repeats all his thoughts for him…. In another someone “makes” his thoughts for him. Another has two bodies, lying in different beds. Some patients feel as if they had lost parts of their bodies, teeth, brain, stomach, etc. In some it is made of wood, glass, butter, etc. In some it does not exist any longer, or is dead, or is a foreign object quite separate from the speaker’s self.
Self and Others carries on the same theme to stress interactions with others, in particular the way that other people confirm or disconfirm the subject’s sense of self. It contains a penetrating analysis of Raskolnikov’s experiences in Crime and Punishment that lead up to murder: the numbing letter from his mother, the nightmare of the dying horse. In this book too Laing brings in the work of American psychologists, such as Harold Searles and Gregory Bateson, who had unraveled the ways in which a family can mystify a person to the point of his or her going crazy—a line of thought that he was to take further in the family research reported in Sanity, Madness and the Family.
In his conversations with Mullan, Laing is at great pains to refute the common accusations that he glorified madness, ascribed it solely to family pressures, and believed it to be more or less self-curable. As for glorifying it, he says clearly in The Divided Self that “the schizophrenic is desperate, is simply without hope.” Regarding causality, he did indeed deny the evidence for a genetic factor, which was then weaker than it is now. Besides, he emphasizes to Mullan that he is interested in decoding, not blaming:
I’m not talking about the aetiology of schizophrenia, I’ve always said that. I’m talking about the experience and behaviour that leads someone to be diagnosed as schizophrenic is more socially intelligible than has come to be supposed by most psychiatrists and most people. That is a very embarrassing statement and people can’t hear that, and so it means that it is translated into saying that families cause schizophrenia and therefore if you’ve got a schizophrenic child, you ought to feel guilty about it.
Certainly Laing was not the most consistent of people: quite in the Romantic tradition, he did find madness beautiful as well as piteous—and he hated “normality.” His study of families of schizophrenic patients, Sanity, Madness and the Family, was intended to have a comparison group of normally functional families, but
Every member of the families totally fitted—getting up and going to work and going to school and coming back and watching television and doing nothing and going to bed. Nothing to say really. To get them to say anything about anything was almost impossible. They thought about nothing, they said nothing very much, they were just fucking dead and there was no edge or no sharpness or no challenge and it was very difficult to keep awake reading this. Just fuck all, an endless drone, about nothing.
Not surprisingly, this part of the study never got into print.
As for his attack on psychiatric practice, he was indeed outraged by any lack of tenderness toward people suffering the terrible loss of sanity. But more than once he emphasizes that drugs and electric shocks are all right in their way, if they are acceptable to the patient. The belief in self-cure that he had—originally, at least—was perhaps naive. It was this belief that led to the setting up of the Kingsley Hall community in London in 1965.
Kingsley Hall, in the best idealistic tradition, planned to freely accommodate people who felt they needed to live there, without any classification into staff and patients. There was not much record-keeping, and everyone’s account of it differs, so its real history still needs to be written. It was, at the least, not quite a success story.5 There were so few rules that the more difficult people disturbed the others. Much of the running of the place was done by young American colleagues, whom Laing claimed he had never liked. An ex-member wrote a satirical novel about his stay, which included a far from flattering portrait of Laing. The sturdy working-class Brits who lived in the neighborhood hated the sight of residents wandering out into the street without—horror!—any shoes on.
Kingsley Hall is perhaps best remembered for the case of Mary Barnes, the middle-aged nurse who at her own request did make the regression trip back through infantile dependence to refinding the “true self.” Her story is moving,6 but does make it clear that for just one of these heroic journeys the full-time attention of a carer (in this case Dr. Joseph Berke) was needed, as well as the support of a permissive community. The three-year experiment has not been repeated. To Mullan, Laing violently repudiates an article written by Elaine Showalter, who said that
I suspect that [Mary Barnes’s] voyage was disappointingly unlike his expectations. It was one thing to relive the dangerous exhilaration of his mountain climbing experiences in Scotland, and to be the manly physician-priest leading another explorer to the heart of darkness…. It was quite another to spend three years changing diapers, giving bottles, and generally wiping up after a noisy, jealous, smelly, middle-aged woman…. Faced with the obligation to play mother on the psychic journey Laing seems to have lost his enthusiasm for it.
Total shit from beginning to end, says Laing in Mad to be Normal.
His own vision of the self-healing journey that Mary Barnes managed to complete was to do with
the anthropology of egoless states, losing the ego, going into death-like states and the disintegration of the body image, disintegration of the world, perceptual transformation, going through all that and coming back again reconstituted, that was a standard model of what happened. In our society maybe this was still happening, but were we culturing it out and calling it a clinical form of psychosis?
Besides, as he remarks more practically elsewhere, this was the era of doing your own thing.
Nineteen-sixties doing-your-own-thing was replacing 1950s being-in-the-world, and not to Laing’s benefit. As his hippie fame was escalating (ad in The Village Voice: “Two chicks who dig Coltrane, The Dead and R.D. Laing seek compatible mates”), his ideas were running thin and his books becoming merely eccentric. Alcohol and acid-tripping may have played their part. But also (and Burston, like most male biographers, says little about his subject’s feeling for his children) Laing had left his much-strained first marriage to move into Kingsley Hall, and with it left five young children in Scotland. This must have hurt; there must have been guilt. His increasing pessimism, the violence of his writings about families, are surely connected with this traumatic decision.
Back in the early Sixties, Laing had been psychiatrist, practicing psychoanalyst, researcher for a prestigious institute, author of much-praised books, director of a London clinic, enormously scholarly and enormously experienced in working with schizophrenics. By the end of the decade he had somehow become a showbiz star, in demand for public appearances—at which he might appear with a bottle of vodka and the demand: “Who wants a fight?” Money may have been one factor in his willingness to go anywhere, do anything; he was now accumulating more children. The irony of his success as guru to the young was that the very process of depersonalizing, of misunderstanding, of disconfirming, of driving crazy that he had described earlier was now being applied to him. Does it matter to him that he has acquired a completely unreal reputation, Mullan was asking him not long before his death?
Of course it matters to me. Why did I write the fucking books in the first place if it didn’t matter to me? I thought it was important to me to say the things I said, so it matters to me that what I said seems to be drowned out by what people make up that I said which are things I didn’t say.
One very percipient obituary comment is quoted by Burston. It was the adulation that damaged him, wrote the American psychiatrist James Gordon:
The delicate balance between the pessimism and mistrust that were relics of his childhood and the hopefulness that galvanized his work was upset by his extraordinary reception and the demands it put upon him. Like the schizoid patients he had described 30 years before in The Divided Self, he was in retreat from those who wanted to define him, to make him their own. But in his retreat, he cut himself off from what had infused his work with life—his capacity for disciplined empathy, his willingness to look at social situations with great intelligence and freshness, and his sustained engagement with troubled and troubling people.
It is possible to see Laing as a sort of shock trooper who went ahead and took seriously ideas that had just been sketched by others, and bore the brunt of seeing them fail. Who else had really taken on the mentality of mad people? Though Freud and Jung had, early on, seen very disturbed cases, they and all succeeding analysts made sure that psychotics kept out of their consulting rooms. Gregory Bateson and others had spotted some patterns typical of families of schizophrenics; but Laing developed them and then, as he complained, was misunderstood. Existentialist authors had spoken of “inauthenticity,” but their books were impenetrable to most English-speaking readers. Alan Watts and others had written of mysticism and meditation without ever submitting themselves to the necessary disciplines; Laing, in 1971-1972, did actually go on intensive and ascetic retreats (though, unfortunately, had to go straight on a killing lecture tour afterward to raise money, and lapsed back into a very un-Buddhist life). In particular, he developed ideas from D.W. Winnicott, who supervised and taught him in the 1950s.
Burston reports that when Laing sent Winnicott the manuscript of The Divided Self, he told Winnicott it had been inspired by him (though in interviews with Mullan he trashes all influences, except that of distant giants like Heidegger). Winnicott was enthusiastic about the book, though plaintively feeling that some acknowledgment was due to him. The ideas of ontological security, insecurity, growth, retreat, balance, intensity are at the core of Winnicott’s writings. As for the divided self, in two striking papers of 1949 and 1952, Winnicott’s theory of early development crucially included the concept of false and true self—an important advance on simplistic ideas of normality or otherwise. Again, in 1954 he had written that a “sense of futility and unreality belongs to the development of a false self which develops in protection of the true self.” Impingement (which Laing renames “implosion”) from the environment is what pushes the child into this shell, or “caretaker self,” in another of Winnicott’s phrases. And implied in this is the need for regression, during therapy, to the infant self where this split occurred. This was what was hoped for, obviously, in patients like Mary Barnes who came to Kingsley Hall: the heroic journey back, the regrowth of the true person. (Whether this is possible, and in what symbolic or other form it can be enacted, are important and avoided questions.) Winnicott in fact, according to Laing in Mullan’s book, told Laing that if he had his life over again he would do the work Laing was attempting at Kingsley Hall.
Laing’s later obsession with the psychological effects of birth and of prenatal life may also owe something to the same source. An article of Laing’s in 1978 included “Special Thanks to Winnicott.” The latter had written the paper “Birth Memories, Birth Trauma, and Anxiety” as early as 1949, though this part of Winnicott’s work has been ignored. Laing’s The Voice of Experience and The Facts of Life took the ideas on to the rather lunatic extreme of postulating pre-conception experience (sperm trapped in tube; ovum waits). Somewhere he must have had the thought that his own intrauterine life, concealed from the whole world, was a rather odd one. At one point Laing even joined forces with Californian New Agers who had reduced the myth of rebirth (a profound one, perhaps often present in therapy) to rapid “rebirthing” dramas where you got your new self in half an hour. Birth experiences may indeed be imprinted on the brain (the early analyst Otto Rank had written about them years before, experiments with LSD seemed to be bringing them to consciousness), but this was trivialization.
Burston’s hundred-odd pages examining Laing’s theories in depth skip over most of this. He assigns little importance (and rightly) to the “humanistic psychologists” who might be associated with Laing (Laing on Carl Rogers—“wouldn’t last two minutes in a Glasgow pub”; on Abraham Maslow—“just vacuous”; on Fritz Perls—“hugging and slobbering all over”; on Arthur Janov or Stanislav Grof—“had no fucking idea of working with seriously disturbed people”). As a serious attempt to assess a wildly inconsistent body of work, these chapters are earnest rather than successful. Burston places Laing in relation to various possible models of human nature, stressing the existential-phenomenological, and dismissing any flirtations with Marxism. He touches on Laing’s longstanding attraction toward the mystical and transcendent; somehow Dionysius the Areopagite finds himself in here. In the contrast between the supposed supportiveness of communities like Kingsley Hall and the destructiveness of the family, Burston sees a major contradiction—but then Laing was not about consistency. And it goes without saying that toward psychoanalysis itself his attitude was highly ambivalent.
Overall, Burston does not substantiate his claim that Laing is up there with Freud and Jung. But, as he says, “There is surely no one else in the history of ideas who has embodied the skeptical and the visionary modes of thought with equal zeal.” It is in any case good to see an overpraised, yet underrated, half-genius already being put forward for serious reconsideration. Perhaps now ways could be found to develop his ideas, in therapy or in theory, rather than leave them in a museum showcase.
Laing was hurt that Glasgow never offered him an academic post. But his local newspaper, the Glasgow Herald, coined a nice phrase when they called him “a man who has suffered the indignity of becoming a climate of opinion, and survived.” More or less.
November 14, 1996
“I have cultivated my hysteria with joy and with terror. Nowadays I am always dizzy, and today, January 23, 1862, I experienced a strange warning, I felt the breeze from the wing of idiocy [not madness] pass over me.” ↩
Adrian Laing, R.D. Laing: A Biography(Peter Owen, 1994). ↩
His dismissiveness about his analyst, Charles Rycroft, has been well repaid by Rycroft’s summary in the new edition of the Dictionary of National Biography: “His ideas on schizophrenia were more derivative than his way of expressing them revealed; he maintained that his rise to fame had been more of a solitary struggle than in fact it was; and his account of his childhood in Wisdom, Madness and Folly is not strictly truthful.” ↩
All of Kafka’s “The Burrow” could be seen as a metaphor for this. ↩
Some figures quoted in The Politics of the Family show that only a small proportion of those classified beforehand as patients went on into psychiatric hospitals. ↩
Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness (Harcourt Brace, 1971). ↩