R. D. Laing: What Was Therapeutic about That?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: In 1985 R. D. Laing, M. D. conducted a public interview with a homeless woman diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. The several thousand psychotherapists witnessing the event were dramatically split in their assessment of the encounter, some denouncing and some praising it. No comments were made suggesting that the interview was a transpersonally-inspired one, nor was there an in-depth examination of the responses of the therapist and client. This article offers such a discussion using a model of clinical supervision in which client adaptations are assessed to understand what is therapeutic (or not) in an encounter. It gives one author's view of R. D. Laing's approach, and demonstrates how both therapist and client bring intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal concerns to a session of transpersonal psychotherapy.


Long-time practitioners and students of transpersonal psychotherapy have a strong body of theoretical materials (Almaas, 1990; Assagioli, 1991; Boorstein, 1980, 1997; Grof & Grof, 1990; Quinn, 1997; Scotton, Chinen & Battista, 1996; Tart, 1975, 1996a; Wilber, 1985, and many others), an emerging volume of published research (Lukoff, Zanger & Lu, 1990; Lukoff, Turner & Lu, 1992; Lukoff, Turner, & Lu, 1993) and research constructs (MacDonald, LeClair, Holland, Alter, & Friedman, 1995; MacDonald, Friedman, & Kuentzel, 1999) to further their work. Many of these materials contain case studies, but few are moment-by-moment clinical transcripts.

Recorded clinical dialogues offer us another kind of canvas on which to paint impressions about the nature of genuinely effective psychotherapy. By studying the actual phenomena in these dialogues we can witness and assess immediate client and therapist reaction to one another and attempt to differentiate therapeutic from non-therapeutic activities. In the long run, of course, client response over time is the ultimate clinical supervisor. But even in the short run, observations can be made that suggest how the moments of psychotherapy are being received.

A most remarkable session of transpersonal psychotherapy on the record like this occurred in a cavernous convention center in downtown Phoenix, Arizona on December 13, 1985. Several thousand of us at The Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference watched on a large screen as R. D. Laing, M.D. interviewed "Christy," a woman who was described as paranoid schizophrenic, homeless, and not taking her medication. The two were sheltered off-stage in a small curtained 'room' made for the occasion, perhaps to diminish the impact of thousands of observers on them. A live video feed was shown to us as the session unfolded.

At the close of the interview, many of the professionals in the audience were angry and baffled, and many were enraptured and in tears. Several arose to excoriate that session that Laing held with Christy, and others including Salvadore Minuchin spoke in its defense. Said a later author (Amantea, 1989, p. 56) describing the clash: "It is a conflict as old, really, as the one that finally split Freud and Jung. It is the one that rages between those who choose to see psychotherapy as a rational science, with scientific parameters, and teachable techniques; and-on the other hand-those who see it as a process which is either instinctual, or, even more bizarre, a mystical transference of thoughts and feelings between client and therapist."

One challenger's voice echoed in that large hall and in my mind over the twenty years since: "I was wondering what you thought really went on therapeutically in that interview?" she asked. "What do YOU think went on therapeutically?" Dr. Laing shot back. Clearly he was not foolish enough, as I am here, to speculate on such a significant topic. But he did offer some ideas about the videotape of the session four years later, when the verbal text of the meeting was published (Laing, 1989a, pp. 141-142):

The main point is in the rhythm, the tempo - the timbre and pitch of the words that are in the paralinguistics. …