R. D. Laing

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Ronald David Laing
Ronald D. Laing.jpg
Laing in 1983, perusing
The Ashley Book of Knots (1944)
Ronald David Laing

(1927-10-07)7 October 1927
Govanhill, Glasgow, Scotland
Died23 August 1989(1989-08-23) (aged 61)
Saint-Tropez, France
Known for Medical model
Scientific career
Influences Eugène Minkowski
Jean-Paul Sartre
Influenced David Abram
Deleuze and Guattari
Loren Mosher [1]

Ronald David Laing (7 October 1927 – 23 August 1989), usually cited as R. D. Laing, was a Scottish psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness  in particular, the experience of psychosis. Laing's views on the causes and treatment of psychopathological phenomena were influenced by his study of existential philosophy and ran counter to the chemical and electroshock methods that had become psychiatric orthodoxy. Taking the expressed feelings of the individual patient or client as valid descriptions of personal experience rather than simply as symptoms of mental illness, Laing regarded schizophrenia as a theory not a fact. Though associated in the public mind with anti-psychiatry he rejected the label. [2] Politically, he was regarded as a thinker of the New Left. [3] Laing was portrayed by David Tennant in the 2017 film Mad to Be Normal .


Early years

Laing was born in the Govanhill district of Glasgow on 7 October 1927, the only child of civil engineer David Park MacNair Laing and Amelia Glen Laing (née Kirkwood). [4] :7 Laing described his parents – his mother especially – as being somewhat anti-social, and demanding the maximum achievement from him. Although his biographer son largely discounted Laing's account of his childhood, an obituary by an acquaintance of Laing asserted that about his parents – "the full truth he told only to a few close friends". [5] [6]

He was educated initially at Sir John Neilson Cuthbertson Public School and after four years transferred to Hutchesons' Grammar School. Described variously as clever, competitive or precocious, he studied Classics, particularly philosophy, including through reading books from the local library. Small and slightly built, Laing participated in distance running; he was also a musician, being made an Associate of the Royal College of Music. He studied medicine at the University of Glasgow. During his medical degree he set up a "Socratic Club", of which the philosopher Bertrand Russell agreed to be president. Laing failed his final exams. In a partial autobiography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly, Laing said he felt remarks he made under the influence of alcohol at a university function had offended the staff and led to him being failed on every subject including some he was sure he had passed. After spending six months working on a psychiatric unit, Laing passed the re-sits in 1951 to qualify as a medical doctor. [7]


Laing spent a couple of years as a psychiatrist in the British Army Psychiatric Unit at Netley, where, as he later recalled, those trying to fake schizophrenia to get a lifelong disability pension were likely to get more than they had bargained for as Insulin shock therapy was being used. [8] In 1953 Laing returned to Glasgow, participated in an existentialism-oriented discussion group, and worked at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital [9] The hospital was influenced by David Henderson's school of thought, which may have exerted an unacknowledged influence on Laing; he became the youngest consultant in the country. [10] [7] Laing's colleagues characterised him as "conservative" for his opposition to Electroconvulsive therapy and the new drugs that were being introduced. [10]

In 1956 Laing went to train on a grant at the Tavistock Clinic in London, widely known as a centre for the study and practice of psychotherapy (particularly psychoanalysis). At this time, he was associated with John Bowlby, D. W. Winnicott and Charles Rycroft. He remained at the Tavistock Clinic until 1964. [11]

In 1965 Laing and a group of colleagues created the Philadelphia Association and started a psychiatric community project at Kingsley Hall, where patients and therapists lived together. [12] The Norwegian author Axel Jensen contacted Laing at Kingsley Hall after reading his book The Divided Self, which had been given to him by Noel Cobb. Jensen was treated by Laing and subsequently they became close friends. Laing often visited Jensen on board his ship Shanti Devi , which was his home in Stockholm. [13]

In 1967 Laing appeared on the BBC programme Your Witness, chaired by Ludovic Kennedy on which, alongside Jonathan Aitken and G.P. Ian Dunbar, he argued for the legalisation of cannabis, in the first live television debate on the subject. [14]

In October 1972, Laing met Arthur Janov, author of the popular book The Primal Scream . Though Laing found Janov modest and unassuming, he thought of him as a "jig man" (someone who knows a lot about a little). Laing sympathized with Janov, but regarded his primal therapy as a lucrative business, one which required no more than obtaining a suitable space and letting people "hang it all out". [15]

Inspired by the work of American psychotherapist Elizabeth Fehr, Laing began to develop a team offering "rebirthing workshops" in which one designated person chooses to re-experience the struggle of trying to break out of the birth canal represented by the remaining members of the group who surround him or her. [16] Many former colleagues regarded him as a brilliant mind gone wrong but there were some who thought Laing was somewhat psychotic. [4] [ page needed ]

Laing and anti-psychiatry

Laing was seen as an important figure in the anti-psychiatry movement, along with David Cooper, although he never denied the value of treating mental distress.

If the human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness. They will presumably be able to savour the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it. The laugh’s on us. They will see that what we call "schizophrenia" was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds.

R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience , p. 107

He also challenged psychiatric diagnosis itself, arguing that diagnosis of a mental disorder contradicted accepted medical procedure: diagnosis was made on the basis of behaviour or conduct, and examination and ancillary tests that traditionally precede the diagnosis of viable pathologies (like broken bones or pneumonia) occurred after the diagnosis of mental disorder (if at all). Hence, according to Laing, psychiatry was founded on a false epistemology: illness diagnosed by conduct, but treated biologically.

Laing maintained that schizophrenia was "a theory not a fact"; he believed the models of genetically inherited schizophrenia being promoted by biologically based psychiatry were not accepted by leading medical geneticists. [17] He rejected the "medical model of mental illness”; according to Laing diagnosis of mental illness did not follow a traditional medical model; and this led him to question the use of medication such as antipsychotics by psychiatry. His attitude to recreational drugs was quite different; privately, he advocated an anarchy of experience. [18]

Personal life

In his early life, Laing's father, David, an electrical engineer who had served in the Royal Air Force, seems often to have come to blows with his own brother, and himself had a breakdown for three months when Laing was a teenager. His mother Amelia, according to some speculation and rumour about her behaviour, has been described as "psychologically peculiar". [4] [ page needed ]

Laing was troubled by his own personal problems, suffering from both episodic alcoholism and clinical depression, according to his self-diagnosis in a BBC Radio interview with Anthony Clare in 1983, [19] although he reportedly was free of both in the years before his death. These admissions were to have serious consequences for Laing as they formed part of the case against him by the General Medical Council which led to him ceasing to practise medicine. [20]

Laing fathered six sons and four daughters by four women. After his rise as a celebrity, Laing left his first wife Anne Hearne, a former nursing student (m. 1952–1966), and their five children. Subsequently, he married German graphic designer Jutta Werner (m. 1974–1986) with whom he fathered three children. During this marriage, his ninth child with a German therapist was born in 1984. In 1988 Laing's girlfriend and former secretary gave birth to his tenth child. Laing died 19 months later of a heart attack at the age of 61 while playing tennis. [21] [22]

His son Adrian, speaking in 2008, said, "It was ironic that my father became well known as a family psychiatrist, when, in the meantime, he had nothing to do with his own family". [23] His oldest child Fiona, born in 1952, spent years in mental institutions and was treated for schizophrenia. [24] [25] His daughter Susan died in 1976, aged 21, of leukaemia. [26] Adam, his oldest son by his second marriage, who had been in an increasingly melancholic and fragile state of mind, was found dead in May 2008 in a tent on the island of Formentera. He had died of a heart attack, aged 41. [27] Son Paul married the actress Cathryn Harrison, daughter of Noel Harrison and granddaughter of the distinguished actor Sir Rex Harrison. [28]


In 1913, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers had pronounced, in his work, General Psychopathology, that many of the symptoms of mental illness (and particularly of delusions) were "un-understandable", and therefore were worthy of little consideration except as a sign of some other underlying primary disorder. Then, in 1956, Gregory Bateson and his colleagues, Donald Jackson, and Jay Haley articulated a theory of schizophrenia as stemming from double bind situations where a person receives different or contradictory messages. [29] The perceived symptoms of schizophrenia were therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and trans-formative experience. Laing argued a similar account for psychoses: that the strange behavior and seemingly confused speech of people undergoing a psychotic episode were ultimately understandable as an attempt to communicate worries and concerns, often in situations where this was not possible or not permitted. Laing stressed the role of society, and particularly the family, in the development of "madness" (his term).

Laing saw psychopathology as being seated not in biological or psychic organs – whereby environment is relegated to playing at most only an accidental role as immediate trigger of disease (the "stress diathesis model" of the nature and causes of psychopathology) – but rather in the social cradle, the urban home, which cultivates it, the very crucible in which selves are forged. This re-evaluation of the locus of the disease process – and consequent shift in forms of treatment – was in stark contrast to psychiatric orthodoxy (in the broadest sense we have of ourselves as psychological subjects and pathological selves). Laing was revolutionary in valuing the content of psychotic behaviour and speech as a valid expression of distress, albeit wrapped in an enigmatic language of personal symbolism which is meaningful only from within their situation.

Laing expanded the view of the “double bind” hypothesis put forth by Bateson and his team, and came up with a new concept to describe the highly complex situation that unfolds in the process of "going mad" – an "incompatible knot".

Laing never denied the existence of mental illness, but viewed it in a radically different light from his contemporaries. For Laing, mental illness could be a transformative episode whereby the process of undergoing mental distress was compared to a shamanic journey. The traveler could return from the journey with important insights, and may have become (in the views of Laing and his followers) a wiser and more grounded person as a result (Louis, B., 2006, Moving Beyond Prozac, DSM, and the New Psychiatry).

In The Divided Self (1960), Laing contrasts the experience of the “ontologically secure” person with that of a person who "cannot take the realness, aliveness, autonomy and identity of himself and others for granted" and who consequently contrives strategies to avoid "losing his self". [30] This concept is used to develop a psychodynamic model of the mind to explain psychosis and schizophrenia. [30] :137

In Self and Others (1961), Laing's definition of normality shifted somewhat. [31] [ unreliable source? ]

Laing also wrote poetry and his poetry publications include Knots (1970, published by Penguin) and Sonnets (1979, published by Michael Joseph).

Laing appears, alongside his son Adam, on the 1980 album Miniatures - a sequence of fifty-one tiny masterpieces edited by Morgan Fisher, performing the song “Tipperary”. [32]


In 1965 Laing co-founded the UK charity the Philadelphia Association, concerned with the understanding and relief of mental suffering, which he also chaired. [33] His work influenced the wider movement of therapeutic communities, operating in less "confrontational" (in a Laingian perspective) psychiatric settings. Other organizations created in a Laingian tradition are the Arbours Association, [34] the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in London, [35] and the R.D. Laing in the 21st Century Symposium [36] held annually at Esalen Institute, where Laing frequently taught.

Films and plays about Laing

Selected bibliography

See also

Related Research Articles

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Further reading