R. D. Laing

R. D. Laing
Ronald David Laing

The author of Knots (1970), perusing in 1983 The Ashley Book of Knots (1944)
Born 7 October 1927(1927-10-07)
Govanhill, Glasgow, Scotland.
Died 23 August 1989(1989-08-23) (aged 61)
Cause of death Heart attack
Occupation Psychiatrist
Known for Author of psychiatry books

Ronald David Laing (7 October 1927 – 23 August 1989) 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 serious mental dysfunction, greatly influenced by existential philosophy, ran counter to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the day by taking the expressed feelings of the individual patient or client as valid descriptions of lived experience rather than simply as symptoms of some separate or underlying disorder. Laing was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement, although he rejected the label.[1] Politically, he was regarded as a thinker of the New Left.[2]


Early years

Laing was born in the Govanhill district of Glasgow on 7 October 1927 the only child of David Park MacNair Laing and Amelia Glen Laing (née Kirkwood).[3] Laing described his parents – his mother especially – as being somewhat odd. Although his biographer son largely discounted Laing's account of his childhood, an obituary by an acquaintance of Laing asserted that about his parent – "the full truth he told only to a few close friends".[4][5]

He was educated at Hutchesons' Grammar School, going on to study medicine at the University of Glasgow. Though he failed his exams on his first attempt, in 1950, he passed them in a subsequent re-sit.[citation needed]


Laing spent a couple of years as a psychiatrist in the British Army (Royal Army Medical Corps; drafted despite his asthma that made him unfit for combat), where he found an interest in communicating with mentally distressed people. In 1953 Laing left the Army and worked at Gartnavel Royal Hospital becoming the youngest consultant in the country.[6] During this period he also participated in an existentialism-oriented discussion group in Glasgow, organised by Karl Abenheimer and Joe Schorstein.[7] In 1956 Laing went on 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 Institute until 1964.[8]

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.[9] The Norwegian author Axel Jensen became a close friend and Laing often visited him onboard his ship, Shanti Devi, in Stockholm.[citation needed]

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.[10] Many former colleagues regarded him as a brilliant mind gone wrong but there were some who thought Laing was somewhat psychotic.[11]

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. He challenged the core values of a practice of psychiatry which he thought considered mental illness as a biological phenomenon without regard for social, intellectual and cultural dimensions.[citation needed]

He also challenged psychiatric diagnosis itself, arguing that diagnosis of a mental disorder contradicted accepted medical procedure: diagnosis was made on the basis of behavior 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.[12] 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.[13]

Personal life

Laing's parents led a life of extreme denial, exhibiting bizarre behaviour. His father David, an electrical engineer, seems often to have come to blows with his own brother, and himself had a breakdown when Laing was a teenager. His mother Amelia was described as "still more psychologically peculiar". According to one friend and neighbour, "everyone in the street knew she was mad".[14] Laing was troubled by his own personal problems, suffering from both episodic alcoholism and clinical depression, according to his self-diagnosis in his 1983 BBC Radio interview with Dr. Anthony Clare,[15] 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 practice medicine. He died at age 61 of a heart attack while playing tennis with his colleague and friend Robert W. Firestone.[16]

Laing fathered six sons and four daughters by four women. 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."[17] Adam, his oldest son by his second marriage, was found dead in May 2008, in a tent on a Mediterranean island. He had died of a heart attack, aged 41.[18] His daughter Susan died in March 1976, aged 21, of leukemia.[citation needed]


On mental illness

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 Paul Watzlawick, Donald Jackson, and Jay Haley articulated a theory of schizophrenia as stemming from double bind situations where a person receives different or contradictory messages.[19] 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 argued that individuals can often be put in impossible situations, where they are unable to conform to the conflicting expectations of their peers, leading to a "lose-lose situation" and immense mental distress for the individuals concerned.[citation needed]

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 diathasis 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 behavior 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. According to Laing, if a therapist can better understand his or her patient, the therapist can begin to make sense of the symbolism of the patient's psychosis, and therefore start addressing the concerns which are the root cause of the distress.[citation needed]

Laing expanded the view of the "double bind" hypothesis put forth by Bateson and other anthropologists, 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 compared this to a situation where your right hand can exist but your left hand cannot. In this untenable position, something has got to give, and more often than not, what gives is psychological stability; a self-destruction sequence is set in motion.[citation needed]

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 (supposedly) important insights, and may have become (in the views of Laing and his followers) a wiser and more grounded person as a result.[citation needed]

Ontological insecurity, family nexus, and the double-bind

In The Divided Self (1960), Laing contrasted 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".[20] Laing explains how we all exist in the world as beings, defined by others who carry a model of us in their minds, just as we carry models of them in our minds. In later writings he often takes this to deeper levels, laboriously spelling out how "A knows that B knows that A knows that B knows ..."! Our feelings and motivations derive very much from this condition of "being in the world" in the sense of existing for others, who exist for us. Without this we suffer "ontological insecurity", a condition often expressed in terms of "being dead" by people who are clearly still physically alive.[citation needed]

In Self and Others (1961), Laing's definition of normality shifted somewhat.[21][unreliable source?]

In Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964), Laing and Esterton give accounts of several families, analysing how their members see each other and what they actually communicate to each other. The startling way in which lies are perpetuated in the interest of family politics rings true to many readers from "normal" families, and Laing's view is that in some cases these lies are so strongly maintained as to make it impossible for a vulnerable child to be able to determine what truth actually is, let alone what the truth of their situation is.[citation needed]

He uses the term 'family nexus' to describe the consensus view within the family, but from there on much of his writing appears ambivalent, as Andrew Collier has pointed out in The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy (with a contribution from Laing, 1977). One strand of Laing's thinking, traceable to Marx and Sartre, condemns society for shackling humankind against its will, taking away individual freedom. Left to their own devices, people are healthy, and people with so-called mental illness are just trying to find their way back to their natural state. This was the basis for his approach to psychotherapy, as in the case of his most famous "patient" Mary Barnes. An idea typical of his work is the following quote in his book, The Politics of Experience, "We are effectively destroying ourselves with violence masquerading as love".[citation needed]

A paradox arising from Laing's interpretations is that it is the very need for ontological security Laing discussed in his first book that is the driving force that builds societies. Laing characterised the family nexus as often placing children in a double bind, unable to obey conflicting injunctions from family members, but he does not blame those family members. The family members are usually unaware that they are doing such things, and are just as confused as the children within the situation. The Preface to the Second Edition and Introduction to Sanity, Madness and the Family offer a concise articulation of this issue.[citation needed]


In 1965 Laing co-founded the UK charity the Philadelphia Association, which he also chaired.[22] 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[23] and the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in London.[24]

Selected bibliography

  • Laing, R.D. (1960) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Laing, R.D. (1961) The Self and Others. London: Tavistock Publications.[25]
  • Laing, R.D. and Esterson, A. (1964) Sanity, Madness and the Family. London: Penguin Books.
  • Laing, R.D. and Cooper, D.G. (1964) Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy. (2nd ed.) London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
  • Laing, R.D., Phillipson, H. and Lee, A.R. (1966) Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research. London: Tavistock.
  • Laing, R.D. (1967) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Laing, R.D. (1970) Knots. London: Penguin. excerpt, movie (IMDB)
  • Laing, R.D. (1971) The Politics of the Family and Other Essays. London: Tavistock Publications.
  • Laing, R.D. (1976) Do You Love Me? An Entertainment in Conversation and Verse New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Laing, R.D. (1976) Sonnets. London: Michael Joseph.
  • Laing, R.D. (1976) The Facts of Life. London: Penguin.
  • Laing, R.D. (1977) Conversations with Adam and Natasha. New York: Pantheon.
  • Laing, R.D. (1982) The Voice of Experience: Experience, Science and Psychiatry. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Laing, R.D. (1985) Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist 1927-1957. London: Macmillan.
  • Mullan, B. (1995) Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing. London: Free Association Books.
  • Russell, R. and R.D. Laing (1992) R.D. Laing and Me: Lessons in Love. New York: Hillgarth Press.

Books on R.D. Laing

  • Boyers, R. and R. Orrill, Eds. (1971) Laing and Anti-Psychiatry. New York: Salamagundi Press.
  • Burston, D. (1996) The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Burston, D. (2000) The Crucible of Experience: R.D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Clay, J. (1996) R.D. Laing: A Divided Self. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Collier, A. (1977) R.D. Laing: The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy. New York: Pantheon.
  • Evans, R.I. (1976) R.D. Laing, The Man and His Ideas. New York: E.P. Dutton.
  • Friedenberg, E.Z. (1973) R.D. Laing. New York: Viking Press.
  • Miller, G. (2004) R.D. Laing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Laing, A. (1994) R.D. Laing: A Biography. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
  • Kotowicz, Z. (1997) R.D. Laing and the Paths of Anti-Psychiatry. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • Mullan, B., Ed. (1997) R.D. Laing: Creative Destroyer. London: Cassell & Co.
  • Mullan, B. (1999) R.D. Laing: A Personal View. London: Duckworth.
  • Raschid, S., Ed. (2005) R.D. Laing: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Free Association Books.

Films and plays on R.D. Laing

  • Ah, Sunflower (1967). Short film by Robert Klinkert and Iain Sinclair, filmed around the Dialectics of Liberation conference and featuring Laing, Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael and others.
  • Cain's Film (1969). Short film by Jamie Wadhawan on Alexander Trocchi, featuring other counter-cultural figures in London at the time including Laing, William Burroughs and Davy Graham.
  • Family Life (1971). Reworking of the Wednesday play In Two Minds that "explored the issue of schizophrenia and the ideas of the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing"[26]. Directed by Ken Loach.
  • Asylum (1972). Documentary directed by Peter Robinson showing Laing's psychiatric community project where patients and therapists lived together. Laing also appears in the film.
  • Knots (1975). Film adapted from Laing's 1970 book and Edward Petherbridge's play.
  • How Does It Feel? (1976). Documentary on physical senses and creativity featuring Laing, Joseph Beuys, David Hockney, Elkie Brooks, Michael Tippett and Richard Gregory.
  • Birth with R.D. Laing (1978). Documentary on the "institutionalization of childbirth practices in Western society"[27].
  • R.D. Laing's Glasgow (1979). An episode of the Canadian TV series Cities.
  • Did You Used to be R.D. Laing? (1989). Documentary portrait of Laing by Kirk Tougas and Tom Shandel. Adapted for the stage in 2000 by Mike Maran.
  • Eros, Love & Lies (1990). Documentary on Laing.
  • What You See Is Where You're At (2001). A collage of found footage by Luke Fowler on Laing's experiment in alternative therapy at Kingsley Hall.

See also


  1. ^ Kotowicz, Zbigniew (1997), R.D. Laing and the paths of anti-psychiatry, Routledge 
  2. ^ "R. D. Laing," in The New Left, edited by Maurice Cranston, The Library Press, 1971, pp. 179-208. "Ronald Laing must be accounted one of the main contributors to the theoretical and rhetorical armoury of the contemporary Left."
  3. ^ Miller, Gavin (2005), R. D. Laing, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JrHar5U6TQ8C&pg=PA7&lpg=PA7&dq=R+D+Laing+family&source=web&ots=M9m4Lel_lD&sig=Xn4qOYZS6rj30Av1HudE5g6AAFY&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=9&ct=result#PPA7,M1 
  4. ^ R.D. Laing: a biography.,Adrian C. Laing
  5. ^ Obituary of R. D. Laing by Joseph Berke; Daily Telegraph, Aug. 25, 1989.
  6. ^ Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing [Paperback]
  7. ^ Turnbull, Ronnie; Beveridge, Craig (1988), "R.D. Laing and Scottish Philosophy", Edinburgh Review 78-9: 126–127, ISSN 0267-6672 
  8. ^ Itten, Theodor, The Paths of Soul Making, archived from the original on 2007-10-16, http://web.archive.org/web/20071016084554/http://laingsociety.org/colloquia/psychotherapy/ittensoulmaking.htm, retrieved 2007-10-17 
  9. ^ "Kingsley Hall". Philadelphia Association. http://www.philadelphia-association.co.uk/Kingsley-Hall.html. Retrieved 2008-09-13. 
  10. ^ Miller, Russell (2009-04-12), "RD Laing: The abominable family man", The Sunday Times (London), http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article6058901.ece, retrieved 2011-08-08 
  11. ^ R.D. Laing.,Gavin Miller Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-1859332702
  12. ^ Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing ISBN 1853433950[Paperback]
  13. ^ Obituary of R.D. Laing by Joseph Berke; Daily Telegraph, Aug. 25, 1989
  14. ^ Miller (2005).
  15. ^ University of Glasgow Special Collection: Document Details, http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/manuscripts/search/detaild.cfm?DID=77056, retrieved 2007-10-17 
  16. ^ Burston, Daniel (1998), The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing, p. 145, ISBN 0674953592 
  17. ^ Laing, Adrian (2008-06-01), "Dad solved other people's problems - but not his own", The Guardian (London), http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/politicsphilosophyandsociety/story/0,,2283220,00.html, retrieved 2010-05-22 
  18. ^ Day, Elizabeth (2008-06-01). "Dad solved other people's problems - but not his own". The Guardian (London). http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/politicsphilosophyandsociety/story/0,,2283220,00.html#article_continue. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  19. ^ Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J., 1956, Toward a theory of schizophrenia. (in: "Behavioral Science", vol.1, 251-264)
  20. ^ Laing, R.D. (1965). The Divided Self. Pelican. pp. 41–43. ISBN 0140207341. 
  21. ^ [1][unreliable source?]
  22. ^ "The Philadelphia Association: Philosophical Perspective". Philadelphia Association. http://www.philadelphia-association.co.uk/the-history.html. Retrieved 2008-09-07. 
  23. ^ Coltart, Nina (1990). "ARBOURS ASSOCIATION 20TH ANNIVERSARY LECTURE". British Journal of Psychotherapy. pp. 165. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/119999330/PDFSTART. Retrieved 2008-09-07. 
  24. ^ "Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy, and the New School". New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling. http://www.nspc.org.uk/html/5b_therapy.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-07. 
  25. ^ Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing. Retrieved on 16 October 2008
  26. ^ Cooke, Lez "BFI Screenonline: Loach, Ken (1936-) Biography", accessed July 7, 2011.
  27. ^ IMDB "Birth with R.D. Laing", accessed July 7, 2011.

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