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Ronald David Laing, or R.D. Laing as he was known professionally, (October 7, 1927 – August 23, 1989), was a British psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness, particularly psychosis. The development of his unorthodox views stemmed from early professional outrage with some of the practices he considered inhumane. Influenced by phenomenology and existential philosophy, his views went against the psychiatric orthodoxy of the time when he took the communications of the patient as representing valid descriptions of their reality rather than as symptoms of some separate, underlying disorder. Although Laing was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement, like many of his contemporaries also critical of psychiatry, he himself rejected this label. His work on humane ways to treat psychotic patients made a significant contribution to the ethics of psychology.
Ronald David Laing was born at 21 Ardbeg Street in the Govanhill district of Glasgow, Scotland as the only child of David Park McNair Laing and Amelia Elizabeth Laing. They were a quiet, Presbyterian, lower middle class family.
From his own autobiography, he had few friends as a child and the tensions in his family were monumental (Laing 1985). Both his parents openly detested their own fathers. His father fought fiercely with his own father sometimes causing injury, and on occasion this occurred in front of little Ronald (Laing 1976). David’s relatives never approved of Amelia.
His mother Amelia was a complex woman with very odd behaviors. For an unknown reason, she concealed her pregnancy up until the day of Ronald’s birth. Laing wrote that after his birth her decline was rapid. Observations by Laing and his aunt Ethel, the sister of his father, indicated that Amelia was prone to character assassination and quite devious. She would undertake circuitous routes to avoid being in the neighborhoods of people alleged to have ill-will toward her, even when she did not know them. When Laing was world famous, for reasons known only to her, she had the tragic habit of sticking pins in her “Ronnie” doll, fashioned after her son.
Laing’s father, David, was more upbeat in comparison. David Laing took great pride in being an engineer in the Royal Tank Corps and Royal Air Corps, and he worked on various military applications. In later years, David came to loathe the military, but was quite resourceful in creating meaning in his life. He was the principal baritone for the Glasgow University Chapel choir. He had a special love for Italian opera and Victorian ballads and was known to entertain Ronald’s friends with various musical singalongs and games. At these gatherings, Ronald often played the piano with professional skill, although music remained only a pastime throughout his life. He received his license for piano from the Royal Academy of Music when he was fourteen years old. In that same year he decided to read everything in the encyclopedia from A to Z, and became very widely read, specifically working through Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Jaspers, Wittgenstein, and Camus (Laing 1985).
Laing entered the University of Glasgow when he was seventeen, and studied medicine, later specializing in psychiatry. He was an army psychiatrist from 1951 to 1953, where he found he had a particular talent for communicating with mentally distressed people.
The Korean War had scuttled his ideas of studying with Jaspers at Basel, and as an army psychiatrist his chief task was to differentiate the soldiers who were truly disturbed from those simply trying to avoid their duty to serve. Some of the policies enraged Laing, who felt they were often cruel, unnecessary, and unproductive in healing the patients. In spite of rigid prohibitions on communicating with patients, he found novel ways to develop rapport. He devised a method of sitting quietly with patients in their padded cells, and did not demand anything from the patients, accepting both silence and speech. He did not interrogate them as a conventional psychiatrist would have. He maintained this non-threatening posture in order to allow the patients to open up and express themselves freely. Laing felt that their experiences had validity, and it was important to understand and feel what they were feeling in order to understand their immense fear, misery, and confusion. He felt that they could be understood just as they were, and that their self-reports had meaning if given a chance. Thankfully, his superiors took this as a systematic research effort, which is exactly how Laing looked at it.
In 1953, Laing left the army and worked at Gartnaval Hospital near Glasgow. He worked with Ferguson Rodger, a psychiatrist who was quite interested in new approaches and who gave him much encouragement. This is where he started the idea of living together with his patients, and began to get surprisingly good results. During this period he also participated in an existentialism-oriented discussion group in Glasgow, organized by Karl Abenheimer and Joe Schorstein.
During the late 1950s he went on to study at the Tavistock Clinic in London, widely known as a center for the study and practice of psychotherapy (particularly psychoanalysis). At that time he was associated with D. W. Winnicott and Charles Rycroft, and later John Bowlby. He wrote the manuscript of his first book, The Divided Self while a student there.
Due to his frustration with traditional psychoanalysis and his unconventional approach, involving the inclusion of phenomenology and existentialism into psychiatry, Laing's graduation from the London Psychoanalytic Institute was to be delayed one year. However, with intercession from his clinical supervisors, he graduated on time in 1960.
In the 1960s, Laing continued his research and published his most influential books. His work continued to be unconventional, including sessions that involved LSD therapy. He also became known in the popular media, making several television appearances.
In 1965, Laing started a psychiatric community project at Kingsley Hall. During this period, his first marriage to Anne Hearne disintegrated, leaving him free to further his experiments in which therapists and patients lived together. During this period he became close friends with Norwegian author Axel Jensen, and Laing often visited him on board his ship Shanti Devi in Stockholm.
While still at Kingsley hall, he wrote his most popular book, The Politics of Experience, which Erich Fromm criticized for considering adaptation to society as a criterion of mental health. Laing attended a two-week conference on the Dialectics of Liberation with most of the contemporary left-wing thinkers and activists. This left him somewhat disenchanted with politics. It is no wonder that in his next book, Knots, he eschewed politics entirely.
After Kingsley Hall closed in 1970, Laing took his companion Jutta Werner and their two children to Sri Lanka and India to study Theravada Buddhist meditation. Half of that time was spent in the Uttar-Pradesh area of India with Swami Gangotri Baba, who remained largely silent and half naked in a wooded valley. Laing's son, Adrian, recorded this as a time not only spent in meditation but also in increased drinking.
He returned to London, and then did a lecture tour of the United States in which he also appeared on television. In trying to work out a new approach, he ceased to break new ground and merely re-worked current theories of re-birthing from Otto Rank, Elizabeth Fehr, and others. His next two books were not as popular. Although Jutta and he married in 1971, by 1981 their marriage was dissolving. He alleged she had had an affair, and a very messy divorce ensued. After the death of a close associate, his personal problems intensified. The next year the Philadelphia Association refused to continue endorsing Laing as their chairman, as they felt some of his behavior and his re-birthing approach were out of step with their work.
In the 1980s, Laing launched into various auto-biographical works that were often full of omissions and errors. He was troubled by his own personal problems, suffering both from episodic alcoholism and clinical depression, although he reportedly was free of both in the years before his death. In 1985, he joined with his former secretary, Margarite Romayn-Kendon, who remained his companion the rest of his life. They moved to Going, Austria in 1987. In August 1989, on a very hot day, the fiercely competitive Laing succumbed to a massive heart attack while playing tennis. It is rumored that he was winning.
Laing's view of madness
Laing argued that the strange behavior and seemingly confused speech of people undergoing a psychotic episode were ultimately understandable as an attempt to communicate worries and concerns, often in situations where this was not possible or not permitted. His view can be seen as similar to Gregory Bateson's theory of schizophrenia as stemming from "double bind" situations, with which Laing was familiar. Laing stressed the role of society, and particularly the family, in the development of madness. He argued that individuals can often be put in impossible situations where they are unable to conform to the conflicting expectations of their peers, leading to a "lose-lose situation" and immense mental distress for the individuals concerned. Madness was therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and transformative experience.
This view was in stark contrast to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the time, and is still contrary to the majority opinion of mainstream psychiatry. Psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers had previously pronounced, in his seminal work General Psychopathology, that the content of madness, and particularly of delusions, were "un-understandable," and therefore were worthy of little consideration except as a sign of some other underlying primary disorder. Laing was revolutionary in valuing the content of psychotic behavior and speech as a valid expression of distress, albeit wrapped in an unusual personal symbolism. According to Laing, if a therapist can better understand the person, they can begin to make sense of the symbolism of their madness, and therefore start addressing the concerns that are the root cause of their distress.
It is notable that Laing never denied the existence of mental illness, but simply viewed it in a radically different light from his contemporaries. For Laing, madness could be a transformative episode whereby the process of undergoing mental distress was compared to a shamanic journey. The traveler could return from the journey with important insights, and might even have become a wiser and more grounded person as a result.
Laing's research linked the development of psychosis to family background. Despite supporting evidence, this generated significant controversy and the influence of parents who felt "blamed" for a child's diagnosis of schizophrenia accounts for much of Laing's unpopularity in many circles. In fact, such blame was an inappropriate attribution by commentators who had not grasped the breadth of his view of the nature of pathogenesis in families. Laing maintained throughout his career that parents are equally mystified and unaware of the disturbed nature of the patterns of communication.
Laing developed a phenomenological methodology that involved utilizing rigorous scientific principles in the examination of internal process. In the phenomenological approach, self report is assumed valid and then must be proved through the subsequent events, as opposed to the more materialistic approach of first requiring data that can be measured in the physical world. In The Divided Self, Self and Others (1961) and The Politics of Experience (1967), Laing reproached Freud and his followers for aligning psychoanalysis with the natural sciences in order to secure a measure of respectability for the new discipline. In its place, he proposed a rigorous "science of persons,” or an "interpersonal phenomenology" that, while allowing for the existence of the unconscious, owed as much to Hegel, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Buber and, above all, Sartre, as it did to Freud and his followers.
Laing was regarded as an important figure in the anti-psychiatry movement, along with David Cooper and Michel Foucault. However, like many of his contemporaries, labeling him as "anti-psychiatry" was a caricature of his stated views. Laing never denied the value of treating mental distress, but simply wanted to challenge the core values of psychiatry, which considered mental illness as primarily a biological phenomenon and that the thoughts and images of patients had no intrinsic value in understanding and assisting the healing process.
In The Divided Self, Laing explained how we all exist in the world as beings, defined by others who carry a model of us in their heads, just as we carry models of them in our heads. Our feelings and motivations derive very much from this condition of "being in the world" in the sense of existing for others, who exist for us. In later writings he often took this to deeper levels, laboriously spelling out how A knows that B knows that A knows that B knows… Without this, we suffer "ontological insecurity," a condition often expressed in terms of "being dead" by people who are clearly still physically alive. This may explain why in some biographical material, Laing said his mother died when he was fifteen, as she did not die literally at that time.
Sanity, Madness and the Family contains accounts of several families, analyzing how their members see each other and what they actually communicate to each other. Laing used the term "family nexus" to describe the consensus view within the family to which all members expected to adhere. He claimed that this nexus is a powerful determinant of individual mental health. The startling way in which lies are perpetuated in the interest of family politics rings true to many readers from "normal" families, and Laing's view is that in some cases these lies are so strongly maintained as to make it impossible for a vulnerable child to be able to determine what truth actually is, let alone the truth of their own situation.
This was the basis for his approach to psychotherapy, as in the case of his most famous patient, Mary Barnes, a professional nurse who entered Kingsley Hall in 1965. She was exceptionally articulate and helpful in substantiating Laing's claims, and her case seemed to prove the importance of family nexus.
In some of Laing's writing he apparently extended the concept of family nexus to the society, as Andrew Collier pointed out in his book, The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy. In a strand of thinking traceable to Marx, Laing condemned society for shackling mankind against its will, taking away individual freedom. Left to his own devices, man is healthy, and the mad are just trying to find their way back to their natural state. However, Laing did not develop this societal continuation of family nexus in his later work, and so it is unclear what his ultimate view of the impact of the greater society is on psychosis.
In The Divided Self, Laing exposed the family nexus as often placing children in a "double bind," where they receive conflicting injunctions from family members. Yet it is the very need for ontological security, which should come from within the family that is the driving force that builds societies. Laing did not "blame" family members, rather he pointed out that they are in turn victims of their own family. He failed, however, to get to the bottom of the problem and find a way out for his patients. Freud, by comparison, not only recognized the repressive effect of society, especially in his later works like Civilization and its Discontents, but also sought to strengthen his patients' ability to cope with this. However, neither Laing nor Freud appeared willing to tackle the issue of the good and bad nexus, whether on the family or societal level.
The real double bind, Collier seemed to suggest, is that we all need to exist in a nexus, but sometimes the only one we have is one in which we cannot continue to exist.
R. D. Laing's work over the years changed as his interests led him from one aspect to another of the problems of personal happiness and mental health. One could say that this was his response to his difficult early family life, which probably helped him form his approach that rejected dogmatic adherence to a dysfunctional status quo, and to be open to innovate with less than orthodox methodology.
Laing's view of psychosis as an expression of the reality experienced by his patients is not only innovative but also intriguing. He believed that psychosis is an experience of a reality that differs from the "normal" reality experienced by the "sane" members of society, a kind of journey into a different realm. For those who take his view seriously, it implies that others could take that same journey and possibly broaden the understanding of human existence. However, Laing failed to clarify the exact nature of this different realm, how to enter it, and how to leave it. His attempts to characterize the family nexus as the source of entry into this realm leave readers as mystified as the family members themselves as to how such a situation developed and how to resolve it.
His advocacy of empathy with those with psychosis, and the necessity of kindness and authenticity from the therapist, put great responsibility upon the therapist, one he seemed to shoulder with great personal courage, although later in his career he no longer seemed able to do so. He succumbed to his tendency to alcoholism and was forced to resign from the Philadelphia Association, eventually losing his license to practice medicine due to his unprofessional conduct.
Laing was, and still is, extremely controversial. Many wanted to dismiss him as being as crazy as his patients, yet other respected professionals still defend him to the end. The quality of his work in the later part of his life was simply odd. His personal problems and biographical omissions, errors, and oblique references, that were very hard to understand, undermined his previous credibility. His lack of innovation toward the end of his career also diminished his reputation. Still, he left a substantial legacy and significant impact on psychology.
Laing's work focused on the understanding and treatment of psychosis, but his legacy is much broader.
His most enduring and practically beneficial contribution to mental health is his co-founding, in 1964, and chairmanship of the Philadelphia Association, and the wider movement of therapeutic communities that adopted more effective and less confrontational psychiatric settings.
His introduction of empathy and involvement by the therapist continues to impact psychological thought and practice. This was a drastic change from the previous view of "scientific" distance and impartiality as necessary. Laing advocated that a therapist must be unequivocally in favor of the well-being of the patient, and that the patient must recognize this in order for any therapy to be effective.
The ability to measure results in the physical world had become the mantra of all science in the twentieth century. Thus, the anecdotal methodology of phenomenology had no place in such intellectual circles until Laing's rigorous personal methodology and application of scientific principles brought the substantiation necessary to make it viable within psychology.
Laing was very opposed to the over-extensive usage of surgical and electro-shock treatments. His publicizing of the possibility of other treatments helped research into more humane treatments. He did however, support the usage of various pharmacological treatments to help patients recover, which no doubt led to increased usage of drug therapy for psychosis.
He connected the importance of personal thought and mental illness, which influenced the development of trends in life-coaching and marriage education (as opposed to therapy). Laing's personal search in meditation and Eastern philosophy also stimulated exploration into other methodologies to improve mental health.
Laing was a valiant pioneer in efforts to humanize treatment of the mentally ill, and, although suffering personal difficulties that ultimately affected his work and his credibility, his empathetic understanding of the importance of the complex network of human relationships struck a chord and was the right thought at the right time. His legacy lives on, and his work continues to be discussed and debated widely.
- Laing, R.D. 1960. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D., and A. Esterson. 1964. Sanity, Madness and the Family. London: Penguin Books.
- Laing, R.D., and D.G. Cooper. 1964. Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy, 2nd ed. London: Tavistock.
- Laing, R.D., H. Phillipson, and A.R. Lee. 1966. Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research. London: Tavistock.
- Laing, R.D. 1967. The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D. 1969. Self and Others, 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books.
- Laing, R.D. 1970. Knots. London: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D. 1971. The Politics of the Family and Other Essays. London: Tavistock.
- Laing, R.D. 1976. Do You Love Me? An Entertainment in Conversation and Verse. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Laing, R.D. 1976. Sonnets. London: Michael Joseph.
- Laing, R.D. 1976. The Facts of Life. London: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D. 1977. Conversations with Adam and Natasha. New York: Pantheon.
- Laing, R.D. 1982. The Voice of Experience: Experience, Science and Psychiatry. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D. 1985. Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist 1927–1957. London: Macmillan.
- Mullan, B. 1995. Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing. London: Free Association Books.
Books on R.D. Laing
- Barnes, M., and J. Berke. 1971. Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness. London: MacGibbon and Kee. (Personal report from a Kingsley Hall patient and her therapist)
- Boyers, R., and R. Orrill, eds. 1971. Laing and Anti-Psychiatry. New York: Salamagundi Press.
- Burston, D. 1996. The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Burston, D. 2000. The Crucible of Experience: R.D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Clay, J. 1996. R.D. Laing: A Divided Self. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Collier, A. 1977. R.D. Laing: The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy. New York: Pantheon.
- Evans, R.I. 1976. R.D. Laing, The Man and His Ideas. New York: E.P. Dutton.
- Friedenberg, E.Z. 1973. R.D. Laing. New York: Viking Press.
- Kotowicz, Z. 1977. R.D. Laing and the Paths of Anti-Psychiatry. London: Taylor & Francis.
- Miller, G. 2004. R.D. Laing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Laing, A. 1994. R.D. Laing: A Biography. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
- Mullan, B. 1999. R.D. Laing: A Personal View. London: Duckworth.
- Mullan, B., ed. 1997. R.D. Laing: Creative Destroyer. London: Cassell & Co.
- Raschid, S., ed. 2005. R.D. Laing: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Free Association Books.
- Russell, R., and R.D. Laing. 1992. R.D. Laing and Me: Lessons in Love. New York: Hillgarth Press.
Films on R.D. Laing
- Asylum (1972). A documentary directed by Peter Robinson showing Laing's psychiatric community project where patients and therapists lived together. Laing also appears in the film.
- Did You Used to be R.D. Laing? (1988). A documentary by Tom Shandel and Kirk Tougas mainly consisting of a series of lectures and interviews conducted at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
All links retrieved July 22, 2014.
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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 chemical and electroshock methods becoming the psychiatric orthodoxy of the day. Taking the expressed feelings of the individual patient or client as valid descriptions of lived experience rather than simply as symptoms of mental illness, Laing regarded schizophrenia as a theory not a fact. Though associated in the public mind with anti-psychiatry he rejected the label. Politically, he was regarded as a thinker of the New Left. Laing was portrayed in the film Mad to Be Normal.
Laing was born in the Govanhill district of Glasgow on 7 October 1927, the only child of civil engineer David Park MacNair Laing and Amelia Glen Laing (née Kirkwood).:7 Laing described his parents – his mother especially – as being somewhat anti-social, and demanding the maximum achievement from him. Although his biographer son largely discounted Laing's account of his childhood, an obituary by an acquaintance of Laing asserted that about his parents – "the full truth he told only to a few close friends".
He was educated initially at Sir John Neilson Cuthbertson Public School and after four years transferred to Hutchesons' Grammar School. Described variously as clever, competitive or precocious, he studied Classics, particularly philosophy, including through reading books from the local library. Small and slightly built, Laing participated in distance running; he was also a musician, being made an Associate of the Royal College of Music. He studied medicine at the University of Glasgow. During his medical degree he set up a "Socratic Club", of which the philosopher Bertrand Russell agreed to be President. Laing failed his final exams. In a partial autobiography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly, Laing said he felt remarks he made under the influence of alcohol at a university function had offended the staff and led to him being failed on every subject including some he was sure he had passed. After spending six months working on a psychiatric unit, Laing passed the re-sits in 1951 to qualify as a medical doctor.
Laing spent a couple of years as a psychiatrist in the British Army Psychiatric Unit at Netley, where as he later recalled, those trying to fake schizophrenia to get a lifelong disability pension were likely to get more than they had bargained for as Insulin shock therapy was being used. In 1953 Laing returned to Glasgow, participated in an existentialism-oriented discussion group, and worked at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital The hospital was influenced by David Henderson's school of thought, which may have exerted an unacknowledged influence on Laing; he became the youngest consultant in the country. . Laing's colleagues characterised him as "conservative" for his opposition to Electroconvulsive therapy and the new drugs that were being introduced.
In 1956 Laing went 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. Winnicott and 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.[page needed]
Laing and anti-psychiatry
Laing was seen as an important figure in the anti-psychiatry movement, along with David Cooper, although he never denied the value of treating mental distress.
If the human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness. They will presumably be able to savor the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it. The laugh's on us. They will see that what we call "schizophrenia" was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds.
He also challenged psychiatric diagnosis itself, arguing that diagnosis of a mental disorder contradicted accepted medical procedure: diagnosis was made on the basis of behaviour or conduct, and examination and ancillary tests that traditionally precede the diagnosis of viable pathologies (like broken bones or pneumonia) occurred after the diagnosis of mental disorder (if at all). Hence, according to Laing, psychiatry was founded on a false epistemology: illness diagnosed by conduct, but treated biologically.
Laing maintained that schizophrenia was "a theory not a fact"; he believed the models of genetically inherited schizophrenia being promoted by biologically based psychiatry were not accepted by leading medical geneticists. He rejected the "medical model of mental illness"; according to Laing diagnosis of mental illness did not follow a traditional medical model; and this led him to question the use of medication such as antipsychotics by psychiatry. His attitude to recreational drugs was quite different; privately, he advocated an anarchy of experience.
In his early life, Laing's father, David, an electrical engineer who had served in the Royal Air Force, seems often to have come to blows with his own brother, and himself had a breakdown for three months when Laing was a teenager. His mother Amelia, according to some speculation and rumour about her behaviour, has been described as "psychologically peculiar".[page needed]
Laing was troubled by his own personal problems, suffering from both episodic alcoholism and clinical depression, according to his self-diagnosis in a BBC Radio interview with Anthony Clare in 1983, although he reportedly was free of both in the years before his death. These admissions were to have serious consequences for Laing as they formed part of the case against him by the General Medical Council which led to him ceasing to practise medicine. He died at age 61 of a heart attack while playing tennis with his colleague and friend Robert W. Firestone.
Laing fathered six sons and four daughters by four women. His son Adrian, speaking in 2008, said, "It was ironic that my father became well known as a family psychiatrist, when, in the meantime, he had nothing to do with his own family." His daughter Fiona was born 7 December 1952. His daughter Susan born September 1954 died in March 1976, aged 21, of leukemia. Adam, his oldest son by his second marriage, was found dead in May 2008, in a tent on a Mediterranean island. He had died of a heart attack, aged 41.
In 1913, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers had pronounced, in his work, General Psychopathology, that many of the symptoms of mental illness (and particularly of delusions) were "un-understandable", and therefore were worthy of little consideration except as a sign of some other underlying primary disorder. Then, in 1956, Gregory Bateson and his colleagues, Donald Jackson, and Jay Haley articulated a theory of schizophrenia as stemming from double bind situations where a person receives different or contradictory messages. The perceived symptoms of schizophrenia were therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and trans-formative experience. Laing argued a similar account for psychoses: that the strange behavior and seemingly confused speech of people undergoing a psychotic episode were ultimately understandable as an attempt to communicate worries and concerns, often in situations where this was not possible or not permitted. Laing stressed the role of society, and particularly the family, in the development of "madness" (his term).
Laing saw psychopathology as being seated not in biological or psychic organs – whereby environment is relegated to playing at most only an accidental role as immediate trigger of disease (the "stress diathesis model" of the nature and causes of psychopathology) – but rather in the social cradle, the urban home, which cultivates it, the very crucible in which selves are forged. This re-evaluation of the locus of the disease process – and consequent shift in forms of treatment – was in stark contrast to psychiatric orthodoxy (in the broadest sense we have of ourselves as psychological subjects and pathological selves). Laing was revolutionary in valuing the content of psychotic behaviour and speech as a valid expression of distress, albeit wrapped in an enigmatic language of personal symbolism which is meaningful only from within their situation.
Laing expanded the view of the "double bind" hypothesis put forth by Bateson and his team, and came up with a new concept to describe the highly complex situation that unfolds in the process of "going mad" – an "incompatible knot".
Laing never denied the existence of mental illness, but viewed it in a radically different light from his contemporaries. For Laing, mental illness could be a transformative episode whereby the process of undergoing mental distress was compared to a shamanic journey. The traveler could return from the journey with (supposedly) important insights, and may have become (in the views of Laing and his followers) a wiser and more grounded person as a result.
In The Divided Self (1960), Laing contrasted the experience of the "ontologically secure" person with that of a person who "cannot take the realness, aliveness, autonomy and identity of himself and others for granted" and who consequently contrives strategies to avoid "losing his self". In Self and Others (1961), Laing's definition of normality shifted somewhat.[unreliable source?]
Laing also wrote poetry and his poetry publications include Knots (1970), and Sonnets (1979).
Laing appears, alongside his son Adam, on the 1980 album Miniatures - a sequence of fifty-one tiny masterpieces edited By Morgan Fisher, performing the song "Tipperary".
In 1965 Laing co-founded the UK charity the Philadelphia Association, concerned with the understanding and relief of mental suffering, which he also chaired. His work influenced the wider movement of therapeutic communities, operating in less "confrontational" (in a Laingian perspective) psychiatric settings. Other organizations created in a Laingian tradition are the Arbours Association and the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in London.
Films and plays about Laing
- Ah, Sunflower (1967). Short film by Robert Klinkert and Iain Sinclair, filmed around the Dialectics of Liberation conference and featuring Laing, Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael and others.
- Cain's Film (1969). Short film by Jamie Wadhawan on Alexander Trocchi, featuring other counter-cultural figures in London at the time including Laing, William Burroughs and Davy Graham.
- Family Life (1971). Reworking of The Wednesday Play: In Two Minds (1967) that "explored the issue of schizophrenia and the ideas of the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing". Both were directed by Ken Loach from scripts by David Mercer.
- Asylum (1972). Documentary directed by Peter Robinson showing Laing's psychiatric community project where patients and therapists lived together. Laing also appears in the film.
- Knots (1975). Film adapted from Laing's 1970 book and Edward Petherbridge's play.
- How Does It Feel? (1976). Documentary on physical senses and creativity featuring Laing, Joseph Beuys, David Hockney, Elkie Brooks, Michael Tippett and Richard Gregory.
- Birth with R.D. Laing (1978). Documentary on the "institutionalization of childbirth practices in Western society".
- R.D. Laing's Glasgow (1979). An episode of the Canadian TV series Cities.
- Did You Used to be R.D. Laing? (1989). Documentary portrait of Laing by Kirk Tougas and Tom Shandel. Adapted for the stage in 2000 by Mike Maran.
- Eros, Love & Lies (1990). Documentary on Laing.
- What You See Is Where You're At (2001). A collage of found footage by Luke Fowler on Laing's experiment in alternative therapy at Kingsley Hall.
- All Divided Selves (2011). Another collage of archive material and new footage by Luke Fowler.
- Mad to Be Normal (2017), a biopic starring David Tennant, Michael Gambon, Gabriel Byrne and Elisabeth Moss, and directed by Robert Mullan.
- Laing, R.D. (1960) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D. (1961) The Self and Others. London: Tavistock Publications.
- Laing, R.D. and Esterson, A. (1964) Sanity, Madness and the Family. London: Penguin Books.
- Laing, R.D. and Cooper, D.G. (1964) Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy. (2nd ed.) London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
- Laing, R.D., Phillipson, H. and Lee, A.R. (1966) Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research. London: Tavistock Publications.
- Laing, R.D. (1967) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D. (1970) Knots. London: Penguin. excerpt, movie (IMDB)
- Laing, R.D. (1971) The Politics of the Family and Other Essays. London: Tavistock Publications.
- Laing, R.D. (1972) Knots. New York: Vintage Press.
- Laing, R.D. (1976) Do You Love Me? An Entertainment in Conversation and Verse. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Laing, R.D. (1976) Sonnets. London: Michael Joseph.
- Laing, R.D. (1976) The Facts of Life. London: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D. (1977) Conversations with Adam and Natasha. New York: Pantheon.
- Laing, R.D. (1982) The Voice of Experience: Experience, Science and Psychiatry. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Laing, R.D. (1985) Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist 1927-1957. London: Macmillan.
- Mullan, B. (1995) Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing. London: Free Association Books.
- Russell, R. and R.D. Laing (1992) R.D. Laing and Me: Lessons in Love. New York: Hillgarth Press. (download free on www.rdlaing.org
- Mott, F.J. and R.D. Laing (2014) Mythology of the Prenatal Life London: Starwalker Press. (Hand-written annotations [c.1977] by R.D. Laing are included in the text, revealing Laing's own thoughts and associative material on prenatal psychology as he studied this book. )
- ^"SLS - Colloquia - Still Crazy After All These Years". laingsociety.org. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- ^Kotowicz, Zbigniew (1997), R.D. Laing and the paths of anti-psychiatry, Routledge
- ^"R. D. Laing," in The New Left, edited by Maurice Cranston, The Library Press, 1971, pp. 179-208. "Ronald Laing must be accounted one of the main contributors to the theoretical and rhetorical armoury of the contemporary Left."
- ^ abcMiller, Gavin (2004). R.D. Laing. Edinburgh review, introductions to Scottish culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Review in association with Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 1859332706. OCLC 58554944.
- ^R. D. Laing: a biography. Adrian C. Laing.
- ^Obituary of R. D. Laing by Joseph Berke; Daily Telegraph, 25 August 1989.
- ^ abBeveridge, A. (2011) Portrait of the Psychiatrist as a Young Man: The Early Writing and Work of R. D. Laing, 1927-1960 Oxford University Press
- ^Kynaston, David (2009). Family Britain 1951-7. London: Bloomsbury. p. 97. ISBN 9780747583851.
- ^Turnbull, Ronnie; Beveridge, Craig (1988), "R.D. Laing and Scottish Philosophy", Edinburgh Review, 78–9: 126–127, ISSN 0267-6672
- ^Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing [Paperback]
- ^Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing [Paperback]
- ^Itten, Theodor, The Paths of Soul Making, archived from the original on 16 October 2007, retrieved 17 October 2007
- ^"Kingsley Hall". Philadelphia Association. Archived from the original on 9 May 2008. Retrieved 13 September 2008.
- ^Axel Jensen. Axel Jensen, Livet sett fra Nimbus ("Life as seen from Nimbus"): a biography as told to Petter Mejlænder (in Norwegian). Oslo: Norway: Spartacus forlag (Spartacus Publishing).
- ^Laing, Adrian (1994). R.D. Laing: A Life. London: HarperCollinsPublishers. pp. 165–166. ISBN 0-00-638829-9.
- ^Miller, Russell (12 April 2009), "RD Laing: The abominable family man", The Sunday Times, London, retrieved 8 August 2011
- ^Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R. D. Laing ISBN 1853433950[Paperback]
- ^Obituary of R. D. Laing by Joseph Berke; Daily Telegraph, 25 August 1989
- ^University of Glasgow Special Collection: Document Details, retrieved 17 October 2007
- ^Burston, Daniel (1998), The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing, Harvard University Press, p. 145, ISBN 0-674-95359-2
- ^Laing, Adrian (1 June 2008), "Dad solved other people's problems — but not his own", The Guardian, London, retrieved 22 May 2010
- ^Laing SocietyArchived 2 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
- ^His third daughter Karen was born in Glasgow in 1955 and is now a pracitising psychotherapist.Burston, Daniel (1998), The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing, Harvard University Press, p. 125, ISBN 0-674-95359-2
- ^Day, Elizabeth (1 June 2008). "Dad solved other people's problems — but not his own". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
- ^Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J., 1956, Toward a theory of schizophrenia. (in: Behavioral Science, Vol.1, pp. 251-264)
- ^Laing, R.D. (1965). The Divided Self. Pelican. pp. 41–43. ISBN 0-14-020734-1.
- ^"The Unofficial R.D.Laing Site - Biography". Archived from the original on 7 February 2002. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- ^"Various - Miniatures (A Sequence Of Fifty-One Tiny Masterpieces Edited By Morgan Fisher) (Vinyl, LP, Album)". discogs.com. Discogs. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
- ^"The Philadelphia Association: Philosophical Perspective". Philadelphia Association. Archived from the original on 6 December 2008. Retrieved 7 September 2008.
- ^Coltart, Nina (1990). "ARBOURS ASSOCIATION 20TH ANNIVERSARY LECTURE". British Journal of Psychotherapy. p. 165. Retrieved 7 September 2008.
- ^"Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy, and the New School". New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling. Archived from the original on 26 December 2008. Retrieved 7 September 2008.
- ^Cooke, Lez "BFI Screenonline: Loach, Ken (1936-) Biography", accessed 7 July 2011.
- ^IMDB "Birth with R.D. Laing", accessed 7 July 2011.
- ^"Current Features - Mad to be Normal". www.gizmofilms.com. Gizmo Films. Retrieved 31 January 2016.
- ^Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing. Retrieved on 16 October 2008
- ^Original is located in the R.D. Laing Special Collection, Glasgow University Library. See also 'Prenatal Patterns in Postnatal Life' (1978) by R.D. Laing.
- Boyers, R. and R. Orrill, Eds. (1971) Laing and Anti-Psychiatry. New York: Salamagundi Press.
- Burston, D. (1996) The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Burston, D. (2000) The Crucible of Experience: R.D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Clay, J. (1996) R.D. Laing: A Divided Self. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Collier, A. (1977) R.D. Laing: The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy. New York: Pantheon.
- Evans, R.I. (1976) R.D. Laing, The Man and His Ideas. New York: E.P. Dutton.
- Friedenberg, E.Z. (1973) R.D. Laing. New York: Viking Press.
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- Miller, G. (2004) R.D. Laing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Laing, A. (1994) R.D. Laing: A Biography. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
- Kotowicz, Z. (1997) R.D. Laing and the Paths of Anti-Psychiatry. London: Taylor & Francis.
- Mullan, B., Ed. (1997) R.D. Laing: Creative Destroyer. London: Cassell & Co.
- Mullan, B. (1999) R.D. Laing: A Personal View. London: Duckworth.
- Raschid, S., Ed. (2005) R.D. Laing: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Free Association Books.