On R. D. LaingRead Now
Twenty five years ago today, RD Laing, the famous radical psychiatrist died of a heart attack while playing tennis in St Tropez. I remember receiving this news at a rather sombre time in my life as my father had died just a month earlier. "I feel like a light has gone out in my life," I said to my mother. " But not knowing anything about Laing, she didn't share in my feeling of loss. "Well, a bigger light has gone out in mine," she replied with some puzzlement. In truth, even if she had known about Laing she would not have been impressed by him and would have felt little, if any sadness at the news of his death. Nowadays, no one younger than fifty seems to know anything about Laing and many of the older people who do remember him tend to place him within the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960's. In fact, Laing hated being called an anti-psychiatrist, but given his circle of associates as well as his radical politics, it was certain that he would be seen as one. Indeed, his most famous book, The Politics of Experience, was one of the widely most celebrated books of the counter culture and made Laing something of a celebrity. But when the radical fervour of those times faded so did his reputation.
Although I am more a child of the Seventies than of the Sixties, reading Laing's work in my youth still had a great influence on my view of psychotherapy. Indeed, I had fallen under the spell of a thinker who appeared to be both a searing social critic as well as a visionary psychotherapist who truly seemed to grasp what it is to be human. Perhaps I was all too receptive to any claim that it was mad to be normal, but no one made that case with greater brio than Laing did. Only much later in 2007 when I was writing a dissertation on Laing for an MA, did I revise my view of both Laing's ideas and his character. In my later reading many of his ideas struck me as wild and romantic and entirely typical of the '60's radical zeitgeist. But my research into his life changed my view of the man, as well, as it revealed what a profoundly conflicted character Laing was. His conflicts not only shaped his adult character, they also drove the life he led. "They say we live a life, but it is better to say we are lived by life," wrote Georg Groddeck, an early, "wild", psychoanalyst whom Laing once quoted with approval in an interview. Laing's extraordinary talent as a therapist--I am still inclined to call it genius--owed as much to the baleful influence of his disturbed mother as it did to his exceptionally high innate intelligence. Yet, his career as a psychotherapist ended in dismal failure, in large part because he had failed to come to terms with the emotional inheritance that he had received from his parents. In my dissertation I called Laing a wounded healer which is an archetype that applies to many, perhaps even most psychotherapists. But his case might serve as a cautionary example for those who believe that the childhood suffering of a therapist inevitably makes him wise. Although a psychic wound in a therapist may indeed be source of empathic insight for him, it can still retain the power to bring about the ruin of even the most gifted healer.
Laing's talent as a therapist showed most dramatically in his work with schizophrenic patients. A gifted linguist who was at home in several European languages, he had an uncanny knack for decoding "schizophrenese", the apparently meaningless babble that is regarded as a symptom of acute psychosis. In his biography of his father, Adrian Laing recounts how Laing was once visiting a mental hospital in America and was presented with a female patient in a padded cell who sat naked and hunched in a fetal position, rocking back and forth, muttering incomprehensibly to herself. Just what would this eminent critic of psychiatry be able to do with such a hopeless case who had not been heard to speak intelligibly in several months? Without prompting, Laing immediately undressed, entered the cell and began to move and mutter just as the patient was doing. Ten minutes later, she and Laing and were engaged in a perfectly understandable conversation. Emerging from the cell, he put his clothes back on and briskly turning away from his astonished observers, asked : "Why didn't you think of doing that?"
This incident displayed two sides of Laing's highly complex character. On the one hand, he appeared as a rather defiant trickster who never lost an opportunity to insult institutional authority. On the other, he showed himself to be a highly intuitive and imaginative therapist whose powers of empathy verged on the shamanic. Although his defiant attitude contributed much to his counter-cultural celebrity, in the long run Laing's vendetta against authority worked against his reputation as he became chiefly known for being the radical scourge of mainstream psychiatry. Unfortunately, it also worked against the cause of psychotherapy as it roused strong and unyielding opposition to therapy and advanced a biomedical view of psychological suffering which has continued to dominate psychiatry from the Seventies until the present day. Robert Spitzer and Irving Kirshner, the two psychiatrists who had the greatest influence in turning psychiatry into psychopharmacology, even called themselves "neo-Kraeplinians" after Emil Kraeplin, the father of modern psychiatry whom Laing had often reviled as the forerunner of all that was wrong with psychiatry. Spitzer and Kirshner were certainly aware of and alarmed by the dangerous and radical direction which Laing had been advancing as a psychotherapist. They were only too eager to adopt Kraeplin's legacy and wear it proudly on their banner, as much to oppose Laing, as to honour Kraeplin. It seems clear that anti-psychiatry--of which Laing, unfairly or not, was seen as the leading figure--provoked a backlash from mainstream psychiatry from which psychotherapy continues to suffer.
The great pity was that Laing had all the necessary talents to make a powerful case for psychotherapy as a vitally important healing art. In his first book The Divided Self, he demonstrated those talents brilliantly. Few other books offer such a penetrating phenomenological analysis of schizophrenic breakdown as a human experience. Though there are some excellent first person accounts of going insane (such as Ellyn Saks's fairly recent The Centre Will Not Hold), which deserve attention for their testimonial force, The Divided Self brought theoretical insight, as well as a considerable literary skill to the experience of going mad. In reading it you not only feel what it is like to suffer the disintegration of schizophrenia, you also appreciate the emotional dynamics that would drive someone insane. Laing regarded his attempt to describe the emotional dynamics involved in psychotic breakdown from an existential, phenomenological perspective as the first step of what he termed a "science of persons". In fact, a perfectly disinterested scientific understanding of human experience, even from a phenomenological perspective, is probably impossible to attain. But seeing human experience as irreducibly human should still be a guiding principle for virtually every form of psychotherapy. As a corollary of this, Laing's argument against the psuedo-objectivity of the diagnostics at work in most psychological theories still deserves great respect. Indeed, as the field of mental health is now dominated by the bogus science of the DSM, his argument may have never been more persuasive and relevant than it is now.
So why did Laing fail? Booze certainly played a great part in his downfall, as did the burden of fame, for Laing had always wanted to be famous, yet hated the vulgarity of celebrity. But there was something else involved in his downfall, which was noted by Daniel Burston, his most perceptive biographer. Among his many other talents--he was a superb musician, as well as a gifted linguist--Laing was a natural at meditation. And in 1971, at the height of his fame, he spent the year in Sri Lanka and India in dedicated study of the discipline. He proved remarkably adept at it and impressed both his Buddhist and Hindu teachers with his powers of concentration. Laing also relished the ascetic lifestyle that his meditation practice required, so much so that he was strongly tempted to turn his back on his worldly life and become a saddhu. But in the end he decided to return to his life back in London where things immediately began to take a downward turn which never really stopped until his death in 1989. Under great financial pressure, he began to drink heavily, his second marriage failed and his writing became increasingly self indulgent and lost its keen polemical edge. Why? It could be speculated that Laing's spiritual pursuits introduced a new element into his life that could not be reconciled with his previous way of being. But as a Buddhist therapist, I often wonder what might have happened if Laing had been able to develop his spirituality more fully. Perhaps he would have just remained in India as a renunciate and nothing more would have been heard of him. But it is also possible that he might have brought his spiritual insights into psychotherapy and changed the way we look at the possibilities of therapy. Who knows? Perhaps the therapist who wrote so insightfully about the divided self might have taught us something about the realised self. But maybe this is just fanciful. Twenty five years ago, I felt that Laing's death had turned out a light for me. And though his influence has more or less endured, my admiration has become hedged with all sorts of doubts and critical reservations. I also realise that his light had begun to dim long before I encountered his work. My regret now is that his light could have been so much brighter.
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