Book Review: Ronald Laing

Ronald Laing, by David Boyle, is a short biographical study of the Scottish psychiatrist, who enjoyed a brief period of fame and notoriety in the 1960s and 70s before the existentialism of the era gave way to the monetarism of the Thatcher years. Straplined The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatrist, the author explores what drove the doctor to work towards changing the way patients with mental illnesses are treated. Laing was not alone in this endeavour but his work was influential.

In the 1950s, when Laing first started to practice medicine, the mentally ill were incarcerated in large institutions run for the benefit of their staff and society rather than patients. The traumatised inmates were routinely drugged, subjected to ECT and, occasionally, lobotomised in an attempt to control and then standardise their behaviour. They were often treated with contempt by those tasked with deciding on treatment.

“When cruelties are permitted on people or animals, it seems to lead to active dislike among those charged with their care.”

Laing’s approach favoured cutting back on drugs, improving accommodation and autonomy, and listening to what patients had to say. He believed that mental healing could occur with minimum intervention given time and the right conditions. He questioned the definition of madness arguing for greater acceptance of difference. Such radical notions were frowned upon by the medical establishment but fitted well with emerging societal tolerance for individualism and freedom.

The decades in which Laing lived were pivotal to the acceptance and then rejection of his ideas. His personal development was also a factor. Laing took LSD and suffered from alcoholism. He was volatile and something of a philanderer. His fall from grace was exacerbated by his personal behaviour.

The book is divided into sections charting the milestones in Laing’s career and the context in which these occured. With my interest in psychology and sociology I found it fascinating.

“For Laing and his closest collaborators, we are all isolated individuals. He used to speak of trying to divest himself of all forms of collective identity. It was the collective categorisation that Laing raged against, especially of those in mental distress.”

Laing died aged sixty-one having fathered ten children and published numerous books. His work continues to influence psychiatric thinking even if aspects have been discredited. The author mulls what he would have made of the standardisations imposed today on medical diagnosis and treatment, as well as on other areas of life such as education.

A film about Laing’s life titled Mad to be Normal and starring David Tennant has recently gone on general release. This book would provide an excellent introduction and background for interested viewers.

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