The chaos of R.D. Laing

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’.

11 thoughts on “The chaos of R.D. Laing”

  1. If mental illness researchers had followed Laing in all of his anti-medical particulars,I fail to see how the fields that blossomed as neuroscience and psychopharmacology would have ever gotten serious traction. As it turns out, schizophrenia is NOT a mystical voyage of self-discovery. Some of the worse excesses of New Age pseudoscience, in my opinion, have their origin in Laing’s highly eccentric point of view.

  2. I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say that he got it “all” wrong. Laing’s most significant contribution is helping to foster a mindset that people’s internal experiences are significant and shouldn’t be passed off merely as symptoms. Clearly he was off base on some points but to say that he got it “all” wrong presupposes that have found the answer to these issues and Laing was completely incorrect. The story of the study of schizophrenia is far from being a completed one. Science quite certainly has not solved the problem yet. Maybe it would be more sensible to take a more measured position in critiquing someone who’s contribution to understanding the human experience has been quite important to many people.

  3. That’s fair. I am a layman in the area of psychology and do not have a full sense of his work in context so a label of brilliant from that standpoint would probably not be appropriate.

    His brilliance for me is in his ability to describe the human condition. I approach his work (particularly “Knots”) as statements about experience and emotion. His work has had a deep and lasting impact on my personal understanding of other people.

  4. When one looks back at the work of “revolutionaries” of one kind or another, it’s often easy to find great gaping problems in their worldview, their logic, or their actions. And yet, if we leave it there we miss out on an important question which is, was what they were rebelling against even worse? Did their rebellion help to push us toward the position we’re in now, from which their ideas or actions appear so misguided? There’s a lot to criticise in Laing’s work. But the culture he was rebelling against deserved a hell of a lot more criticism, and he did a good job of pushing us toward a more humane and productive attitude to mental illness than was commonplace in the 1950s and 60s.

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