Ronald David Laing (1927-89) is a British psychiatrist and leading member of the anti-psychiatry movement. He was born in Glasgow. He studied medicine at the University of Glasgow and then he was drafted into the army, in spite of poor health, serving as a psychiatrist in the medical corps. He left the army in 1953 and after a brief stint at a Glasgow hospital moved to London to undertake training in psychoanalysis at the Tavistock Clinic, where he worked with W.D. Winnicott.
In 1965, along with several colleagues, Laing founded the Philadelphia Association and began an experimental community psychiatry project at Kingsley Hall with a view to putting into practice the reconceptualization of schizophrenia worked out in his books, The Divided Self (1960), Self and Others (1961), and Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964). The idea was to create a shared living space for schizophrenics and psychiatrists and approach the disease as a shamanistic journey rather than an illness that can be cured with drugs or electro-shock therapy.
A famous, but in many ways discrediting account of life at Kingsley Hall, written by one of the patients there, Mary Barnes, and her psychiatrist, Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of A Journey Through Madness, was published in 1971. Probably his most influential book, The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967), was written during this period. Very much a work of its time, it draws on Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre, to argue that society, as we know it in the west, is mentally straitjacketing and that is the reason so many people are unhappy. In this regard, his work anticipated the student protests of May ’68 and was similarly quite influential on Félix Guattari, though he ultimately rejected anti-psychiatry. Because the anti-psychiatry movement is generally seen to have failed, both by professional psychiatrists and by critical theorists, as its therapeutic techniques don’t provide any relief from the distressing experiences schizophrenia can induce, Laing’s work has fallen into neglect.
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