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STARTING IN the Fifties and continuing through the Sixties, Penguin/Pelican published a series of books on psychology and psychiatry. It began with the collected works of Freud and included Jung and, later, Anthony Storr, Charles Rycroft, Eric Berne and others. But the best-known books were those of R D Laing. They sold in huge numbers and helped to shape the Sixties in ways that have rarely been acknowledged.
Many psychiatrists now in their late forties or fifties entered mental health because of exposure to these books. The work of Laing and others influenced psychologists to enter a field just opening up in Britain: clinical psychology. Almost inexplicably, Penguin withdrew from popular mental health publishing in the mid- Seventies.
Did it come under pressure from an establishment threatened by an "anti- psychiatry" grown vast on the oxygen of Penguin's publicity? The problem for the establishment was that, in this case, the devil did seem to have all the best tunes. It was plainly a lot more difficult to sell orthodox or biological psychiatry than to sell the romantic search for meaning found in much of Sixties anti- psychiatry.
But Penguin seems to have been moving slowly back into this arena. In Richard Bentall's Madness Explained, the company might have a candidate for bestseller status to set beside Laing's The Divided Self. The parallels between the two figures are interesting. Both take issue with orthodox psychiatry, and personify the problems of the establishment in the figure of Emil Kraepelin. In 1896, this German psychiatrist established a classification of psychiatric disorders, centred on schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness, which has dominated the field ever since.
Both Laing and Bentall have been portrayed as obliterating the dividing line between sanity and madness. Both have been seen as claiming a central place for the patient within psychiatry. Both argue that psychosis is more understandable than is commonly conceded, and that sympathetic listening on the part of the therapist can pay off much more often than might be expected. Both highlight the dangers that can accompany an exclusively physical treatment of mental illness.
Both books, The Divided Self and Madness Explained, are formidable reads. Laing's was almost certainly read by very few from start to finish. It functioned for many as a bible to be dipped into in search of answers to personal confusions, rather than a psychiatric textbook. Plenty in Bentall's book can be used in just such a way.
While there are parallels, the differences are even more striking. Laing began as a darling of British psychiatry. A series of straw polls of psychiatrists in the mid-Sixties nominated him as the most likely British psychiatrist to be remembered at the turn of the century and beyond.
Richard Bentall, on the other hand, began as a bete …