on 26 March 2006
I am not in the medical profession, however, do struggle with my own and other family members' mental health problems. Until now, I had never read a description or analysis of the process of schizophrenia which seemed to be true of what I have personally witnessed. Laing has utmost regard for patients and a real interest in trying to understand them. Unlike most of the psychiatric world which is now hung up on diagnosis and categorisations above all else and at the cost of the individual's needs. I feel better equipped and more able to understand what mental processes the concept of schizophrenia is founded upon, and as such, less resistant to psychiatry in general.
on 30 October 2001
There is little specific to say about this book beyond what has already been noted in the previous excellent and lengthy review. All I can do is re-itterate that Laing provides the most powerful, moving and utterly convincing account of the causes and development of mental illness.
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'.
on 26 June 2001
The Divided Self - by R. D. Laing
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.
I write this review as a psychiatric social worker. I have been doing this job for about 5 or 6 years and have discovered that the psychiatric system in this country basically reacts to people with schizophrenia as if all their remarks - which certainly often sound pretty strange - are unintelligible and without significant meaning. The more weird stuff a patient comes out with the more important it is to give them medication to block out the thoughts they are having.
In the training I had Laing was briefly discussed but no real attempt was made to convey the sense of his teaching. He suggests, as other reviewers have explained, that mental illness is intelligible, even logical, and by implication at least to some extent treatable with a genuinely therapeutic approach.
By the late 1970s Laing's work was being confidently dismissed by the psychiatric establishment but recently a lot of work has been done picking up the themes expressed in Laing. People might want to look at the work of Mary Boyle, Lucy Johnstone, and Romme and Escher. However no-one explains the process of going mad more convincingly than Laing in my view and to read him now is amazing because it seems to me in the profession now so few people even think of actually trying to understand schizophrenia.
Some of Doris Lessing's novels are also very good on the nature of madness - try 'The Four-Gated City'.
A book that has stood the test of time extremely well, as Laing operated in the dark ages and beamed a light forward, sometimes it roared as a brazier but often shone with the flicker of a match.
Searing all preconceptions, he took away the certainties of madness to replace it with vagaries. No longer a fixed problem, madness now became subjective, something negotiated between doctor patient and the outside world.
Laing believed that people were psychotic and schizophrenic, it's just he did not believe there was an illness as such, but a condition, a reaction to the world. When the ontological security becomes shattered by an extreme event, outside the norm then the uncertainties of the universe rush in, showing how reality taken for granted and upheld as a norm is inherently fragile.
As it shatters externally so it fragments internally, into small silent pieces. Madness is a retreat into the inner citadel to cope with the fragmentation.
Other issues he touches upon is being born without being loved and the struggle that ensues to try and find meaning and the problems that result when this is no longer present, the person wears a mask and pretends.
Incorporates a devastating critique of science as a belief system along with various cse studies. Laing takes apart commonly held believes, holds them up for inspection and then places them back. The world is never the same again.
He exhibits a ferocious intelligence building on Fromm Reichmann, Sartre, Jaspers, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Janet, Kafka to create a tour de force. The concepts may appear alien depending on the brute ideologies inculcated beforehand, but once understood, Laing offers a pair of X Ray eyes to see the world as it is, not how it wants to appear.
Therefore only for those who want to break on through to the other side
on 18 May 2005
In this valuable study, Dr Laing proposes to examine the way some individuals are very proficient in acquiring a false self in order to adapt to false realities and to give an account of specifically personal forms of depersonalisation and disintegration. It is no small task for the therapist to articulate what the patient's "world" is and his way of being in it in order to outline his psychopathology. The author states that if we look at his actions as signs of a disease, we impose categories of thoughts on the patient in our effort to try to explain his mental state and it isn't easy for the therapist to transpose himself into the patient's strange and alien view of world in order to understand his existential position.
Dr Laing states that many patients suffer from "ontological insecurity" because they feel insubstantial, the ordinary circumstances of life constituting a continual threat to their own existence. He mentions personalities like Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon. Then Dr Laing proceeds by giving the account of three forms of anxiety encountered by the ontologically insecure subject: engulfment, implosion and petrification. To illustrate these three forms, the author describes the case of Mrs R. who suffered from agoraphobia and schizohphrenic withdrawal.
Interestingly enough, the schizoid individual constantly feels vulnerable as he is exposed by the look of another person and that is why he fears live dialectical relationships with live people and prefers to relate himself to depersonalised persons or to phantoms of his own fantasies, thus the distinction between the "embodied" and "unembodied" self. Such an individual is afraid of the world, frightened that any impingement will be total and engulfing. He is afraid of letting himself "go", of coming out of himself or of losing himself because he feels that he will be depleted, exhausted, emptied, robbed or sucked dry. So for the schizoid individual, direct participation in life is felt as being at a risk of being destroyed by life. One aspect of this individual's ontological insecurity is the precariousness of his subjective sense of his own aliveness and the sense that others threaten this tentative feeling. The schizoid individual strongly believes in his own destructiveness by others. This view is in accord to the existentialist's philosophy represented by Jean-Paul Sartre who stated in his famous theatre play "Huis Clos" that "L'enfer, c'est les autres."
Thus a false self can arise in the individual which is in compliance with the intentions and expectations of the other or with what are imagined to be the other's intentions or expectations. Indeed, the self-conscious person feels he is more the object of other people's interest than in fact he is. And so the schizoid individual carries out defences like being like everyone else, being someone other than oneself, playing a part, being nobody or being incognito and anonymous. So if the gaze of others is experienced as a threat, there is a constant dread and resentment at being turned into someone else's thing (what Sartre called "l'être-pour-autrui"), of being penetrated by him, and a sense of being in someone else's power and control. Freedom then consists in being inaccessible. Love too for schizoid individuals is viewed as disguised persecution since it aims to turn him into an object of the other.
This type of individual can be himself in safety only in isolation. With others he plays an elaborate game of pretence and his social life is felt to be false and futile. But the more he keeps his "true self" concealed and unseen, the more he presents to others a false front and the more compulsive this fake presentation of himself becomes. This can lead to a complete disintegration of the personality.
on 27 February 2010
Published in 1960, R.D. Laing's `The Divided Self' was a key text for the 1960's counterculture. It offers a new approach to the understanding of schizoid and schizophrenic personalities, based on the notion that they are the result of the divided self: the creation of a false self to present to the outside world, prompted by insecurity as to one's own identity, which insecurity is itself the result of social factors, especially family ones, in Laing's view. Schizoid personalities are characterized by self-consciousness, feelings of unreality, and a sense of alienation from self. Schizophrenia involves these characteristics taken to pathological levels. Many of Laing's case studies seem to have been unusually `good' children; that is, pliant and uncomplaining. Such pliancy involves a reliance on others (usually the parents) to guide and validate one's actions, and a consequent absence of sense of self. This can lead to schizophrenia in adolescence and adulthood.
Laing's approach was revolutionary in seeing schizophrenia as a response to social pressures, and taking a human and empathetic view of schizophrenia and other psychotic states, rather than trying to fit each case into a preconceived mould. Schizophrenics are people who have reacted in a certain way to their social experiences, as opposed to having some medical condition alien to the rest of us. His idea of the divided self is as relevant now as it was in 1960, if not more so. For what sensitive and intelligent person in contemporary western society is not aware of having to create something of a divided self to carry on one's interactions with the outside world? `A face to meet the faces that you meet', as Mr. Eliot put it. I, for one, and this is not intended as an admission of mental illness on my part, found myself able to empathise with many of the patients Laing describes. Overall, I found this a very interesting and sensitively-written book, although the first two chapters are quite theoretical and abstract, and the most difficult of the book. After that, though, it becomes quite compelling.
on 27 August 2014
It is rather amazing that this book was written 64 years ago. Yet still so relavant and readable today.
It is very humane, written with consideration, but it does not hold back.
The madness is not actually to be found so much. (but then, many of us has has perhaps watched too many movies, and we have different views of what madness is). There is not so much mention of hallucinations, etc. That sort of madness. Put this way perhaps, he does not try to make madness more mad.. No thick paint brush used to just paint madness.
It is also about the spectrum, or difference/similarities.
It is not full of jargon, the author also explains why that is in the start of the book. He could use it, also does so, but keeps a lid on it.
There are ideas, obvervations that today has it's own theory/study field, which I find funny, an interesting. Because was it written today, then he would had mentioned and referenced X or Y theory.
Most mentioned is, santity/"normal", schizophrenia, Schizoid, the hysteric, and some mentions of narcissism.
on 19 March 2010
This is the most interesting and fascinating book on psychology I have read. I first came across it a long time ago and no other book on human behaviour has had the same impact.
This book gives the most thorough and precise explanation ever, of how and why, a person may become insane, and to read it is a quite incredible experience.
There are insights here not just on why people labelled schizophrenic behave the way they do, but on the sorts of anxieties and fears that all humans are plagued with, and more importantly, how the transition from 'normal' to 'mad' can occur in anyone's life.
'The Divided Self' is R D Laing's best book. His other works are really just additions to this. Even his later, far more radical works - which made him such a famous, iconic figure - do not possess the same power and depth of analysis as this, his first book.
'The Divided Self' was written 50 years ago, and even though some of its ideas will inevitably have been supplanted by modern medical science, much of it is still very valuable and relevant today.
on 20 May 2008
... only for those with schizotypal personality disorder the mask ceases to be a defence, it corrodes the fragile self of the sufferer, turns against its wearer and can ultimately lead to full schizophrenic psychoses.
I get the impression on reading this book that RD Laing was responsible for injecting some much needed humanity into mental health treatment back in the sixties. As a support worker in mental health today I find much of Laing's emphasis on the subjective experience of the sufferer as relevant and important, yes, but at the same time quite obvious. Anyone reading Thomas Paine's Rights of Man will have much the same reaction, that after so long and so much change much of the book's radical feel has been lost. But skip back to four or five decades before the term person-centred-care was thought up, back to a time when anything ostensibly incoherent from a patient was written off as merely the `symptom of a disease', then we can begin to feel thankful that at least someone in fifties Glasgow was paying attention to what Heidegger and Sartre were up to.
The book is split into three parts. The first defines the idea of ontological insecurity (the dread of implosion, engulfment or petrifaction a person's identity) and ways of approaching the patient as a person and not as clinical material. The second explores Laing's version of the false-self system, a fatal defence mechanism whereby a person will remove themselves to the bell jar in order to protect but ultimately starve what they consider their inner `true' selves; we find here examples of people who, though clearly disturbed, have not as yet lost their capacity for coherent action in the world. The third part attempts to reveal what it means when that coherency does break down.
Laing's position, that objectivity in this field is not only pointless but impossible, and his insistence on a therapeutic engagement with distressed people on their own terms, allows him to provide a persuasive narrative for the descent into schizophrenia. He shows that people do not simply `go mad', but that each patient contains a history detailing their own slow and involuntary self-destruction. The book reads as a descent by-proxy from the relatively minor condition of a man who can only enjoy imagining having sex with his wife (just to be clear, yes, he is getting some), to the final condition of the `dilapidated hebephrenic', in her own words "born under a black sun", who must be found out between her other fragment selves after nine years of abandoned consignment to the agitation wards of a psychiatric hospital. Laing has written as much a tragedy here as a psychology book, as much worth reading for its emotional impact as for the clarity of his theory. Definitely recommend it.