BOOK REVIEW / When did you last see your guru?: R D Laing: A Biography by Adrian Laing: Peter Owen pounds 25
Sunday 18 September 1994
Both books would need to address the contradictions between the chaos of Laing's personal life and his role as mentor; both would explore the way the manipulative and violent power relationships that Laing excoriated in principle were reproduced not only in his personal but also in his therapeutic practice. Sadly, neither work nor life is seriously addressed in this book, which is odd, as it is written by his son.
Adrian Laing was R D Laing's fifth child by his first marriage. He calls his father 'Ronnie' and for a good half of the book his only reference to himself is as 'the author'. The best bits of this biography are the tiny sections - probably in all no more than a dozen pages - in which he describes his turbulent and often drunken encounters with his father in adulthood: the best of all concerns Laing fils' attempts to persuade Laing pere to sober up before surrendering himself to the police for questioning about the unauthorised possession of restricted substances at an address in Chalk Farm.
However, despite apparently unlimited access to a considerable private archive, the rest of the book is essentially a list of events, leavened by the odd quotation and peppered with mostly unsourced judgements as to Laing's motivations, attitudes and worth. Adrian Laing has, as he makes clear, much to be resentful of. But where he might justifiably be bitter he is only sour; where he could be angry he is merely snide.
So in his youth R D Laing was not an aspirant but a 'would-be' intellectual, his emergent ideas were convincing 'in his mind at least', and his first book was intended solely to 'establish his name among the giants of psychiatry'. On its publication, Laing is disappointed that there were 'no fanfares heralding the arrival of a major new intellect' (although in fact The Divided Self 'owed much - some would say more than was credited - to Soren Kierkegaard'). By 1963 he was already 'acquiring the air of a celebrity' (nay, 'would-be guru') and by 1964 had 'achieved the recognition he so desperately sought', for 'what he believed to be his own original theory'. In 1967, however (and despite moving into 'the heart of trendy Hampstead'), there seemed 'little new to say'; three years later he had 'really had enough of the whole scene', and by the early 1980s he was 'cutting less and less ice', if not actually 'turning into a running joke'.
Nor, although it has spent so much time noting them, is the book consistent in its own reading of Laing's intellectual and moral shortcomings. On three pretty central issues of his father's life - politics, religion and drugs - Adrian Laing's view is, at best, capricious. Thus there is 'a curious association in people's minds between Ronnie and 'politics' ', while a few pages later the very name of R D Laing is 'synonymous with radical psychotherapy and the New Left'. On page 92, Laing's ideas are 'remote' from those of the American LSD advocate Timothy Leary, but by page 119 there is 'considerable overlap in their thinking'. Despite 'his tendency to avoid religious commitment', Laing has a fundamentally 'Christian-Marxist- Liberal' philosophy some pages earlier - although further down the same page he is much 'too laid back to take politics seriously'.
But most surprising is Adrian Laing's failure to engage in any depth with his father's most consistently pursued intellectual project, which was, of course, his challenge to the idea of schizophrenia as an identifiable and treatable disease. Laing writes that 'the battle over the cause of schizophrenia, indeed its very nature, seemed to avoid perpetually any showdown. Those who claimed it was nothing whatsover to do with the environment, including familial relationships or immediate environmental context, could provide evidence of sorts that the schizophrenic was merely suffering from some sort of chemical maladjustment. 'Radical' psychiatrists like Ronnie' - even here, he can't resist the dismissive quote-marks - 'were equally able to provide their own sources pointing towards a pathology that lay in the realms of inter-personal relationships. These two extremes were never going to meet. You believed one or the other.'
R D Laing was clearly and in many ways a monstrous personality, who treated both his families appallingly, and whose life and work were undoubtedly riven with all kinds of hypocrisies and contradictions (not least the fact that his own father died, having virtually forgotten his long-absent son, as an inmate of a mental hospital). But at his best he was an insightful and beautiful writer, who could uniquely inspire as well as infuriate his associates, and who took on a notoriously complacent section of the medical establishment
and called them to proper and overdue account.
Most of all, as Adrian Laing (to do him justice) does acknowledge, Laing had a particular and perhaps unrivalled ability to relate to the agonised and the abandoned on their own terms, and thereby to makethe seemingly incoherent intelligible. His family and friends and even his profession may have deserved better of him than they received; he, for his part, deserves a more fitting memorial.
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