The Wings of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing

By Chazan, Rachael | The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Wings of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing


Chazan, Rachael, The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences


R.D. Laing was always a focus of controversy in professional circles. Some regarded him as a brilliant, original thinker who understood schizophrenia and schizophrenics and left his mark on psychiatric practice. Others saw him as an iconoclast, a breaker of boundaries, an antipsychiatrist - which he never claimed to be or was. We have his works by which to judge him, as well as his autobiography, "Wisdom, Madness and Folly." After his death, his eldest son Adrian wrote a biography which dealt with both his life and works. This puts the facts before us, but comes out rather bitter in tone - not surprisingly, if we consider Laing's neglect of his family, as described by Adrian.

Daniel Burston's book serves to put the record straight. He is a psychiatrist who closely studied Laing's work and corresponded with him. He interviewed everyone who could throw light on his personality and his life, apparently in greater depth than Adrian Laing. He also undertook a critical study of his written work (which Adrian, being a lawyer, was not in a position to do). Can his book help us to make a fair judgment of Laing's work?

As to his life, one of the interviewees was Dr.Richard Gelfer, a psychiatrist who was a close childhood friend. He argues that Laing's mother was probably psychotic. This inclines us to feel more charitable about his revelations of his relationship with his mother. Consider the vignette of mother-father-son in "The Self and Others," where the boy is accused of stealing father's pen and also lying about it. Mother tells father he admitted the theft (presumably to save him from double punishment). He is beaten. Finding the pen later, she does not tell the father. "Kiss Mummy and make up," she suggests, while the boy feels the room spin, feels confused and alone. In "Wisdom, Madness and Folly" he admits that the vignette is autobiographical.

Burston studied the problems of Laing's analytic training in greater depth than Adrian had. He gives evidence of Winnicott's positive evaluation of him. When he received the manuscript of "The Divided Self," Winnicott wrote: "...I tried to ring you because I was so excited. I suppose my excitement had to do with the fact that you make so much use of the things I think important ... Incidentally, I learnt something from your book ..."

Winnicott later defended Laing when the training committee wanted him to repeat a year. Laing had, indeed, not attended all the lectures. Burston tells us of a suggestion Laing made for interpreting a patient's dream recounted by Herbert Rosenfeld. The latter received it in stony silence and Laing decided not to attend the seminar again. This gave grounds for not allowing him to qualify. However, light is thrown on the motives of the training committee by the letter Charles Rycroft wrote. He suggested that their action would "make it appear that it values conformity more than it does intelligence and originality." He added that Laing had "more than an average feel for the unconscious."

Marion Milner, his supervisor, reported that Laing never distorted "the material to make it fit into a preconceived formula," and "I feel he will always be able to learn ...from his patients."

After qualifying as an analyst, Laing embarked, together with Esterson, on a study of communication within families of schizophrenics. They took care not to make interpretations which might distort it. They did not claim that families caused schizophrenia, but distinguished between praxis and process, the latter without deliberate intention.

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