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It wasnae that bad,
This review is from: R.D. Laing and Psychodynamic Psychiatry in 1950s Glasgow: A Reappraisal (Paperback)
Since my father, the `notorious' RD Laing, died in 1989, by my count eleven books have been published about his life and works, the most famous and enduring of RD's books being `The Divided Self'.
This is the twelfth RD-related book since 1989, written by Isobel Hunter-Brown, a contemporary of my father at Glasgow University, albeit three years his junior. Isobel's work openly claims my biography `RD Laing: A Life' to be her `main source'.
Given so much has been written about RD Laing during his lifetime and after, what has Isobel to add?
Isobel recalls first meeting Laing at his Socratic Club (an informal debating forum and discussion group) while at University in the early 1950s and notes that he was `courteous then both to guests and club members alike'.
Isobel also worked with my father at Glasgow's Gartnavel Mental Hospital and subsequently trained in London at the Institute of Psychoanalysis, as did my father.
Therefore Isobel falls into the category of having personal knowledge of RD Laing, a card she plays to the full although not always accurately. The bizarre statement (page 45) for example that `Ronnie had a taste for boxing and in adult life was not above beating others up' is misleading and wide of the mark as is the suggestion (page 48) that near the end of his life he stated a possible wish `to convert to Catholicism'. Moreover, a passing comment such as `It is amazing how others afford him [RD Laing] unduly high status' (page 185) betrays more than a hint of professional jealousy.
The purpose of this book is to `set the record straight' and to counter-balance the idea that RD Laing was the `only' humanitarian psychiatrist working in Glasgow during the 1950s; to challenge RD's `exaggerated', negative perception of Glasgow psychiatry; to explain the genesis of his theories within the context of his training; to paint his seniors in a better, `more balanced' light; to rectify some misleading statements (e.g. concerning readmission rates from `The Rumpus Room' experiment) and generally to persuade the reader that `it wasnae that bad'.
Does Isobel succeed? Yes and no. The book does contain a large amount of credible detail that would persuade most people the picture painted over the years of the psychiatric practices in which RD Laing was tutored was indeed selective and exaggerated; in the same manner one could take issue with Jimmy Boyle's attacks on the Scottish penal system.
But in so doing Isobel helps explain in greater detail why RD felt the need to shout so loudly, and why his voice was heard across the world from a whole generation of Scottish-trained psychiatrists who were conditioned to speak quietly and professionally about practices at the time.
Indeed Isobel seeks to place in a favourable, humanitarian light a number of elite practitioners from the Scottish archives including Thomas Clouston (knighted in 1912), the `chief' of the premier Edinburgh psychiatric unit in his day, `a compassionate man of religious background and high character'. Isobel sees no irony or contradiction informing the reader that `Clouston, in the manner of the times, supplied the `reason' he considered lacking, forcing patients to behave `reasonably', for example tussling with an anorexic patient to get a feeding tube into her mouth'.
Sir David Henderson, an elite establishment figure in RD's day who died in 1965, `had to calm disturbed patients by putting them between wet sheets'. This was mild stuff in comparison to Dr. Yellowlees, an early Scottish practitioner of psychiatry who Isobel lauds for his `respect for his patients and his humanity'. This was a doctor who (page 167), `had the damaging Victorian misconception that masturbation induces insanity. He applied devices to prevent patients from engaging in it'.
Isobel criticizes me for describing certain psychiatric practices in the 1950s as `barbarous' but having learnt of the ways of Clouston, Henderson, Yellowlees et als, I feel such a description is an understatement.
What separates my father and his band of brothers such as David Cooper and Aaron Esterson from the likes of Isobel Hunter-Brown and her quiet, respectable well-behaved colleagues is the sense of immediacy and fury that they felt about their profession and their courage in expressing publicly their views no matter what the consequences.
Isobel recalls (page 190) a story of the young psychiatrist RD Laing dealing with an adolescent boy who no longer felt part of the human race. The boy `did his best to make himself totally repulsive'. RD's answer was to take the boy home (where he lived with his wife Anne - my mother- and three girls under the age of four - my elder sisters). The end result: `Before long the boy became, spectacularly, well enough to go to foster parents and returned to express gratitude as an adult.'
RD Laing's reputation as a `flawed, brilliant, mythical character' will not be diluted by this work. Quite the contrary.
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, -
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.
Adrian C. Laing
Proud son of the notorious RD Laing.
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Initial post: 6 Aug 2008 17:22:29 BDT
As author, I must respond to those comments of Adrian Laing's in his review of my book that are most urgently called for, since, as a psychiatrist, I see them as potentially giving rise to harm to patients.
He accepts as credible my account of my experience (15 months after his father left) that 1950's Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital (Gartnavel) was caring and supportive of patients though it was without adequate funding centrally to provide for decent accommodation for some. His father, R. D. Laing, wrote of it as 'not a bad refuge', (Mezan.1972, p.168).
Nevertheless, though not then yet born, Adrian insists it was 'barbarous', his only evidence being facets of treatment adopted by psychiatrists of many years before, in the Victorian age, after whom ideas had moved on. The offending aspect of their practice was unknown to 1950's Gartnavel psychiatrists, who would have regretted and deplored it, but unlike Adrian would also have recognised their many beneficent activities.
Worse still, Adrian, cannot conceive of the problems of maintaining a safe refuge for the gentle insane mental hospital majority if emotionally unstable patients are aggressively terrorizing them and there are inadequate trained staff. He blackens the name of Sir D.K. Henderson who was in that situation in the difficult times of 1915 during the First World War. Henderson's settled principle was to calm the disturbed by assigning trained nurses to listen and talk with them; but there were few trained nurses who had not left for war work. The only known remaining protection for others was then to calm those manically active by restraint, perhaps also cooling the over-heated, or isolating them in a strong room; each method undesirable but unavoidable in these circumstances. Patients might, on return of sanity, have been glad to have been stopped. Every incident was recorded for the Board of Control. Henderson was then the only psychiatrist for over 500 in-patients along with the Superintendent. Useful drug treatments of later years had not yet been discovered.
Adrian forgets that against his principles his own father's anxiety about behavior of one resident of the 10 or 11 patients in his Kingsley Hall led him to force a drug injection on that man in concert with other `anti-psychiatrists'. (John Clay "RD Laing - A Divided Self" page 136).
Henderson inspired Maxwell Jones, the pioneering psychiatrist who, from the 1940s, evolved therapeutic community treatment in an open-door unit for people with personality problems. Key features of his work were absence of physical treatment, permissiveness, promotion of listening to patients and of insight, giving patients' responsible roles, and democratizing the doctor/patient relationship. When this unit attained the status of an independent hospital, Max christened it `Henderson Hospital', before going on to treat the mad and other patients in Dingleton, an unlocked hospital. Both R.D. Laing personally and his staff in Kingsley Hall thought it worthwhile to make efforts to learn from what Max was doing.
Today Henderson Hospital, a unique NHS resource for this effective psychological treatment, is under threat of closure due to financial stringency occasioned by other wars. This urgently needs challenging. It seems to me the kind of psychiatry of which Adrian could see father approving.
Adrian compares his father's generalized furious rhetoric against psychiatrists with the fury of Jimmy Boyle who had experienced incarceration in a Glasgow goal and wrote in fury about the penal system. He overlooks that Jimmy had the highest regard for the psychiatrists at the prison who created a therapeutic community through which he managed to outgrow the orientation of a Glasgow gangster which had brought him there and become kindly and creative, artist, sculptor and writer. Adrian also overlooks that in contrast to the conventional penal system the attitude of the Superintendent which percolated 1950's Gartnavel was that punishment played little part in reform. Adrians father said he had found these furious criticisms had been ineffective with fellow psychiatists (Mad To Be Normal page 378) and the historian psychiatrist linked that with the heat of his delivery. (Historian/psychiatrist Tantam). It was when he approached another psychiatrist respectfully and reasoned his case he was successful (Raschid page 60).
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