Adrian Laing on his new novel, and his father
Adrian Laing still remembers the day, almost half a century ago, when his father took him down to the basement. “I was seven,” he recalls. “All I could think about was the smell of shit. It was like going into Hades. Mary was sitting naked with a blanket over her. My dad was talking to her as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and she was just nodding away. That was the first experience I had of Kingsley Hall. It was an initiation into my dad’s world, which I just couldn’t fathom on any level.”
His father was R D Laing, the famous, latterly infamous, Scottish psychiatrist. Mary Barnes was Laing’s best-known client, a woman he encouraged to regress to infancy, a condition that led her to smear the walls with her own excrement. The basement was in Kingsley Hall, a former community centre in east London that Laing and a loose fraternity of fellow therapists used, from 1965 to 1970, as a residential base of operations for their new radical approach to psychiatry – an approach that included a blurring of the boundaries between doctor and patient and the widespread use, by both, of LSD.
Adrian, now a 55-year-old lawyer, has taken Kingsley Hall as the inspiration for a forthcoming comic novel, Rehab Blues, set in and around The Place – a therapeutic centre for celebrities. He lives in north London, in a drowsy, neatly clipped suburb near Highgate Cemetery, and is married with five children aged between 16 and 24. Dressed in a dark suit, he looks remarkably like his late father, but does not sound like him. While R D Laing never lost his Glaswegian accent, Adrian speaks like a true Londoner. He is the fifth and youngest of Laing’s children from his first marriage, to Anne, although one of ten in total by four women, and was born in 1958, the family having moved from Scotland two years before.
I meet Adrian at his home and he suggests we walk to a cafe on Hampstead Heath. On the way, he points out various locations he used for scenes in Rehab Blues. Some years ago he wrote an excellent biography of his father, who died in 1989 at the age of 61. He wanted, he says, to make himself the leading authority on Laing; he was sick of mental health professionals who felt they could presume to tell him what his father was really like. It was also cathartic. “I’d rather write a book about Dad than go into therapy,” he says. “It was my way of straightening out my head.” His relationship with his father has improved greatly since his death. Rehab Blues, though, is different – an attempt to achieve something his high-achieving parent did not – publish a successful novel. “I’m sure a psychoanalyst would say I’m still competing with my dad.”
Ronald David Laing was born in Glasgow on 7 October 1927, and grew up in a red sandstone tenement at 21 Ardbeg Street, in the Govanhill district in the south of the city. A blue plaque now marks the family home. It is very close to the beautiful Govanhill Library, paid for by Carnegie, where Laing spent much of his time. He was a very bright boy, passing the entry exam for Hutcheson’s Grammar School and later studying medicine at Glasgow University. He was also an accomplished player of the piano, an interest encouraged in particular by his father David, an electrical engineer and talented baritone.
Following graduation, Laing spent two years in psychiatric practice in the Royal Army Medical Corps, where he developed a dislike of straitjackets, padded cells and the treatment of patients with tranquillisers. He started hanging out with one patient in his cell, listening to him and sharing whisky, and found the man’s condition improved. This period marked the beginning of Laing’s revolt against mainstream psychiatry; the beginning, too, of the heavy drinking that would bring chaos to his life and hasten its end.
His first book, The Divided Self, was published in 1960, the same year he opened a private practice in London and took acid for the first time. By 1963, the year the Sixties truly got going, he was becoming a celebrity, a guru of the emerging counter culture, part of a movement to question reality and convention. Over the next decade, he would become a staple on television, in newspapers and magazines and on bestseller lists – every freak’s favourite shrink.
At the same time, he was falling apart. Drink, drugs, overwhelming work, infidelity, newfound celebrity, the depression from which he suffered – it must have been dizzying, disorientating. “That’s what, in my mind, did my dad in more than anything else – an inability to cope with fame,” says Adrian. “And if you can’t cope with fame you are vulnerable to all sorts of traps and pitfalls. Your ego explodes or you drink too much.”
The marriage between Laing and Anne had become, in Adrian’s words, “warring, fractured, corrosive”. In 1966, with Laing more or less living at Kingsley Hall, Anne left with the children for France and then, when that didn’t work out, for Glasgow. Laing didn’t see his family for two years after that, by which time Adrian had forgotten what his dad looked like. “From our perception at the time, he abandoned us,” says Adrian. This move to Scotland was, to hear him tell it, a traumatic upheaval. “We’re living a very middle-class London life, in Hampstead, and my father’s a psychiatrist. And the next minute we’re in Glasgow and ‘Where’s Daddy?’”
Laing arranged through his solicitor to pay the minimum amount of maintenance. Adrian, as a result of his experiences of the split, says he could never have practised family law; the emotions around divorce and custody remain, for him, too raw. Living in Glasgow, paying for school lunches with free meal tickets, he understood himself to be poor, and – unlike most of the children in his class – to not have a father at home. He remembers Glasgow then as a city in black and white, like Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, a freezing city of prejudice and violence. He hated it and left as soon as he was able – after nine long years – for a university in the south of England.
In Rehab Blues there is a character, Helen, who says a really effective way for someone to become screwed up is for them to have a parent who is, in their public life, a caring family psychiatrist but in private a bastard to his family. “I stuck that in for my sister, Fiona,” he explains.
Fiona, the eldest of the family, was 13 at the time of the separation and bore the brunt of it, Adrian feels. In 1977, following the death of her sister Susie from leukaemia, and difficulties in her personal life, she suffered a breakdown and was admitted to hospital. Adrian was keen that Laing should step in and ensure she wasn’t given any electric shock treatment – “She’s in Gartnavel,” he said to his father. “What the f*** are you going to do about it?” – but feels he did not take responsibility. In a 1974 article for the Sunday Times, Susie said of herself and her siblings, “We’ve got too many problems for him. He can solve everybody else’s but not ours.”
For Adrian, his father “confused liberalism with neglect. It felt very hurtful for your dad not to be around, to not remember your birthday. I felt aware from an early age that I was collateral damage in a war. I understood that my mother and father had fallen out and the children went with her, and that I had to find out in my own time about my dad and make my own judgment. That was why I’d read his books from an early age. I was willing to withhold judgement until I felt I knew him. To me, it was an analytical issue. I don’t mean that I didn’t have any emotions about it, but it was something I knew I had to work at and think through.”
Adrian read his father’s work in order to try to understand why some people called Laing a genius and others a charlatan or madman. As a child, he had been unable to work out what his dad did or why he was famous. “He hadn’t got a stethoscope and a white coat, so he wasn’t a doctor. And he would turn up at home with Sean Connery or whoever. So that’s therapy? Getting drunk with somebody?
“I could never understand what he did, or the language of it. Existential phenomenology? He might as well have been talking Chinese. So I suppose what that did for me was create an intense curiosity.”
Does he think his analytical approach is why he has been able to cope with the situation better than some other members of the family? “Well, I don’t like to personalise it in that way, but it happened with his second family, too. Look what happened to my younger half-brother Adam.”
Adam, Laing’s eldest child from his second marriage, was born in 1969. He died in 2008, his body discovered in a tent on the island of Formentera, near Ibiza, with an empty bottle of vodka and a quantity of drugs. The received wisdom is that his unmoored lifestyle owed much to his father – a man who, through absence and personal example, let his children down. Is it fair, though, to point the finger at Laing for any problems his family have suffered? Can we really say, so simply, that he is to blame? “I can’t bring myself to say it’s his fault because if he was sitting here now I wouldn’t say it to him,” Adrian replies. The lawyer in him feels there is a distinction to be made between holding his father at fault and accepting that he is partly responsible.
Did he ever ask Laing directly how he could be a celebrated family psychiatrist and such a hopeless family man? Adrian shakes his head. “Well, his defence, if it is a defence, would be that the relationship with my mother was so bad. In his mind, she was the one that went loopy and took us all to the south of France on a whim, and then off to Glasgow. But it wouldn’t happen that it would be a direct question. I knew that if I put my toe in that cesspit I’d just have my dad ranting about my mum all night. So I’d leave that one alone.”
In 1977, following his graduation from Exeter University, Adrian went to live in London with his father and the second family while studying for the bar. “We had a lot of fences to mend.” Laing, by the time Adrian moved back in with him, had become interested in ‘rebirthing’ – a therapy described in Rehab Blues – in which an individual is encircled tightly by a group of people, as if in a womb, before, eventually, being released through the clasped arms of one of the party. The idea is to relive and therefore process the physical pain and emotional shock of being born.
One evening, at the age of 21, Adrian was rebirthed by his father and the rebirthing team, decked out in pastel-coloured tracksuits, in the church hall of All Saints in Belsize Park. “It’s a very physical process of feeling composed and claustrophobic,” he recalls. “I just started to sob. There’s a very strange impulse that you’ve got to get out, then this very rough struggle starts. After about 20 minutes, when you’ve struggled free, you’re just exhausted. It’s like being hooker in a rugby scrum. There was something very real about the physicality of it and the emotions that it drew out of you. It felt like a real release.”
The early 1970s were the start of his father’s decline – both in terms of popularity and his own physical and mental health. Adrian hadn’t been there for his father’s imperial period, when he became the most celebrated psychiatrist since Freud, but he was there when the world loved him a great deal less and, arguably, he needed the unconditional love of a son. His books had stopped selling, he no longer received prominent billing at speaking engagements and he was becoming better known for the depth of his drunkenness than his intellectual weight. It wasn’t pretty; Adrian remembers his father being smacked on the back of the head with a bottle in a pub, and another occasion when, in his capacity as a lawyer, he had to pick him up from Hampstead police station following some drunken vandalism.
Can he, though, be glad that he was there for his father during his last years? Adrian nods. “I think that’s important to remember. You feel close to someone when you experience their vulnerability ... I felt protective because I could see that people did think he was some past-it, mad, stupid old git.”
He felt he had become a sort of champion, then? “Yes, it’s very primitive. I kind of felt like the young pretender who had to look after the king because he was losing it. At the end of the day, even though a lot of people would think he was an absolute arsehole, he was my dad.”
When Laing’s father, David, died in 1978, the psychiatrist recorded in his diary that he had once feared and despised the old man, but had come to love, respect and admire him. “The dead live through us,” he wrote; he felt that he had somehow become his father’s representative. “That could be me writing about my dad,” Adrian admits when I quote this passage to him. “Hating and loving. There’s nothing wrong or impossible or illogical about having conflicting feelings.”
Laing died on 23 August 1989 after having a heart attack while playing tennis in St Tropez. “It was almost a relief,” says his son. “He really was suffering and it wasn’t getting any better.”
Do not imagine it is a coincidence that Adrian chose as his career a profession as dependable and disciplined as the law. “How do you rebel against a rebel?” No coincidence, either, that he has been in the same relationship for 30 years, has raised and provided for five children and is only now pursuing his own whim by writing a novel. “I can’t imagine in a million years doing to my kids what my dad did,” he says. It was a conscious decision. “‘I’m not going down that path.’ I couldn’t contemplate being that indulgent that I would drink as much as I want, take as many drugs as I want, screw the mortgage, screw the wife and kids, and act as I want.”
It cannot have been easy for Adrian to be the son of such a father. He had a parent exalted for his charisma and intellect, and yet who seemed at times to care more for the praise of the world than the feelings of his own children. That’s an example difficult to live up to and all too easy to live down to. It is to his credit that he has avoided the latter trap while not becoming fixated on the near-impossible task of matching his father’s brilliance.
Most impressive of all, he has made peace with the fact that no matter what he does, he will always be, in the public mind, and perhaps even in his own mind, the son of R D Laing. “I can’t,” he says, a little weary but without sadness, “really separate myself out.”
• Rehab Blues (Gibson Square, £7.99) is published on 16 May; call 01326 569444 to order the book with free UK p&p