by Perry Meisel
The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing. By Daniel Burston. 275 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. $35.
By the time he collapsed and died of a heart attack while playing tennis in August 1989, R. D. Laing had devolved from one of the most compelling intellectual heroes of the 1960's into a gruesome purveyor of pop mysticism and bad poetry. Once the charismatic power behind a community of radical therapists and the influential author of several provocative books, the Scottish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had broken down the barriers between sanity and madness – in theory, in practice and even in the swagger of his own personality – had become ''yesterday's icon,'' as Daniel Burston describes Laing's last years in The Wing of Madness. Laing's impact is still with us, but what it was – and how seriously we are to entertain it – remain questions that Mr. Burston's comprehensive and extraordinarily readable study of Laing's life and work is designed to answer. Mr. Burston, who teaches psychology at Duquesne University and who previously wrote The Legacy of Erich Fromm, displays the kind of sympathetic generosity one expects from a biographer, although such sympathy is sometimes a questionable virtue when it comes to estimating the real nature and status of Laing's achievement.
Born in Glasgow in 1927, Laing was the only child of ''a quiet Presbyterian couple,'' as Mr. Burston calls them, whose behavior was anything but quiet. Laing's father and grandfather had ''brutal physical scenes in the parlor,'' while his mother was wont to burn the family's trash inside the apartment so as to conceal its contents from the neighbors and regularly destroyed her son's toys. Even in old age, she was ''sticking pins into an effigy of her son, called a 'Ronald doll,' with the express intention of inducing a heart attack.'' Laing was ''not a wanted child,'' Mr. Burston observes, and he is by no means hesitant to suggest the extent to which Laing's childhood prefigured his later professional focus on the actual social or ''interpersonal'' world in which people grow up. Both ''introverted'' and ''rebellious,'' Laing was, as Mr. Burston puts it, a product of ''complex tensions.'' As a schoolboy, Laing excelled at classics and dabbled in evangelical Christianity; he also maintained a schedule of reading that, by the time he was 15, included Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche and, of course, Freud.
As a young British Army psychiatrist in the early 1950's, Laing was already trying out his ''interpersonal'' approach (it derives, Mr. Burston reminds us, from Harry Stack Sullivan) by sitting with schizophrenics ''quietly . . . in their padded cells, a move assumed by his superiors to be dedicated research.'' It was. Like Freud, Laing questioned the traditional neurobiological view of schizophrenia and other disorders, but, like Sullivan, he was looking for sources in real rather than in fantasized quarters. In 1953, Laing set up the ''Rumpus Room,'' a day room for schizophrenic patients in a hospital near Glasgow that allowed them some possibility for social interaction. Later that year, he found the case that confirmed his views on the relation between brain and mind, neurology and psychiatry.
Nan, a 15-year-old girl with severe head injuries, had changed her personality after recovering from a coma. Before her accident, she had been a promising young hausfrau; now, Mr. Burston writes, she was a ''coquette.'' Although to the neurologists Nan's first attempts at speech and movement were incoherent, to the rest of the hospital staff ''they were construed . . . as deliberate humor,'' leading to the rewards of ''sweets and caresses.'' Laing ascribed the change to an interpersonal factor – ''the new 'Nan,' '' as he himself put it, ''began as a construction of the others.''
The Rumpus Room experiment brought Laing to the attention of J. D. Sutherland at the Tavistock Institute, and in 1956 Sutherland and his psychoanalytic colleagues John Bowlby and Charles Rycroft invited Laing to join them in London. Laing became a training candidate at the Institute of Psycho-Analysis in London, but was interested less in the doctrinal struggles between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud than in pursuing his own work. D. W. Winnicott was one of Laing's clinical supervisors, and he was warm in his response to Laing's first book, The Divided Self (1959), which he read in manuscript. To the vocabulary of the interpersonal, Laing had added the vocabulary of the existential. Emotional misery, he argued, has its roots in experiences with others, usually in the family, as he would go on to argue (with Aaron Esterson) in Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964). Falling ill is the first step in a ''self-cure,'' a process Laing later called ''metanoia,'' ''a term used in the Greek New Testament for atonement.'' Metanoia, especially in its schizophrenic form, is an existential journey, Laing argued; with safe surroundings, it can actually be a route toward recovery based on choice. ''Laing, like Sartre,'' Mr. Burston writes, ''construed the mad (or nearly mad) person as an active agent in the creation and perpetuation of his own misery, who must choose, finally, to abandon his schizoid isolation in favor of authentic relatedness to others in order to regain his sanity.''
Laing's attempt to put these notions into the radical practice that made him famous came with the establishment in 1964 of Kingsley Hall, the controversial therapeutic community in London's East End in which staff and patients often exchanged roles. Laing's ''therapeutic utopia,'' as Mr. Burston amusingly describes it, was ''anarchic,'' and its legendary characters included Mary Barnes, the middle-aged Roman Catholic nurse who attracted wide attention after writing a book about her regression and recovery. Kingsley Hall was dissolved in 1970, at the beginning of the next phase of Laing's career, a showier phase frankly intended to cash in on his notoriety as a guru (Laing's money problems were endless) and to explore newer interests like the relation between shamanism and psychotherapy. Laing periodically sank under the task. Despite the Philadelphia Association – the umbrella organization he had helped to found in 1965, which was stocked with disciples who loosely oversaw a group of therapeutic communities – Laing's clinical movement also lost steam toward the end of the decade. By the 1980's, Laing was in decline. In 1987, he even lost his license to practice medicine in Britain because a patient alleged he had been ''intoxicated and unprofessional'' on two occasions. At the end, Mr. Burston writes, Laing was ''a once-famous man with no profession, no fixed address and no funds.''
Mr. Burston intends not to bury Laing but to assess him. Laing's personal and intellectual agony betokens an exemplary role in the cultural history of the century, but for reasons different from the sometimes grandiose ones that Mr. Burston gives to make his case. Laing cannot, for example, be given credit for reconciling Freud and Sartre. As a good intellectual historian, Mr. Burston should acknowledge that this achievement belongs instead to Jacques Lacan, for whom the interpersonal raises a question that Laing (unlike Sullivan) always hesitated to ask: whether or not self and other even exist except in their relation. Despite his attentiveness to the structuring role of contrasts in the formation of identity, Mr. Burston's tired reliance on notions of the self's ''authenticity,'' garnered from Laing's own often tawdry rhetoric, suggests that, like Laing, he is unable, or unwilling, to integrate this paradox into his thinking. Nor does Laing rank in originality with Freud, or even Jung, as Mr. Burston shockingly proposes, because Laing grandly capitulated to influence – Freud's or Sartre's – rather than overcoming or skillfully rearticulating it.
In retrospect, Laing's charismatic vexation derives from acting out his overdetermination (to use Freud's terms) as a thinker instead of working it through. Laing was a real and significant sufferer because he took tensions to the limit without managing to resolve them. ''If I could tell you,'' he wrote at the close of The Politics of Experience (1967), ''I would let you know.'' A crucible for the century's own overdeterminations, Laing's sorrows are a kind of sacrifice for our wider understanding after him – and in many ways because of him.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1996.