A Trip to the Far Side of Madness

Scene: a dark shaded consulting room on the ground floor of 21 Wimpole Street, London W1. Time: early 1960s. This is my first session with the up-and- coming “celebrity shrink”, Dr Ronald D Laing. I’ve run through half a dozen therapists who either call me names (“You’re unanalysable, dear man”) or recommend electroshock therapy (at Maudsley hospital) or advise me to quit writing if it’s so painful.

Laing is a breath of fresh air. He is about my age (mid-30s), irreparably handsome with the doomed beauty of a haunted artist, and from a similar slum background. He speaks my language, or so it seems. Later, it turns out he is fashionably downgrading his Presbyterian middle-class origins in Glasgow.

Smoking a thin cigar, he leans forward intently in his cracked-leather chair and examines me through half-lidded eyes. “What are ye fookin’ around wi’ all that neurotic shit for, Clancy?” he says in a Scottish accent I am to learn he can put on or off at will. “Tummy aches and faintin’ spells is crybaby stuff. Ye’ve got the makings of a good schizophrenic. Lucky ye’ve come to the right place.”

Indeed, I had. And at only six quid a session. Except that I had no idea what a schizophrenic was. Or what I was getting into that would, depending on how you look at it, rob me of the next half-dozen years or give me the experience of a lifetime.

Laing insisted on calling me a “McCarthy refugee”, an exile from the House Un-American anti-communist hunters. This was only half true since I’d also run away from my personal demons in the States, a feverish mental disequilibrium that (I realise now) was the compost of my writing. After a long dry spell as an émigré “London Yankee”, I was on a writing jag–novels, journalism, pamphlets, BBC talks. But it didn’t stop the anxiety attacks.

In his consulting room Laing and I immediately connected. We shared a childhood of psychic and actual violence from our chaotic family histories. Laing liked using military and boxing metaphors; occasionally we even sparred around his room, jabbing, hooking, feinting. I was certainly more at ease with him than the English poets and novelists I met whose limp handshakes were so unmanly … so un-American.

At the time of our first meeting Laing was on his way to becoming the Bob Dylan of “existential” psychoanalysis with his bestselling book, The Divided Self, a bible for disturbed teenagers. For all its Sartrean chatter–ontological insecurity, being-for-itself, etc–Laing’s message was starkly simple: doctors must stop treating mental patients as objects to be done things to, and have the courage to meet patients as equals in an “I-thou encounter”. But all that was only his public self. There was another, secret side, he hinted. (I love secrets!) He dared me to pass through his most private and cherished door: the door of perception known as the schizophrenic revolution.

I’d no idea what he was talking about. But if it was a revolution I was all for it. Laing and I were both “politicals” of the leftish type (CND, New Left, all that). And like most people under 40 we were fed up with a moribund Establishment stifling our best energies. A new music (psychedelic rock, the Stones, acid folk, Grateful Dead) and new clothes styles (mod, razor-cut hair, Italian suits) seemed to signal the birth of an “absolute beginners” Britain, vital and violent and more like us.

Laing’s ascendant star was perfectly timed. Antonin Artaud’s “madness is truth” was all the rage, as was David Mercer’s TV play A Suitable Case For Treatment, later a film. The feminist playwright Jane Arden went around chanting, “We are all mad. If you are a woman then you are mad.”

Laing’s early writing spoke, poetically, from his troubled gut to growing audiences of the disenchanted and mentally unbalanced, including me. He preached that the root of the thing that sickened us was the emotional dysfunction within families encoded in the parents’ “double bind” (“Go away but tell me you love me”), and loveless (or overbearingly loving) contradictory communication that drove kids literally mad. In this sense, love itself was the ticking time-bomb of all personal relationships. One struggled to free oneself from the chains of love in order to find a selfhood that might exist only on the other side of madness. Indeed, Laing’s unfinished last book was titled The Lies Of Love.

His theatrical genius was to “give psychiatry a human face”–to translate his philosophical interests (Husserl, Jaspers and Kierkegaard) into common street language that spoke to his own experiences as a “policeman” (his word) of other people’s mental illnesses in Scottish and British army hospitals where he had worked as an intern. In a quiet rage he told some pretty gory stories that left me in no doubt of his guilt that as a young doctor he had let himself participate in the medical profession’s legalised “mind butchery” of their patients. As our relationship deepened it became clear that, for desperate men like us who lived in an amoral Dostoevskian world almost beyond suicide, anything was permissible if it (a) broke a few teeth in the fight for the liberation of the mentally “ill” and (b) brought us closer to the extinction of Ego (we thought in capital letters).

Laing, whom I trusted with my soul, and I crossed the line of professional etiquette when we began exchanging roles, he the patient and I the therapist, and took LSD together in his office and in my Bayswater apartment. Somehow, along the way, we created–with Laing’s closest colleagues Dr Aaron Esterson, David Cooper and Sid Briskin–the Philadelphia Association. This was a registered charity dedicated to devising a humane alternative to the “treatment” of the mentally sick that until recently had included insulin coma, heavy drugs and even lobotomy. (Electroshock therapy of the crudest kind was still quite popular in mental hospitals.)

By putting forward our respectable public face and sidetracking our private agenda–going personally crazy–we found and voluntarily staffed Kingsley Hall in east London, which is now celebrating its 30th anniversary. At the time, Kingsley Hall became an international mecca for psycho-tourists, earnest American helpers, celebrities like Tim Leary and Allen Ginsberg … and a haven for the truly desperate cases whom other doctors had given up on. Any given night you could run into a Beatle on acid or the former mental nurse Mary Barnes (memorialised in a play by David Edgar) daubing shit on the walls of her room.

Then, of course, there were these cursed meetings of the inner circle. I hadn’t participated in anything like our Philadelphia Association roundelays of insult-trading since hanging out on Chicago street corners as a teenager. Except that we were grown-ups. Wherever did these “speak bitterness” sessions come from, Mao’s China? They were acrid and soul-punishing and, I guess, meant to toughen us for the Long Ascent to the Everest of mental breakdown, our private goal of spiritual rebirth.

Laing and I had sealed a devil’s bargain. Although we set out to “cure” schizophrenia, we became schizophrenic in our attitudes to ourselves and to the outside world. Our personal relationships in the Philadelphia Association became increasingly fraught. At the same time–I speak only for myself–the sheer brutality of our interchanges conveyed an unmistakable message: you are already living on the other side of sanity.

It all ended badly … and well.

From the start Laing and I had made a solemn compact that we would protect each other’s back–like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in Gunfight At The OK Corral–if either of us broke down. “Breaking down” was, of course, an essential precondition for “breaking through” that would finally cure us of the human condition.

I was the first to go, at Kingsley Hall. Proper do it was, too. In front of witnesses. Lost my mind entirely and not a bad feeling. Leaped and danced on the communal supper table, and with an imaginary prayer shawl around my shoulders skipped around wailing an authentic, or gobbledegook, Hebrew prayer. And then it came, the vision I’d been working and longing for. I had to laugh. God, in the shape of (I swear) a railway union organiser, sat me on His knee for some stern advice. Stop being so crazy, He commanded. It’s self-indulgent. Go back to your writing and live normally like other folks.

Laing, at the head of the table, had grown alarmed by my behaviour. His anxiety spread to others. That night, after I left Kingsley Hall, several of the doctors, who persuaded themselves that I was suicidal, piled into two cars, sped to my apartment, broke in, and jammed me with needles full of Largactil, a fast-acting sedative used by conventional doctors in mental wards. Led by Laing, they dragged me back to Kingsley Hall where I really did become suicidal. I was enraged: the beating and drugging was such a violation of our code. Now I knew exactly how mental patients felt when the nurses set about them before the doctor stuck in the needle.

Before I could fight back–at least four big guys including Laing were pinning me down–the drug took effect. The last thing I remember saying was, “You bastards don’t know what you’re doing …”

They left me alone in an upstairs cubicle overlooking a balcony with a 30ft drop. I had to figure a way to escape from this bunch of do-gooders who had lost their nerve as well as their minds. Fortunately, I had learned some tricks of the madness trade as a “barefoot doctor” in Villa 21, David Cooper’s innovative schizophrenic ward at Shenley hospital. Rule Number One, which I had ignored till now: don’t make your doctors more anxious than they already are.

Choosing life over death, I put on an act pretending that I had rejoined Laing’s obedient flock–which relaxed the doctors’ hysteria–and when they were all safely asleep slipped away from the hall back to my flat. For months afterwards I slept with a baseball bat in my bed.

In 1975, 10 years after I broke with Laing, I completed a comic novel, Zone Of The Interior, based on my experiences with schizophrenia. Published to widespread notice in the US, it was stopped cold in Britain by Laing’s vague threat of a libel action. Potential publishers backed off. A small independent house offered to publish Zone but reluctantly pulled out when two of its board members, both leftwing, strongly opposed. By then Laing had become something of a sacred cow on the left, a darling and victim of the celebrity culture.

My feelings about Laing have changed over time, especially since his sudden death on a tennis court in southern France in 1989. The problem is there were several RD Laings: doctor, prophet, father and husband, builder and destroyer, personal friend and ultimately my bullyboy. Looking back, I now see that his own “need to be needed”–a capital crime in his rule book–caused him to panic when he believed, for example, that a patient, patron or friend was about to leave him. And, as he taught us, there’s nothing scarier than a medical professional who has control over others but not over his own anxiety.

With all its bullshit and doublethink, “Laingianism” tried hard to make a difference. To our credit, we didn’t really see much difference between them (patients) and us (healers). We had a go, and some of us paid a price.

Recently I contacted some mental health activists–former patients, family members of patients, psychotherapists, etc. Their verdict is mixed. “The problem with Laing’s legacy,” one long-time campaigner told me, “is that he produced a competitive and hostile climate where the patient became collateral damage between warring factions”. Yet others claim Laing’s influence produced modest but real improvement.

A retired psychiatrist testifies, “I was a trainee at the Maudsley in the 1960s and I think [Laing] influenced many [other trainees] to feel closer to patients and to interact more normally with them, rather than in the stilted or ‘clinical’ way that both psychiatry and psychoanalysis promoted at the time.” A more pessimistic therapist speaks only of “cosmetic changes” because the “‘biological’ view of ‘mental illness’ rules more supreme than ever”. But even he cites “pockets of resistance” that today include Laing- and Esterson-influenced doctors, probation officers, psychologists, who are out there working, quietly, in the field.

“La lutte continue,” as the revolutionists say. Yes, ECT is back in vogue. The mind butchers never give up and keep coming back with fancier rationales for doing what they admit they don’t understand. The task is as yet undone.

Zone Of The Interior, by CLANCY SIGAL, is finally being published in the UK, by Pomona at £9.99. The editors thought that Sigal’s piece well worth reprinting from The Guardian (with permission) because it evokes one of the spirits of the Sixties so well. Co-editor Cockburn remembers visiting Kingsley Hall, where Laing was living (at least for public consumption) in some kind of rabbit hutch on the roof. These were the days when “the bourgeois family”, as leftists contemptuously described it , was under furious attack. Indeed the anthropologist Edmund Leach took the occasion of his 1967 Reith Lectures to inform his BBC audience that “Far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.” As a Watsonville worker once told Frank Bardacke, who was discoursing to a political group on the evils of the family, “Frank, you don’t understand. The family is all we’ve got.” Sigal can be reached at clancy@jsasoc.com.


Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset