I suppose I am one of the symptoms of the times," R. D. Laing wrote in 1972, though, in truth, by then he was already a little passe. It was in the 1960s that Laing was flavour of the decade, and never had a public figure been more aptly matched to the hour. Speculating that "my mind must have been in synchrony with the EEG waves ... of an extensive array of people", Laing was ready to make the most of his cultural relevance. Not only was he then the world's most famous psychiatrist and therapist, he was the only one that many young people had ever heard of.
Seven years on from Laing's sudden death in 1989 seems the right time for a definitive biography and for a comprehensive reassessment of his writings and theoretical position. But the planned "official" biography by Bob Mullan for some reason became truncated to a set of interviews, and one by Laing's second son, Adrian, in 1994, made no attempt to assess his father's work critically. Laing himself published a partial autobiography in 1985, but other books are either old or merely anecdotal. In the usual Noah's ark habit of biographies, there are now two new ones that offer a choice between "the life" (John Clay) and "life and works" (Daniel Burston).
To start with the life, Laing's family constellation was remarkable for the psychopathology it contained. His father had depression, as well as severe anxiety, and later senile dementia. His mother's behaviour was at the extreme edge of eccentricity, with profound paranoid jealousy, and she was incapable of any normal relationship. The origins of Laing's subsequent concern with miscommunication and obscure messages within families are not difficult to find here: on one occasion, both parents punished him for not admitting that he had taken his father's fountain pen - when he had not taken it. Yet in spite of all this, he had an excellent school record and became something of an autodidact, reading Montaigne, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud at 15. At university, he discovered existentialism and alcohol, both of which were to play a major part in his life, and he displayed the phenomenal energy that characterised him until his last decade.
Laing's psychiatric training began in the army, where he first encountered schizophrenia, and continued at the Glasgow mental hospital; in both places, he showed a rare capacity to communicate with psychotic people and to step outside conventional professional roles. This experience was the basis for his first book, The Divided Self, which conveyed the meaning of psychosis from an existential-phenomenological viewpoint. It became a worldwide bestseller because, in Burston's view, "schizoid feelings, attitudes, and experiences are so prevalent" in our society. It was an extraordinary achievement for a 30-year-old who was still in psychoanalytical training, though characteristically a rebellious trainee with little tolerance for orthodox Freudianism. He had, in fact, little tolerance for any authority except his own - one of the many paradoxes of his career.
The 1960s saw the appearance of all Laing's really influential books: The Self and Others, Sanity, Madness and the Family and The Politics of Experience. At the same time, he emerged as an inevitable media figure, cultural guru, and figurehead of oppositional trends, including the political. Yet ironically, though Laing might at one stage blame madness on an "insane world" and describe schizophrenia as "not a disease entity but an artifact of capitalist social organisation", he had no serious interest in politics. For a few years, he was associated with fashionable leftwing causes, largely through the influence of David Cooper, but this gradually came to an end after the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967. Although one of its stars, Laing found himself out of sympathy with much of the insurrectionary rhetoric there and later turned his critical gaze away from the macroscale of society - about which he had never been a very profound thinker.
The primary themes of the decade for Laing were the family and mental illness. Sanity, Madness and the Family was an account of families containing a schizophrenic member, and its theoretical standpoint came mainly from Gregory Bateson's double-bind hypothesis, that confused communications from parents might cause schizophrenia. Laing and Aaron Esterson took the more modest view that the strange communications and experiences of the "schizophrenic" were intelligible when the family was intensively studied. Scientifically, this called for a comparison with families who had no schizophrenic member, and they promised to publish such a study, but never did so. Some "normal" families were interviewed, but Laing reported that he found them even more depressing than those with a mentally ill member; the implications of this were never properly worked out, though his own experience must surely have been influential. Laing's relationship with his first wife and five children had been deteriorating during this time and he left them finally in 1965. In The Politics of Experience he denounced the family as pathogenic and reactionary, yet he was then establishing a new family himself with the woman who was to be his second wife. He eventually fathered ten children which, for one who had himself been an only child, seems like an overcompensation.
As a psychiatrist, Laing was essentially an analyst in private practice, with a highly fashionable clientele in his years of fame. Many patients reported his charismatic influence and the hypnotic effect of his eyes; otherwise, not much is known of his therapeutic technique. The exception to this is an extensive use of LSD (when this was unrestricted) both for patients and for himself; what effect it had remains unknown. Yet paradoxically again, Laing's reputation was mainly associated with schizophrenia, of which he saw very little after leaving Glasgow. This was partly through his early books, but mainly because of his role in establishing a residential community at Kingsley Hall, where people with psychoses would have an alternative to conventional psychiatry. Both Clay and Burston describe the result as a chaotic mess, though a source of endless fascination to the media; very few schizophrenics passed through it.
The rest of Laing's career took a downhill course. His interest turned to prenatal and birth experience, but his writings on this were highly speculative and aroused little interest. Drink and drugs took their toll, so that public appearances were often highly embarrassing. The title of a 1987 television film, Did you used to be Ronnie Laing?, summed up the situation.
In R.D. Laing: A Divided Self, Clay, a Jungian analyst, has provided a very straightforward narrative of Laing's life. Burston, an American teacher of psychology, on the other hand, offers a fairly short biographical account, followed by an extensive critique of Laing's thought. Burston concludes that Laing's contribution to psychology and psychiatry was of the same order of magnitude as Freud's and Jung's, though many readers are likely to remain unconvinced of this. What neither author has done, though, is to set this contribution in the context of the history of psychiatry, which was itself evolving rapidly as Laing's career unfolded.
Certainly, R. D. Laing will continue to figure prominently in the cultural history of the later 20th century, and his early writings will remain of interest to those who seek to understand psychotic experience. But so far as the management of mental illness is concerned, he was a phenomenon that came and went.
Hugh Freeman is honorary visiting fellow, Green College, Oxford.
The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing
Author - Daniel Burston
ISBN - 0 674 95358 4
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 5