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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 25. 3rd October 1973

A non-interview with an anti~psychiatrist

page 14

A non-interview with an anti~psychiatrist

We intended to interview the illustrious visiting psychiatrist R. D. Laing, but at the last minute he caught a cold and couldn't talk to us. Working under incredible pressure Gordon Campbell whipped up this article on the great man.

Photo of R.D. Laing

Photo of R.D. Laing

Photo of R.D. Laing

Photo by Keith Stewart

For most of us the big discovery of the sixties was politics. Not party politics, just the politics of existing. When we were kids, reality consisted simply of the family, and a vaguely threatening "they" out there who could only occasionally tell Dad what to do. And at a higher level if ever the world seemed like a stage then production was in the safe hands of the invisible, humourless, logical God of the Jews who had already conquered Europe, Africa, the Americas, Australia and a large chunk of Asia and who seemed generally to know what He was doing. In 1960, He had a good show, nice Pope, nice President, nice Springboks to play footy with, we all had our problems but everything generally seemed to be turning out nice.

So growing up meant discovery of the politics, the power dimension behind every relationship with parents, teachers, girls, it all seemed suddenly a great struggle. A three billion person traffic jam in fact with only a few flimsy social codes marking the intersections of experience. The process of social power seemed equally crazy, split between various conspiracies, the CIA, capitalists, the Mafia, the Yellow Peril and male chauvinist cliques. That was why R. D. Laing seemed so natural and sane and easy to read. He was saying the world was just as crazy as nobody else was prepared to let on it was In talking about madness Laing was showing us the nature and cost of our "normality."

From his very first book, Laing's purpose has been "to make madness and the process of going mad, comprehensible." Thirteen years later in "Knots" he expressed the same aims a little differently: "to divine the formal elegance in these webs of maya." Understanding his work fully requires following Laing's own evolution from existentialism to mysticism; from criticising certain destructive relationships to what sounds like in "Politics of Experience" a mystical rejection of the whole process of role-taking altogether.

As developed in his first three books Laing's claim is that madness is not an "illness", that requires "cure", such language rests on the misconception that there is something wrong with the patient, that his experience is somehow warped or distorted, and that this experience must be changed, by electroshock, drugs, or leucotomies if the patient is to get "better". In other words, the usual psychological approach to madness reduces the patient to an object, someone who has no control over the neuroses unfolding inside him or over the faulty social conditioning that has helped get him into this state. The patient is seen to be the helpless victim of the forces within and the forces without; since he is felt to be no longer responsible for his illness, he is denied any rights in the process of "curing".

Laing, however, by making madness understandable takes it out of the realm of pathology. He shows that the "madness" is both a creation, and response to the social situations in which the patient is involved. Madness is not a condition, but a judgement, a label for certain forms of behaviour. The source of the "mad" behaviour is the interaction between people, the way the realities of all those involved impinge on one another. And since there are differences of power in important reality sustaining relationships within the family, or between lovers, it is very easy for the powerful to deny, or subvert the reality of those dependent on them. Often with the best of intentions, often with protestations of "love" as the destruction is carried out. Laing's point is that it is the worst possible thing to then isolate the "mental patient" for "treatment" because this only perpetuates and worsens the unequal power relationship that caused the problem in the first place.

So in the first few books Laing set himself to describing the dangers that interaction (and especially the intense interweaving of realities that characterises the nuclear family) can pose for the creation and maintenance of identity. What is really harrowing about "Sanity and Madness in the Family" is to see one's own parents in so many of the actions of these parents. In the case studies the parents are extremes; they suffocate their children, deny their shaky holds on identity at almost every turn, but the way they do it is so familiar. By looking at these schizogenic families you see the way you survived, by lying to your parents, by blocking off parts of what you were feeling and thinking, by ordering your life so that it did not intrude on areas where your values arc incompatible. The only case in Laing's book that escapes from madness is the girl who learns how to lie to protect herself from her parents' good intentions.

Now at this stage of his career Laing could have moved in several different directions. He resigned from the National Health Service in 1962 over disagreement with their practises. And with David Cooper and others he started to experiment with different ways of relating to people who had been defined as mad. Since the problem was that their reality and identity had been undermined Laing reasoned that "cure" lay in restoring a sense of identity by providing conditions that were not threatening. This meant people they could relate to as equals, sympathetic persons who posed no threat or had no vested interest in who they were and what they did. So in 1965 Laing founded the first of his communal houses, Kingsley Hall.

Note that despite his interest in Sartre, it has been the existentialism, not the Marxism that has attracted Laing. He says somewhere on one of his book covers that "temperamentally I am not cut out to be an activist." Yet to some extent he has had to be. If you reason that social conditions are driving people mad, then the next step is to do something about these conditions. Laing had shown the destructive nature of some family and romantic relationships, though since he had never used or perhaps been able to use control groups, he hadn't been too specific about what these destructive factors were. The point is that he has never gone on to analyse the wider political forces that put such terrible pressures on our personal relationships. He, like Goffman, describes the effects of what our institutions do to people, and how we try to cope with them. But only rarely do you get much idea about the larger social institutions that produce the type of mental hospitals, families, ideals of love and so on that Laing concerns himself with. Marxists criticise Laing for not grounding his analysis in class conditions, for spending too much time dealing with effects, and not exploring social causes.

To some extent this is justified. Anyone who sat through all four of the current lecture series must have been squirming by the end at Laing's unremitting ridicule of the rest of psychiatry. That psychiatry does some of the crazy things it does through wrong theories and attitudes to the patient is probably true; but some of those practises also derive from ridiculous doctor/patient ratios, inadequate finance and a lot of other social and organisational problems that encourage doctors to make control and not cure their primary aim.

On the other hand, Laing's own ideas demand something like a one to one patient/ therapist ratio, and at most, about twenty people live in one of his communal houses at a time. In short, his response to the problem, though the only sane, desirable and human one, just cannot cope with the numbers of crazy people that our society is producing. And even if all the psychiatrists in the world believed in Laing's theories page 15 they would still have to wrest more substantial finance from governments to put them into practice.

So ridiculing psychiatry, while it may have some value in alerting people to the problem, finally ends up caricaturing that problem. It's like women's liberation blaming their oppression on male conspiracies. That may be fine for rallying the troops, but until we know what to do about the social and psychological pressures on both sides of the relationship, we are not much closer to solving the problem.

Therefore in the early sixties Laing did face a pretty important choice, whether to become a fulltime political agitator and try and change the society that was producing his patients, or stick with the victims. That meant creating more retreats, more havens for them and keeping up the broadsides against the more immediate enemy, the psychiatric profession. This, in fact, is what he continues to do.

However during this time, as Jeff Nuttal relates in "Bomb Culture", Laing was getting involved with the radical, artistic under ground in England. The dope, and the artistic creativity that was to explode around the world in the hip movement of 1967 probably encouraged the movement away from any political involvement. Most of "Politics of Experience" was written during this time, and most of Laing's popularity as prophet and guru rests on this book.

Looking back now the whole hip movement was based on a paradox — "do your own thing" but "don't ego trip". At their worst extremes these positions produced on the one hand fascists like Manson, Mel Lyman and Tony Alamo, on the other their mindless followers. At the height of the good times in '67, the difference was expressed in a much better way by the two cultures, Berkeley and San Francisco.

Berkeley was radical politics, involvement and social activism, while San Francisco was the Haight Street, dope, rock music and mysticism. They got on pretty well, Jerry Garcia would do a gig to raise bail for the Berkeley crowd any time, but the orientation was different, outer versus inner space, utopias in the world versus utopias of the mind.

Generally Laing's book was a lot more popular with the thumb sucking mystics than with the radicals. Oh sure, the Berkeley people loved the denunciation of Western society, but well, there were no alternatives offered, no class analysis. The mystic hedonists, however, could really tune in on Laing's rejection of all the oppressive, defining, constraining limitations of social existence. The tone of the book is that of some Biblical prophet, full of anger and frustration and nervous energy. All the hours of saintlike dedication that Laing had spent with his schizoids and catatonics had burst out into denunciation of the society that had created them.

The message was just what everyone was learning through acid, and through other writers like Kesey. That there was nothing objectively real about all the social roles we had taken as natural and real for so long. Instead came the awareness that we had been living inside externally imposed versions of reality, caught up in some vast movie that those in power were insisting was reality. With acid, with alternative ways of living there seemed a chance to step outside the limits posed by the social relationships that had to be negotiated, beyond even the very language and concepts we had been taught to think with, into some kind of free space. When Laing talked of driving people out of their minds, of merging the inner and outer, or even on television here when he admitted to having travelled into the general vicinity of madness, he was talking about a certain experience; that social roles were only rules while the flow is more than we can ever know.

It's on this basis that Laing tends to make his much attacked comparison between schizophrenia and mysticism. He equates the inability of the psychotic to play roles with the mystic's rejection of them, creating in both cases an ego-less condition that is generally felt necessary for religious experience. Of course there are important differences, particularly of choice; but in any case Laing has said that it was not his intention to idealise madness, but to balance the totally negative attitudes held by other psychiatrists.

Laing spent 1970 studying meditation in Ceylon and India, and as he said at his press conference, almost all last year staring into the fire, listening to music and thinking. Certainly the lectures here gave no idea of where this is taking him. But he said while here that any retreat into nihilism, to non action and despair was heresy to his beliefs. He added that he was currently working on a book aimed at making some forms of yoga more accessible to the West. Otherwise there are few clues. He spends less time these days with the communal houses, though he is still committed to their aims, and most of the royalties from his books go to supporting them.

Some questions that remain about his work: anyone who has lived in a large flat would like to know how communal decisions are made about who is to come, when people are to leave, what kind of limits if any are to exist on behaviour. Laing said he has at least 20 people arriving a week at his houses. Who gets admitted? How? And what if the person does not want ever to leave this haven and return to the world.

Again, Laing stresses providing people and places that will be responsive to the needs of these so-called psychotics. But how, especially since he has become so famous does he avoid becoming a guru, the focus for the sanity of his patient? Being with disturbed people is incredibly demanding; you may be the first, the only person ever to respond to their desires and dreams. How do you avoid being trapped by this? How do Laing and his friends cope with being the basis for reality for these people? It's an inevitable problem, but the goal beyond being simply "responsive" is, to help the patient to become self-sufficient and not dependent on any person or place outside him. It would be interesting to know how Laing encourages this sense of independence.

Finally, his meditation. He said he was doing a free associative method that aimed at breaking down his cognitive filters, in effect destroying his ability to think. Actually I thought Kesey had settled this business of trying to get beyond words and thoughts to total experience. He pointed out that even with the fastest reflexes, the time it took to translate a stimulus into a concept was at least 1/30th of a second. What we experienced always had happened a split second before, so we are always living a movie of our lives. No perception without conception. Now the Void may be a nice place to visit but Laing while he was here often seemed to he having difficulty in handling the material world.

Listening to him talk was usually an ordeal. It took him so long to find a word, complete a sentence. Not to mention the incessant blinking, face twitching and paper shuffling, that were hard enough to watch, let alone to start you imagining what was going on inside his head. A distinctive feature of our society is that no-one really expects that their private growth will occur within social institutions. You get by in them, you survive, especially economically, but real living, real growth occurs with your lover, your friends, and what you do together. The concern with Laing is that what he is doing with his private growth may be fucking up his ability to play public games, like the Chancellor's lectures, altogether.

For this article, I drew heavily (especially for the intro) on an article in the now-defunct Ramparts magazine and also on a Greil Marcus article at: Chicago… and Santa Barbara and the Black Panthers and Beyond (04/02/70)