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Daniel Burston, The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1996, 275pp, hardcover $35.

Reviewed by Douglas Kirsner

Death becomes biographers. Or at least their subjects. It’s the natural end of their story and biographers spring into action. So it is with R. D. Laing who died in 1989 at the age of 62. In his biography, The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing, Daniel Burston explores the life and legacy of a man Burston rightly terms ‘the most controversial psychotherapist of the late twentieth century’. As ‘a study in sharp and bewildering contrasts’, Laing was both ‘trickster’ and ‘relentless truthteller’ who influenced people across many disciplines and walks of life to challenge their preconceptions about madness, to explore the role of the ‘false self’ in relation to society, and to examine the role of psychiatry as both facilitating and preventing authentic existence. ‘Now that he is dead’, Burston asserts, ‘there is a real danger that his tarnished public image will detract from an ongoing discussion and evaluation of his work. That would be a tragic mistake’ (pp. 1-2).

Of the number of books that have appeared on Laing since his death in 1989, Dan Burston’s The Wing of Madness, together with John Clay’s R. D. Laing: A Divided Self (Hodder and Stroughton, London, 1996) form the best combination of detailed biography and discussion about the social and intellectual setting in which Laing’s ideas developed. The Wing of Madness is especially well-researched, relying on interviews and what archival research was possible given that Laing’s executor, his son Adrian, has barred access to Laing’s extensive records.

Dan Burston teaches psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and is the author of The Legacy of Erich Fromm, (Harvard University Press, 1991) which examines Fromm’s often misunderstood and overlooked intellectual contribution to a humanistic psychoanalysis. He is currently working on another book on Laing’s contributions.

Burston wonders whether Laing’s emphasis on context-dependent selves—the idea that we are who we are is a function of our context be it the other, family or society—was as much a function of his own introspection as of disinterested observation of other people’s behaviour. ‘Perhaps he sensed that deep down he had many characters... and this sensitized him to the inconsistencies of thought, feeling, and behavior elicited when people enter the different social worlds that comprise their existence. It may also account for the mercurial element in his personality’ (p. 3). Burston is right—Laing’s exquisite sensibility created him as the chameleon he was. This quality both made him and (with the help of his considerable hubris) finally broke him. Burston underscores the contrasts in Laing’s very own divided self. His highly competitive driving ambition and craving for recognition were not always compatible with his thirst for knowledge, genuine meeting and communion. Laing’s capacity for trust was continually corroded by what Burston terms his ‘invidious passions’. These were formed by his childhood experiences as an isolated child in a difficult Glaswegian family (pp. 6-7).

Burston traces Laing’s life from his very depressing relationship with his mother and his more positive relationship with his father, through his schooling and university years through his time in the army. These parts of Laing’s life are illuminating and include his first real love affair where Marcelle Vincent, a French woman, refused to marry him because of his mercurial character and tendency to nihilism and despair (p. 14).

Laing was clinically fascinated by disturbances in the interpersonal field which render adaptation possible only on the condition of alienation from a real self. Such speculations eventually brought Laing to the attention of J. D. Sutherland, then medical director of the Tavistock Clinic where Laing worked as a registrar and underwent analytic training at the British Institute for Psychoanalysis (pp. 40-2).

Laing was analyzed by Charles Rycroft and his supervisors were Marion Milner and D. W. Winnicott (Melanie Klein refused Laing’s request for supervision on the grounds that his analyst had not been properly analyzed!) Laing didn’t attend many classes, and this caused some ire. Strong official moves to stop Laing graduating on schedule—or ever—were beaten with the help of his analyst and supervisors. Laing complained that his training was of little or no value, something that surprised Rycroft. Later Laing thanked Rycroft for not turning his analysis into the usual course of Freudian indoctrination (chapter 3).

Laing must have been impressive to his peers and teachers though. In 1975 I spoke about Laing with Masud Khan who told me that Laing was the most brilliant student in his generation of candidates. Khan saw it as tragic that Laing was not involved anymore with psychoanalysis. I can also confirm Laing’s disdain for the analytic institute. I was at a party with Laing after I had spent the earlier part of the evening presenting a paper at the British Psychoanalytic Institute. The paper created quite a stir with a rather intense discussion after which the chairman made an analytic interpretation to the audience. When I told Laing about the discussion, his only reply was, ‘They’re a pathetic lot’!

Burston details the development of ideas in what is arguably Laing’s best book, The Divided Self, and Laing’s work with Aaron Esterson on Sanity, Madness and the Family. Then an all-too-brief chapter on Kingsley Hall, Laing’s major therapeutic community which exemplified much of his philosophy. His radical bent in the late 1960s gave way to more mystical involvements culminating in his sojourn to Ceylon in 1972.

The 1970s saw Laing falling from grace. Burston chronicles Laing’s loss of allure, creativity and credibility, and a financial crisis. While he wrote on birth and pre-birth experience and composed some unsuccessful sonnets and dialogues, Laing was increasingly and understandably seen as what Burston characterises as ‘an impulsive, disorganized and generally intemperate man, who couldn’t care less about what anyone thought of him as long as he collected his fee’ (p. 130).

While Laing was clearly on the skids in the 1970s—his constant drinking didn’t help—he reached his nadir in the following decade, his last. It began with a major marital crisis in 1980, then the end of his relationship with the Philadelphia Association which he had chaired for decades, then with his deregistration in 1987 as a medical practitioner in Britain after a complaint by a patient that he had been intoxicated and unprofessional on two occasions. He produced Wisdom, Madness and Folly in 1983 which explored his early life and a painted a portrait of the young psychiatrist who produced The Divided Self. A sequel to this was Bob Mullan’s Mad to be normal, which consisted of interviews with Laing about his life and work up to the 1980s. But, as Burston points out, Laing was to give no further account of his life in the 1980s (p. 144). Although Laing roamed the world without a home for much of the 1980s it was with a woman whom he married, had a child with and by all accounts was happy with. Laing’s last unpublished book was about the history of love. Laing died playing tennis in St Tropez from a heart attack in 1989.

Burston is always respectful of Laing’s ideas and explores their development in relation to his life very well. The last three chapters of Burston’s revealing book examine some of the conceptual underpinnings of the mental health models Laing contested, the axioms underlying Laing’s own approach, and his critiques of psychoanalysis and psychiatry. These contain interesting and thoughtful interpretations involving discussions about the ‘Babel’ of ideas about the nature of the self in vogue today. I would have liked to have seen more throughout the book on Laing’s philosophy since his work can only be fully understood against a background of existentialist philosophy and phenomenology.

I have only been able to review some of the material in this book which is replete with detail and reflection. I believe that Burston’s book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Laing and his work. It’s an absorbing book about the eventful life of a fascinating man. Laing was no doubt wrong about many things, but we ignore to our cost his mode of sceptical inquiry and existentialist questioning.

The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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