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R.D. Laing

R.D. Laing
This nOde last updated February 20th, 2005 and is permanently morphing...
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Laing, R(onald) D(avid)

Laing (làng), R(onald) D(avid)
British writer and psychiatrist. His works, including The Politics of Experience (1967) and The Facts of Life (1976), explore psychosis as a reaction to a dehumanized, irrational society.

internal linkAlienation

Alienation as our present destiny is achieved only by outrageous violence perpetrated by human beings on human beings.
R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Politics of Experience, Introduction (1967).


The experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation.
R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Politics of Experience, ch. 5 (1967).


Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.
R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Politics of Experience, ch. 6 (1967).

Mental Illness

There is no such "condition" as "internal linkschizophrenia," but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event.
R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Politics of Experience, ch. 5 (1967).

Human Nature

We are all murderers and prostitutes- no matter to what culture, society, class, nation one belongs, no matter how normal, moral, or mature, one takes oneself to be.
R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Politics of Experience, Introduction (1967).


True guilt is guilt at the obligation one owes to oneself to be oneself. False guilt is guilt felt at not being what other people feel one ought to be or assume that one is.
R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Self and Others, ch. 10 (1961).


Normality highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become internal linkabsurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.
R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Politics of Experience, ch. 1 (1967).

Freud was a hero. He descended to the "internal linkUnderworld" and met there stark terrors. He carried with him his theory as a Medusa's head which turned these terrors to stone.
R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Divided Self, pt. 1, ch. 1 (1959).

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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.

1936-1945. Attended Hutcheson's Boys' Grammar School, Glasgow, where he was an excellent student. Studied the Classics extensively. Learned Geek 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, internal linkNietzsche and especially Kierkegaard.
Friedrich Nietzsche

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 activites 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 noticable improvement in behaviour as a result of this. Later moved to a senior registrar's post at the Southern General Hospital.

May 1956. Read Colin Wilson's recently published book _The Outsider_, which he vowed to emulate. Began writing _The Divided Self_.

1960. _The Divided Self_ published by Tavistock Publications. The book received favourable 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 internal linkLSD.
LSD Timothy Leary's finger

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 internal linkTimothy Leary in New York.

March 1971. Went to Ceylon with Jutta 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 internal linkKali. Also spent time learning internal linkSanskrit and visiting Govinda Lama, who had been a guru to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.

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

September internal link1980. Took part in a three week conference, 'The Psychotherapy of the Future', at Zaragosa, Spain. Other notable figures involved included internal linkFritjof Capra, Stanislav Grof, Jean Houston and Rollo May.

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

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authored _Anti-Psychiatry_

His first book, _The Divided Self_, was an attempt to explain schizophrenia by using existentialist philosophy to vividly portray the inner world of a schizophrenic,  which Laing presented as an attempt to live in an unlivable situation. His later books, such as Self and Others and The Politics of Experience, expand upon this to show how contemporary culture conspires to rob us of our individuality.

Laing remains a highly enigmatic figure. His work tends to be dismissed by most psychiatrists; however, droves of mentally ill people insist that this was a man who truly understood how they felt. Laing always insisted that psychotherapists should act asinternal linkshamans, exorcising the illness through a internal linkprocess of mutual catharsis. This is particularly apt, since, like the internal linkarchetypal shaman, Laing did not appear to so much preach a doctrine as live it.

Since Laing refused to view mental illness in biomedical/clinical terms, he has often been labelled as part of the so-called 'antipsychiatry' movement, alongside figures such as David Cooper, Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault. However, Laing vehemently rejected this label. He never tried to deny that mentally ill people are in need of help - he simply did not believe that conventional psychiatry provided the answer. He was especially opposed to the use of lobotomies, ECT and the dehumanising effects of incarceration in psychiatric hospitals.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of Laing's approach can be seen by an incident related in John Clay's book R.D. Laing: A Divided Self.

While still in Chicago, Laing was invited by some doctors to examine a young girl diagnosed as schizophrenic. The girl was locked into a padded cell in a special hospital, and sat there naked. She usually spent the whole day rocking to and fro. The doctors asked Laing for his opinion. What would he do about her? Unexpectedly, Laing stripped off naked himself and entered her cell. There he sat with her, rocking in internal linktime to her rhythm. After about twenty minutes she started speaking, something she had not done for several months. The doctors were amazed. 'Did it never occur to you to do that?'  Laing commented to them later, with feigned innocence. (pp. 170-171)

Laing joined the legendary Tavistock Institute for Human Relations in London in 1961. His first book _The Divided Self_ (1960) approached mental illness from an unusual viewpoint, emphasizing the social construction of internal linkreality and the de-personalizing power of psychiatric internal linklanguage in describing illnesses and internal linksubjective experiences. Laing suggested that schizophrenia was a way of Being and of  experiencing the objective world, not a disease that one 'has'. 'Self and Others' (1961) was more  theoretical.

_Inter-personal internal linkPerception_ (1966) written with H. Phillipson and A.R. Lee provided further Tavistock-derived clinical material. In _The Politics Of Experience_ (1967) Laing questioned societal values systems and the designations of 'mad' and 'normalcy', providing a different perspective to Michel Foucault's geneological studies of asylums. Laing's language analysis fore-shadowed internal linkNeuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

In 1970, Laing left Kingsley Hall and spent a transitional period between 1971-72 travelling to India and Ceylon, where he pursued his personal interests in Buddhism and meditation. His later books including 'The Facts of Life' (1976) and 'The Voice of Experience' (1982) speculated about peri-natal experiences (also researched by Stanislav Grof) and mysticism. 'Do You Love Me?' (1976), 'Conversations With Children' (1977) and 'Sonnets' (1979) were literary efforts. 'Wisdom, Madness and Folly' (1985) was an autobiography covering his early years.

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internal linkPink Floyd

In the spring of 1968, Roger Waters had talked to the hip psychiatrist RD Laing. He had even driven Barrett to an appointment: 'Syd wouldn't get out. What can you do?' In the intervening months, however, Barrett became less hostile to the idea of treatment. So Gale placed a call to Laing and Po booked a cab. But with the taxi-meter ticking outside, Barrett refused to leave the flat.

- _You Shone Like The internal linkSun_ - article on Syd Barrett in _The Observer_ October 6th, 2002

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"internal linkTrue sanity entails in one way or another the internal linkdissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our internal linkalienated social internal linkreality... and through this death a rebirth and the eventual re-establishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer."

"If the human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable Age of Darkness... They will see that what was considered 'internal linkschizophrenic' was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the internal linklight began to break into our all-too-closed minds."

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