Stephen McGinty: The two sides of RD Laing
A planned film about the devilish and messianic genius of British psychiatry comes at a time when his controversial theories are finding new currency despite his and their flaws, writes Stephen McGinty
IN HER new memoir Edna O’Brien described RD Laing, the messianic psychiatrist of the counter-culture, as “part Lucifer, part Christ”. Had she been alive today, his mother Amelia Laing might have nodded in agreement, before reaching for her scissors to cut up the relevant chapter into little pieces and flushing it down the toilet, as she would do with all her son’s publications. For there was no doubt in her cracked mind that little junior carried with him the whiff of brimstone and, given her insistence that he was born at a time when physical relations with Mr Laing had long since been shelved, what else could he be but a curious case of divine conception?
She, however, was never likely to play the role of a devoted Mary, weeping at his feet as he crucified himself in later years with drink and drugs. No. She would inspire his work, not through acts of love, but ones of hate. When Ronald David Laing was five years old his favourite toy in the world was a little wooden rocking horse. One day he returned home from school to be told by Mummy that she had burned the horse on the family fire as he had grown far too attached. I wonder if the new movie about the life of RD Laing, announced last week, will focus on this betrayal, just as the immolation of Charles Foster Kane’s sledge in Citizen Kane was the secret to his last word: “Rosebud”.
It may be 23 years since Laing died of a heart attack on a tennis court in St Tropez (he was winning) but he is enjoying a cultural resurgence this autumn. He is in the running for the Turner Prize, as the subject of the Glaswegian artist Luke Fowler’s 70-minute film, All Selves Divided; enjoys a prominent role in Ms O’Brien’s critically acclaimed memoirs where she recounts how Sean Connery helped talk her down after taking LSD under Laing’s guidance; and now there are plans for a £3.5 million biopic of his life with Robert Carlyle said to be interested in the role.
And then there is Dominic Harris’s new book of photographic portraits of the former patients of Kingsley Hall, the experimental clinic that RD Laing set up in a former community centre in Powis Road in the East End of London, where, between 1965 and 1970, residents dubbed their rooms in faeces, regressed to infancy and popped LSD as a means of releasing then wrestling into submission their inner demons. While there is no doubt over the colour of his character, the question is what, if anything, remains of the content of Laing’s psychological concepts in today’s world of biological psychiatry and its focus on genetics and physical treatments?
One of the turning points in Laing’s life was when, after graduating from Glasgow University Medical School (six months late as he failed his finals through lack of study and an excess of drink) he was conscripted during National Service into the British Army psychiatric unit. At the time the treatment of the mentally ill was chilling, physical and largely silent. Insulin induced comas were common, as were electro-convulsive treatment and, if all else failed, lobotomy. Conversing with patients was actively discouraged on the grounds that conversation with a schizophrenic was “fanning the flames of their psychosis”. No good could possibly come from a conversation was the established attitude, one that Laing set out to disprove when he joined the staff of the Gartnavel Royal Hospital, whose superintendent Dr Angus MacNiven gave the young psychiatrist the opportunity to try out his own theory.
At the time, the hospital was grim, grey and overcrowded, utterly unconducive, in Laing’s view, to mental well-being. So, for one year Laing moved 12 of the most stubborn schizophrenic patients into a large comfortable room where he listened closely to their fears and phobias and paranoid thoughts. After 18 months everyone had made such progress that they were able to return to their families. However, within a year, all of them were back in Gartnavel, but Laing refused to accept the arguments of his colleagues that schizophrenia was a life-long condition, instead, in his mind, the root cause of such mental anguish lay in society and, most importantly, with the family.
He argued that what parents viewed as acts of love towards their children were actually violent acts designed to control and condition them. He was inspired, in part, by “game theory”, a concept developed by an American mathematician called John Nash, who believed that everyone acted selfishly and for their own motives and that altruism could not exist. (A Freudian analyst would argue it was also an idea learned at his mother’s knee.) It was, however, fruit from a poisoned tree as Nash was, at the time, an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic whose fearful condition had coloured his view of the world. (A film was made of his life: A Beautiful Mind.)
Yet the book Laing wrote, based on his experiences at Gartnavel, The Divided Self (1960) became a world-wide best-seller and turned him into the world’s most famous psychiatrist. Over the course of a decade, the Sixties, his timing was impeccable, his key ideas took off. These were that “madness” or “mental illness” can be understood but it was necessary for the psychiatrist to use the concepts of existential philosophy to enter into the private universe of the patient, and that the particular manifestations of any psychosis could be understood by studying their family, where its root cause would be located. He also argued that insanity was a legitimate response to what he viewed as an insane world and that madness could have positive effects if used as a journey of self-discovery which would then lead to a new enlightenment.
Laing believed that the only way to heal the mentally ill was to develop their trust, which was impossible in a locked ward where the psychiatrist had a key and the opportunity to leave at any time. The idea behind Kingsley Hall was that patient and psychiatrist were equals and that all ideas were open to exploration. The most famous case was Mary Barnes, who wished to be reborn and whose birth was re-enacted with residents forming a womb through which she struggled out. She would then cry for attention and would only feed from a bottle administered by Laing. When she began painting on the walls with her faeces, the commune debated how much “smell space” a person was reasonably entitled as her room was next to the communal kitchen. A solution was found when another therapist suggested she work with paints. Barnes went onto to become a successful artist.
The liberal use of LSD, which was legal at the time, led to two patients leaping off the roof. As Laing ascended into the role of counter-cultural guru, he abandoned his first wife and five children and delved deep into drink and drugs and by 1970 Kingsley Hall was shut down. Yet, while Laing’s belief that the cause of schizophrenia lay in the family was wrong and, in many ways, cruel for those who had struggled so long with children or siblings, his idea that the mentally ill should not be locked away behind high walls but should, instead, be treated as part of the community has been largely accepted.
He viewed Kingsley Hall as an asylum, in the Greek sense of the word, which means a place of refuge, which many patients found it to be, but as Dominic Harris discovered when he tracked down and interviewed a number of them, the yolk of mental illness cannot be as easily cast off as Laing believed.
If Laing reached his zenith in 1967, he spent the next 22 years falling down to earth, during which he was stripped of his medical licence and suffered a similar depression to his father, before finally landing on a clay tennis court in the south of France. However, in recent years the wildness of his ideas have been broken down to a valuable core, as Anthony Clare, who famously interviewed him for his Radio 4 series In The Psychiatrist’s Chair, went on to write: “The fact remains that this complicated, contradictory, agonised and spiritually tortured man exacted a formidable effect on British and world psychiatry. He dragged psychiatric illness, and those who suffered from it, right on to the front cover of newspapers and magazines where they have remained ever since and he gave the most powerful and eloquent voice to those who until then had been mute in their isolation.”
Laing’s last words were not a plea for the return of his hobby horse but one last cry against the arrogance of the medical establishment. When told a doctor had been called he replied: “What f***ing doctor?”
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
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