R.D. Laing, Psychiatrist: “Mad to Be Normal”

Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.

Insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. Quotes by R.D. Laing

R.D. Laing (1927-1989) was a psychiatrist and author who, though not to his own liking, became viewed as leader of an “anti-psychiatry” movement. One of his controversial theories was that schizophrenia sprang from environmental dysfunction, often within the family—as in “a hopeless ‘heads-I-win, tails-you-lose’ emotional situation…Finding such a situation intolerable, a boy or girl escapes this unbearable pain through schizophrenia” (New York Times).

Laing, states Stephen Dalton (Hollywood Reporter) “was something like a Scottish Timothy Leary, a Swinging Sixties counterculture icon who attracted a cult following among the young, shared a stage with The Grateful Dead and dropped LSD with Sean Connery….A radical opponent of prison-like asylums and anti-psychotic drugs, the Glasgow-born guru challenged the medical establishment while enjoying a hedonistic rock-star lifestyle, partying with famous fans including The Beatles.”

Interestingly, in the book R.D. Laing: A Life his son Adrian described the fact that “despite his astonishing empathy with the disturbed, Laing failed to address his own family problems…” (publisher’s blurb).

David Tennant stars as Laing in Robert Mullan‘s new film Mad to be Normal, now on DVD, which places much of its focus on Laing’s work between 1965-70 at Kingsley Hall (London), his residential facility for those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Whereas conventional medications were generally eschewed there, LSD as treatment was not.

Watch the trailer:

Diagnosed herself with schizophrenia, Stephanie Allan has written a review for The Psychologist. An excerpt:

The impact of Laing’s work that resonates most heavily today is that madness is an understandable response to ‘unlivable situations’; he would even describe extreme mental states as a ‘voyage of self-discovery’. However, these passionate beliefs aren’t demonstrated in any of the Kingsley Hall characters, and I found their portrayal lacking…

Film critic Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, is a bit more complimentary, on the other hand: “…Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon are excellent as his patients: old men who in a later era might be overlooked as care-in-the-community homeless.”

Untrue elements include the existence of Elisabeth Moss as “Laing’s (composite-fictional) partner Angie,” according to Bradshaw, as well as the following, as detailed by Hollywood Reporter:

The real-life death of Laing’s daughter Susan (Alexandra Finnie) from leukemia is brought forward by a decade, a clumsy chronological contrivance of questionable taste. A prickly meeting between Laing and his starchy battle-axe mother also feels like a jarringly artificial bid to stoke up Freudian psychodrama.

Among the fictionalized regulars at Kingsley Hall are Jim (Byrne), a volatile Anglo-Irish depressive who jealously guards his connection to Laing, and Sidney (Gambon), an elderly lost soul who agrees to take LSD to help resolve the lingering trauma of his parents’ death in a grisly murder-suicide. Strangely, Mullan overlooks some of the community’s most famous real alumni, including Mary Barnes, a schizophrenic who became a celebrated painter. Mad to Be Normal also suggests Kingsley Hall was forced to close in 1970 in response to thuggishly hostile locals and self-serving establishment doctors. The real chain of events was inevitably more complex, and involved two patients jumping from the roof.

Dalton’s conclusion, in part:

Almost three decades after his death, the value of Laing’s contributions to psychiatry remain contentious, particularly as he embraced more esoteric New Age methods in later life, declined into alcoholism and lost his license to practice. Mullan’s take-home message is not wholly uncritical but obviously partisan, concluding with the simplistic claim that Laing’s ideas ‘live on.’

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