European Association of Psychoanalysis
Psychiatry´s Valid but Dishonest Reconsiderations
Laing, Law, and Largactil
The term "psychiatry"
refers to two radically different ideas and practices:
curing-healing "souls" and coercing-controlling persons. It is important
that critics of psychiatry clarify whether they object to the former or the
latter or both, and why. Because I believe coerced psychiatric relations are
coerced labor relations called "slavery," and like coerced sexual relations
called "rape," I spent the better part of my professional life criticizing
involuntary-institutional psychiatry and the insanity defense. In 1967, my
effort to undermine the medical-political legitimacy of the term "mental
and the moral-legal legitimacy of depriving individuals of liberty by means
of psychiatric rationalizations suffered a serious blow: the creation of the
antipsychiatry movement. Despite their claims, "antipsychiatrists" rejected
neither the idea of mental illness nor coercion practiced in the name of "treating" mental illness. Sensational claims about managing "schizophrenia"
pretentious pseudophilosophical pronouncements diverted attention from the
crucial role of the psychiatrist as an agent of the state and as an adversary
of the denominated patient. The legacy of the antipsychiatry movement is the
creation of a catchall term used to delegitimize and dismiss critics of
psychiatric fraud and force by labeling them "antipsychiatrists."
antipsychiatry - Ronald D. Laing - David Cooper - Clancy Sigal - LSD - psychiatric coercions - psychiatric excuses
Words are the only things that last forever.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830)
The term "anti-psychiatry" was created by David Cooper (1931-1986), a collaborator and friend of Ronald David Laing (1927-1989), and was first used in Cooper´s book, Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry (1967). Cooper does not define the term. The closest he comes to identifying "anti-psychiatry" is the following: "We have had many pipe-dreams about the ideal psychiatric, or rather anti-psychiatric, community." Who are the "we"? This question is answered in The Dialectics of Liberation (1968), edited by Cooper with the lead chapter by Laing. In the Introduction, Cooper writes: "The organizing group of [the `Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation,´ held in London in 1967] consisted of four psychiatrists who ... counter-label[ed] their discipline as anti-psychiatry. X The four were Dr. R. D. Laing and myself, also Dr. Joseph Berke and Dr. Leon Redler." Since Laing was the acknowledged leader and spokesman of the group, I regard Laing as the person most responsible for popularizing the term "antipsychiatry."
Thomas Szasz, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, 4739 Limberlost Lane,
Manlius, New York, 13104-1405 E-mail: email@example.com
Neither he nor the other originators of "antipsychiatry" offered a definition of the term, then or later. Who was Cooper, why did Laing choose him as a friend and a co-author, and why did Cooper choose the term "antipsychiatry" for their collective self-identification? According to Laing, Cooper "was a trained Communist revolutionary and was a member of the South African Communist Party. He was sent to Poland and Russia and China to be trained as a professional revolutionary. ... we cooperated on writing Reason and Violence." In contrast, Laing identified me as follows: "I could take exception to his [Szasz´s] association with the John Birch Society and his version of the free society, rampaging capitalist, post-capitalism of cold war."
In other words, Laing had no problem with Cooper´s being a Soviet agent and professional revolutionary and the violence that such a role entailed; at the same time, he considered "my [classical liberal-libertarian] version of the free society" and "association with the John Birch society" as prima facie evidence of a character defect.
Let me pause and set the record straight about Laing´s reference to the John Birch Society. I have never had an "association" with the John Birch Society, which, I might add, was in the 1960s and for some time afterward, a respectable libertarian, anti-Communist organization (except in the eyes of committed socialists and communists). The source of the easily discredited smear that Laing repeats with relish lies in my having published an essay in 1962, in the American Journal of Psychiatry, entitled "Mind tapping: Psychiatric subversion of constitutional rights." In those days, I received frequent requests from both conservative and liberal publications for republishing my essays, which I always granted. I received such a request from the American Opinion, the monthly magazine of the John Birch Society, which both the American Journal of Psychiatry and I granted. My "association" with the John Birch Society was the same as the American Journal of Psychiatry´s association with it. But that was not the way my critics interpreted it.
In the 1960s, my contentions that most irked psychiatrists were that mental illness is a fiction and that mental hospitals are jails. Unable, unwilling, and unprepared to address these profoundly troubling issues, and feeling deeply secure in the moral superiority of their left-liberal, pro-Soviet ideology, they instead dismissed me as a right-wing fascist, a member of the "lunatic fringe." A paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry, by Paul Lowinger, professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University in Detroit -- titled " Psychiatrists against psychiatry" -- was a typical example. Lowinger wrote:
The anti-mental health lobby, which is part of the right-wing lunatic fringe, looks to the National Review for its intellectual Wheaties. Perhaps it surprises no one to find an exposition in [William F.] Buckley´s journal by Dr. Szasz of the frightening "menace of psychiatry to a fee society.... These views of the metaphoric nature of mental illness and the psychiatrist as jailer have also appeared in Harper´s Magazine. It may be of interest to know that Szasz´s opinions are now distributed along with Robert Welch´s Life of John Birch by Defenders of American Liberties headed by a former McCarthy committee counsel Robert Morris. The anti-mental health movement, with a potential membership of 26.5 million Goldwater voters, finds confirmation of its views in Thomas Szasz. X Lowinger´s essay stimulated a protest by T. P. Millar. In a letter to the editor titled "Guilt by association," Millar -- whom I did not know then and do not know now -- wrote:
The approach that Dr. Lowinger employs in dealing with Dr. Szasz´s criticism of psychiatric commitment is a particularly invalid one. Dr. Lowinger tells us that "Dr. Szasz´s opinions are now distributed along with Robert Welch´s Life of John Birch by Defenders of American Liberties headed by a former McCarthy committee counsel." We are also told that "the anti-mental health movement, with a potential membership of 26.5 million Goldwater voters, finds confirmation of its views in Thomas Szasz." In these two sentences Dr. Szasz´s views are associated with Robert Welch, the McCarthy committee, the anti-mental health movement, and Senator Goldwater. Is this not the technique we have come to deplore as guilt by association?
For organized psychiatry, the answer appears to be no, especially when the "guilty association" is itself a false attribution. The upshot was that, in the aftermath of the virulent condemnation of my persona generated by the publication of The Myth of Mental Illness, critics began to smear me as a "John Bircher." Laing and many of his defenders have embraced that tradition. In fact my association with the John Birch Society was exactly the same as that of the American Journal of Psychiatry, a fact my critics seem not to have noticed.
Laing thought of himself, and many of his admirers still think of him, as a courageous revolutionary thinker. I disagreed then and disagree now. He was a conventional thinker in the French-Continental tradition of "Pas d'enemies à gauche" ("No enemies to the left"). What was revolutionary in psychiatry in the 1960s and 1970s, and is even more revolutionary today, is seeing the State -- right or left -- as the enemy of the Patient as Person. Laing was blind to all that. He could see only a Good Left and an Evil Right. Condescendingly, he was willing to forgive me: "I could make some allowances because he was a Hungarian and no doubt hated the Russians." This naively historical-reductionism ignores that many Hungarians, former and present, are communists.Laing was a dyed-in-the-wool collectivist. His fame is closely connected with the commune he founded and named after the community center, Kingsley Hall, whose premises it occupied. Established in 1965, Kingsley Hall was to serve as "a model for non-restraining, non-drug therapies for those people seriously affected by schizophrenia. ... After five years use by the Philadelphia Association (from 1965 to 1970), Kingsley Hall was left derelict and uninhabitable." The similarities between the economic and human consequences of the Soviet regime and Laing´s regime -- at Kingsley Hall and in his own life -- are not coincidental.
Although sympathetic with Laing´s collectivist-socialist politics, Clancy Sigal (about whom more later) recognized that the creators of antipsychiatry were doers rather than thinkers, more interested in applying antipsychiatric practice than articulating antipsychiatric theory: "[David] Cooper, the most political among us, insisted that theory took second place to `praxis.´ So It was important that his brand of non-therapy take place in a National Health hospital within the state system because that´s where most distressed people were warehoused or, worse, treated." Obviously, this was, and turned out to be, an arrogant and asinine policy, like insisting that efforts to save Jews threatened by the Nazi state take place "within the state system" because that is where the most endangered Jews live. It was a sign that Laing and his gang wanted to replacing the reigning psychiatric rulers with a new set of antipsychiatric rulers, themselves led by Robespierre-Laing. They were not interested in helping "mental patients" deprived of liberty to regain their freedom, individually or as a group. This is why considerations of the legal, moral, and economic aspects of psychiatric and antipsychiatric practices are absent from their writings.
In the biography of his father, Adrian Laing alludes to "Ronnie´s" habitual
equivocations and lifelong refusal to take responsibility for his behavior,
and sagely observes: "Ronnie wanted to have his cake and eat it ... Ronnie
made two mistakes with David´s introduction. First, he did not insist on
reading it prior to publication. Ronnie did not consider himself an `
anti-psychiatrist´ ...The damage, however, had been done. David managed to label Ronnie an
anti-psychiatrist. Ronnie was furious at this move, but made a more serious
mistake in not taking immediate and effective action to rectify his position."
Laing could easily have prevented the term "antipsychiatry" from being
attributed to him: he could have stopped the publication of The Dialectics of
Liberation, either altogether or in the form in which it appeared; he could have
withdrawn his contribution to it, declaring publicly, then and there, that
he objects to the term. But he did nothing of the sort. Instead he played the
blame game: it was all Cooper´s and Cooper´s friends´ fault:
I was very pissed off at Deborah Rogers [Cooper´s literary agent] and Neil
Middleton [his publisher] over the book [The Dialectics of Liberation]. ... I
thought that she and Neil Middleton had really done me a publishing
disservice by encouraging my alleged association with anti-psychiatry ... Again and
again I had said to David Cooper, "David, it is a fucking disaster to put out
this term." But he´d a devilish side that thought it would just serve them
all right and confuse them. So let´s just fuck them with it. But I didn´t like
that. ... I, myself, liked David personally, but I didn´t like his books,
although I liked his mind.
He offered a similar explanation-excuse for fathering ten children. "With
the birth of Benjamin on 15th September, 1984," writes Laing hagiographer John
Clay, "Laing now had nine children, with one more still to come. Why so many
children, when he was an only child himself. [A friend] asked him this once,
why he had let it happen. Laing replied, `They [his sexual partners] seem to
want it. I should have stopped them!´ It was an example of his detachment
again, as if it had nothing to do with him, a closing-off of his feelings, as
happened with his drinking."
The image of Laing as a man helplessly at the mercy of his wives and
paramours defies belief. He had no trouble abandoning women and children and
breaking his promises to patients. We can "detach" ourselves from certain unwanted
experiences, for example threatening erotic feelings, but we cannot, properly
speaking, "detach" ourselves from our responsibilities. When we do so, we
are irresponsible, not detached. In my view, Laing was pervasively
irresponsible, systematically refusing to accept responsibility for his actions and
their consequences. As Laing explained to Mullan: "I wasn´t thinking of
contraceptive devices or anything like that, that was up to Anne [Laing´s first wife].
" Laing was a grand master of equivocation, of "having your cake and eating it.
" He played the game of affirmation-and-denial -- we might also call it
simply "lying" -- and got away with it during his life and after his death.
Having passively assumed the role of the paradigm antipsychiatrist, he claimed to
reject that identification. Although he was the moving spirit behind
Kingsley Hall, the model anti-mental hospital, he "felt that his hope of Kingsley
Hall providing a safe environment where acute schizophrenic episodes could
occur without electric shocks, tranquilizers and sedation `never happened.´" Of
course not! As I shall show later, Laing himself violated that principle.
Nevertheless, many people believed in Laing and still believe in him. It is
easier for the mark to believe that he was swindled by a con man who was
sincere than one who was cynical.
Regarding the creation of the term "antipsychiatry," there was nothing to
rectify. Laing did not repudiate antipsychiatry for the same reason he did not
repudiate psychiatry: he wanted to be a part of both, while pretending to
oppose both. Apropos of my objections to the term in the 1970s, Adrian Laing
writes: "Besides, the point was lost during the course of the debate that there
had been and was only one `anti-psychiatrist´ -- David Cooper. ... Thomas
Szasz was not an anti-psychiatrist, nor was Aaron Esterson. Ronnie himself had
denounced the concept. ... No one seemed to want to accept that the whole
idea of anti-psychiatry had been abandoned by those with whom the term had
Laing´s participation in the use of the term "antipsychiatry" was an act of
extreme irresponsibility. The pen may not be mightier than the sword, but
the wounds it inflicts are likely to be deeper, more debilitating, and longer
lasting. Psychiatrists who create catchy terms to be used as weapons of
destruction must be held responsible for their creation. While Laing the person and
antipsychiatrist may not be worth more attention, this is not true for the
term "antipsychiatry," Adrian Laing´s assurances to the contrary
notwithstanding. The principal originators of the term are dead. The term, however, is
alive and well in contemporary psychiatric and popular discourse. It has
become a part of the English language. The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (2001)
states: "Antipsychiatry n. A radical critique of traditional (especially
medical) approaches to mental disorders, influenced by existentialism and
sociology, popularized by the Scottish psychiatrist Ronald D(avid) Laing (1927-89)
and others during the 1960s and 1970s." A Google search of "antipsychiatry"
yields 41,000 "hits."
Having never been defined, characterizations of antipsychiatry are
inevitably erroneous and misleading. For example, British psychotherapist Digby Tantam
writes: "A key understanding of `anti-psychiatry´ is that mental illness is
a myth (Szasz 1972)." This sentence calls to mind Mark Twain´s remark: "
Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except
that it ain't so." There is nothing the matter with Tantam´s remark either,
except that it ain´t so. I first used the term "myth of mental illness in an
essay in 1960, and my book, The Myth of Mental Illness, was published in
1961, not 1972.
Although antipsychiatry cannot be defined, it can be identified by the
practices of antipsychiatrists, such as Laing, his colleagues at Kingsley Hall,
and therapists who identify themselves as his followers. Clearly,
antipsychiatrists do not reject the medical-therapeutic categorization of the human
problems they "treat," often under the auspices of the National Health Service
(NHS) or other government-funded organizations (such as the Soteria Houses). Nor
do they reject the use of coercion and drugs (although they often say they
do). Rejection of the concept of mental illness implies opposition to
psychiatric violence and excuse-making justified by the concept, not opposition to
psychiatric relations between consenting adults.
The word "antipsychiatry" proved to be an effective weapon in the hands of
psychiatrists to collectively stigmatize and dismiss critics, regardless of
the content of the criticism. The psychiatrist who eschews coercing
individuals and restricts his practice to listening and talking to voluntary,
fee-paying clients does not interfere with the practice of the conventional
psychiatrist. He merely practices what he preaches, namely, that human problems are not
diseases and that it is wrong to initiate violence against peaceful persons.
Such a psychiatrist resembles the agnostic who neither believes in the
dogmas of Judaism or Christianity nor practices their rituals. To call such a
person an antipsychiatrist, or anti-Semite, or anti-Christian does a grave
disservice to the individuals so categorized and degrades the English language. Nor
is that all: it also diverts peoples´ attention from the core
moral-political problems of psychiatry, coercion and excuse-making. This is Laing´s true
The label "antipsychiatry" served Laing well in his climb up the slippery
pole of fame; at the same time, it tarnished every idea and every person to
which the term has been attached. Moreover, the intellectually and morally
destructive consequences of the term continue to grow. This fact and the recent
re-publication of two "insider" books on Laing´s life and work prompt me to
add this brief essay to my previous critiques of Laing´s writings and persona.
Psychiatrists engage in many phony practices but none phonier than the
insanity defense. Any serious criticism of psychiatry must begin with a critique
of this paradigmatic psychiatric swindle. Laing never addressed the subject in
his writings but gave "expert psychiatric testimony" in the famous case of
John Thomson Stonehouse (1925-1988). To fully appreciate the moral
loathsomeness of Laing´s role in the Stonehouse affair, it is necessary to present a
brief summary of it.
Stonehouse, a British politician and Labour minister, is remembered -- if he
is remembered -- for his unsuccessful attempt at faking his own death in
1974 and for his unsuccessful insanity defense in his trial for embezzlement.
Stonehouse had joined the Labour Party when he was 16, trained as an economist,
was elected a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1957, and served as Postmaster
General. He went into business, lost money, and tried to bail himself out by
engaging in fraudulent business practices. In 1974, with the authorities about
to arrest him, he staged his own suicide. On November 20, 1974 -- after
having spent months rehearsing his new identity, that of Joseph Markham, the dead
husband of a constituent -- Stonehouse left a pile of clothes on a Miami
beach and disappeared. Presumed dead, he was en route to Australia, hoping to set
up a new life with his mistress. Discovered by chance in Melbourne, he was
deported to the UK and charged with 21 counts of fraud, theft, forgery,
conspiracy to defraud, and causing a false police investigation.
Stonehouse conducted his own defense, pleaded not guilty by reason of
insanity, was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. He suffered three
heart attacks, was released in 1979, married his mistress in 1981, wrote
several books -- including one about his trial -- and died in 1988 from a heart
attack. To support his insanity defense, Stonehouse secured the services of
five psychiatrists, R. D. Laing among them, to testify in court, under oath,
that he was insane when he committed his criminal acts. "As The Guardian
reported on 20 July 1976, Ronnie duly did his bit: ... Dr. Laing said that Mr.
Stonehouse´s story was unusual in that his two personalities were joined by an
umbilical cord ..." In his book, My Trial, Stonehouse gave the following
account of Laing´s participation in it:
Dr. Ronald Laing, author of The Divided Self ...gave evidence on my mental
condition. He confirmed that my description of my experience indicated intense
irrational emotions of persecution and feelings of guilt, although believing
I was innocent; and showed a partial psychotic breakdown and with partial
disassociation [sic] of personality. He confirmed that in his report he had
called it psychotic and the splitting of the personality into or multiple
pieces. He went on: "The conflict is dealt with by this splitting instead of
dealing with it openly. ..." He said that his experience with malingerers was
considerable - particularly when he was a captain in the Army. In my situation, he
said, psychiatric diagnosis must include assessment as to whether I was
malingering; and his diagnosis did take that into account. It was "partial
reactive psychosis. For some time he became irrational and confused under emotional
and other pressures."
Stonehouse´s claim was manifestly absurd. Laing did not know Stonehouse
prior to his trial, hence could have had no "medical knowledge" of his "mental
condition" during the commission of his crimes. Laing´s "diagnosis" was
classic psychiatric gobbledygook, precisely the kind of charlatanry he pretended
to oppose. Laing and Stonehouse were both liars, plain and simple.
Adrian Laing, a lawyer (barrister and solicitor), sagely comments: "Not
surprisingly, Ronnie´s evidence made little impression on the jury who found the
idea of a man defending himself while pleading insanity difficult to swallow.
Ronnie himself regretted giving evidence on behalf of Stonehouse ...he did
not have any sympathy
with Stonehouse´s account."
Here we go again: "Ronnie" does X, supposedly regrets having done X, and we
are asked to believe -- by Adrian or Laing or one of his acolytes -- that
the "true" R. D. Laing would not have done it. If Laing did not believe
Stonehouse´s fairy tale, why did he testify in his defense? If he disbelieved
Stonehouse´s story, why didn´t he reject his request? Did he do it for money and
publicity? Or was confused about what is and what is not a disease or a
crime, what is brain and what is mind?
In his autobiography, Laing naively ponders: "How does the brain produce the
mind? Or is it the other way round?" In an entry in his diary recorded after
the Stonehouse trial, Laing writes: "Stonehouse: Either a sick man behaving
like a criminal or a criminal behaving like a sick man. If a criminal
behaving like a sick man he is sick; and conversely why not say he is both, a sick
criminal, a criminal lunatic." Like most psychiatrists, Laing ignored the
Virchowian gold standard of disease and felt free to classify deviance as
disease -- if it suited his interest.
Laing "evaluated" Stonehouse and concluded that Stonehouse was too sick to
be punished. Similarly, the Training Committee of the Institute of
Psycho-Analysis had evaluated Laing and concluded that Laing, too, was too sick -- "in
an obviously disturbed condition" -- to be qualified as a psychoanalyst. Were
Stonehouse and Laing sick patients or were they irresponsible persons?
"I was frightened by the power invested in me as a psychiatrist...", Laing
states in his autobiography. That, too, was a lie. Having qualified as a
psychoanalyst, Laing was free to practice psychotherapy or psychoanalysis -- that
is, listen-and-talk to voluntary, fee-paying clients. No state authority
compelled him to testify in John Stonehouse´s insanity trial. No one forced him
to assault Clancy Sigal with Largactil (as I shall presently describe).
Certifying Stonehouse as criminally insane and forcibly drugging Sigal were
uncoerced, voluntary acts. Laing would have suffered no ill effects had he
abstained from them. He was, however, a grandiose, meddling psychiatrist who
considered all the world´s ills his business to remedy. In many of his photographs he
posed as a man carrying all the world´s weight on his shoulders. From his
obituary in the New York Times we learn:
He shied away from defending himself against charges that early in his
career he had idealized mental illness and romanticized despair. He said he later
came to realize that society must do something with people who are too
disruptive. ''If a violinist in an orchestra is out of tune and does not hear it,
and does not believe it, and will not retire, and insists on taking his seat
and playing at all rehearsals and concerts and ruining the music, what can be
done? ... what does one do, when one does not know what to do?'' he asked.
This is not a problem for a non-meddling psychiatrist. No one, in this
hypothetical situation, is asking a psychiatrist for help. The resolution of this
dilemma is the responsibility of the person legally authorized to control the
composition of the orchestra. Laing would not have posed this pseudoproblem
unless he believed that it is a problem for him.
Medical specialties are usually distinguished by their characteristic
diagnostic or therapeutic method: the pathologist examines cells, tissues, and body
fluids; the surgeon cuts into the living body, removes diseased tissues, and
repairs malfunctioning body parts; the anesthesiologist renders the patient
unconscious and insensitive to pain. The method that characterizes the work
of the psychiatrist and distinguishes it from all other medical methods is
coercion: he deprives the patient of liberty. "[T]he medical treatment of
[mental] patients began with the infringement of their personal freedom," noted
Karl Wernicke (1848-1905), one of the founders of modern neurology.
Zone of the Interior, a roman a clef by the American writer Clancy Sigal
(born 1926), was published in the United States in 1976. The threat of British
libel laws prevented its publication in the United Kingdom. Sigal explains: "
[The book] was effectively suppressed at the time. I meant it for the British
reader who never got to read it except as "samizdat"... It came down to
publisher´s fear of libel and, as I learned to my dismay, a revulsion to the
material itself among a few influential types." Only in 2005 did Zone of the
Interior appear in a British edition.
As Sigal discovered, Laing and his cohorts talked nonviolence but practiced
violence, both at Kingsley Hall and their personal lives. Indeed, the
founders of antipsychiatry were happy to serve as agents of the therapeutic state:
They saw themselves as the "good revolutionary antipsychiatrists" opposing
the "bad establishment psychiatrists." This is why the same basic features --
coercion and excuse-making -- characterize psychiatry and antipsychiatry
alike. Adrian Laing writes that by 1966, "Despite this growing guru element in
Ronnie´s own thinking, to the outside world he was still riding two horses. His
establishment side was not yet completely abandoned. ... It seemed as though
Ronnie was becoming aware that he had a choice to make -- and increasingly
unwilling to make it. He had to declare himself either anti-Establishment,
part of the counter-culture, or otherwise. But his heart was in both camps." Not
really. Laing had no heart. He had long ago replaced it with self-interest,
self-indulgence, and brutality masquerading as Gandhiesque universal love.
It is obvious that individuals incarcerated in mental hospitals are deprived
of liberty -- by doctors called "psychiatrists." Long before I began my
psychiatric training, I regarded mental hospitals as places where "patients"
are deprived of liberty -- tortured, not treated. This is why I chose to serve
my psychiatric residency at the University of Chicago Clinics which, at that
time (1946-1948), had no psychiatric inpatients. After two years, the
chairman of the psychiatry department ordered me to serve my third required year at
the Cook County Hospital, the mammoth madhouse-jail serving the Chicago area.
This, he assured me, was in my best interest, "to have experience with
seriously ill patients." I thanked him for his advice and told him: "I quit." I
completed my psychiatric training requirement at another facility that served
only voluntary outpatients.
I practiced listening-and-talking ("psychotherapy") from 1948 until 1996.
From beginning to end, my work rested on the view that the personal problems
people call "mental illnesses" are not medical diseases and that the
confidential conversation called "psychoanalysis" or "psychotherapy" is not a
medical treatment. Accordingly, I unconditionally rejected the legal powers and
medical privileges that adhere to the professional role of the psychiatrist. In
my view, a non-coercive, non-medical "therapist" must eschew all
interventions associated with the socio-legally defined role of the psychiatrist, in
particular, coercion, drugs, hospitalization, "treating" persons deprived of
liberty (patients in hospitals or other health care facilities, prisoners),
making diagnoses, and keeping "medical" records. During most of the time I
practiced, it was possible to do this in the United States. Because of changes
in customs and laws since the 1980s, it is, for all practical purposes, no
longer possible today.
The psychiatrist´s power to deprive innocent persons of liberty to "protect"
them from being dangerous to themselves or others, entails the symmetrical
obligation to incarcerate and forcibly "treat" such persons whenever the
psychiatrist believes that "the standard of psychiatric care" requires it.
This is what makes non-coercive psychiatry an oxymoron.
Notwithstanding Laing´s bluster, at heart he was a conventional asylum
psychiatrist. In the Preface to the second edition of Adrian Laing´s biography of
his father, Professor Anthony S. David, states: "[Laing] regretted entering
into the outpatient-based psychoanalytic world so early in his career and not
sticking with an environment that, though he passionately criticized it, was
one in which he felt strangely at home, namely the mental hospital or asylum."
Though strangely overlooked, Laing´s most carefully crafted and sober
pronouncements are entirely consistent with the outlook of the traditional
coercive / excusing psychiatrist. For example, he wrote: "When I certify someone
insane, I am not equivocating when I write that he is of unsound mind, may be
dangerous to himself and others, and requires care and attention in a mental
In response to my criticism of Laing, Daniel Burston, one of Laing´s
biographers, rose to his defense, implying that Laing regretted this statement and
later changed his mind about psychiatric coercion: "Laing wrote these lines
when he was 30 or 31, and a psychoanalyst in training, and spent the next 31
years (and more) living them down." There is no evidence for Burston´s claim
that Laing opposed psychiatric coercions and excuses, then or later. In fact,
the opposite is the case. Unable to defend his hero with evidence, Burston
charges me with also acquiring bloody hands during my residency training: "Dr.
Szasz is a psychiatrist / psychoanalyst, is he not? Does Dr. Szasz maintain
that he never treated involuntary mental patients during his psychiatric
training, as Laing did -- then ceased to do? If so, then the circumstances in which
Szasz became a licensed psychiatristX were unusual indeed!" That is exactly
what I maintain.
The circumstances of my psychiatric training were unusual because, even
before I entered medical school, I concluded that the principles of psychiatry
rest on the mendacious metaphor of "mental illness" and its practices are
based on the use of force, authorized by the state and rationalized as medical
treatment. Nevertheless, Laing´s admirers ceaselessly compare Laing and me,
emphasize the praiseworthy similarities they attribute to our views, and lament
my failings which they attribute to my "right-wing" libertarian politics. In
a long essay in 2006, titled "Laing and Szasz: Anti-psychiatry, capitalism,
and therapy," Ron Roberts and Theodor Itten write: "Despite their common
cause in attacking the medicalization of human distress and the coercive nature
of psychiatry, Szasz has frequently expressed considerable antipathy toward
Laing." Evidently unhappy that I was still alive at 86 and Laing was dead, they
continued: "...when the time comes for Szasz to shuffle off his mortal coil,
he will be remembered more for his insights into medical myth making than
for his destructive libertarian views or personal attacks on Laing." Although
it is generally agreed that predicting the future is difficult, Roberts and
Itten are confident that they can predict mine. As for "libertarian views," it
goes without saying that they are "destructive."
As noted earlier, my training was unusual because I regarded depriving
innocent persons of liberty in madhouses as morally wrong when I was a teenager
and, when I decided to qualify as a psychiatrist, I deliberately avoided having
to be in a position where I would have to perform acts inconsistent with my
conscience. Later, my contacts with involuntary mental patients were rare and
limited to two kinds of interventions: If the incarcerated individual was
innocent (not charged with a crime) and sought his freedom, I assisted him in
his quest; contrariwise, if the individual was incarcerated because he was
guilty of a crime (of which he was prima facie guilty, typically by admitting
it) and tried to avoid legal punishment by pleading insanity, and if the
prosecutor wanted him punished, I assisted the prosecution in securing the defendant
Laing´s words and deeds throughout his professional life make Burston´s
claim that Laing regretted conventional psychiatric practices puzzling, to say
the least. For example, in his autobiography Laing wrote:
To say that a locked ward functioned as a prison for non-criminal
transgressors is not to say that it should not be so. ... This is not the fault of
psychiatrists, nor necessarily the fault of anyone. ... It does not follow from
such possibly disturbing considerations that the exercise of such
[psychiatric] power is not desirable and necessary, or that, by and large, psychiatrists
are not the best people to exercise it, or, generally, that most of what does
happen in the circumstances is not the best that can happen under the
In my critique, "Antipsychiatry: The paradigm of the plundered mind,"
published in the New Review in London in 1976, I emphasized the overarching role
of coercion in the so-called care of persons stigmatized as schizophrenic and
rejected Laing´s view that the schizophrenic´s mind is plundered by his
malevolent family, much as, in the communist view, the labor of the worker in
capitalist society is plundered by the malevolent employer -- a notion implied
in the term "antipsychiatry," resonating with the leftist label "antifascist"
for the supporter of the Soviet Union. Responding to my critique, expanded
in my book Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry, Laing defended
coercive psychiatry, specifically the forced incarceration of persons diagnosed
as mentally ill. In a review of three of my books in the New Statesman in
1979, Laing asserted that it makes no difference whether we accept or reject
In these three books [The Theology of Medicine, The Myth of Psychotherapy,
and Schizophrenia], Szasz continues, extends and deepens his diatribe, which
began in 1961 with The Myth of Mental Illness, against what he regarded as the
abuse of the medical metaphor in our society. ... But suppose we do drop the
medical metaphor. If the rest of us could recognize that what Szasz is
propounding are, of course, eternal verities, then psychiatry would disappear, and
with it what he calls antipsychiatry.
This is not what I wrote. I wrote: "Psychiatry, as we know it, would
gradually disappear...," and continued: "Specifically, involuntary psychiatry, like
involuntary servitude, would be abolished, and the various types of
voluntary psychiatric interventions would be reclassified and reassessed, each
according to its true nature and actual characteristics." Yet, Laing concluded: "
It sounds as though it would all be much the same. It makes one wonder what he
is making all the fuss about, whether he is not making a sort of fetish out
of the medical metaphor, and a scapegoat out of psychiatry. We miss in these
books any in-depth analysis of structures of power and knowledge such as we
find in Foucault and Derrida."
Laing´s reference to the fashionable French left-statists Foucault and
Derrida reveals his passion for Jacobin-styled power. "It is pretty suicidal" --
warned Oxford professor of philosophy Alan Ryan -- "for embattled minorities
to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jaques Derrida. The minority view was
always that power could be undermined by truth ... Once you read Foucault as
saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you´ve had it." If ever there
was a "minority view," today it is the view of the few Individuals who
oppose psychiatric coercions and excuses. Cooper, Laing, Foucault, and the
French intellectual fakes associated with the antipsychiatry movement were
power-hungry left-wing statists who were interested in taking over psychiatry, not
destroying its intellectual foundations and scientistic pretensions.
The Laingians were warned: Their guru approved of psychiatric violence,
provided it was exercised by the "right people." Noted British existential
analyst Anthony Stadlen did not let this go unchallenged. He wrote:
Dr. Laing's new role as the "perfectly decent" defender of psychiatry
against Szasz's "insulting and abusive" "fuss" calls for comment. Laing is
saying, unequivocally, that "it would all be much the same" to him whether
involuntary psychiatry be retained or abolished. He is saying "it would all be much
the same" whether voluntary interventions, including his own, are intended
as medical treatments for illness or as interpersonal counseling, ethical
exploration, existential analysis. He implies quite clearly that he is one of the
"rest of us" who do use the medical metaphor.
Thanks to Laing´s opportunistic sloganeering, psychiatrists can now do what
no other members of a medical specialty can do: they can dismiss critics of
any aspect of accepted psychiatric practice by labeling them "
antipsychiatrists." The physician critical of certain obstetrical practices -- say, abortion
on demand -- is not stigmatized as an "antiobstetrician." The surgeon
critical of certain surgical practices -- say, transsexual operations -- is not
dismissed as an "antisurgeon." The fact that the psychiatrist critical of
certain psychiatric practices -- say, civil commitment and the insanity defense --
is called an "antipsychiatrist" is evidence of the defensiveness of
psychiatrists and the usefulness of the term "antipsychiatry." Every physician,
except the psychiatrist, is free to elect not to perform particular procedures
that offend his moral principles or that he simply prefers not to offer. De
facto, the psychiatrist is not free to do so.
Laing believed not only that mental illness is real but that "it" could be
cured by chemicals. According to Adrian,
LSD was a drug which intrigued Ronnie and for which he was given permission
by the British Government, through the Home Office, to use in a therapeutic
context. ... Ronnie used the drug in therapy sessions both at 21 Wimpole
Street [his office] and, at a later stage, in Kingsley Hall.... [He had also]
tried heroin, opium, and amphetamines, but they were not to his liking. Cocaine
was fine if you could afford it.
Laing deceived the Home Office when he applied for special permission to use
LSD "in a therapeutic context" and then took it himself. He also deceived
all those who believed him when he declared that mental disorders were
disturbances in human relationships, not disorders of brain chemistry, and then used
drugs to "treat" "patients." Laing accepted that LSD produced a "model
psychosis," hence that psychosis was a chemical disorder, a brain disease: "
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1964, a qualified doctor was entitled to prescribe
LSD to patients. ... The actual effects of LSD mimicked a psychotic
breakdown. ... [In a BBC interview] Ronnie extolled the virtues of lysergic acid,
mescaline, psilocybin, and hashish," and referred to the notion of chemically
induced model psychosis as if it were a fact.
"As far as Ronnie was concerned," writes Adrian, "the principal area into
which he felt the need to expand during 1966 was drugs and, in particular,
LSD, hashish, and mescaline. ... From 1960 until 1967 Ronnie´s intake of
substances, legal and otherwise, increased considerably, and there was clearly a
steady increase in his personal consumption during 1965 and 1966, which
coincided with his living at Kingsley Hall.
Clay writes: "LSD opened up new vistas, new fields of experience for him,
and he was to use it more and more....With LSD he found he could travel through
time in a way that the past wasn´t simply at a distance but co-present. ....
`I now usually take a small amount of it myself if I give it to anyone, so
that I can travel with them.´" Although Laing´s followers deny that Laing was
a drug guru, the high priest of "super-sanity," Adrian quotes from one of
An LSD or mescaline session [sic] in one person, with one set in one
setting, may occasion a psychotic experience. Another person, with a different set
and different setting, may experience a period of super-sanity ... The aim of
therapy will be to enhance consciousness rather than to diminish it. Drugs of
choice, if any are to be used, will be predominantly consciousness expanding
drugs, rather than consciousness constrictors -- the psychic energizers, not
In short, Laing saw himself as a psychopharmacologist using "uppers"
instead of "downers." How does an LSD therapist differ from a Prozac therapist?
Each has his favorite drug and uses his medical credentials and medical
privileges to prescribe and provide it to his patients.
Laing´s favorite drug was alcohol. In the end, his heavy drinking led to his
losing his medical license. One of his patients lodged a formal complaint
against him with the General Medical Council, alleging that, while drunk during
a professional visit, Laing had "abused and assaulted him." Laing "
suggested that they go for a drink in a public house outside of which Ronnie was
alleged to have said, `I think this is one place I have never been thrown out of."
Evidently, Laing was proud of his persona as alcoholic brawler. After
another drunken session with the same client, "The drinking continued and after
an hour or so the complainant decided to leave. Before he did so a dispute
arose over the non-payment of his last visit. Finally, Ronnie demanded, in a `
drunken rage,´ that he depart. As he did so, the complainant continued, `Dr.
Laing slammed the glass paneled door on me, catching my elbow.´"
In 1969, the American journalist Albert Goldman came to London to interview
Laing. From his hotel, he called Laing. Clay reports: "`Never had I heard a
man tack and veer and reverse his field so many times in the course of a
simple conversation turning on where and when to meet that night.´ Goldman
arranged to meet him at the Savoy Hotel." When Goldman arrived, Laing did not
bother to rise from his seat at the bar and was arrogant and rude from the start:
Laing emerged as a "pretty earthy and aggressive character," not the
enlightened philosopher he expected. Laing had insisted on inviting his friend
Francis HuxleyX along as well, having first ascertained that Goldman, or rather
his magazine, was paying the bill. Laing´s manner now began to go over the top.
When the obsequious maitre d´ solicited our order, Laing commanded him to
serve a magnum of champaign with the fish. ... Laing [noted Goldman] had
reached the table on the rising tide of inebriation and belligerence [having drunk
heavily at the bar before Goldman´s arrival], now regaled them with some
really coarse stories about what went on in kitchens before serving the food. To
illustrate, Laing reared back and spat into a plate of Scottish salmon that
had been set before him with great ceremony. Goldman could hardly believe what
he was seeing. ... [He] was astounded to see Laing behaving like everything
he fulminated against in his own writings. He was tight as a drum, filled
with pointless rage, contemptuous of anyone who did not walk on intellectual
Laing´s rage and violent self-contradictions were, I venture to guess, not
pointless. Disinhibited by liquor and self-pity, Laing became aware that his
mind was a cauldron of equivocations and self-contradictions. He sought
release from his pain in inebriation venting his rage over a life he knew he had
mismanaged and was now helpless to put right. His life was a fraud and it was
too late and too costly to come clean. He soldiered on to an early grave.
Meanwhile, he exploited the press and the press exploited him. He was good copy
almost to the end and the media hounds tolerated his repugnant persona much as
medical voyeurs tolerate mutilated cadavers.
For a few years, Laing was a successful psychiatric con-man. At the same
time, there was something pitiful and pathetic about him. Clearly, he was a
deeply unhappy, angry person. In 1976, science writer Maggie Scarf reported on a
visit by Laing to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut:
I went to hear him speak before a large audience ...Laing put on a
performance ... I would never have predicted. Seated on a large, throne-like chair on
the stage, facing a roomful of people who seemed to be well-disposed toward
him, he was inexplicably uncomfortable -- hesitant and almost confused. He
began a sentence and then paused in the middle, looking baffled, as if uncertain
where such a thought might possibly lead him. ... A good deal of time was
spent in tedious and seemingly endless discussions of one meditative procedure
-- concentrating intensely on the tip of one´s nose ... Laing himself seemed
essentially disinterested in what he was saying. ... I could see the
puzzlement on the faces of the people around me. ... After about half an hour or so,
Laing simply ran out of energy and stopped. He stared out at the audience,
then remarked limply, "Now what is one supposed, really, to make of all this
meditation stuff? I don´t know. I haven´t come up with any answers yet. In
fact I´ve been listening for some answers all the time I have been giving this
lecture. But I haven´t heard any yet." Not surprisingly, this observation was
greeted with a few incredulous hoots of laughter. ... A scattering of people
had gotten up from their seats and were leaving the auditorium.
As a public speaker, Laing was a bust. This did not stop him from cashing in
on the image he created and cultivated -- a brilliant, romantic rebel, a
Byron poetizing about true sanity. It was all chutzpa, or cheek as the British
In the fall of 1985, Laing was at a conference in Plymouth, England. The
writer Colin Wilson, another participant, recalled: "He [Laing] was the most
appalling speaker I have come across. I found it almost incomprehensible that he
had the cheek to come along to what was supposed to be a day-long `symposium´
-- with myself, the poet David Gascoyne, and himself -- and then ramble on
in such a totally disconnected manner, with long pauses, and a complete lack
In December of the same year, Laing was one of the speakers at the Milton
Erickson Evolution of Psychotherapy conference in Phoenix, Arizona. He had
nominated me to discuss his paper. Each speaker had contracted to have a copy of
his presentation in the hands of the discussant six weeks in advance of the
meeting. Laing had no paper even as he rose to speak. His lecture was a
mixture of gibberish and silence. This is how Laing remembered the event:
I gave a talk that -- the two pieces of it didn´t hang together -- they hung
together in what I said, but I didn´t think they were going to publish it as
it stood. The two halves of my paper didn´t seem to be particularly
connected. So Szasz got up afterwards to discuss it and said that the nearest thing
he had ever come to what it must feel like to be subjected to involuntary
incarceration in a mental institution was having to sit through Dr. Laing´s talk.
From there he went on in his own manner and tried to tear it absolutely to
pieces. What he fixed on was what he called my relativism and that I was just
unrigorous, sloppy, and a dishonest nihilist. It was nihilism in disguise; he
was dismissing me as a nihilist. He also tried to make out that what I was
saying was fashionable salon nihilism and that it had nothing to do with
science. So I wasn´t going to reply to that. You know, fuck it.
Suffice it to add that the organizers of the conference had clearly
stipulated that the speakers deliver finished, publishable versions of their
presentation in advance of the meeting. Laing blithely ignored it and, once again,
made excuses for violating his contract. Curiously, Roberts and Itten exhume
that event and describe it this way:
Szasz compared listening to a talk by Laing as the nearest thing he had ever
experienced to what it must feel like to be subjected to involuntary
incarceration in a mental institution. ... Szasz also went on to describe Laing´s
moral conduct as shameful and reprehensible and argued that Laing had "sold out.
" No doubt skeletons could be pulled from Szasz´s cupboard but, as with
Laing, this would hardly be fitting to a consideration of their respective worth
either as persons or scholars.
Happily, there are no skeletons similar to Laing´s in my cupboard. If there
were, critics would have laid them out a long time ago. Moreover, public
behavior -- such as Laing´s boozing and brawling, near-failure to qualify first
as a physician and then as a psychoanalyst, his serial marriages and the
neglect of his "first family" are not skeletons in a closet. They are public
information about a public person, a fit subject for moral judgment. In my view,
Laing was an enemy of personal responsibility, individual liberty, and the
free society. He was a bad person and a fraud as a professional.
Laing´s fame was closely connected with his role as the Emperor of Kingsley
Hall. Joseph Berke -- an American psychiatrist and one of Laing´s early
coworkers -- offers this sketch: "Essentially, Laing liked to remain at the center
of a wheel, with all the channels having to go through him. That way he
gained great power over others. It took me a long time to figure this out, not
the least because like Sigal, I was dazzled by his brilliance and my own desire
to idealize him."
Theodor Itten´s impression of Laing, whom he idolized and still idolizes,
was just the opposite. To Itten, an Austrian psychotherapist, Laing was the
embodiment of the peaceful, egalitarian-democratic person, with a passion for
cooperation, eager to avoid competition and conflict. Itten´s sole evidence is
that Laing allegedly once "dreamt of a football match where, as he put it, `
I am both sides. It only ends when the game turns into a dance.´" Itten´s
denial of Laing´s life-long bellicosity and nastiness illustrates the kind of
abject dependence Laing could evoke in some people.
At the beginning of his career, Laing´s closest collaborator was Aaron
Esterson (1923-1999), a psychiatrist who was also born in Glasgow. In 1966, Laing
wantonly destroyed that friendship. "Before 1966 was over," writes Adrian, "
there came a night when Ronnie `let Aaron have it.´... Ronnie refused to
continue their friendship unless Aaron `took Jesus Christ into his heart.´
Aaron took the view that this was a piece of unadulterated cheek." After asking
Esterson to stand up and removing his glasses as if to clean them, Laing "
quite out of the blue, delivered a full blow to Aaron´s jaw." Ronald D. Laing, a
messenger of Jesus out to convert obstinate Jews? There is silence about
what this was all about.
Sigal´s experience also dramatically contradicts Itten´s fantasies about
his hero. Sigal discovered the hard way that once you became Laing´s acolyte,
he could reject you but you could not reject him: leaving him was an act of
lèse majesté. The Sigal saga ought to be the last nail into the coffin of the
legend of Laing as a psychiatrist opposed to the practice of psychiatric
coercion. In 1965, Sigal found himself imprisoned in Kingsley Hall. He escaped,
Laing and his gang went after him, assaulted him in his own home, forcibly
injected him with Largactil (Thorazine), and reimprisoned him in their
antihospital. A few days later, Sigal made his escape good, returned to the United
States, and wrote Zone of the Interior:
In September 1965, during the Jewish High Holidays, I had a "schizophrenic
breakdown" ... or flash of enlightenment ... or transformative moment of
rebirth. It´s all in your point of view. My `breakdown´ did not happen privately
but acted out in front of twenty or thirty people on a Friday shabbat night
at Kingsley Hall.... The notion behind Kingsley Hall was that psychosis is not
an illness but a state of trance to be valued as a healing agent.
Laing´s fraudulent cure of schizophrenia was enacted on the stage at
Kingsley Hall, much as Charcot´s fraudulent cure of hysteria was performed on the
stage at the Salpêtrière, to similarly sensational effects. The following
excerpt from an interview with Sigal in The Guardian (UK) in December, 2005
summarizes the Laing-Sigal folie a deux:
We began exchanging roles, he the patient and I the therapist, and took LSD
together in his office and in my Bayswater apartment. ... Laing and I had
sealed a devil's bargain. Although we set out to "cure" schizophrenia, we became
schizophrenic in our attitudes to ourselves and to the outside world. Our
personal relationships in the Philadelphia Association became increasingly
fraught. ... That night, after I left Kingsley Hall, several of the doctors, who
persuaded themselves that I was suicidal, piled into two cars, sped to my
apartment, broke in, and jammed me with needles full of Largactil [Thorazine], a
fast-acting sedative used by conventional doctors in mental wards. Led by
Laing, they dragged me back to Kingsley Hall where I really did become suicidal.
I was enraged: the beating and drugging was such a violation of our code.
Now I knew exactly how mental patients felt when the nurses set about them
before the doctor stuck in the needle. ... Before I could fight back -- at least
four big guys including Laing were pinning me down -- the drug took effect.
The last thing I remember saying was, "You bastards don't know what you're
doing ..." They left me alone in an upstairs cubicle overlooking a balcony with
a 30-foot drop. I had to figure a way to escape from this bunch of do-gooders
who had lost their nerve as well as their minds. ... In 1975, 10 years after
I broke with Laing, I completed a comic novel, Zone Of The Interior, based
on my experiences with schizophrenia. Published to widespread notice in the
US, it was stopped cold in Britain by Laing's vague threat of a libel action.
In Zone of the Interior, Laing´s assault of Sigal with Largactil is more
detailed and explicit. The Kingsley Hall staff is given pseudonyms. Laing is "
When I started to yell, Munshin clapped his hand over my mouth. I bit it,
fighting back and struggling with every last ounce of strength. Then something
sharp stabbed me. I looked down. Willie Last was withdrawing a hypodermic
needle from my leg. Oh no. He gave the hypo back to Bronwen holding his medical
bag. "For a junkie he´s pretty strong," grunted Munshin, hammerlocking me so
Boris could pull down my trousers. "Better sock it to him again." Last
quickly refilled the syringe from his bag and slipped the needle into my behind. "
Please," I said. "Please don´t. Don´t. Don´t. You can´t know what you´re
Sigal was right. It took a long time for some of Laing´s disciples to
realize that breaking a solemn promise -- to a family member, friend, or patient --
is a grave moral wrong, the severing of a sacred bond. Once severed, it can
never be made whole. Some of his disciples still do not realize this, indeed
deny that it is wrong. In his review of the U.K. edition of Zone of the
Interior, M. Guy Thompson, a therapist "trained" by Laing, writes: "I also heard
Laing recount this story [the Largactil assault on Sigal] at a public lecture
[without identifying the victim]. Laing clearly felt sanguine about the
incident and employed the story to highlight the difficulty in determining in
every case: what is the right thing to do?" Perforce this must be the case for
any person who, faced with certain basic moral choices, is unwilling
unequivocally to commit himself to refraining from particular practices -- in the
present case, from the practice of psychiatric coercion. In short, Thompson´s
defense identifies and incriminates Laing as the master equivocator he was. It
also puts paid to Burston´s idealization of Laing as a psychiatrist opposed to
Ronald Laing -- like many psychiatrists before him, such as Eugen and
Manfred Bleuler, Carl Jung, Harry Stack Sullivan, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, and
others -- believed that the voice of the schizophrenic should be listened to and
deciphered, not silenced with physical "treatments." If Laing really believed
this, why did he have a medical bag and a ready supply of injectable
Largactil? It is plausible that had Sigal´s book been published in Britain in 1976,
Laing would have been exposed and perhaps punished as a criminal, Kingsley
Hall would have been shut down, and the legend of the "savior of the
schizophrenic" would have been cut short.
In 2005, 16 years after Laing´s death and 29 years after the publication of
Zone of the Interior in the U.S., the book was finally published in the U.K.
By this time, interest in antipsychiatry has all but disappeared and the term
-- more popular than ever -- became a grab-bag category for any person or
group that was in any way critical of psychiatry´s disease or drug de jour.
Although the publication of Zone of the Interior in Britain came too late to
influence Laing´s career, one of its beneficial effects was a first-hand
confirmation of the assault on Sigal by one of the participants in the crime, Joseph
Berke. Berke´s review of the British edition of Sigal´s book, in
Existential Analysis in 2007, is an important addition to the history of postwar
Sigal demonstrates the painful scars of many very talented people who tried
to get close, and stay close to Laing, only to be rebuffed ...I don´t know of
anyone who was not eventually rejected, although a few colleagues stayed
attached for long periods of time, by anticipating Laing´s needs and desires and
twisting and turning with him. Thus, when he was into revolution, you talked
left politics (easy for Sigal), when he was into acid, you were into acid
(also easy), when he was into Eastern mysticism, you chanted OHMMM (much
harder). Sigal was clearly overwhelmed by Laing´s brilliance, but may have not
realized that his mentor was also a consummate "mind fucker" and trickster.
It is not clear why a "talented person" would have wanted to associate,
much less let himself be led around by the nose, by a patently confused and
ill-behaved Laing. I met Laing on several occasions and he struck me, from
beginning to end, as a poseur, a phoney. Berke continues:
De-idealizations are very painful. Sigal´s comes at the end of the novel,
when he finally achieved a state of madness. He thought Ronnie would love him.
Instead Laing got frightened and convinced members of his inner circle to
waylay Sigal at his flat, inject him with Largactil, and bring him back to
Kingsley Hall `"for his own good." ... Sigal´s description is somewhat contrived
but basically accurate. I should know, as I was coopted for the ride. Very
exciting it was too, at the time. But it did get my own doubts going.
Berke deserves praise for setting the record straight. Sigal was right when
he pleaded with his kidnappers, "You can´t know what you´re doing." It
seems they did not know and still do not know. To this day, "Laingian" and "
existential" therapists avoid coming clean on where they stand on the subject of
the right to one´s body, the right to drugs, the right to suicide, and the
uses of psychiatric coercions and excuses. They prefer to immerse themselves in
Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida, and ignore David Hume,
John Stuart Mill, and Lord Acton.
Laing´s psychiatric rape of Sigal and his obstructing the publication of
Sigal´s exposure of it unmask Laing as the self-seeking cult leader he was.
Laing made a sport of betraying every promise and trust, explicit and implicit --
to wives, children, friends, patients, and conference-organizers. What Laing
and his accomplices did to Sigal was more reprehensible than what
psychiatrists do when they forcibly drug patients. They committed a crime, called "
assault and battery." Institutional psychiatrists do not eschew coercion and
their interventions are, de lege, legitimate.
Laing addressed serious moral issues, but lacked -- indeed, mocked -- moral
seriousness. His "philosophical credo" was summed up in his apocalyptic crie
de coeur, often admiringly cited by his followers : "If I could turn you on,
if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you, I would
let you know." Le style, c´est l´homme.
With his LSD-laced "therapy," Indian junket, faux meditation, and
alcohol-fueled lecture-theatrics, Laing managed, for a while, to con people into
believing that his boorish behavior was a badge of superior wisdom. Then, as
quickly as he built it, his house of cards collapsed of its own featherweight. In
1989, Laing, aged 61 (almost 62) -- "faced with the real and immediate
prospect of being completely insolvent, the father of a newborn baby, with no
reliable income, no home, a serious drinking problem, and a debilitating feeling
of depression bordering on despair" -- collapsed and died.
Laing was the Robespierre of antipsychiatry, playing the role of the "
Incorruptible" speaking in the language of Pure Love. In the Dialectics of
Liberation, Laing offered this affectionate account of normal child development:
The normal way parents get their children to love them is to terrorize them,
to say to them in effect: "Because I am not dropping you, because I am not
killing you, this shows that I love you, and therefore you should come for the
assuagement of your terror to the person who is generating the terror you are
seeking to have assuaged." The above mother is rather hyper-normal.
This was the facade of Laing the Psychiatric Revolutionary whose
unconditional Love brings order to the chaos of madness. It concealed Laing, the
self-identified mental patient, opting for conventional psychiatric care. In 1985,
Professor Anthony Clare -- host of the popular BBC Radio 4 program "In the
Psychiatrist´s Chair" -- interviewed Laing:
The radio programme was recorded in the early afternoon, but Laing was
already mildly intoxicated when he turned up at the studio ... Laing then spoke of
his fears of getting into a "real Scottish involutional melancholia" as his
father and grandfather had. ... The programme attracted a huge number of
letters. Many listeners wrote in to say how surprised they were that one of the
most depressed people to appear on the programme was himself a psychiatrist
and many listeners were surprised to hear Laing, the "fierce critic of the use
of drugs in psychiatry," consider using drugs for himself to treat his
depression. Clare had asked him what he would want from a psychiatrist if he
became "profoundly psychomotoretarded, profoundly depressed or suicidal," and
Laing had replied "I would want whoever was taking my case over to ... transport
my body to some nursing home and if you had any drugs that you thought would
get me into a brighter state of mind to use those."
In effect, Clare invited Laing to write his "psychiatric will," and the will
Laing wrote requested that he be treated in accordance with the "standard of
care" of modern biological psychiatry. "The evil that men do lives after
them," said Shakespeare. He was right.
Acknowledgment. I am greatly indebted to Anthony Stadlen for generously
sharing with me his encyclopedic knowledge of psychoanalysis, existential
analysis, and the history of the cure of souls. I am responsible for errors of fact
and other flaws.