RD Laing book review

03Feb13

My review of Allan Beveridge’s ‘Portrait of the psychiatrist as a young man: the early writing and work of RD Laing’ is now viewable early online at the Journal of Mental Health’s website You can also read it here.

 

RD Laing book cover

 

Could there be merit in reviewing the origins, intellectual development and clinical work of a maverick healer whose reputation and life collapsed, Icarus-like from the heights of international acclaim? Can an evaluation offer anything more than a social perspective and cautionary warning?

In Portrait of the Psychiatrist as a Young Man, Scottish psychiatrist Allan Beveridge argues for a partial rehabilitation of Laing’s existential approach towards understanding mental illness. As the neurosciences have failed to deliver fully effective treatments, Beveridge states that the Laingian approach of “treating the patient as a person rather than a malfunctioning mechanism has new-found appeal”.

Thus, Portrait… provides a comprehensive account of the personal, historical and social context that led a bold (‘gallus’), working-class Glaswegian to become ‘R.D. Laing’; for a time the most famous psychiatrist in the world. While previous biographers, among them his son, Adrian Laing (1994), have provided vivid accounts of a dynamic yet troubled man with a notoriously flawed relationship towards his own family, Portrait… is an academically researched work that focuses on Laing’s intellectual life up to 1960, when his first and most well known work, The Divided Self, was published.

Half a century later and through access to his countryman’s recently acquired private papers, Beveridge’s knowledge of philosophical and literary theory on mental illness makes him particularly well placed for such an undertaking. However, among the numerous sides of Laing that are described is a tendency to embellish clinical material to enhance his personal theories and reputation. While such revelations may prove terminal to Laing’s clinical legitimacy, Portrait… provides an engaging insight into an enigmatic figure who continues to influence Western public perception towards mental illness and psychiatry.

In Part I, on ‘Laing and theory’, Beveridge begins with an account of Laing’s peculiar upbringing as an only child, from which his ‘narrative of a Hero’ developed, with an ambition to complete his first book before he was 30. This is followed by individual chapters that detail how the young psychiatrist’s thinking was shaped by psychiatric theory, existential philosophy, religion and the arts. The result is a tightly summarised and readable guide to the notable figures within these fields and their significance towards Laing. Along the way, the myth of an autodidact who emerged from a distant outpost is exposed. In its place is a charismatic and at times conventional psychiatrist who was inspired by his Presbyterianism, continental philosophy and Glasgow’s intellectual climate, the recent beneficiary of an influx of intellectual Jewish, émigré doctors.

Part II, on ‘Laing and practice’, examines Laing’s private papers from medical school through to his psychiatric training. Here many of the individual patients that were memorably described in The Divided Self and Laing’s later works are identified, including several from the famous ‘Rumpus Room’ experiment at Glasgow’s Gartnavel Hospital. This clinical trial to observe how chronic in-patients responded towards a more informal environment would later influence the liberal and permissive approach that was adopted at Kingsley Hall, the infamous sanctuary for mental illness that Laing co-founded. However, while the ‘Rumpus Room’ was crucial in developing his view that mental illness could be demonstrably understood and treatable using an existentially-based approach, Beveridge also reveals a familiar narrative of Laing taking disproportionate credit and exaggerating outcomes.

Despite the breadth of views that Beveridge considers, including an assessment of Laing’s Scottish credentials, Portrait... notably lacks a modern psychoanalytic criticism as argued by Lucas (2009). Although Laing was to achieve his first publication ambition whilst training at London’s Tavistock Centre and was present when many of its leading figures made significant contributions to psychoanalytic theory, his reputation within the Tavistock (despite being their most widely read author) is conspicuously absent. While supportive of his championing of patient’s rights, Lucas denounced Laing for showing “no interest in Bion’s seminal work on schizophrenia” that viewed psychosis as being driven by an envious hatred of psychic reality and an attack on the individual’s capacity to think. By this omission, it could be argued that like his subject, Beveridge fails to consider psychoanalytic theories that do not suit the Laingian model.

Nevertheless, where Beveridge succeeds is by providing an understanding of the diversity of Laing’s interests and their relevance to all in psychiatry when considering mental illness and the patient’s experience. While Laing’s manipulation of clinical material might consign a lesser figure to historical oblivion, by considering his bridging position midway through the 20th century, the past century of psychiatry’s history is brought to life.

Laing, A. (1994) R.D. Laing: A Life, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing.

Lucas, R. (2009) The Psychotic Wavelength, London: Routledge.

Portrait of the psychiatrist as a young man: the early writing and work of RD Laing 

Allan Beveridge

Oxford University Press, 2011.

350 p. £39.99 pbk isbn: 9780199583577

Earlier book review for the Journal of Mental Health: 
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