R. D. LAING
Laing was born in Glasgow in 1927. He studied medicine at the University of Glasgow and went on to become a psychiatrist in the city. At Gartnavel Hospital, he contributed to a new way of treating patients in a long-stay women’s ward. He then moved to London to work at the Tavistock Clinic, and trained as a psychoanalyst at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, where he studied with Marion Milner, Charles Rycroft and DW Winnicott.
Laing had a deep interest in continental philosophy, notably Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. His books of the 1960s sought to develop what he called ‘an existential-phenomenological foundation for a science of persons’. His revolutionary argument in The Divided Self was that people labelled schizophrenic suffered from ‘ontological insecurity’ – a lack of faith in their own and others’ reality – which led them to create false self systems to fend off psychological and emotional catastrophe.
Laing wanted to make madness and the process of going mad comprehensible, and to a great many people, including many of those afflicted, he did so convincingly. He showed that, if listened to in the right spirit, the discourse of the ‘mad’ made sense.
One of the PA’s first ventures was the community created at Kingsley Hall, East London, from 1965–70. The first of many therapeutic communities run by the PA, it was a place of genuine asylum.
In the words of a brochure of the time, Kingsley Hall was ‘a melting pot, a crucible in which many assumptions about normal–abnormal, conformist–deviant, sane–crazy experience and behaviour were dissolved. No person gave another tranquillisers or sedatives. Behaviour was feasible which would have been intolerable elsewhere. It was a place where people could be together and let each other be’.
With its anti-authoritarian ethos, Kingsley Hall was an important focal point for the newly emerging counterculture in Britain, and for the critical psychiatry and anti-psychiatry movements. Members of the PA also organised the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967, at which Laing spoke alongside Stokely Carmichael and Herbert Marcuse.
By the time the lease on Kingsley Hall expired in 1970 more than a hundred and twenty people had gone there seeking a different kind of help to what was available in mental hospitals – and found it.
The nurse Mary Barnes was the best-known resident of Kingsley Hall. She came with a history of severe mental distress. With the help of therapist Joseph Berke, Barnes regressed to childhood, using painting and writing to slowly re-emerge.
Barnes and Berke published Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness in 1971. David Edgar turned it into a play, which was first performed in 1979 with a cast including Simon Callow and Patti Love.
After Kingsley Hall Barnes had a successful career as a painter. She lived for many years in Scotland where she and others tried to establish community households along PA lines. A book of interviews, Something Sacred: Conversations, Writings, Paintings (with Ann Scott), was published in 1989. Barnes died in 2001. A packed meeting in her memory was held later that year at Kingsley Hall.
A picture of what the early PA communities were like can be seen in the acclaimed 1972 film Asylum made by Peter Robinson, which recorded the Archway Community in north London. It was made using handheld cameras by a small crew who lived in the house for a time.
More recently, Scottish artist Luke Fowler used footage of Kingsley Hall, the Archway Community and Laing to make the film What You See Is Where You’re At in 2005. It was shortlisted for the Becks Futures Prize. Fowler explored Laing’s life and work again in 2011 in All Divided Selves, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize.
Laing died suddenly in France in August 1989 from a heart attack. He was buried in Glasgow. After his death a book of interviews by Bob Mullan, Mad To Be Normal, was published. Several biographies and studies have followed, including his son Adrian Laing’s comprehensive account, R. D. Laing: A Life.
Today, when psychiatry and psychology look to biology to explain mental distress, and mainly use drugs to treat it, Laing’s work powerfully advocates another approach. The meaning of people’s suffering can be understood if it is listened to carefully, and the anguish can be lessened if it is understood as a dimension of our common humanity not a disorder that needs to be corrected. This other way is the one we at the PA still follow.
We celebrated our fiftieth anniversary with a series of free discussions, performances and screenings, 25 September–4 October 2015, supported by Arts Council England. The films shown were Amir Amirani’s documentary about the 2003 global day of protest against the Iraq War We Are Many and James Napier Robertson’s Maori drama The Dark Horse. Pamela Stewart considered psychotherapy in prisons. Hilary Cooper talked with Bruce Scott about the PA community houses. Leon Redler discussed ethics. Paul Atkinson and Andy Metcalf of the Free Psychotherapy Network lamented ‘the rise of the psychological state’. Darian Leader and novelist Will Self discussed Laing’s legacy, a topic that was then taken up by John Heaton and Adrian Laing. Rosalind Mayo and Christina Moutsou revisited their maternal seminars project. Miles Clapham pondered phenomenology. Nick Putman spoke of the Open Dialogue format from Lapland.
There was an evening of performance at the Freud Museum on 29 September. Abraham Brody created musical improvisations based on what he saw in his audience’s eyes. Artist and activist ‘the vacuum cleaner’ presented Mental, an autobiographical performance through his psychiatric records and police intelligence files. Addendum was a piece commissioned by the PA from Sharon Gal: a musical dialogue across time and space, the artist’s imaginary collaboration with Laing. At Marty’s Yard there was an exhibition of works by Eti Wade, curated by Samantha Lippett, on the theme of motherhood.
The anniversary celebration concluded with an evening of readings, reflections, sound and performance on the theme of love by PA members and trainees Amanda Ferozha, Catherine Alexander, Chrysanthi Nigianni, Emma Stroker, Andreas Constantinos, Fliss Cadbury and Mimi Dobrin.
Tom Clatworthy was commissioned by the PA to film the anniversary events.
The Philadelphia Association was founded as a charity in 1965 by RD Laing and his colleagues. The founders’ objective was ‘the relief of mental illness of all descriptions, in particular schizophrenia’. From the beginning, however, the more radical intention was to oppose narrow, repressive ideas about ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’.