Laing, R. D.

views updated May 23 2018

R. D. Laing

Psychotherapist R. D. Laing (1927–1989) became a counterculture hero in the 1960s for his renegade ideas about treating the profoundly mentally ill.

One of his most daring theories was that the root causes of some mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, might not be biological in origin, but were rather the result of environmental factors, particularly those that could exist within the sufferer's immediate family. Though he achieved fame in the era before a new generation of pharmaceutical remedies were developed for use in the field of mental illness, depression and associated disorders, Laing had long argued that his profession was deeply misguided. According to a 1971 Times Literary Supplement review of one of his books, Laing claimed that "a psychiatrist who professes to be a healer of souls but who keeps people asleep, treats them for waking up, and drugs them to sleep again, helps to drive them crazy."

Laing's own background seemed to be a textbook case for dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. He was born on October 7, 1927, in Glasgow, Scotland, the only child in a middle-class home, but his mother Amelia claimed that she was still a virgin when he was born, and both parents insisted they had not had sexual relations for some time prior to his conception. He was a lonely child, and his parents neither socialized with neighbors nor let him play with other children. Amelia once allegedly burnt her son's favorite wooden horse because he was so attached to it, but from his father he did inherit a deep appreciation for music and literature.

Appalled by Conventional Psychiatry

Laing read voraciously as a teenager, excelled in Greek and Latin as well as track, and was drawn to psychiatry after reading French playwright Antonin Artaud, who had a history of psychiatric hospital stays. He decided to enter medical school at the University of Glasgow, and after receiving his degree in 1951 went on to serve two years in a medical corps unit of the British army. He continued his professional training in psychiatry in Glasgow, and took his first job as a staff psychiatrist at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital in 1955. The standard treatments of the era included electro-convulsive therapy, or shock treatment, which Laing considered not just barbaric but useless, as well as surgical procedures such as the lobotomy. Another common procedure was the insulin-induced coma, and all of these, Laing felt, served to isolate mentally ill persons from society, not heal them. One experience that was particularly saddening to him was the first New Year's Eve he spent at work, when the patients joined with the staff in singing "Auld Lang Syne," the classic musical farewell to the old year. The patients smiled, laughed, and participated in the revelry as if they were not "different" from the staff. "If any drug had this effect, for a few hours, even minutes," he wrote many years later in his autobiography, "it would be world famous."

Laing also saw early in his career that his fellow doctors seemed to distance themselves emotionally from their disturbed patients, and came to consider this a deeply flawed professional approach. He was able to put some of his daring ideas into practice when he convinced colleagues at the Gartnaval Hospital outside Glasgow to set up a "rumpus room" for some of the patients in a ward where 60 women were housed. The women, all deeply disturbed, were not allowed any personal possessions whatsoever, and had little personal autonomy. Laing took 12 of them and let them spend a day in a much cozier setting, a room with rugs, books, and magazines, and where they were allowed to choose their own clothes and even have their hair styled. The women's communication skills improved markedly, and many were even discharged from the hospital, though they were all eventually readmitted over the next year.

Published Ground breaking Book

Laing moved to London in 1956, taking a post at the Tavistock Clinic there. He began putting his revolutionary theories on paper, and the first of his books, The Divided Self: A Study of Sanity and Madness, was published in 1960. In it, he argued that schizophrenia was merely an adaptive reaction to what he termed the loss of self. There were two types of families, he explained: serial and nexial. Serial types allow each member a greater sense of individuality, in which members consider themselves a family unit though their primary actions, and activities are not dependent on one another. The other kind, nexial, is characterized by relationships that are much more interdependent. In this second kind of family, Laing wrote, the weaker or more insecure members may begin to internalize personality traits of stronger members. This leads to the fragmented or split personality that is the hallmark of schizophrenia.

The idea that madness could be the result of an individual's inability to conform to the expectations of others had already been theorized a few years earlier by Gregory Bateson, and was known as the double-bind theory, but Laing would receive much more media attention for this, thanks in part to his controversial statements. According to a Times Literary Supplement article by Aubrey Lewis, in The Divided Self Laing admitted to "a certain personal difficulty I have in being a psychiatrist … Except in the case of chronic schizophrenics[,] I have difficulty in actually discovering the signs of psychosis in the person I am myself interviewing."

Laing won a study grant to carry out extensive research on family relations at Tavistock in the early 1960s, and also took a post as director of the Langham Clinic for Psychotherapy around this same time. The family relations study involved extensive interviews with relatives of those who suffered from schizophrenia, and similar interviews with so-called "normal" families. Meeting with the control group, he once said, "was a more gruelling experience than speaking with the families of schizophrenics. They were just so dead and stifling and, at the same time, it was very hard to describe what the deadening was. So it was difficult to say what the difference between the two was, except that in the normal family nobody cracked up," he wrote, according to a Harriet Stewart article in the Guardian.

Laing also challenged another standard wisdom of the psychiatric profession, which asserted that the gibberish speech of the psychotic patient was irrelevant to their treatment. He argued instead that such disoriented speech might be a legitimate articulation of their problems, and could be analyzed, in much the same way that non-structured Symbolist poetry was parsed by scholars. In a third contentious theory, Laing argued that psychotic episodes could be viewed as part of the mental health journey, rather than setbacks on it. Disturbances, rather than being disruptive, might instead be seen as a type of shamanic journey to find one's true inner self.

Opened Kingsley Hall

Laing began to emerge as the leading figure in what was known as the anti-psychiatry movement, though he was not technically a committed adherent. He did, however, raise many objections to the standard treatments of the time, and argued for a more humane approach. In 1964 he founded the Philadelphia Association, a charity that ran hostels offering schizophrenics a more compassionate course of therapy. Several other leading professional names were also involved in this project, and the most famous of the treatment facilities was at Kingsley Hall in London's East End. Here, staff attempted to erase the lines between themselves and their patients, and to become a model for an alternative mental asylum of the future. As a result, the staff sometimes behaved oddly, illicit drug use was rampant, and raucous parties upset the neighbors. Counterculture celebrities, including members of the Beatles, often stopped by to witness the mischief.

Laing realized that the Kingsley Hall experiment was not working out as well as he had hoped. "My dictum was no transgressive behaviour," he once said, according to Theodor Itten, an Austrian professional who became one of Laing's many protégés and delivered a symposium on the Philadelphia Association work in 2005. "Just because you are out of your mind doesn't mean you can take a hammer and bash someone's skull in…. However, my attitude in that respect wasn't shared by other people who were actually there. This was the area of doing [your] own thing, you know, if someone needs to smash a door backwards and forwards for several hours every night and keep everyone in earshot awake, well that's their thing. I couldn't negotiate with what I thought was a complete loss of common sense."

Kingsley Hall and its founder's theories were often mocked by the more mainstream members of the psychiatric profession. One of the reasons Laing's detractors refused to take him seriously was his lack of standard scientific evidence that his practices worked better than the standard treatments. He countered with the argument that most in his profession were still working to isolate the mentally ill from the rest of society. In his 1967 book, The Politics of Experience/The Bird of Paradise, which also emerged as a classic text of the counterculture and the left, he theorized that perhaps it was society that was truly ill, not the mentally ill person. Although Laing's ideas and revolutionary treatments stirred great controversy in the profession, many of his more sympathetic ideas eventually found their way into the care and treatment of the mentally ill. Psychiatric nurses, who in Laing's college days were prohibited from speaking to severely ill patients lest they bring on a psychotic episode, found that greater interaction with their patients seemed to indeed have therapeutic benefits, and also made their jobs more rewarding.

Arrested for Drug Possession

Laing's fame grew as the decade progressed. He made lecture tours of the United States, and was featured in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary series. Along the way he became acquainted with other heroes of the hippie era, such as Timothy Leary, best known for his support of the acid trip, or LSD experience. Back in London, local authorities finally shut down Kingsley Hall in 1970 in response to complaints from neighbors, but other Philadelphia Association hostels continued to operate in the London area for a few more years. Laing busied himself with other projects, including "rebirthing" seminars in which participants emerged from special bags sewn from gnu skins, and he also began writing poetry. He practiced privately for a number of years, and wrote more books, including volumes of poetry and extractions from extensive interviews with children.

Laing was arrested in 1977 for possession of hallucinogenic drugs, and admitted a few years later that he had been a heavy drinker at one point in his life. His autobiography, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist, was published in 1985. According to Alfie Kohn's review of the book for Psychology Today, Laing wrote that he was "still more frightened by the fearless power in the eyes of my fellow psychiatrists than by the powerless fear in the eyes of my patients." He died of a heart attack on August 23, 1989, while playing tennis in the French Riviera resort town of St. Tropez.


Guardian (London, England), July 26, 1996.

Independent (London, England), May 13, 1997.

Independent Sunday (London, England), August 4, 1996.

Psychology Today, December 1985.

Sunday Times (London, England), August 4, 1996.

Times (London, England), May 14, 1977; December 11, 1981; August 24, 1989; August 16, 1994.

Times Literary Supplement (London, England), May 18, 1962; July 2, 1964; December 31, 1971; October 11, 1985.


"All the Lonely People Where Do They All Come From?" Society of Laingian Studies, (January 4, 2006).

Laing, R. D.

views updated May 21 2018

Laing, R. D. (1927–89) The best-known British anti-psychiatrist. Laing's overriding emphasis was on the intelligibility of madness. His books explored individual subjectivity (The Divided Self, 1960), interpersonal and family dynamics (The Self and Others, 1961; Sanity, Madness and the Family, 1963) and the wider social context, including the values involved in judgements of sanity and madness (The Politics of Experience, 1966). Though he subsequently renounced his more radical views, his ideas still attract attention, and remain controversial. His autobiography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly (1985) recounts his first thirty years.

Laing, R.D.

views updated May 21 2018

Laing, R.D. ( Ronald David) (1927–1989) Scottish psychiatrist. He was an exponent of existential psychology and produced radical work on the nature of schizophrenia. He believed that the mentally ill are not necessarily maladapted: a psychotic disorder may be a reasonable reaction to the stresses of the world and of difficult family relationships.