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Famous Psychologists - R.D. Lang

Famous Psychologist: R.D. Laing

Famous Psychologists - R.D. Lang

R.D. Laing (listed in many places as R.D. Lang) wrote extensively on mental illness and particularly the experience of psychosis. He is noted for his views on the causes and treatment of mental illness, which went against the psychiatric orthodoxy of the time by taking the expressions or communications of the individual patient or client as representing valid descriptions of lived experience or reality rather than as symptoms of some separate or underlying disorder.

R.D. Laing

R.D. Laing (October 7, 1927 – August 23, 1989), was a British Psychoanalyst, Social Phenomenologist, Radical Psychiatrist, and Existential Philosopher.  He is often associated with the anti-psychiatry movement although, like many of his contemporaries also critical of psychiatry, he himself rejected this label. He made a significant contribution to the ethics of psychology.

The following biographical information has been adapted from the Wikipedia: R.D. Laing website.

Lang was born in the Govanhill district of Glasgow, and educated at Hutchesons' Grammar School, going on to study medicine at the University of Glasgow. He spent several years as a psychiatrist in the British Army, where he found he had a particular talent for communicating with mentally distressed people. In 1953 Lang left the Army and worked at Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow. During this period he also participated in an existentialism-oriented discussion group in Glasgow, organized by Karl Abenheimer and Joe Schorstein.

In 1956, at the invitation of John ("Jock") D. Sutherland, Lang went on to train on a grant at the Tavistock Clinic in London, widely known as a center 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 1956.

In 1965 Lang started a psychiatric community project at Kingsley Hall, where patients and therapists lived together. The Norwegian author Axel Jensen got to know Lang at this time. They became close friends and Laing often visited Axel Jensen onboard his ship, Shanti Devi, in Stockholm.

Inspired by the work of American psychotherapist Elizabeth Fehr, Lang 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/her.

Lang was troubled by his own personal problems, suffering both from episodic alcoholism and clinical depression (according to his self-diagnosis in his 1983 BBC Radio interview with Dr. Anthony Clare, although he reportedly was free of both in the years before his death. He died at age 61 of a heart attack while playing tennis with his colleague and dear friend Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D.

Lang's view of madness

Lang argued 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. Lang stressed the role of society, and particularly the family, in the development of madness. He 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. (In 1956, Gregory Bateson articulated a related theory of schizophrenia as stemming from Double Bind situations.) Madness was therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and transformative experience.

This was in stark contrast to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the time (and is still contrary to the majority opinion of mainstream psychiatry). Psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers had previously pronounced, in his seminal work General Psychopathology, that the content of madness (and particularly of delusions) were 'un-understandable', and therefore were worthy of little consideration except as a sign of some other underlying primary disorder. Lang was revolutionary in valuing the content of psychotic behavior and speech as a valid expression of distress, albeit wrapped in an unusual personal symbolism. According to Lang, if a therapist can better understand his or her patient, the therapist can begin to make sense of the symbolism of the patient's madness, and therefore start addressing the concerns which are the root cause of the distress.

It is notable that Lang never denied the existence of mental illness, but simply viewed it in a radically different light from his contemporaries. For Lang, madness 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 even have become a wiser and more grounded person as a result.

Lang was involved in research linking development of psychosis to family background. Despite supporting evidence, this has been controversial ever since, and the influence of parents who feel 'blamed' for a child's diagnosis of schizophrenia accounts for most of Lang's unpopularity in many circles. It was an inappropriate attribution by commentators who had not grasped the breadth of Lang's view of the nature of pathogenesis in families, as he had maintained throughout his career that parents are equally mystified, and unaware of the disturbed nature of the patterns of communication. Lang's most enduring and practically beneficial contribution to mental health, however, is probably his co-founding and chairmanship in 1964 of the Philadelphia Association and the wider movement of therapeutic communities, adopted in more effective and less confrontational psychiatric settings.

Lang is often regarded as an important figure in the anti-psychiatry movement, along with David Cooper. However, like many of his contemporaries, labeling him as 'anti-psychiatry' is a caricature of his stated views. Lang never denied the value of treating mental distress, but simply wanted to challenge the core values of contemporary psychiatry which considered (and some would say still considers) mental illness as primarily a biological phenomenon of no intrinsic value.

But as Lang was, moreover, a critic of psychiatric diagnosis, he argued 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 diagnosis of viable pathologies like broken bones or pneumonia occurred after (if at all) the diagnosis of mental disorder. Hence, psychiatry was founded on a false epistemology: illness diagnosed by conduct but treated biologically.

The fact that medical doctors had annexed mental disorders did not mean they were practicing medicine; hence, the popular term "medical model of mental illness" is oxymoronic, since, according to Lang, diagnosis of mental illness did not follow the traditional medical model. The notion that biological psychiatry is a real science or a genuine branch of medicine has been challenged by other critics.


Chronology (Adapted from Laing Society):

7th October 1927. Born in Govanhill, Glasgow, Scotland. Only son of David McNair Laing and Amelia Laing nee Kirkwood. During the pregnancy, his mother constantly concealed the fact that she was pregnant by wearing a heavy overcoat whenever she went out. Ronald Laing claimed later to remember his moment of birth.

August 1932. Began to attend John Cuthbertson Primary School, Glasgow, aged four.

1936-1945. Attended Hutcheson's Boys' Grammar School, Glasgow, where he was an excellent student. Studied the Classics extensively. Learned Greek and Latin. Showed exceptional musical ability. Was elected as a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music on 30th March 1944, and an associate of the Royal College of Music in April 1945. Read numerous works of philosophy while still at school, including Freud, Marx, Nietsche and especially Kierkegaard.

1945-51. Studied Medicine at Glasgow University. Prominent member of the university Debating Club and the Mountaineering Club. Met his first girlfriend, a French exchange student called Marcelle Vincent. Failed his final exams early 1950, which he successfully retook in December 1950. Spent a brief period as a houseman on a psychiatric ward, which inspired him to pursue psychiatry. During this period he met Aaron Esterson, with whom he later co-authored Sanity, Madness and the Family.

1951. Spent six months working as an internist at the Killearn Neurosurgical Unit, near Glasgow.

1951-53. Conscripted as an officer into the Royal Army Medical Corps. Posted to the British Army Psychiatric Unit, Netley, near Southampton, and then to the Military Hospital at Catterick, Yorkshire.

11th October 1952. Married his girlfriend Anne Hearne, who had become pregnant.

7th December 1952. His wife Anne gave birth to a girl whom they named, Fiona.

July 1953. Published a paper in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps - 'An Instance of the Ganser Syndrome.'

Late 1953-56. Left the army. Went to Gartnavel Royal Mental Hospital, Glasgow, to complete his psychiatric training. There he set up an experimental treatment setting - the 'Rumpus Room', where schizophrenic patients spent time in a comfortable room. Both staff and patients wore normal clothes, and patients were allowed to spent time doing activities such as cooking and art, the idea being to provide a setting where patients could respond to staff and each other in a social, rather than institutional setting. The patients all showed a noticeable improvement in behavior as a result of this. Later moved to a senior registrar's post at the Southern General Hospital.

September 1954. Laing's second daughter, Susan, was born.

November 1955. A third daughter, Karen, was born.

1st January 1956. Qualified as a psychiatrist.

May 1956. Read Colin Wilson's recently published book The Outsider, which he vowed to emulate. Began writing The Divided Self.

Late 1956. Appointed as a senior registrar at the Tavistock Clinic, London. Accepted for training as a psychoanalyst by the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

1957. A son, Paul was born.

1958. Began the research that led to Sanity, Madness and the Family. Also began a series of seminars that involved him with a number of people who were to go on to become important collaborators, including Aaron Esterson and David Cooper.

April 1958. Adrian Laing born.

1960. The Divided Self published by Tavistock Publications. The book received favorable reviews but at first did not sell well. Laing qualified as a psychoanalyst and set up a private practice at 21 Wimpole Street, London. Began to experiment with drugs, especially LSD.

1961. Self and Others published by Tavistock Publications.

Early 1962. Met Gregory Bateson, another important collaborator, while on a research trip in the United States. By this time his marriage was beginning to break up, and he began an affair with a Daily Express journalist called Sally Vincent. Appointed Clinical Director of the Langham Clinic in London.

1963. Began to appear in the popular media.

1964. Wrote most of the articles that were later compiled into The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise. Appeared on British television five times. Sanity, Madness and the Family, which had been co-authored with Aaron Esterson was published, as was Reason and Violence, which was co-authored with David Cooper. Met Timothy Leary in New York.

1965. Started another affair with a German graphics designer called Jutta Werner. The Divided Self, reissued by Penguin Books, became an immediate bestseller. Opened the Kingsley Hall project with Aaron Esterson, David Cooper and others. This was an experimental, non-hierarchical community, were schizophrenics were given space to work through their psychoses without resort to drugs, ECT or surgery. Inspiration came from Laing's 'Rumpus Room' project, Cooper's 'Villa 21', a community for schizophrenics with no distinctions made between staff and patients, and Esterson's experiences of a kibbutz for schizophrenics in Israel.

15th to 30th July 1967. Took part in the Dialectics of Liberation Congress, intended to bring together left wing politics and psychoanalysis. Gave a speech entitled 'The Obvious', which was later published in an anthology of speeches from the congress.

1967. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, his most commercially successful book, published by Penguin in Britain and Pantheon in the US.

September 1967. His girlfriend Jutta Werner gave birth to a son, Adam.

1970. The Kingsley Hall Project closed.

April 1970. Had a second child by Jutta Werner, a girl called Natasha.

1971. Knots published by Penguin in Britain and Pantheon in the US.

March 1971. Went to Ceylon with Werner and their two children, where he spent two months studying meditation in a Buddhist retreat. After their visas expired, they moved on to India, where Laing spent three weeks studying under Gangroti Baba, a Hindu ascetic, who initiated Laing into the cult of the Hindu goddess Kali. Also spent time learning Sanskrit and visiting Govinda Lama, who had been a guru to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.

April 1972. Returned to London.

5th November to 8th December 1972. Embarked on a lecture tour of the United States. Appeared on TV with Norman Mailer. Met Elizabeth Fehr, a psychotherapist who used 'rebirthing' psychodramas to treat patients. Laing would go on to adopt these rebirthing techniques himself.

Late 1973. Began running regular rebirthing sessions.

Valentine's Day, 1974. Married Jutta Werner.

24th June 1975. Max, his third child with Jutta, was born.

1976. Do You Love Me? and The Facts of Life published. These works sold poorly in Britain and America, but were popular in continental Europe.

March 1976. Susie Laing, his daughter from his first marriage, died of leukemia.

1978. Conversations With Children published.

21st April 1978. Laing's father died at 5.15pm, the exact time of Laing's birth.

September 1980. Took part in a three week conference, 'The Psychotherapy of the Future', at Zaragosa, Spain. Other notable figures included Fritjof Capra, Stanislav Grof, Jean Houston and Rollo May.

15th September 1984. Ronald's 9th child, Benjamin, was born to his girlfriend Sue Sunkel.

February 1985. His autobiography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly, was published. A portrait of Laing was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland.

1986. Divorced from Jutta Laing.

1987. Was forced into resigning from the medical register of the General Medical Council, effectively preventing him from practicing medicine.

6th January 1988. A son, Charles, was born to Marguerite (née Romayne-Kendon) and Ronald Laing

1988. Participated in a Canadian documentary entitled Did You Used to Be R.D. Laing?

23rd August 1989. Died of a heart attack while playing tennis in St. Tropez, France.

Additional Information

For more information about R.D.Laing and mental health treatment, please click on the websites listed below.

R. D. Laing Quotes
The International R.D. Laing Institute
Laing Society biography of R. D. Laing

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