Published Jan 22nd 2016 Updated Feb 22 2016
23 August 1989 (aged 61)
Laing in 1983, perusing
Ronald David Laing (7 October 1927 – 23 August 1989), usually cited as R. D. Laing, was a Scottish psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness – in particular, the experience of psychosis. Laing’s views on the causes and treatment of serious mental dysfunction, greatly influenced by existential philosophy, ran counter to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the day by taking the expressed feelings of the individual patient or client as valid descriptions of lived experience rather than simply as symptoms of some separate or underlying disorder. Laing was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement, although he rejected the label. Politically, he was regarded as a thinker of the New Left.
Laing spent a couple of years as a psychiatrist in the British Army Psychiatric Unit at Netley, part of the (Royal Army Medical Corps; conscripted despite his asthma that made him unfit for combat), where he found an interest in communicating with mentally distressed people. In 1953 Laing left the Army and worked at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital, becoming the youngest consultant in the country. Isabel Hunter-Brown, who worked at the hospital at the same time as Laing, suggests that the Glasgow approach to mental illness, and many of Laing’s ideas, were influenced by the work of David Henderson, who in turn credited the American Adolf Meyer. During this period Laing also participated in an existentialism-oriented discussion group in Glasgow, organised by Karl Abenheimer and Joe Schorstein.
In 1956 Laing went on to train on a grant at the Tavistock Institute in London, widely known as a centre for the study and practice of psychotherapy (particularly psychoanalysis). At this time, he was associated with John Bowlby, D. W. Winnicottand Charles Rycroft. He remained at the Tavistock Institute until 1964.
In 1965 Laing and a group of colleagues created the Philadelphia Association and started a psychiatric community project at Kingsley Hall, where patients and therapists lived together. The Norwegian author Axel Jensen contacted Laing at Kingsley Hall after reading his book The Divided Self, which had been given to him by Noel Cobb. Jensen was treated by Laing and subsequently they became close friends. Laing often visited Jensen onboard his ship Shanti Devi, which was his home in Stockholm.
In October 1972, Laing met Arthur Janov, author of the popular book The Primal Scream. Though Laing found Janov modest and unassuming, he thought of him as a ‘jig man’ (someone who knows a lot about a little). Laing sympathized with Janov, but regarded his primal therapy as a lucrative business, one which required no more than obtaining a suitable space and letting people ‘hang it all out.’
Inspired by the work of American psychotherapist Elizabeth Fehr, Laing began to develop a team offering “rebirthing workshops” in which one designated person chooses to re-experience the struggle of trying to break out of the birth canal represented by the remaining members of the group who surround him or her. Many former colleagues regarded him as a brilliant mind gone wrong but there were some who thought Laing was somewhat psychotic.
13 Oct 2012
A planned film about the devilish and messianic genius of British psychiatry comes at a time when his controversial theories are finding new currency despite his and their flaws, writes Stephen McGinty
IN HER new memoir Edna O’Brien described RD Laing, the messianic psychiatrist of the counter-culture, as “part Lucifer, part Christ”. Had she been alive today, his mother Amelia Laing might have nodded in agreement, before reaching for her scissors to cut up the relevant chapter into little pieces and flushing it down the toilet, as she would do with all her son’s publications. For there was no doubt in her cracked mind that little junior carried with him the whiff of brimstone and, given her insistence that he was born at a time when physical relations with Mr Laing had long since been shelved, what else could he be but a curious case of divine conception?
She, however, was never likely to play the role of a devoted Mary, weeping at his feet as he crucified himself in later years with drink and drugs. No. She would inspire his work, not through acts of love, but ones of hate. When Ronald David Laing was five years old his favourite toy in the world was a little wooden rocking horse. One day he returned home from school to be told by Mummy that she had burned the horse on the family fire as he had grown far too attached. I wonder if the new movie about the life of RD Laing, announced last week, will focus on this betrayal, just as the immolation of Charles Foster Kane’s sledge in Citizen Kane was the secret to his last word: “Rosebud”.
It may be 23 years since Laing died of a heart attack on a tennis court in St Tropez (he was winning) but he is enjoying a cultural resurgence this autumn. He is in the running for the Turner Prize, as the subject of the Glaswegian artist Luke Fowler’s 70-minute film, All Selves Divided; enjoys a prominent role in Ms O’Brien’s critically acclaimed memoirs where she recounts how Sean Connery helped talk her down after taking LSD under Laing’s guidance; and now there are plans for a £3.5 million biopic of his life with Robert Carlyle said to be interested in the role.
And then there is Dominic Harris’s new book of photographic portraits of the former patients of Kingsley Hall, the experimental clinic that RD Laing set up in a former community centre in Powis Road in the East End of London, where, between 1965 and 1970, residents dubbed their rooms in faeces, regressed to infancy and popped LSD as a means of releasing then wrestling into submission their inner demons. While there is no doubt over the colour of his character, the question is what, if anything, remains of the content of Laing’s psychological concepts in today’s world of biological psychiatry and its focus on genetics and physical treatments?
One of the turning points in Laing’s life was when, after graduating from Glasgow University Medical School (six months late as he failed his finals through lack of study and an excess of drink) he was conscripted during National Service into the British Army psychiatric unit. At the time the treatment of the mentally ill was chilling, physical and largely silent. Insulin induced comas were common, as were electro-convulsive treatment and, if all else failed, lobotomy. Conversing with patients was actively discouraged on the grounds that conversation with a schizophrenic was “fanning the flames of their psychosis”. No good could possibly come from a conversation was the established attitude, one that Laing set out to disprove when he joined the staff of the Gartnavel Royal Hospital, whose superintendent Dr Angus MacNiven gave the young psychiatrist the opportunity to try out his own theory.
At the time, the hospital was grim, grey and overcrowded, utterly unconducive, in Laing’s view, to mental well-being. So, for one year Laing moved 12 of the most stubborn schizophrenic patients into a large comfortable room where he listened closely to their fears and phobias and paranoid thoughts. After 18 months everyone had made such progress that they were able to return to their families. However, within a year, all of them were back in Gartnavel, but Laing refused to accept the arguments of his colleagues that schizophrenia was a life-long condition, instead, in his mind, the root cause of such mental anguish lay in society and, most importantly, with the family.
He argued that what parents viewed as acts of love towards their children were actually violent acts designed to control and condition them. He was inspired, in part, by “game theory”, a concept developed by an American mathematician called John Nash, who believed that everyone acted selfishly and for their own motives and that altruism could not exist. (A Freudian analyst would argue it was also an idea learned at his mother’s knee.) It was, however, fruit from a poisoned tree as Nash was, at the time, an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic whose fearful condition had coloured his view of the world. (A film was made of his life: A Beautiful Mind.)
Yet the book Laing wrote, based on his experiences at Gartnavel, The Divided Self (1960) became a world-wide best-seller and turned him into the world’s most famous psychiatrist. Over the course of a decade, the Sixties, his timing was impeccable, his key ideas took off. These were that “madness” or “mental illness” can be understood but it was necessary for the psychiatrist to use the concepts of existential philosophy to enter into the private universe of the patient, and that the particular manifestations of any psychosis could be understood by studying their family, where its root cause would be located. He also argued that insanity was a legitimate response to what he viewed as an insane world and that madness could have positive effects if used as a journey of self-discovery which would then lead to a new enlightenment.
Laing believed that the only way to heal the mentally ill was to develop their trust, which was impossible in a locked ward where the psychiatrist had a key and the opportunity to leave at any time. The idea behind Kingsley Hall was that patient and psychiatrist were equals and that all ideas were open to exploration. The most famous case was Mary Barnes, who wished to be reborn and whose birth was re-enacted with residents forming a womb through which she struggled out. She would then cry for attention and would only feed from a bottle administered by Laing. When she began painting on the walls with her faeces, the commune debated how much “smell space” a person was reasonably entitled as her room was next to the communal kitchen. A solution was found when another therapist suggested she work with paints. Barnes went onto to become a successful artist.
The liberal use of LSD, which was legal at the time, led to two patients leaping off the roof. As Laing ascended into the role of counter-cultural guru, he abandoned his first wife and five children and delved deep into drink and drugs and by 1970 Kingsley Hall was shut down. Yet, while Laing’s belief that the cause of schizophrenia lay in the family was wrong and, in many ways, cruel for those who had struggled so long with children or siblings, his idea that the mentally ill should not be locked away behind high walls but should, instead, be treated as part of the community has been largely accepted.
He viewed Kingsley Hall as an asylum, in the Greek sense of the word, which means a place of refuge, which many patients found it to be, but as Dominic Harris discovered when he tracked down and interviewed a number of them, the yolk of mental illness cannot be as easily cast off as Laing believed.
If Laing reached his zenith in 1967, he spent the next 22 years falling down to earth, during which he was stripped of his medical licence and suffered a similar depression to his father, before finally landing on a clay tennis court in the south of France. However, in recent years the wildness of his ideas have been broken down to a valuable core, as Anthony Clare, who famously interviewed him for his Radio 4 series In The Psychiatrist’s Chair, went on to write: “The fact remains that this complicated, contradictory, agonised and spiritually tortured man exacted a formidable effect on British and world psychiatry. He dragged psychiatric illness, and those who suffered from it, right on to the front cover of newspapers and magazines where they have remained ever since and he gave the most powerful and eloquent voice to those who until then had been mute in their isolation.”
Laing’s last words were not a plea for the return of his hobby horse but one last cry against the arrogance of the medical establishment. When told a doctor had been called he replied: “What f***ing doctor?”
BOOKS BY R.D. LAING
Sean Connery with first wife Diane Cilento in 1965
11:34 Mon 24 Sept 2012
AN IRISH writer has recounted how James Bond star Sir Sean Connery warned her not to take LSD because he had experienced a bad trip when he tried the hallucinogenic drug in the 1960s.
In her new memoir ‘Country Girl’, Edna O’Brien claims the Edinburgh-born actor told her how his trip with renowned psychiatrist RD Laing had unleashed a “freight of terrors”.
Irish author Edna O’Brien. Picture: Neil Hanna
Sir Sean has never spoken publicly about his involvement with Laing, who famously argued that the use of Lysergic acid diethylamide had therapeutic benefits.
But the 82-year-old former 007 star’s first wife, Diane Cilento, had previously alleged that Laing persuaded him to take the powerful drug to help him deal with stress surrounding the 1964 Bond film ‘Goldfinger’.
Cilento alleged in her own memoir, My Nine Lives, that Laing, who died in 1989, gave the Bond actor a tab of pure LSD.
“No one was privy to what happened over the next six hours, but I believe that, with his enormous reserve and armouring, Sean resisted the drug,” she wrote.
“As a result, he had to go to bed for several days to recover.”
Taking LSD was legal at the time, and possession of the drug was only outlawed in Britain in 1966.
According to the Sunday Times newspaper, O’Brien describes a conversation she had with Sir Sean in May 1970 when she was planning to meet Laing and take the drug herself.
“I had learnt from Sean Connery, with whom I had dinner the previous evening, that his own LSD trip with Laing – both being old friends from Scotland – had its own freight of terrors,” she is quoted as writing.
“Yet I did not cancel the appointment. It was as if in some way I believed I could go through with it and yet escape the terrible ordeal,” she wrote.
O’Brien writes that she had “hideous” hallucinations after taking LSD which included Laing being transformed into a rat and her kitchen walls into flesh.
The author, who found success following the publication of her 1960 novel ‘The Country Girls’, claims that, as she neared the end of her psychedelic experience, Sir Sean came to see how she was faring.
Life before Death is the result of a collaboration during 1977 and 1978 between the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing (7 October 1927 – 23 August 1989) and the composers Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. It takes the form of a series of sonnets and other poems written and performed by Laing to an original musical score.
The album was recorded at the Regent’s Park Recording Company, London, and issued on the Charisma label in 1978. The musical direction and orchestrations were by Nic Rowley. The recording engineer was Stephen Lipson, assisted by Alan Jacoby. The sleeve artwork was designed by Hag.
MS Laing – Papers of Ronald David Laing
Papers of Ronald David Laing.
General correspondence of R.D. Laing.
Letter from Dr Martin M. Whittet to R.D. Laing. May 1965. Invitation to retiral dinner for Dr Angus MacNiven of Gartnavel Royal Hospital. Typescript. Includes reply …
Analyse this: opinions are largely divided on the legacy of RD Laing with his wife, Jutta Corbis
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 1971Times 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.
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 forPsychology 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.
The maverick psychiatrist RD Laing once described insanity as “a perfectly rational response to an insane world”. In 1965, having served as a doctor in the British army and then trained in psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London, Laing formed the Philadelphia Association with a group of like-minded colleagues. Their aim was to bring about a revolution in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
“We aim to change the way the ‘facts’ of ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are seen,” a later report-come-manifesto explained. “This is more than a new hypothesis inserted into an existing field of research and therapy; it is a proposal to change the model.”
More on Kingsley Hall Residents HERE
He was a guru to the Beatles and a brilliant psychiatrist who redefined the family — but his own children remember only drink, adultery and violence. Russell Miller investigates the madness of RD Laing.
Published: 12 April 2009
Eighteen months before she died of leukaemia at the age of 21, Susan Laing, RD Laing’s second oldest daughter, was interviewed by The Sunday Times Magazine for a 1974 feature about the children of celebrities. Her contribution was unutterably sad. She claimed that her father, then the best-known psychiatrist in Britain bar Jung and Freud, could not get accustomed to his children being grown up. “We’ve got too many problems for him,” she said. “He can solve everybody else’s, but not ours.”
It was a rare insight into the chaotic private life of a man lauded as one of the most controversial and remarkable figures in the history of psychiatry. RD Laing frequently asserted that mental illness was rooted in the family, yet he treated his own family abominably. He abandoned his first five children and left.