R.D. Laing

Wisdom, Madness, and Folly

VTR Date: December 6, 1985

Guest: Laing, R.D.



HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today, one of the most controversial doctors of the mind for more than a generation now, is the British psychiatrist R. D. Laing whose intriguing memoir WISDOM, MADNESS, AND FOLLY has just been published by McGraw-Hill. Now the folly that Dr. Laing writes about may best be identified, as it so often has been in his extensive writings, which his colleagues’ practice of psychiatry, with their training, with the power society invests in them. There is, he writes, no more extreme dependence of one individual upon another in our society than at the interface between the psychiatrist examining someone psychiatrically and the person being examined. Again, I am still, and he says, let me find the place, I am still more frightening by the fearless power in the eyes of my fellow psychiatrists than by the powerless fear in the eyes of their patients. And he adds, I dread the thought of either look appearing in my eyes. And yet, power there is. And seemingly a note in Dr. Laing’s continuing cry of anguish that it’s exercised by society upon the individual that says there probably must be that power. That if society doesn’t change psychiatrist to protect itself against what ever it is that it calls madness, it will turn elsewhere to do the same. Psychiatrists burden, then, its curse perhaps. And I would like to begin by asking Dr. Laing if his profession can possibly avoid using that power.

LAING: I don’t think it can. It its power that is … it’s not self- elected, it’s not chosen, it is accorded that power by society which has to locate that power in somebody of people. The difficulty for doctors is that they’re not trained. And they’re not ostensibly expected to exercise power like that. It’s not ordinary, clinical, medical thing. But if you trained in the medical school and you go to a psychiatrist you find you’re in a very special branch of medicine with that power is expected to be exercised with discretion and responsibility.

HEFFNER: Dr. Laing, few think it is possible to train people to exercise the kind of overwhelming power that you’ve described here?

LAING: I think the power shouldn’t be so overwhelming. I don’t think it needs to be. I think there could be a counter feeling, counterchecks to one person or like a joke has got a great deal of power in the sense, one way or another. But we have a whole court. We have a defending council. We have a persecuting council. We very often have the jury. A psychiatrist is faced with a Patient. There is no advocate for the patient. And there’s no jury. And it is very little effect of appeal, in the muted the immediate future any way, for the prescription that he believes as to what should happen to that person. But see in Italy they tried to countervail that getting the final authorization for a patient being committed to an institution to come from a lay person such as the most important local figure, the mayor of the town. Someone who’s not a doctor recognizing that the crunch in a political decision can’t be medical. The medical decision can give advice for the political decision, but it’s not absolutely necessary that both decisions have to be taken by the same person.

HEFFNER: Yet Dr. Laing, it’s strange that you should say that. We taped this program here early in December 1985 and certainly, around this country at least, I don’t know if it’s true in Britain. I don’t know if it’s true in other countries. We have been destroyed by instances in which just exactly the opposite appears to be the case. Instances in which members of our profession, of the medical profession, the psychiatric profession, have committed individuals for individuals who have committed themselves, psychiatrists have been said, they’re not ready. They’re not medically, psychiatrically, ready to be released from an institution. And lawyers and ultimately courts have read these people sometimes with rather horrendous results. Just recently in New York someone was thrown before a subway train by someone who had been released from a mental institution over the objections of the psychiatric community. But because of the prosecution’s that had been afforded … so we seem affording more and more legal protections and the problem seems to be that the shoe is on the other foot.

LAING: I can appreciate that and I think every country, every European country, as well as the United States are going through a rather agonizing. … There hasn’t been … I think very few people will think that there has been a satisfactory resolution of this problem. We want to safeguard society and other people at the same time we want to do the decent thing for the targeted patients. There are many interests that enter into this apart from the patient’s own immediate interests. There are many people in different walks of life, the police, lawyers, social workers, a multitude now of community health workers as well as medically qualified psychiatrists. How all these people can work together in a synergetic way to do the best all around is something that the next five or ten years are going to see how we’re going to can hack it out. Well, I haven’t got … I mean I’m not coming here with any … I’m not carrying any flags. As I say in this book, it’s very often comes to the situation of what to do when you don’t know what to do?

HEFFNER: You say you’re not carrying any flag. And I know that you’ve come to this country for the Open Center to give a seminar relating to the question of wisdom and madness and folly. And yet my recollection over the past generation of R.D. Laing is of a man who has waved a flag. Is there some mellowing? Is there some change in your approach to the problems you face?

LAING: I don’t find … I don’t feel that myself. I think the flag that I’ve been said to have been waving for a number of years have been other people waving at usually my name. In the course of these years I’ve given many interviews as well as what I’ve written and asked people to actually find in what I’ve written or in what I’ve said any cut and dried, black and white actual program. I think it’s very difficult for some people to realize that I haven’t ever pretended to come along with answers. But I’m asking questions. Trying to ask constructive questions rather than provide a short circuited and very often unsatisfactory negative answer. And that’s rather disappointing to many people who’d like to feel that I was a chap with a pocketful of answers. But I’ve got a pocket full of questions.

HEFFNER: It may be that as people watch this program they will find not disappointment, not in meeting you on the screen, but in not being able to point the finger at you as the author of so many ideas that they associate you with. For instance, insanity is saner than insanity, a notion that a number of my psychiatric friends through at me to throw at Laing. Is that something that you can wrap yourself or around as is, or do you need questions that go with it?

LAING: It’s a difficult thing to reply to in two or three sentences because that form of words is not one that I’ve actually used, though it’s been attributed to me. But what I said, if I can say it very quickly, every culture, every society including ours, the ancient Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Hindus, the great civilizations, the Chinese, the great civilizations of the world of which are ours is undoubtedly one of the great civilizations we have any record of, has to find a form. Has to find coherence. And that means every civilization, every culture, has got to culture out certain things, as well as culture in certain things. If you read THE DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL, 3rd EDITION, of the American Psychiatric Association, it lists there among mental disorders literally I quote, any unusual experience. Telepathy. Clairvoyance. Sixth-sense. Others can feel my feelings. It lists as a token of mental disorder feeling; feelings, not even seeing or hearing the presence of someone who has died, in one’s presence after three weeks from death. Now when you think of how long the other cultures have regarded as normal to mourn for the presence of another person to begin to evaporate, maybe a year maybe two years. We’re very impatient about this so we culture out many things, I think. For instance, I’ll give you an example. I’m in California last year doing a master class of … (inaudible)… psychosis and one chap who runs a clinical psychology institution in the Mid-west had a problem. What’s the problem? The problem is that he has had referred to him for his critical assessment and possible recommendations for treatment children from the school system because they have been discovered to be dreaming in color. Well, of course, he is resisting that. I mean, he doesn’t think it’s abnormal. But there’s a cultural tendency to keep on wondering whether some things that we would like to believe are perfectly normal might be abnormal. So we’ve always thought to be in their … (inaudible)… for trying to maintain a sort of balance in these respects while admitting that some things may have to go.

HEFFNER: You know one could assume that Laing has mellowed. Laing has changed. Not radically, perhaps, but he has modified his thinking or he developed it and explains it differently now. Or one could assume, as I think you have noted, no changes have taken place. Perhaps the world is beginning to catch up with your much more modest statement of ideas to move away from the extensions of those ideas that you attribute to others. In THE NEW YORK TIMES review of your book recently you replied in a letter to the editor because you wanted to make certain that it is clear they really hadn’t changed. In the TIMES and then I guess it was in the SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER both reviewers seemed to find … in the EXAMINER: Because it is the product of a more considered judgment and a more mature perspective than his earlier works, it, your new book, it is this maverick psychiatrists’ best book. And then in the real in THE NEW YORK TIMES when you reply to it you said: I want to put on record that 1) I have not become disenchanted with my earlier ideas. 2) I have not abandoned THE POLITICS OF MADNESS. 3) I do not regard my methods of treating schizophrenics as having failed. On the first two issues, is this really a function of misunderstanding of what you had written and said in the past? Is there not an element of perhaps even Laing over twenty years would change and soften his ideas, modify them?

LAING: Oh, I’m a 58 year-old man now. And I’m sure I come across different than when I was 28 or 38 or 48.

HEFFNER: No, I don’t mean come across. Think. Feel. Conceptualize.

LAING: Well, I don’t … I don’t myself feel I’ve changed my fundamental attitude to things. When you say mellow, it’s very difficult for me to judge. It’s very difficult for me to judge whether I’ve mellowed or not. I don’t mind the thought. But certainly I haven’t changed my commitment to the issues about THE POLITICS OF MADNESS, insanity and so one. The issues of power to do with who is … in fact in this book I, this last book WISDOM, OF MADNESS, AND FOLLY, I propose the year that we could think of a principal of complete experimental anarchy. That’s to say it is entirely your affair, it’s entirely my affair how we live in the world in terms of how we experience it. But if my conduct or your conduct becomes transgressive, if it intrudes and it pinches and is destructive in terms of my conduct, well for what ever reason, then I shouldn’t be allowed to be transgressive in my conduct. But I mean it’s one of the most fundamental things about a free society that as Euripides said many as a goal in ancient Greece, a slave is a man who cannot speak his thoughts. And a patient is very often someone who was not even allowed to think them.

HEFFNER: But you see when you distinguish as you do in this book now between thought expression and behavior, the question occurs to me why have you not corrected in all of this time having the sympathies you to for the limitations upon all of us, we misread Laing, we misinterpret him, we chose to see him as commenting upon freedom of contract as well as freedom of thought and expression. Why have you not in all of these years, seemingly to me as I read back, corrected the mis-impression that has been abroad if indeed it has been a mis-impression?

LAING: Partly because I became so disheartened over it. Then the years in the late ’60s and early ’70s that it didn’t matter. It didn’t seem to matter what I said in repeated interviews. If I said things that people didn’t want to hear, they just didn’t print that. And completely ignored. I’ve got interviews in major British and European newspapers over a period of time when I kept on saying very much what I’m saying now. And say, now I’m not coming across with the answers to you think I’ve got, but I’m expressing my own … and also, that I’m really much more interested in the pragmatics of the thing. I’m not interested in endless ideological blah, blah, blah. I’m interested in getting down to the actual practical skill means where we do the best we can to help each other in our suffering.

HEFFNER: It sounds as though Laing has been used by others for their own purposes. That Laing was used by the counter-culture, for instance. That they took, the counter-culture, took from you what it wanted. But I think from what you’re saying now, not really what you meant. Is that a fair statement?

LAING: Oh, absolutely. Yes. There are passages … for instance, I think I became best known in the first place in the United States over a book that came out in the mid ’60s called THE POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE IN THE BIRD OF PARADISE where a number of people took upon themselves to regard particularly THE BIRD OF PARADISE as some sort of acid testament. Acid had nothing to do with it. I had taken acid by the time that was published, but I wrote it, all but one page, before I ever took acid. It’s got nothing to do with an acid testament. It’s supposed to be a prose poem in the tradition, old tradition of prose poetry. And I said that again and again and no one was particularly interested in listening. I got, I spend my time on the one hand trying to cultivate the actual practice of being at Kingsley Hall. I became very absorber in that. And that took up my life namely five years. Kingsley Hall is a community settlement in London which has got historical luster because it was a place that Mahatma Gandhi stayed for three months when he was last in Britain negotiating the future of India with the British government. We were given this building for five years to try out an alternate approach to relating to people in a sort of distress. So I became very absorbed in that. And I wanted people to come around and have a touch of an experience themselves. But people were, although some of my colleagues did, most people didn’t really want to know about it in practice, they just wanted the rhetoric that they could pick up from a thing like THE BIRD OF PARADISE and use it for their own purposes. Then I’ve got completely exhausted, and I was completely bummed and went off to Ceylon and India for somewhat over a year to meditate which I just got down to and did. And when I came back to the West in the early ’70s, I thought the best policy for a bit was silence.

HEFFNER: Silence. But it was broken with the statement in December 1972, the United States strikes me as a fantastic lunatic asylum. That was embraced by the counterculture. Now maybe they misused you. Do you embrace what we had known as the counter, now as the counter-culture?

LAING: I would like to believe that in a moment of exasperation for a sustained move of exasperation Ronald Reagan could say that…

HEFFNER: But not Laing.

LAING: But it’s very impolite to say that about another country. But I mean that, and that doesn’t reflect a position statement in terms of what I’ve got more sympathy with Democrats or liberals. I mean if there’s any need to put any, make any testament … (inaudible) … I thank God I’m living in the west. And not within the range of the Russian block for the Chinese block. I mean I couldn’t last for more than a few weeks I think, at the very most. With all its contradictions and confusions and … (inaudible) … I don’t think anyone in their right mind would deny, I’m happy to be living in this contact than in any other context that I know of.

HEFFNER: I really wasn’t searching for a testament, testimony. I really was wondering about the degree to which it was appropriate in those days perhaps for the counter-culture to embrace Laing. And wondered about the degree to which you have embraced and would today embrace it.

LAING: Well, I don’t know what the counterculture is today. Well, I don’t know…

HEFFNER: In the sense that our culture has encountered since the ’60s and ’70s?

LAING: I would like to belong to that group of that sensibility in our culture that has a critically affirmative, an affirmative and at the same time a critically affirmative reflective awareness upon the culture in which we live. I don’t think there is such a sociological distinguishable entity in the mid ’80s as a counter-culture.

HEFFNER: All right. There enough. But I know that I’ve just got in the signal and we have a few minutes left. I want to come back to psychiatrists and your relationship to the general practice of psychiatry. On the one hand you, I quoted from you in ways that one could say these are a negative statement about the practice of psychiatry, and yet you say power that power has to be exercised by some group. Have they reached a point at which the psychiatric community in this country at least, would say we understand Laing? And we can accept him now. He’s a voice crying in the wilderness, but it’s not looking to come to the psychiatric community as so many seem to think that you have wanted to do. Undo them. Have we reached a point where we can have hands above, across the bloody chasm?

LAING: I hope so.

HEFFNER: How do you achieve that?

LAING: Well believe it or not I’m a member of … (inaudible) of psychiatry in Britain and trained psychoanalyst. I was an officer in the British army and so on. I don’t believe in the type of attitude that simply knocks people who have got very often the thankless job of exercising our intimidating amount of power. And being put under pressure all the time to justify this smallest since a decision that you have to take. I think it’s not, it’s a matter of let’s hope that whatever way we approach, we share a certain spirit of camaraderie with each other. Compassion between, and not trying to say that on a shining light in the capacity of exercising passion and so on. But that’s my aspiration. That’s where I see the light at the end of the tunnel.

HEFFNER: Have you, briefly, have you come to the conclusion that too many persons who have previously been committed to or have committed themselves to mental institutions are now on the street?

LAING: I think there are a lot of people who need sanctuary, who need asylum in the general sense, in the hematology cents, of a hospital. A place of hospitality. Simply because the old style mental hospital with all the Victorian architecture and the dilapidation and all the constraints that such structures impose on the relationship between people haven’t been cost-effective. The Reagan Administration in California when he was Governor … (inaudible) … had very much the same programs the Italians did in 1978 or opposite ideological reasons … (inaudible) … and the Italians hate me for telling them that. But the Italians didn’t set out any alternative to the places they were closing down. So there wasn’t during much too hard on anyone. And the whole thing and the whole program now seem to be in a state of collapse.

HEFFNER: Looks as though ours is too. And I’m getting the signal that we have to collapse our program. Dr. Laing, thank you so much for joining me today.

LAING: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on the open mind. Meanwhile as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”