Wisdom, Madness and Folly

R.D. Laing writes movingly of the repressive aspects of both his childhood and his profession without apparent rancor or assignment of blame. His first chapter is a sensitive survey of the institution of medicine and of psychiatry’s place within it. He explains his orthodox training, his use of electric shock therapy, mind-altering drugs, and other techniques that he would no longer prescribe today.

Laing rejects the idea that he is an “anti-psychiatrist,” and he realizes that there is a genuine dividing line between the mentally healthy and the mentally ill. His willingness, however, to befriend schizophrenics--in one case to bring one into his home--has shocked many of his colleagues. Laing believes, nevertheless, that modern medicine may be too quick to judge and to treat in isolation mentally ill people.

Laing concentrates, therefore, on the “politics of the matter,” on the tremendous power psychiatrists have both to cure and to dispose of people’s lives. He recognizes that power has been assigned to professionals by a society unable to function when some of its members break down and thwart the normal course of things. Yet he cites numerous instances of people who have cured themselves in therapeutic environments that gave them a certain freedom over the way they expressed their psychic maladies.

In a very short book, the author manages to cover his family life, years at school, time in the army, in hospitals, and in a department of psychiatry by detailing dramatic incidents which convinced him that the more personal he was with his patients, and with his family, the more he grew as both a person and a professional.