(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

R. D. Laing is one of the most controversial and paradoxical figures in modern psychiatry. As Daniel Burston explains, Laing’s legacy is very much in doubt. He has been attacked as a charlatan; he has been lauded as a prophet. And the problem is that Laing’s behavior seems to have warranted these antithetical verdicts. Even worse, his thinking is so entangled that he can appear as both authentic and fraudulent at the same time.

Such contradictions do not make the biographer’s job very easy, but Burston does his sober best to thread his way through the complexity of Laing’s life and thought, identifying the weaknesses in his subject’s ideas and his flaws as a man while never losing sight of his importance. Even better, Burston does not claim to understand the whole of Laing’s legacy. He believes that it still has to be sorted out by generations of scholars. His greatest fear is that Laing’s more eccentric and perhaps even spurious views will dissuade mental health professionals from giving him a fair hearing. Burston’s biography, then, is a bid to resurrect Laing from critical neglect and attack and to begin the process of preserving what may be enduring in his approach to mental illness.

Why did Laing get into so much trouble with his own profession? Why did he lose his medical license? Almost from the beginning of his career, Laing was something of skeptic and dissenter, Burston notes. For example, Laing severely distrusted Freudians with their emphasis on biologically determined mental illness. Indeed, the early Laing rejected all forms of determinism—heavily influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, which emphasized that individuals must take responsibility for themselves. Sartre’s quest was for the authentic self, and only the individual could find his or her real identity—not some therapeutic community or authoritarian analyst. Laing was distrustful of the family and of its impact on individuals. He also tended to see society as a coercive obstacle in the development of an authentic self. Or perhaps it might be truer to say that like Sartre he advocated combating anything that deprived the individual of his or her own ideas and reasons for being.

Why did Laing find Sartre so compelling? Part of the reason was Laing’s own rebellion against his upbringing, his rejection of a controlling mother who wanted him close to home and resented any expression of independence on his part. Laing’s stubborn resistance, his search for autonomy, corresponded to Sartre’s insistence on self-definition. Sartre provided Laing with a way out of his Scottish-Presbyterian Calvinism with its doctrine of predestination. Sartre argued that human beings were free to determine themselves.

What worked for Laing personally also worked for him intellectually; that is, Sartre’s existentialism also freed Laing from orthodox Freudianism, which was so concerned with the patient’s childhood years, with those overdetermining incidents of infancy that were repeated, in new forms, in adulthood. What Freud overlooked, Laing pointed out, was that individuals shape themselves in confrontation with their families and societies; individuals are not just victims or passive products of biological and familial destiny.

Of course, it is somewhat of a caricature to say that Freud believed simply in biological and familial determinism—although some of his followers did pursue such a conviction without much subtlety. Burston convincingly shows that Laing had to distort Freud to free himself, to convince himself that he had something new to offer, that he was, in effect, unique, individual.

So from the start, Laing was antiestablishment—almost failing one crucial step in his psychoanalytical training because he did not pay due deference to his teachers. Yet he had defenders who were scandalized that Laing’s career might be jeopardized simply because he challenged the status quo in his profession. His mentors saw to it that Laing was able to complete his education. Charles Rycroft, Laing’s teacher and analyst, sensed that Laing was introducing a refreshing complexity and originality that the psychiatric profession desperately needed in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Laing’s dissenting personality was most prominent in the 1960’s, which was itself an age of protest. His early books, The Divided Personality, Self and Others, and especially The Politics of Experience spoke to a new generation eager to overturn past precedent and to rebel against the conventional arrangements of family and society. Laing’s independence appealed to an anarchic impulse that reacted against societal institutions.

Laing suggested that psychiatrists too often made their patients worse by adopting...

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