Books: Flawed visionary of the broken heart

R D LAING: A Divided Self by John Clay Hodder pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Ronald Laing was born in Glasgow in 1927 to a grim Calvinist couple, who curiously named him after the debonair film actor Ronald Colman. This tiny shard of frivolity glitters out of a glum moraine of childhood repression, unkindness and incomprehension, presented here with a degree of irritating psychological comment. The infant Laing was pre-natally doomed: jammed in the birth canal, he was assigned to a future of asthma, drink, drugs and uneasy relationships. According to his biographer, and Jungian analyst, he would also live his parents' unlived lives. He suffered from an overwhelming need for recognition because his father did not announce his birth for several days. And so on.

All the same, the facts are desolate. His mother burned his toy horse because he loved it so much. In a jealous rage, his father destroyed his new red dressing gown. He was not allowed to play with other children after school; they glimpsed him at the upstairs window, sitting beside his mother, staring out. Conversational limits were sharply defined: "Ronald, we never talk about that sort of thing." He developed eczema, and took refuge in music and reading. He went on to study medicine at Glasgow University, where he found himself increasingly troubled by unanswerable questions, "the puzzle of human misery and the cruelty of the world". He was profoundly moved by Antonin Artaud's attack on psychiatric practice. Artaud, himself a former mental patient, had said: "a lunatic is also a man society does not wish to listen to, and whom it is determined to prevent from uttering unbearable truths." Working in psychiatric hospitals, Laing found that he was able to align himself with the psychotic mind, enter its loneliness and share its experience. Experiments with LSD convinced him that here was a mirror of the schizophrenic experience, that "special strategy for unlivable situations".

John Clay gives a horrifying account of psychiatric medicine in the Fifties. There were no units for young people, patients led marginalised lives and their words were ignored. Lobotomy, leucotomy, insulin-induced coma and ECT were standard treatments.

For Laing, madness was endemic: "Let no one suppose that this madness exists only somewhere in the night or day sky where our birds of death hover in the stratosphere. It exists in the interstices of our most intimate and personal moments." Taking Heidegger's "The dreadful has already happened", he questioned the nature and very existence of schizophrenia, most poignantly rendered in its literal translation, "a broken heart". Through regression he brought his patients into confrontation with the past, and set mental illness firmly in the context of the family.

The paperback edition of his book The Divided Self brought him enormous fame in the mid-Sixties. He became a guru whose ideas were uncannily in harmony with the spirit of the times. He made television programmes, joined sit-ins, published papers, wrote further successful books, travelled, lectured on Tantric sex and cavorted with Timothy Leary, who was impressed: "My eyes were riveted to his eyes. I was gone. Spun out of the kitchen in Millbrook, spun out of time. Stoned high in a Sufi ballet. We were two organisms from different planets - communicating. I was an Eskimo on an ice floe.'' "My dad and his friends are potty," said Leary's son. Another transatlantic wise man met up with Laing in London; after an LSD session they called on Laing's long- suffering and enraged wife and their five children. "Coming as we did from such a delicate, silent space, it was an intense and somewhat trying visit."

In 1965 he set up the Philadelphia Association, dedicated to relieving mental illness and researching its causes and treatment. He opened Kingsley Hall, a retreat where disturbed patients might take part in therapeutic experiments, or simply exist. Kingsley Hall was and is the subject of controversy. Undoubtedly it did good to many; others suffered. To some it was "the Havana of the schizophrenia revolution", and to some it offered dangerous freedoms without responsibility. In 1970 it closed, but the Philadelphia Association went on to run eight more safe houses in north London.

It seems to me, as an amateur, lay person or what you will, that Laing's decline into dippiness runs parallel to his ascending fame and fortune in the late Sixties, an overdosing on Zeitgeist perhaps. His vision of the family as the centre of psychic violence led him to statements like: "The initial act of brutality against the average child is the mother's first kiss." He became obsessed with the business of birth, or rather rebirth, an elaborate ceremony involving rebirthing bags, helpfully made from gnu skins by his friend Francis Huxley. "I am a better mother than your mother", was the dubious subtext.

Through the Seventies and Eighties, his life became increasingly turbulent. He continued to lecture at home and abroad, to enormous audiences, but he was losing his knack of supernatural sympathy: at times he misjudged their mood, or was too drunk to communicate. In London, "for spiritual reasons" he hurled a bottle through the window of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Centre. In Iona Abbey he informed his audience that: "Calvinism has done more damage to Scottish society than drugs ever did. You can't even have a good fuck without feeling guilty about it." Right words, wrong place. The depression which had shadowed his life, that "typical Scottish Calvinist involutional melancholic type of religious, nihilistic rumination" now overwhelmed him. He alienated friends and colleagues, resigned from the Philadelphia Association and was struck off the medical register. But during the last couple of years of his life he gave up drink, appeared to be revising some of his more extreme views, and planned a full-scale summary of his work. In 1989 he died of a heart attack.

This seems rather a strange time to publish a biography of Laing. The moral and intellectual climate of the Sixties has undergone severe and hostile scrutiny; its legacy of damaged children and a wrecked educational system cannot be denied. Laing's apparent glorification of schizophrenia, his advocacy of psychotropic drugs and community care are repugnant in the wake of recent violent crimes. It is a measure of the strength of John Clay's book that the reader's sympathies are utterly engaged. Apart from the uncomfortable beginning, this is a highly readable, sparse and dignified portrait of an extraordinary man. Whether or not his contributions to psychiatry prove of lasting importance, his very being is the stuff of legend. Avatar of the Sixties, melancholy psychopomp leading lost souls only to a greater darkness, humanitarian and innovator, archetypal Scotsman - Laing may be seen from many angles, but he undoubtedly has his place in the strange firmament of twentieth-century icons.