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The Wing of Madness: The Life & Work of R.D. Laing

 - By Daniel Burston


"This will be the definitive biography of Laing for years to come, and by far the most learned exposition of his thought."

-- Anthony Storr

" The Wing of Madness reminds one of the good old days before the word 'biography' implied a hostile deconstruction of a famous person's hypocrisies and sexual skeletons in the closet . . . Above all, Burston is intent first on mapping how Laing was able to turn his own background and psychiatric experience into an original philosophy of mind . . . Then he distills Laing's ideas from their milieu to set them in historical and critical perspective . . . Burston's biography reminds us that to ignore so inventive a thinker because of changes in fashion is to impoverish our knowledge of ourselves."

-- Michael Vincent Miller, The Boston Sunday Globe

" His timely contribution is a superb intellectual biography whose breadth, balance and depth is not likely to be eclipsed soon . . . His . . . reconstruction of Laing's thought requires more than a passing knowledge of complex traditions in psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, sociology, cybernetics and mysticism, both Christian and Oriental. Yet Burston's exposition is always clear enough for the general reader to follow. . .

-- Charles Levin, The Globe and Mail

" . . . a serious and very fair account of R.D. Laing's intellectual development, and very clearly set out."

-- Phil Virden, Asylum: A Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry

Ronald David Laing was born on October 7, 1927, in the Govanhill district of Glasgow. He was the only child of David Park McNair and Amelia Elizabeth (nee Kirkwood), a quiet Presbyterian couple of the lower middle class. At school, Laing excelled in classics. However, the normal school curriculum did not satisfy his intellectual hunger, and at age 14, he resolved to read everything in the local library from A to Z, and so encountered Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud for the first time. At 17, Laing enrolled in Glasgow University, and reading widely as ever, went on to specialize in medicine. By the age of 22, he was deeply immersed in Continental philosophy, working his way through Nietszche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Jaspers, Wittgenstein and Camus.

After a brief apprenticeship in neurosurgery at the Glasgow and Western Scotland Neurosurgical Unit at Killearn in 1950, Laing decided to specialize in psychiatry. He spent 1951-1953 as an army psychiatrist, whose chief task was to differentiate those soldiers who were truly disturbed from malingerers. Despite rigid prohibitions on communicating with patients, unless absolutely necessary, Laing found ways of developing a rapport with inmates by sitting quietly with them in their padded cells. Laing was anxious to discover how these miserable, frightened and deeply confused people experienced the world, and how they would respond given the chance to communicate freely, in their own way and at their own pace.

Laing left the Army in 1953, and went to the Royal Gartnavel Hospital and Southern General Hospital, where he worked under Dr. Angus McNiven, a humane psychiatrist, and Dr. Ferguson Rodger, who was keen to try innovative approaches. In 1954, Rodger brought Laing to the attention of an Edinburgh colleague, Dr. J.D. Sutherland, who was then Director of the Tavistock Clinic in London. With the help of Sutherland, his successor Dr. John Bowlby, and Dr. Charles Rycroft, Laing came to London in 1956 to train as a psychoanalyst. During his analysis with Rycroft, he worked as the Registrar of the Adult Services Section at the Tavistock Clinic, and completed his first book, The Divided Self, which was published in 1960 In this book, and in Self and Others (1961) and The Politics of Experience (1967) Laing reproached Freud and his followers aligning psychoanalysis with the natural sciences to insure a measure of respectability for his new discipline . In its place, he proposed a rigorous "science of persons", or an "interpersonal phenomenology" which, while allowing for the existence of "the unconscious", owed as much to Hegel, Kierkegaard, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Buber and, above all, Sartre, as it did to Freud and his followers .

In 1958, while working at the Tavistock, John Bowlby introduced Laing to Gregory Bateson's double bind theory of schizophrenia. Intrigued, Laing engaged another Glaswegian, Dr. Aaron Esterson, in an intensive phenomenological study of more than 100 families of diagnosed schizophrenics in the London area. In 1962, Laing traveled to meet Bateson and his co-workers in Palo Alto (and elsewhere across the U.S.A.) In 1964, Laing and Esterson published the results of their study in a brilliant and deeply disturbing book, Sanity, Madness & The Family , which John Bowlby described to me as the most important book about families in the 20th century.

That same year, Laing published another book, Reason & Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy, with South African psychiatrist Dr. David Cooper, who later coined the term "anti-psychiatry" . Laing always rejected the "anti-psychiatry" label, but regrettably, it stuck, and in the ensuing years, friends and detractors alike would think of him as one.

In 1965, Laing, Esterson, Cooper and a group of friends founded the Philadelphia Association, a charitable foundation for the creation of therapeutic communities which was committed to the idea that professional and patient roles, as implemented and understood in mainstream psychiatry, are not conducive to genuine cure. In fact, they often preclude a genuine understanding of the psychotic as a person, and tend to confirm patients in their sense of powerlessness and isolation. To remedy this situation, Laing and associates set up therapeutic households that provided those suffering acute distress and disorientation asylum from the world outside, free from the stigma of diagnosis and the traumas of involuntary treatment. The most famous (and infamous) of these households was Kingsley Hall, in London's East End, which ran from 1965 to 1970.

In 1967, Laing published The Politics of Experience. Though not his best book, perhaps, it was the most popular, selling more than six million copies in the United States alone. At the risk of oversimplifying somewhat , Laing argued that mad people have regressed to a level of experience that precedes the acquisition of rudimentary distinctions between inner and outer, past and present, real and imaginary, good and bad, etc., but that their anguish and confusion may herald an inner voyage – termed metanoia – which under optimal circumstances, can result in the emergence of a more authentic and integrated way of being-in-the-world.

From about 1965 until his untimely death on August 23, 1989, Laing was frequently reproached with romanticizing schizophrenia, a charge he steadfastly denied. "Yes, he denied it," people ask, "but did Laing romanticize schizophrenia?" If we are asking whether Laing ever minimized the anguish associated with schizophrenia, the answer is a simple and unqualified "no".

Experientially, Laing never depicted psychosis as anything but a state of chronic fear, confusion, isolation and despair, punctuated, on occasion, by lucid or ecstatic intervals of relatively brief duration. However , Laing also recalled that when he was training in psychiatry circa 1950, many senior psychiatrists (e.g Angus MacNiven) insisted said that if they were cared for respectfully in good-enough surroundings, one quarter to one third of all schizophrenic patients would eventually recover without the benefits of shock, drugs or lobotomy.

Later, while training as an analyst, Laing came across numerous instances of spontaneous remission in which subjects were not merely restored to their so called pre-morbid condition, but emerged more integrated, insightful and grounded than before – at least by their own reckoning. People like these invariably experienced the symptoms of their disorder as the outward stigmata of a radical inner transformation, a tortured epiphany whose symbolic and existential significance registered only after the fact, or as their crisis was beginning to abate.

Basing himself on numerous case histories and first person accounts, and on the reports of friends and former patients who had metanoia -type experiences, Laing concluded that in optimal circumstances, a psychotic interlude can have potentially positive or redeeming characteristics. To wrestle a redemptive measure of freedom and insight from a psychotic interlude , and to prevent the dreaded decline into chronicity, said Laing, the disordered person needs a perfectly safe, non-coercive environment and the supportive and non-intrusive presence of others who have also made this perilous inner journey, and can act as guides, facilitators and protectors.

Unfortunately, Laing's enthusiasm for the metanoia concept was such that during most of the1960's he supposed that most psychotic disturbances would follow this pattern, if only the requisite conditions were met . Meanwhile, though he was guilty of exaggeration and idealization, for a time, by romanticizing madness in this way, Laing was also trying to humanize it, or rather, our conception of it, and by implication, to change our approaches to treatment. He argued consistently that the "abyss of understanding" between normal or neurotic and psychotic people that was postulated by Kraepelin, Bleuler, Jaspers, et al. is not a given, but an artifact; a result of the failure of empathy and understanding. His early work is full of clinical vignettes in which a schizophrenic's sense of the world and their own bodies as menacing, uncanny and fragmented becomes readily intelligible, and the seemingly bizarre delusions of his patients become suddenly fraught with meaning.

Unfortunately, while many of his readers were riveted by his powers of narration, few were able to get beyond the anecdotal level to grasp the underlying theoretical orientation Laing was developing. And their difficulties in this regard where compounded by many latent tensions and contradictions in Laing’s evolving body of work that neither his critics nor expositors were really able to bring to light.

From the mid-sixties to the early seventies, when Laing was at the height of his fame, he was also angrily opposed to drugs, shock treatments or any surgical intervention that might cause the metanoia process to abort or misfire – in short, to almost all of mainstream psychiatry. Indeed, though he rejected the "anti-psychiatry" label that was thrust upon him by David Cooper, he stated that society has an interest in short-circuiting the metanoia process, and that psychiatry merely implements this societal agenda.

To be fair to Laing and his followers, Laing never claimed that the onset of acute psychosis always heralds a metanoic journey. He merely said that it usually would, or could, during his period of unbridled enthusiasm. And after a lengthy sojourn in India, from 1969 to 1971, Laing's attitude toward psychosis was decidedly more cautious. When pressed on this issue in the 1970's, he estimated the odds of spontaneous recovery, even in optimal circumstances, at 50 per cent or less. And though his opposition to electroshock continued unabated, Laing was no longer opposed to the use of psychotropic medication, provided the patient was well apprised of the risks involved in taking it.

In view of the preceding, if the question is framed as follows: "Did Laing ever, at any time, romanticize schizophrenia, despite the suffering it entails?", the answer obviously is "Yes". From 1964 to 1969, Laing was definitely "over the top". But some of Laing's best work theoretical on schizophrenia was done between 1960 and 1964. Though The Divided Self, Self and Others and Sanity, Madness and the Family prefigures his later work somewhat, none of it romanticizes schizophrenia in any way.

So while Laing did embark on a personal crusade to reframe our concepts of madness during the mid-1960's, it does not follow that everything he said or wrote he said or wrote immediately before or after this period is invalid. And this brings us to his other agenda. In addition to humanizing schizophrenia, Laing was trying to debunk the myth of normality. For cultural/historical reasons, we Westerners habitually construe madness in privative terms, as the loss of reason, of ego functions, relatedness to others, etc., and regard normality as a state of plenitude, or of robust benefits that no reasonable person would wish to discard. Strangely enough, Laing maintained that the reverse is often true as well – that normality entails hidden losses. So unlike the majority of mental health professionals, Laing construed normality as a kind of deficiency disease, characterized by lack of authenticity, and/or access to "deeper" levels of the psyche, i.e. the primitive and the sublime.

Laing's critique unfolded in several stages. In The Divided Self, (1960) he noted that the "normal" individual is someone who enjoys a relatively stable and continuous sense of identity, of personal autonomy, of being comfortable with their bodies, and above all, an ability for authentic self-disclosure, emanating from a state of primary ontological security.

While Laing made normality sound quite attractive by comparison with the wretchedness and despair of schizoid and schizophrenic experience, he did not glamorize it. On the contrary, Laing said that adaptation to society necessitates acquiescence in the widespread reification of human relationships, which is overlaid with a layer of unconsciousness, or of false-consciousness and/or of simple indifference. Mad people, by contrast, are perplexing and often intolerable to normal folk, but sometimes "apperceive" truths that are only glimpsed by poets and prophets when the proverbial scales fall from their eyes, and the wretched truth is laid bare.

In Self and Others, published in 1961, Laing's definition of normality shifted somewhat. In The Divided Self, Laing equated normality with ontological security. Now, however, Laing defined normality as a state of unconscious complicity in "social phantasy systems". This argument was repeated with even greater emphasis in The Politics of Experience. Now, instead of stressing what is gained by being normal, as he did in The Divided Self, Laing totally reversed his initial emphasis and stressed what is lost to repression here. What is repressed among normal people, said Laing, are not instincts (Freud), or even specific events or losses, or the feelings and phantasies engendered by them, but whole modalities and possibilities of experience and relatedness to others that are proscribed by society as irrational, excessive, infantile and so on. Yet the self-estrangement inherent in this process is not a source of consciously experienced suffering, nor of unconscious conflict, and therefore, of neurotic symptomatology (a la Freud). On the contrary, it dissipates conflict, conducing to a "conflict free" adaptation to one's surrounding – one that passes for health, more or less. With so much of ourselves wrapped in obscurity, said Laing, we might at least honor the mad for gaining intermittent access to domains of experience that we deliberately shun in the interests of maintaining our pseudo-sane adaptations.

Laing wasn't the only one who viewed normality this way, of course. Many of his contemporaries, including Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, and Jules Henry took a very similar view. Nowadays, many feel that this widespread perception was endemic to the 60's and early 70's, and no longer relevant today. Laing, however, did not think of his view of normality as the expression of a distinctively 60's sensibility or a trendy, adolescent radicalism, but as an aspect of what Aldous Huxley termed "the perennial philosophy". In an interview with Douglas Kirsner, in Feb., 1980, he remarked:

"If we take the world's well-known spiritual teachers from the Buddha to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to the Greek tradition and the Islamic tradition, it is said all over the place that most people by any rigorous standard are pretty daft . . . (And) any student in a first year philosophy course is expected to begin to realize that the unreflective ordinary state of mind, as soon as one looks at it, is practically bound to discover . . . deep programmed epistemological errors – so I don't think I am saying anything unusual here".

In any case, and in fairness to his critics, Laing did briefly romanticize madness as a result of his desire to humanize our conceptions of psychosis , and to debunk prevailing conceptions of normality. However, that should not obscure or detract from his many other accomplishments, or the lasting value of his work, which I summarize in "The Crucible of Experience".

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Updated: 11/17/10