Born in 1927 into a middle class Presbyterian family, Ronald David Laing spends his early life in Govanhill, Glasgow, attending the primary and secondary schools nearby. He has, essentially, a classical education becoming well versed in the cornerstones of Western intellectual thought. His early passions are reading and music and his first ‘existential crisis’ comes at the age of 5 when his parents reveal to him that Santa Claus is really them. This episode seems to resonate throughout the remainder of his life culminating in the title of the last book he was working on shortly before he died viz – The Lies of Love. There is contention as to how deprived these early years were, although there is general consensus that they were materially privileged, albeit, emotionally bleak. One saving grace in the equation seems to be the close musical relation that develops between Ronnie and his own father, David Park McNair, perhaps offsetting the more emotionally distant one with his mother, Amelia.
After completing secondary school, Laing attends Glasgow University (1945-51) studying medicine – ostensibly because it gives him access to the issues of birth and death – but simultaneously continues his philosophical education acquainting himself with the main contemporary thinkers, particularly in the continental tradition of phenomenology and existentialism. At the end of medical school his interests seem to be moving in the direction of neurology and psychiatry and his first post is for 6 months in the West of Scotland Neurosurgical Unit in nearby Killearn where the issue of lobotomy is a highly contentious and debated issue amongst the staff. At the end of this stint Ronnie conceives the idea of going to study with Karl Jaspers in Basel, but this is thwarted by his being called up into the British Army where he spends the next 2 years (1951-3) working as a psychiatrist. (It is here in Netley near Southhampton that he meets and marries his first wife, a nurse named Anne Hearne.) Thrust into a jungle of traditional psychiatric remedies – drugs, electroshoc., and insulin coma therapy – he begins to question the wisdom of these so-called ‘treatments’ – treatment he believes is how one treats another person – and rather spends his time listening to and talking with his patients, thus commencing his thinking that real treatment (real therapy) is an interpersonal phenomenon.
After leaving the army, Laing returns to Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow (1953) where he completes his psychiatric training (1955) obtaining his Diploma in Psychological Medicine (or D.P.M., the forerunner of our present-day M.R.C.Psych – Member of the Royal College of Psychiatry) in early 1956. Here he conducts his first bit of research (known as the ‘Rumpus Room’) into what he was later to call ‘social phenomenology’ which provides some evidence for the hard fought lessons (re: the importance of interpersonal relations in the ‘treatment’ of ‘chronic schizophrenia’) learned in the army. In 1956 he takes up the post of senior registrar at the Southwestern Hospital under the tutelage of Professor Ferguson Rogers, and through the latter’s link with Jock Sutherland, a Scottish psychoanalyst and director of the Tavistock clinic in London, Ronnie conceives the master plan of moving to tha big city, training as a psychoanalyst at the Institute, working as a registrar/senior registrar at the Tavistock Clinic and doing research into the families of ‘schizophrenics’ at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. He arrives in London at the end of 1956, starts his training at the end of 1957 (completing it in 1960) going into analysis with Charles Rycroft (a member of the independent group) and having Marion Milner and Donald Winnicott as his supervisors. During this period he completes his first book The Divided Self An Existential Study of Madness and Sanity (completed at the end of 1957 and published in1960) which represents the culmination of his thinking over the previous 6 years, is based on the clinical studies he canied out in the army and subsequently in Glasgow, and focuses on the application of Existential/ phenomenological ideas to the so-called ‘schizoid condition’. The author claims that Laing’s overall aim at the end of this process is to be able to speak with the authority of a psychoanalyst, and, at the same time, to issue a challenge to the psychoanalytic movement by trying to persuade its members of the relevance of the existentia/phenomenological perspective to the understanding of mentally disturbed patients.
The years 1957-64 which prove to be a highly productive and intensely intellectual period in which Ronnie writes (either himself or as co-author) 6 highly influential books which would ultimately establish his growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the psychological field, and launch him on the road to fame. Beginning With The Divided Self 1960, ( a book which probably owes more to Kierkegaard than to Winnicott) and it’s companion volume Self and Others, 1961, (the other half as it were, of The Divided Self) he moves on to co-author three books: (1)Sanity Madness and the Family, 1964, with fellow Glaswegian Aaron Esterson, which represents the results of their phenomenological research into the families of ‘schizophrenics’ at the Tavistock and gives rise, in the popular press, to the rather erroneous notion that what they were really saying was that families caused schizophrenia; (2) Interpersonal Perception (1966) with A.R. Lee and H. Phillipson – a rather important but somewhat less remembered work – which expands on his ideas about social (or interpersonal) phenomenology, provides the inspiration for his more popular book of a few years later (i.e. Knots, 1970, and is still used by the Tavistock today; (3) Reason and Violence: A decade of Sartre’s philosophy 1950-60, 1964, a joint work with South African born fellow-psychiatrist David Cooper on the later works of Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre represents one of the main theoretical influences on Laing’s thinking in the early 60’s – the other one being the American studies on the communicational anomalies in the families of so-called ‘schizophrenics’. By 1964, then, we see the beginning of the formation of Ronnie’s public persona of guru and prophet, marked by a few appearances on national television, several articles about his work, and a number of talks and papers which he delivers at various conferences and are eventually brought together into a book entitled The Politics of Experience, 1967, a highly polemical selection which contains many of the quotations for which he became famous throughout the 60s and 70s. On the more personal side, it is during this period that Ronnie completes his first family – having 5 children in toto but as his public begins to ascend, so his private life begins to plummet.
The following years might be described as the period in Laing’s life where he decides to put theory into practice (1965-71). After leaving the Tavi, and while still director of the Langham Clinic, he founded, with David Cooper, Aaron Esterson, John Heaton, Joan Cunnold, Sid Briskin, and Clancy Sigal a charitable organization, The Philadelphia Association, whose purpose is to provide true asylum for those people in such states of distress that they would otherwise receive treatment in a more traditional psychiatric hospital. Initially there are no formally structured therapeutic arrangements in the first household acquired (Kingsley Hall) and in fact there appears to be a deliberate attempt to break down the barrier between doctor and patient. Ronnie’s hope is that the community will furnish evidence for his growing thesis that madness is not necessarily a breakdown, but may represent, potentially, a breakthrough into a more authentic way of being (i.e.- that it is a natural healing process with a beginning, middle, and end) re: the normal state of alienation to which the majority of us have succumbed. One resident of Kingsley Hall, Mary Barnes, seems to personify this central thesis of Laing’s and writes about her experiences in a book she co-authors with her ‘therapist’, an American doctor named Joe Berke, entitled Two Accounts of A Journey Through Madness. This era, which sees Laing at the zenith of his fame, is also marked by the break-up of his first family and the commencement of his second with a young German woman, Jutta Werner. (He would eventually have three children with her). In addition the publication of The Politics of Experience, 1967, and his appearance in the same year at the Dialectics of Liberation conference organized by the Institute of Phenomenological Studies (represented by Cooper, Berke, and Redler) seems to confirm Ronnie’s alleged membership in the New Left. But, in fact, he was angry with Cooper for having publicly identified him with the movement of ‘anti-psychiatry’ – a term coined by Cooper, (Adrian refers to this as the height of the ‘Guru Wars’) and just at the point where it was expected that Ronnie would write the definitive politics of mental health, he, in fact, withdraws from that domain – his interests becoming much more introspective and less concerned with schizophrenia, families, and radical psychiatry. Partly due to financial pressure, (according to the author), he publishes Knots, 1970, which becomes a highly successful book and acts as a transition for him to the more literary world of poetry. At this juncture Kingsley Hall closes and Laing decides the time is ripe for him to take a sabbatical year in Sri Lanka and India devoting himself to Theravedic Buddhist meditation. In preparation he closes his private practice in Wimpole St. (where, during the 60s, he had conducted sessions in LSD therapy), puts the finishing touches on The Politics of the Family, 1971, a small book containing a collection of talks given to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in 1968, and essentially hands the reigns of the Philadelphia Association over to John Heaton (clinical supervision), Leon Redler (the study programme) and Sid Briskin (administration).
Then proceed Ronnie’s life during the 70s and 80s. After his return from the east, he discovers that the London scene has changed. A new Philadelphia Association has virtually emerged (most of the original members having left and gone their separate ways), one which is somewhat less focused on families and schizophrenia and much more organized, with a wide-ranging study programme (drawing on the disciplines of phenomenology, psychoanalysis, anthropology (especially through the presence of Francis Huxley), yoga and meditation), and a training programme in individual and community psychotherapy. In addition, an ‘RD.Laing industry’ begins to emerge with a number of published secondary books in which the various authors jostle amongst themselves re: what R.D.Laing really meant and said (e.g.1.- A Fontana Modern Masters on Laing by Prof. Edgar Z. Friedenberg and 2.- Laing and Anti-psychiatry a Penguin compendium of articles edited by R Boyers and R Orrill). Laing decides that this is a good time to do a major lecture tour of the U.S. and when he returns his interests begin to crystallise around the politics of the birth process and the importance of intrauterine life. Inspired by the work of American psychotherapist Elizabeth Fehr, Ronnie begins to develop a team offering ‘rebirthing workshops’ in which one designated person chooses to re-experience the struggle of trying to break out of the birth canal represented by the remaining members of the group who surround him/her. This culminates in the publication of The Facts of Life, 1976, but without the same critical acclaim of some of his previous works (another work, The Politics of Birth, never sees the light of day), and with the identification of Ronnie as a proponent of natural birth.
By 1978, after the publication of Do You Really Love Me, 1977, and with two more small books on the way: Conversations with Children, 1978 and Sonnets, 1979, and with Ronnie’s new interests taking him more into the orbit of humanistic psychology, the gulf between himself and those of his colleagues (Heaton, Chriss and Haya Oakley, Paul Zeal) within the Philadelphia Association more interested in a philosophically informed psychoanalysis begins to widen. The real turning point seems to come in 1980. Shortly after the death of one of his closest colleagues in the Philadelphia Association viz, Hugh Crawford, Ronnie attends a conference in Saragossa, Spain where, apparently, his wife has a short affair with a German lawyer, and when, he subsequently finds out about it ‘all hell breaks loose’, according to Adrian, and his drinking, which had increased throughout the 70s reaches ‘unbearable new heights’ (It is at this same conference that he meets American psychologist Roberta Russell who will eventually publish a book about him entitled RD.Laing and Me: Lessons in Love). After this, his behaviour, as experienced by a number of colleagues in the PA becomes intolerable and this culminates in his formal resignation as chairperson in 1981. In the aftermath of this Ronnie begins to gather a ‘new crew’ together and has in mind to start a new project, valiantly galvanized by Kevin O’Sullivan, and eventually called St. Oran’s Trust’. He publishes The Voice of Experience in 1982 and the first half of his autobiography in Wisdom, Madness, and Folly in 1985. But by this point his marriage with Jutta has broken down and he spends the rest of his life together with his personal assistant of some 5 years standing Marguerita Romayne-Kendon. They eventually move to the United States (1986) and return to a small town in Austria in 1988 where Ronnie spends his remaining days working on his last, and still unpublished, manuscript, The Lies of Love. By this point a number of incidents have led to his resignation from the General Medical Council (1987). He ultimately dies of a heart attack while playing tennis in the south of France.
All of the above is a rough synopsis of of the professional life of an extraordinarily spirited individual who saw through the sham, the love-lies, of so called normal, conventional, existence and envisioned (and enacted) a way of living and being that was much more truthful (and sometimes the truth hurts!) and authentic. (When he told David Cooper in the late 70s that there wasn’t one of his so-called ‘disciples’ in the Philadelphia Association that was worth his or her salt, he meant it. And when he said, at the end of the 60s, as the author claims, that ‘Kingsley Hall never happened’ he probably meant that too). He challenged the orthodoxies (both in theory and in practice) of his profession and time precisely to the extent that they seemed to reinforce a desiccated version of quotidian existence. Of course this spiritedness potentially does have its dark or negative side. I hope I am not one of those ‘die-hard Laingians’ who appear to say that everything Ronnie Laing did and said was golden. But I do think it is important to appreciate the uniqueness of his spirit and the extraordinarily significant contribution he has made to psychiatry and psychology.
There remain a number of questions that are still unanswered. For example, what exactly was the evolution of Ronnie’s critique of the whole medical model of psychiatry, i.e.- his challenge to the notion of ‘mental illness’ as such (not just the concept of schizophrenia). What precisely was Ronnie’s approach to individual psychotherapy, a practice that he kept active alongside of his communal work in the PA? What can be derived from a close study of firsthand accounts of some of his ‘patients’ experience of therapy with him? The only published book I know of that describes his approach is Apollo Versus theEchomaker, 1992, by Anthony Lunt. Also what were the specific nature of those mysterious splits that led to the parting of the ways of people like Cooper, Schatzman, Berke, etc. And why did he ever decide to train in traditional psychoanalysis when he seems to have embraced more philosophical traditions? Even Charles Rycroft, Ronnie’s analyst, in a recent public debate with Adrian admitted that it was still somewhat of a mystery to him why Ronnie had done so. These are certainly questions to which it would be nice to have answers.
by Stephen Ticktin,adapted from
a review of R.D. Laing: A Biography, by Adrian Laing
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.
August 1932. Began to attend John Cuthbertson Primary School, Glasgow, aged four.
1936-1945. Attended Hutcheson’s Boys’ Grammar School, Glasgow, where he was an excellent student. Studied the Classics extensively. Learned Greek 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, Nietsche and especially Kierkegaard.
1945-51. Studied Medicine at Glasgow University. Prominent member of the university Debating Club and the Mountaineering Club. Met his first girlfriend, a French exchange student called Marcelle Vincent. Failed his final exams early 1950, which he successfully resat in December 1950. Spent a brief period as a houseman on a psychiatric ward, which inspired him to pursue psychiatry. During this period he met Aaron Esterson, with whom he later co-authored Sanity, Madness and the Family.
1951. Spent six months working as an internist at the Killearn Neurosurgical Unit, near Glasgow.
1951-53. Conscripted as an officer into the Royal Army Medical Corps. Posted to the British Army Psychiatric Unit, Netley, near Southampton, and then to the Military Hospital at Catterick, Yorkshire.
11th October 1952. Married his girlfriend Anne Hearne, who had become pregnant.
7th December 1952. His wife Anne gave birth to a girl whom they named, Fiona.
July 1953. Published a paper in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps – ‘An Instance of the Ganser Syndrome.’
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.
September 1954. Laing’s second daughter, Susan, was born.
November 1955. A third daughter, Karen, was born.
1st January 1956. Qualified as a psychiatrist.
May 1956. Read Colin Wilson’s recently published book The Outsider, which he vowed to emulate. Began writing The Divided Self.
Late 1956. Appointed as a senior registrar at the Tavistock Clinic, London. Accepted for training as a psychoanalyst by the Institute of Psychoanalysis.
1957. A son, Paul was born.
1958. Began the research that led to Sanity, Madness and the Family. Also began a series of seminars that involved him with a number of people who were to go on to become important collaborators, including Aaron Esterson and David Cooper.
April 1958. Adrian Laing born.
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 LSD.
1961. Self and Others published by Tavistock Publications.
Early 1962. Met Gregory Bateson, another important collaborator, while on a research trip in the United States. By this time his marriage was beginning to break up, and he began an affair with a Daily Express journalist called Sally Vincent. Appointed Clinical Director of the Langham Clinic in London.
1963. Began to appear in the popular media.
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 Timothy Leary in New York.
1965. Started another affair with a German graphics designer called Jutta Werner. The Divided Self, reissued by Penguin Books, became an immediate bestseller. Opened the Kingsley Hall project with Aaron Esterson, David Cooper and others. This was an experimental, non-hierarchical community, were schizophrenics were given space to work through their psychoses without resort to drugs, ECT or surgery. Inspiration came from Laing’s ‘Rumpus Room’ project, Cooper’s ‘Villa 21′, a community for schizophrenics with no distinctions made between staff and patients, and Esterson’s experiences of a kibbutz for schizophrenics in Israel.
15th to 30th July 1967. Took part in the Dialectics of Liberation Congress, intended to bring together left wing politics and pschoanalysis. Gave a speech entitled ‘The Obvious’, which was later published in an anthology of speeches from the congress.
1967. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, his most commercially successful book, published by Penguin in Britain and Pantheon in the US.
September 1967. His girlfriend Jutta Werner gave birth to a son, Adam.
1970. The Kingsley Hall Project closed.
April 1970. Had a second child by Jutta Werner, a girl called Natasha.
1971. Knots published by Penguin in Britain and Pantheon in the US.
March 1971. Went to Ceylon with 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 Kali. Also spent time learning Sanskrit and visiting Govinda Lama, who had been a guru to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.
April 1972. Returned to London.
5th November to 8th December 1972. Embarked on a lecture tour of the United States. Appeared on TV with Norman Mailer. Met Elizabeth Fehr, a psychotherapist who used ‘rebirthing’ psychodramas to treat patients. Laing would go on to adopt these rebirthing techniques himself.
Late 1973. Began running regular rebirthing sessions.
Valentine’s Day, 1974. Married Jutta Werner.
24th June 1975. Max, his third child with Jutta, was born.
1976. Do You Love Me? and The Facts of Life published. These works sold poorly in Britain and America, but were popular in continental Europe.
March 1976. Susie Laing, his daughter from his first marriage, died of leukaemia.
1978. Conversations With Children published.
21st April 1978. Laing’s father died at 5.15pm, the exact time of Laing’s birth.
September 1980. Took part in a three week conference, ‘The Psychotherapy of the Future’, at Zaragosa, Spain. Other notable figures included Fritjof Capra, Stanislav Grof, Jean Houston and Rollo May.
15th September 1984. Ronald’s 9th child, Benjamin, was born to his girlfriend Sue Sunkel.
February 1985. His autobiography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly, was published. A portrait of Laing was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland.
1986. Divorced from Jutta Laing.
1987. Was forced into resigning from the medical register of the General Medical Council, effectively preventing him from practicing medicine.
6th January 1988. A son, Charles, was born to Marguerite (née Romayne-Kendon) and Ronald Laing
1988. Participated in a Canadian documentary entitled Did You Used to Be R.D. Laing?
23rd August 1989. Died of a heart attack while playing tennis in St. Tropez, France.