When Alfred Adler died in 1937, Freud summed up notoriously: "For a Jew boy from a Viennese suburb, a death in Aberdeen, Scotland, is an unprecedented career and a proof of how far he had come. Truly his contemporaries have richly rewarded him for his service in having contradicted psychoanalysis."
When Ronnie Laing died in St Tropez at 61, his many enemies might have said something similar. A Glasgow boy from Govanhill had become rich and famous by denying the truths of textbook psychiatry.
John Clay sets out to rescue Laing from the anathema into which the orthodox have cast him, but, although he champions Laing throughout, the overall result is scarcely flattering to his hero.
Director of the Langham clinic by 35, Laing influenced many of the big names in psychiatry and psychoanalysis: Bowlby, Winnicott, Bettelheim, Anthony Clare. Although he began as a Freudian, Laing was always an eclectic figure, influenced by Reich on sexuality, Otto Rank on birth trauma and Jung on the thesis that schizophrenia has a meaning.
For Laing, schizophrenia and psychosis were not manifestations of "abnormality" but simply ways of seeing the world and dealing with it, which made perfect sense when viewed from the standpoint of the mentally ill. In a word, psychosis was a strategy for dealing with victimhood, which is why his original patients were mainly women in the era before the women's liberation movement. Schizophrenia was particularly associated with an adverse family background; Laing often said that Pinter's plays provided perfect examples of the "schizophrenogenic" family.
Clay shows how these insights came naturally to Laing, for his first 20 years were spent in a twilight zone between normality and insanity. His mother was barking mad - a fact he discovered only when psychiatric colleagues visited his Glasgow home socially.
When Laing at 40 tried to reproach her for some of her excesses, she repeated what she had always said when he was a boy: "Ronnie, we don't talk about those things here." When the young Ronnie first used the word "fuck" at home, his mother went almost catatonic with shock. This was probably why Laing liked to shock his audiences, particularly in the puritanical and politically correct United States , with a fusillade of four-letter words.
Laing came to feel that psychiatry was not a solution to the patient's problem but part of the problem itself, since psychiatry was ultimately a tool of the forces of repression: according to Laing, we are brainwashed into accepting as "freedom" precisely those values political elites want us to have.
Logically, this should have led Laing into Marxism; but instead he opted for retreat into Buddhism and Eastern mysticism. In the battle for hegemony in the late Sixties between the New Left and the flower-power people, Laing was on the side of Timothy Leary and the hippies. He was fond of pointing out that the slogan "power to the people" still implies a worship of power.
Increasingly, with his lack of interest in the socioeconomic world, his heroic work with difficult schizophrenics, his espousal of a kind of Buddhism- cum-existentialism and his status as guru, Laing came to seem like a Jung of the Gorbals. He was sexually promiscuous, aped Jung in sleeping with female patients and fathered 10 children with two wives and an assortment of partners. Clay is excellent on Laing's private life and gives us to understand that he was no great shakes as a lover. Given the amount of drugs he "did" and the rivers of alcohol he consumed, this is perhaps not surprising.
By his strenuous attempts to transcend orthodox psychiatry, Laing ended in an intellectual cul-de-sac. His enemies would say he declined into charlatanry, and Clay's fascinating book provides them with plenty of ammunition.
The strength of this well-researched biography is the often hilarious picture it paints of Laing in full flight at conferences, a more grotesque Groucho Marx or Ubu, insulting all and sundry. Fed up with rival gurus, he once heaved a brick through the window of the Bhagnan Rajneesh centre in London; the police found him sitting on the pavement cursing the "orange wankers".
It is an old cliche that analysts are madder than their patients, but Laing would have taken it as a compliment. His last words, as he lay dying from a heart attack on a St Tropez tennis court, are typical: "Doctor, what fucking doctor?"
The reviewer is a biographer of Carl Gustav Jung.
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