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Portrait of the Psychiatrist as a Young Man: The Early Writing and Work of R.D. Laing

by Allan Beveridge. Oxford, United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2011, 352 pp., $79.95.

Reviewed by Richard Warner, M.B., D.P.M.
Am J Psychiatry 2012;169:761-762. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.12010148
View Author and Article Information
Boulder, Colo.

Dr. Warner is Director of the Colorado Recovery.

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Book review accepted for publication February 2012.

Accepted February , 2012.

No psychiatrist since Freud and Jung has gained as much public recognition as Ronald David Laing. After the publication of The Divided Self in 1960, he became a darling of the British New Left and was treated as a guru by young people across the English-speaking world. “Two chicks who dig Coltrane, the [Grateful] Dead and R.D. Laing” advertised in New York's Village Voice in 1971 for compatible guests to join them at a party, and bumper stickers during Laing's 1972 U.S. college lecture tour read “I'm mad about R.D. Laing” (1, p. 67). A generation of practicing psychiatrists was influenced by his view that the symptoms of psychosis could be seen as meaningful and appropriate to a patient's circumstances. This book will appeal to many of those psychiatrists as well as to others who admire Laing's intellectual achievements. The book addresses the following questions: How did it come about that a middle-class youth from Glasgow wrote a book about madness that rocked the world? How did he produce a work based on existential thinking and the ideas of European philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, within 5 years of graduating from medical school, a work that was nearly in complete form when he arrived at the Tavistock Clinic in London in 1956?

In this masterly and erudite work, Beveridge offers a number of answers to these questions. Laing was a brilliant student, charismatic, and driven to re-examine conventional thinking. His personal involvement in the field was spurred by the fact that his mother suffered from a psychotic disorder during his entire upbringing, and his father also suffered an acute paranoid episode. (Laing later claimed that his successful interpretation of his father's paranoid fears made him his first patient.) One of the great contributions of this book is to reveal the Glaswegian origins of Laing's intellectual growth. A stimulus for his innovative work came indirectly from the European political situation in the 1930s. While he was in his first job placements in Glasgow after completing medical school, his mentors were Jewish physicians and philosophers who had escaped the European fascist threat. The émigré physicians chose Scotland, in preference to Britain, since Scotland offered more immediate access to licensed professional practice. Laing's first supervisor, Joe Schorstein, whom Laing described as his “spiritual father,” was a Glasgow neurosurgeon whose father was a Viennese rabbi and who was immersed in European philosophy. Laing and Schorstein discussed Kant and Hegel in the changing rooms of the operating theater into the wee hours of the morning. Another Jewish émigré, Karl Abenheimer, an analyst who studied with Fromm-Reichmann and Jung and who was working at a Glasgow mental hospital, was also a major influence. In their ongoing philosophical discussion group, Abenheimer pointed Laing toward Binswanger and other European philosophers. A contemporary described Laing in these meetings as “intellectually insatiable, committed, courageous and…near to physical exhaustion,” but also as “gallus,” a Glaswegian slang term meaning overconfident and flamboyant (p. 25).

Beveridge reveals, with depth and clarity, Laing's influences inside psychiatry and beyond. He points out that, in writing The Divided Self, Laing “used everything he gleaned from his voracious reading, and this included not only existential philosophy, but also psychoanalysis, sociology, and literature” (p. 108). We learn that Laing was greatly influenced by Freud but highly critical of the Freudian interpretation of psychotic symptoms. He preferred to listen to what the patient actually said, not to translate it through psychoanalytic interpretations. Laing was very sympathetic to Bleuler's view that schizophrenia was ultimately understandable, and he judged other clinicians by whether they agreed with that precept. In constructing his view of the self in The Divided Self, Laing drew heavily upon object relations theory. Although the major exponents of this approach, Klein, Winnicott, and others, worked and taught at the Tavistock, Laing claimed that he had written The Divided Self before he ever went to London and that his “false self” theory was not much influenced by Winnicott. Beveridge also reveals the influence of the arts on Laing, including the work of figures such as Blake, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Kafka, and Camus.

In these pages, we see the seeds of what was to be Laing's most contentious and, many would argue, harmful work, Sanity, Madness and the Family, in which he attempted to demonstrate that schizophrenia was a product of abnormal communication patterns within the family. In this work, he was much influenced by Fromm-Reichmann and Gregory Bateson. This work has since become so vilified that many have lost sight of his other contributions to the field. Beveridge reminds us of one of Laing's “core beliefs,” which he shared with the great English asylum director John Connolly and from which we can all benefit today: “The sane and the insane were on a spectrum and any denial of this led to the risk of perceiving the mad as somehow less than human. Once this step was taken, it paved the way for inhumane treatment” (p. 67).

There is much more to this fascinating book—case notes from Laing's clinical work in Glasgow and London, responses to the publication of The Divided Self, and Beveridge's critique of the work. For those interested in the contributions of this extraordinary figure, it is a gold mine.

Sedgwick  P:  Psychopolitics .  New York,  Harper & Row, 1982
 
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References

Sedgwick  P:  Psychopolitics .  New York,  Harper & Row, 1982
 
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