Laing stressed the role of society, and particularly the family , in the development of madness. He argued that individuals can often be put in impossible situations where they are unable to conform to the conflicting expectations of their peers, leading to a "lose-lose situation" and immense mental distress for the individuals concerned.
Madness was therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and transformative experience. This view was in stark contrast to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the time, and is still contrary to the majority opinion of mainstream psychiatry. Psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers had previously pronounced, in his seminal work General Psychopathology, that the content of madness, and particularly of delusions, were "un-understandable," and therefore were worthy of little consideration except as a sign of some other underlying primary disorder.
Laing was revolutionary in valuing the content of psychotic behavior and speech as a valid expression of distress, albeit wrapped in an unusual personal symbolism. According to Laing, if a therapist can better understand the person, they can begin to make sense of the symbolism of their madness, and therefore start addressing the concerns that are the root cause of their distress.
It is notable that Laing never denied the existence of mental illness, but simply viewed it in a radically different light from his contemporaries.
For Laing, madness could be a transformative episode whereby the process of undergoing mental distress was compared to a shamanic journey. The traveler could return from the journey with important insights, and might even have become a wiser and more grounded person as a result. Laing's research linked the development of psychosis to family background. Despite supporting evidence, this generated significant controversy and the influence of parents who felt "blamed" for a child's diagnosis of schizophrenia accounts for much of Laing's unpopularity in many circles.
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In fact, such blame was an inappropriate attribution by commentators who had not grasped the breadth of his view of the nature of pathogenesis in families. Laing maintained throughout his career that parents are equally mystified and unaware of the disturbed nature of the patterns of communication.
Laing developed a phenomenological methodology that involved utilizing rigorous scientific principles in the examination of internal process. In the phenomenological approach, self report is assumed valid and then must be proved through the subsequent events, as opposed to the more materialistic approach of first requiring data that can be measured in the physical world. In The Divided Self, Self and Others and The Politics of Experience , Laing reproached Freud and his followers for aligning psychoanalysis with the natural sciences in order to secure a measure of respectability for the new discipline.
Laing was regarded as an important figure in the anti-psychiatry movement, along with David Cooper and Michel Foucault. However, like many of his contemporaries, labeling him as "anti-psychiatry" was a caricature of his stated views. Laing never denied the value of treating mental distress, but simply wanted to challenge the core values of psychiatry, which considered mental illness as primarily a biological phenomenon and that the thoughts and images of patients had no intrinsic value in understanding and assisting the healing process.
In The Divided Self, Laing explained how we all exist in the world as beings, defined by others who carry a model of us in their heads, just as we carry models of them in our heads. Our feelings and motivations derive very much from this condition of "being in the world" in the sense of existing for others, who exist for us. In later writings he often took this to deeper levels, laboriously spelling out how A knows that B knows that A knows that B knows… Without this, we suffer "ontological insecurity," a condition often expressed in terms of "being dead" by people who are clearly still physically alive.
This may explain why in some biographical material, Laing said his mother died when he was fifteen, as she did not die literally at that time.
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Sanity, Madness and the Family contains accounts of several families, analyzing how their members see each other and what they actually communicate to each other. Laing used the term "family nexus" to describe the consensus view within the family to which all members expected to adhere. He claimed that this nexus is a powerful determinant of individual mental health. The startling way in which lies are perpetuated in the interest of family politics rings true to many readers from "normal" families, and Laing's view is that in some cases these lies are so strongly maintained as to make it impossible for a vulnerable child to be able to determine what truth actually is, let alone the truth of their own situation.
This was the basis for his approach to psychotherapy, as in the case of his most famous patient, Mary Barnes, a professional nurse who entered Kingsley Hall in She was exceptionally articulate and helpful in substantiating Laing's claims, and her case seemed to prove the importance of family nexus.
In some of Laing's writing he apparently extended the concept of family nexus to the society, as Andrew Collier pointed out in his book, The Philosophy and Politics of Psychotherapy. In a strand of thinking traceable to Marx , Laing condemned society for shackling mankind against its will, taking away individual freedom. Left to his own devices, man is healthy, and the mad are just trying to find their way back to their natural state.
However, Laing did not develop this societal continuation of family nexus in his later work, and so it is unclear what his ultimate view of the impact of the greater society is on psychosis. In The Divided Self, Laing exposed the family nexus as often placing children in a "double bind," where they receive conflicting injunctions from family members.
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Yet it is the very need for ontological security, which should come from within the family that is the driving force that builds societies. Laing did not "blame" family members, rather he pointed out that they are in turn victims of their own family. He failed, however, to get to the bottom of the problem and find a way out for his patients. Freud , by comparison, not only recognized the repressive effect of society, especially in his later works like Civilization and its Discontents, but also sought to strengthen his patients' ability to cope with this.
However, neither Laing nor Freud appeared willing to tackle the issue of the good and bad nexus, whether on the family or societal level.
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The real double bind, Collier seemed to suggest, is that we all need to exist in a nexus, but sometimes the only one we have is one in which we cannot continue to exist. Laing's work over the years changed as his interests led him from one aspect to another of the problems of personal happiness and mental health. One could say that this was his response to his difficult early family life, which probably helped him form his approach that rejected dogmatic adherence to a dysfunctional status quo, and to be open to innovate with less than orthodox methodology. Laing's view of psychosis as an expression of the reality experienced by his patients is not only innovative but also intriguing.
He believed that psychosis is an experience of a reality that differs from the "normal" reality experienced by the "sane" members of society, a kind of journey into a different realm. For those who take his view seriously, it implies that others could take that same journey and possibly broaden the understanding of human existence.
The politics of the family and other essays
However, Laing failed to clarify the exact nature of this different realm, how to enter it, and how to leave it. His attempts to characterize the family nexus as the source of entry into this realm leave readers as mystified as the family members themselves as to how such a situation developed and how to resolve it. His advocacy of empathy with those with psychosis, and the necessity of kindness and authenticity from the therapist, put great responsibility upon the therapist, one he seemed to shoulder with great personal courage, although later in his career he no longer seemed able to do so.
He succumbed to his tendency to alcoholism and was forced to resign from the Philadelphia Association, eventually losing his license to practice medicine due to his unprofessional conduct. Ships with Tracking Number!
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