Book Review: R.D. Laing: A Biography by John Clay

The structure and approach of John Clay’s biography is conservative: a well organised and fairly friendly account of R. D. Laing’s life and work. The chapters on Laing’s childhood give a stark account of the emotional abuse Laing suffered from his parents, and in particular his mother. Laing’s drinking, drug taking, hostility to women, aggression and distress; but also his quest for meaning, love and security; and his deep empathy and understanding are illuminated by these early chapters. He found an escape in sport, literature, and above all music. Laing’s work on families and the binds they sometimes inflict on children has its origins here.

Laing qualified as a doctor and chose psychiatry as his specialism. Clay provides a good account of Laing’s work as an army doctor and hospital psychiatrist. In hospitals Laing began to introduce more humane ways of working with patients: seeking to build relationships with individuals living with psychosis rather than inflicting ECT and Insulin Therapy upon them. In 1965 Laing founded the Philadelphia Association, which still provides homes for individuals experiencing emotional crises. Laing’s aim was to provide a safe place, an asylum, where the mentally unwell could live with and “work through” their mental illness free of psychiatric treatment.

After his time as a hospital psychiatrist Laing enrolled at the Tavistock Clinic to begin his training as a psychoanalyst. Here the book features all the big names in British psychoanalysis. Many of them saw brilliance in Laing, but he was too rebellious to be a trusted colleague. Over his career Laing moved towards a more humanistic and existential understanding of the human condition and mental distress , but he described himself as a psychoanalyst throughout his career.

Laing achieved international fame with a series of books on mental illness, understood from a phenomenological and existential perspective. Mental illness, he argued, must be understood as a reaction to the context in which we live. If society depersonalises then Laing’s response is a humanistic and existential one. In fighting his own neuroses Laing used LSD and cannabis on a regular basis and became a heavy drinker. His moods were changeable and he could be very aggressive. Later in life he suffered from depression, from cancer and from heart failure. He drove many of his friends away with his violent outbursts and hurtful comments. When Laing began his psychotherapy practice he had on the wall a print of Icarus falling into the sea, a picture that prefigures Laing’s raise and fall as a star of the 1960s and ’70s.

After reading Clay’s biography and Laing’s own work, and especially after watching the brilliant ninety minute documentary, “Did you used to be R.D. Laing?” available here, I was left with an impression that stays with me. A man who had many flaws, who treated his wives and children thoughtlessly, but who met the facts of our existence head on, who had great empathy and understanding for deeply distressed patients and communicated this in his work, his talks and books. Watching Laing work with clients is a moving experience, he was fully present and wholly himself. His approach is fascinating to anyone who knows NLP. In Laing we see aspects of Perls, Satir and Erickson: solution focused, telling stories and reframing experiences. But above all there is rapport, and Ronnie Laing, “Hanging on to every word”.

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