R. D. Laing’s Version of Asylum and its Cultural Appeal (Dr Adrian Chapman, Visiting Fellow at the MHRC, University of Glasgow)

This blog was previously posted on the University of Glasgow Medical Humanities Research Centre blog. We have reposted here with permission.

adrian-chapman2The Wellcome Collection’s fascinating new London exhibition, Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond, offers several versions of the asylum: a place of incarceration and therapy, an object of voyeuristic fascination, and a source of artistic inspiration to patient-artists and artists from beyond the institution’s walls.

Thanks to a Wellcome Trust Research Bursary, I’ve just spent five months at the R. D. Laing archive, University of Glasgow, where I’ve been thinking about the radical Scottish psychiatrist’s conception of asylum and his cultural appeal.

For Laing (1927-1989), whose influence in the 60s is noted in the exhibition, in a true asylum one should be able to relinquish the strain of ‘being in control’ or of being ‘normal.’ And if this means being (or going) ‘crazy’, then so be it. For as he put it in The Politics of Experience, ‘Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough’ (106).*

In the right circumstances, Laing maintained, madness might be a rewarding form of travel through usually obscured regions of inner space. The right circumstances, though, in Laing’s view, were not to be found in the conventional mental hospital.

Wanting to establish an environment in which madness as a form of self-healing might flourish, in the mid-60s he established the experimental household of Kingsley Hall in London’s East End.

Most first-hand accounts of the Hall tell us that roles – helper and helped, professional and patient – were remarkably fluid. Diagnostic categories and psychiatric drugs were eschewed. Although limits were imposed at times, madness was commonly seen as a means of self-exploration – a process to be encouraged rather than arrested.

The person who was really ‘freaking out’ occupied a position of considerable prestige. My research into archival material has found an extraordinary tolerance for eccentric (what today would be called “anti-social”) behaviour.

Did it all work? For some, yes; for others, no: testimonies contradict one another. Laing, the charismatic centre of the household, attracted both adulation and suspicion.

The Hall, which ran from 1965 to 1970, wasn’t just an experiment in radical psychiatry. It was also part of the ‘alternative society’ and, as such, a site of counter-cultural tourism, with actors, artists and writers visiting.

Laing’s idea of madness as a voyage of self-discovery proved of interest to novelists. Doris Lessing’s novel Briefing for a Descent into Madness, for instance, draws on the idea; and Clancy Sigal’s novel Zone of the Interior offers a satirical view it. The doctor in J. G. Ballard’s High Rise is given the surname “Laing.”

The Hall’s most famous resident, Mary Barnes, wrote a book with her therapist, Joseph Berke, about what she presents as her successful journey into and back from madness (Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness). This inspired David Edgar’s play Mary Barnes.

Laing’s own books, such as The Divided Self and The Politics of Experience, were available as mass market paperbacks, and they sold widely, becoming a staple of the countercultural bookshelf.

The word ‘Laingian’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1976. Laing became the only ever UK psychiatrist to lend his name to an adjective.

When he died in 1989, however, his star was in decline. To many, he seemed a figure from the past. The ‘alternative society’, with which he’d been associated, had largely faded or been commodified. In the UK and US, few large mental hospitals remained and treatment was largely a matter of ‘care in the community.’ The pharmaceutical industry had developed new anti-psychotics, and the psychiatric profession had new diagnoses.

But in the present age of ‘big pharma’, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and research into the possible genetic basis of psychosis – none of which Laing would have had time for – the radical psychiatrist’s cultural appeal is alive and well again.

Following Luke Fowler’s 2012 presence on the Turner prize shortlist for his film All Divided Selves, a play by Patrick Marmion entitled The Divided Laing was produced last year in London. Now Mad to be Normal, a Laing biopic starring David Tennant and focused on the Kingsley Hall experiment, is due for release soon.

The Wellcome Collection’s Bedlam exhibition continues until 15th January. The last item in the gallery is an exhibit entitled Mad Love, which invites people to design their own asylum, their own place in which to find refuge and, if necessary, to break down. ‘It ain’t no bad thing to need a safe place to go mad,’ says the Mad Love project on their website. What a very Laingian idea.

* Laing, R. D. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise. Penguin, 1967.

Dr Adrian Chapman


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