Presenting case studies of schizophrenic patients, Laing aims to make madness and the process of going mad comprehensible. He also offers an existential analysis of personal alienation.
The most important contribution of Laing is that he has shown mental illness to be an extreme outcome of our UNIVERSAL anxiety about 'being in the world' and of inter-acting with others. As such, he gives the mentally ill a dignity, humanity and sense of 'normalcy' denied them by both medical psychiatry and traditional Freudian and neo-Freudian psychotherapy. This is a book which did and continues to change minds and lives. It simply must be read by anyone interested in psychology, social science and the human condition.
For those persuaded by its thesis I would also strongly recommend the work of Ernest Becker who draws on many of the insights of Laing and other writers in the existential-psychotherapy tradition. In particular search out his 'Revolution in Psychiatry' and 'The Denial Of Death'.
This book constitutes the definitive attempt to provide an existential account of madness. The traditional approach to understanding madness sees it as a clinical entity, largely divorced from any relevance to the personal or social aspects of the suffering person's life
This book is probably the most intelligent and in depth attack on such a position. Laing argues that madness is not due to chemical imbalances in the brain or any organic disease, and any attempt to understand madness as a pathological process is doomed to failure because it inevitably treats the patient as an object. The book is a logically developed and sustained argument that madness can only be comprehended as the desperate attempts of the individual to integrate their own fragmenting psychological structure. Although the failure to do so is the almost inevitable result, leading ultimately to madness. seen from an existential perspective the process is understandable.
Laing himself puts it "...its basic purpose is to make madness, and the process of going mad comprehensible". Laing achieves this purpose brilliantly through the use of case studies. The greatest achievement of the book, I think, is the way in which Laing explains to the reader how, gradually and systematically, a suffering individual "progresses" from a schizoid, but sane state of mind to a schizophrenic, insane state of mind.
Laing's description of this process is both poignant and tragic. The reader is left with a profound insight into the world of madness, the nature of which I have not come across anywhere else. As a consequence of Laing's existential analysis, an explanation of delusions becomes possible, which is consistent, relevant and faithful to the suffering individual's experience. Therein lies Laing's further contribution, that of providing dignity and humanity to individuals who have been, and still are, deprived the status of being human.
Clearly then, is an attack on traditional psychiatry. The first two or three chapters set out Laing's theoretical objections to this traditional approach. Laing also sets out here his justifications for the use of the existential approach. Subsequent chapters develop Laing's ideas on ontological insecurity, the false-self system and self-consciousness into a cogent existential account of madness. Indeed the book could be read as a study in applied existentialism; although Laing makes clear it is not a direct application of any established existential philosophy.
The book is at times repetitive, and the existential and psychoanalytic jargon are sometimes stumbling blocks to understanding. The book is also not an easy read.
A classic of psychological and psychiatric literature this book still retains it relevance with the way in which it reminds us that the mad are still human. One can learn more about schizophrenia from this book than from a whole shelf of psychiatric text books. This may be Laing's vindication and greatest accolade.
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