R. D. Laing (1927-1989) was a Scottish existential psychiatrist whose views about the psychiatric classification and treatment of mental illnesses like schizophrenia remain influential within anti-psychiatry groups and among some humanities students.
In the The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967), Laing makes a case for the ‘inner adventurer,’ saying that Western culture tends to exalt outer-worldly adventurers (such as Christopher Columbus and Neil Armstrong) while denigrating inner-worldly explorers.
Outer adventurers are usually high risk takers and may die from their dangerous pursuits (e.g. Apollo I, Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles). But as a culture we don’t say the deceased were ‘crazy’ for taking such high risks. Rather, we regard them as heroes.
Laing says this is not the case with most inner adventurers (Vincent Van Gogh comes to mind as a possible exception to Laing’s claim, although his genius was not fully recognized until years after his death). When most inner adventurers fail to achieve worldly recognition we tend to categorize them with unpleasant sounding labels that effectively rob them of their intrinsic human dignity.
While Laing says this is a cultural process, it gets it start in the family dynamic. Not unlike the sociologist Erving Goffman, Laing believes there’s often a tacit, largely subconscious dynamic within families to characterize a certain family member as “ill,” thus marginalizing them. According to this perspective, much undealt with complexes, tensions and dysfunctional family dynamics are thrust upon the individual seen as “sick,” who unfortunately bears the brunt of the whole family mess.
From a religious or spiritual perspective, this view possibly relates to the Hindu idea of karma transfer, along with the Catholic ideas of ‘victim souls’ and ‘taking sins.’ Historically speaking, the dynamic is also reminiscent of the ancient practice of community scapegoating.
In his years of work as a psychiatrist, Laing tried to discern and reassemble allegedly encrypted patterns of meaning within the seemingly ‘nonsense’ utterances of schizophrenic speech.
In short, Laing suggests that ideas about madness rest on biased interpretations of largely misunderstood experiences and behaviors. By the same token, as a doctor he tries to cure patients, as if to imply that his own way of seeing things is more authentic than theirs.
Like him or lump him, on the whole, Laing’s work raises worthwhile questions about social power, conformity, the status quo, deviance and the idea of mental illness. Laing’s opponents tend to accept the idea of mental illness, saying that it’s a serious, difficult and potentially life-threatening issue. They also say that Laing and other anti-psychiatry groups advance a romantic, one-sided scenario and make untenable claims that don’t fit with the vast majority of cases.
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- Erving Goffman archives (stat.columbia.edu)
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- The Illusions of Psychiatry (nybooks.com)
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