Counter-culture psychiatrist R.D. Laing is the patron saint of lovable rogues, although, according to an article in The Sunday Times, he was a hard man to love. “Being the son of RD Laing was neither amazing nor enlightening,” wrote his son in a biography of his father, “for most of the time it was a crock of shit.”
Inspired by existential philosophers, Laing produced a series of humane and revolutionary books during the sixties that argued that we undervalue both the experience of mental illness and those who are mentally ill.
Madness, he argued, was a transformative experience, rich with personal meaning, that functions like an existential rite of passage. Delusions and hallucinations were the expression of the unmentionable, illustrating the emotional double-booking keeping of the family with an unignorable tear in the fabric between the conscious and unconscious mind.
When you talk to psychiatrists from Laing’s generation, they are rarely complementary. The fact he fuelled the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement (unwittingly, he claimed) is secondary to the fact that they chiefly remember his decline from a brilliant thinker to a tacky drunk.
While his public persona was just saddening, his family life was frequently shattered by his emotional instability. Fathering 10 children by four different women, the Times article recounts how his children remember his emotional neglect, sometimes punctuated with violence.
Yet Laing remains fascinating. Partly we revel in the irony as he highlighted the naivety of his own theories – his depression and alcoholism were hardly a rite of passage, and he embodied the dark force of ambivalent family turmoil that he railed against in his writing.
But partly it’s because he reflects those times when our inadequacies get the better of how we want the world to be. To borrow from Jung, he is the archetypal wounded healer, a modern day Fisher King whose wounds destroyed his kingdom.
Link to Sunday Times article ‘RD Laing: The abominable family man’.