Coloquio con R.D. Laing


The tape which you are about to hear is part of the series Audio Colloquies produced by Harper & Row publishers. Audio Colloquies is a series of discussions with leading individuals in a variety or fields. The following is an interview with the internationally renowned psychiatrist, Dr. R.D. Laing. Laing has done innovative and controversial work with severely disturbed mental patients at Kingsley Hall. He is the author of many professional and popular works in the field of psychiatry. Dr. Laing is interviewed by Dr. Desmond Kelly, consulting psychiatrist at St. George's Hospital, University of London. He is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice. Dr. Kelly speaks first.


DK: Dr. Laing, you're Britain's most influential psychoanalyst. As you approach the mid-point of your career, what do you see as the greatest successes thus far?

RDL: Well, I was very glad I was able to give an articulate statement in The Divided Self of what is usually called the existential tradition in psychiatry, existential position, and the phenomenological approach and apply that in a relatively consistent and coherent way to the data, clinical data, a certain amount of the clinical data of psychiatry because there wasn't such a book that covered that ground. So that was an attempt to extend the domain of sense like Freud in his Introductory Lectures gives such emphasis to slips of the tongue and faulty actions that these things are not non-sensual but they do have meaning, a sense, and behind the apparent purposelessness of these that there's a purpose and an intent and that's more or less granted now, I would think, but quite what purpose and intention is still up for grabs of course. But it seemed to me a lot of what are called psychotic symptoms and psychotic delusions and transformations of the sensorium and so forth like dreams and neurotic symptoms had more sense and was more open to intelligibility than had or has been granted.

DK: Dr. Laing, could you tell me how your own childhood so graphically portrayed in your book, The Facts of Life, influenced your choice of profession, and later, your classification of social phenomenology?

RDL: In my childhood and particularly in the early part of the childhood I had both the experience of being very isolated from other children, I was an only child, and most of my relationships were with the adult members of both sides of my mother's and father's sides of the family. There was a great deal of feuding that went on in the family, different people had, practically everyone had their own story about what was going on and what they thought was going on and what this and that aunt or uncle was up to and my mother didn't get on with her mother very well, my father didn't get on with his father very well and at a very early age at least as young as I can actually remember I had begun to try to figure out what they were up to rather than be completely sucked into it. Of course I took for granted at the time that the eccentricities of my family were pretty well like any other family. I suppose because I'd grown up with a certain amount of eccentricity which if it came under the purview of psychiatry I think there would be a good chance they all would have been [laughing] locked up and certified. If someone had really wanted to get down to it. So I had plenty of chance to live, feel quite at home with you might say…well I don't want to make it too dramatic and I do not want to make it sound too bizarre but with different styles nowadays it now might be regarded perhaps falling within the range of relevance to psychiatry. Of course in those days there were no psychiatrists around. It's often been said that psychiatric disease increases with the number of psychiatrists, no one even thought in those days that psychiatry was relevant to the ways people got on together as part of ordinary living.

DK: Do you think that there was more violence in your home than in other homes in Glasgow?

RDL: In The Facts of Life there's the impression that there was a great deal and certainly more than the fact they're there that at all is quite something. But. No. Glasgow, and Glasgow in those days it was considered as normal to thrash children and in fact if you didn't do that, many God-fearing quiet Presbyterian parents felt that they weren't doing their duty. I was interested to come across recently in that book put together by a symposium from American historians on the history of childhood in which they make the statement that up to the beginning of the 19th century at least, the normal child in Europe as they put it would be what we would now call a "battered baby". Well I got beaten up some times but I was never sort of habitually black and blue, sort of couldn't go out of the house or sort of I was never knocked insensible or anything like that.

DK: Do you think though that you would have been a different kind of psychiatrist if you'd been brought up in an idealised household where violence wasn't an everyday occurrence?

RDL: It wasn't an everyday occurrence in mine but it was an every month occurrence you might say. I am sure, yes, I'm sure, if in the first 5 years of my life I'd been allowed out to play with other children and if people had come round to our house and we'd gone round to them, we never did that, it was only, no one who wasn't a member of the family hardly came round except for a musical evening. As my father was principal baritone at the Glasgow University chapel choir so there was music and there was culture in the house and so forth. But, if I'd had more, if it hadn't been such a closed family system, I wouldn't have had to adapt to that system by coming to terms with that system in an unusual way. I mean I think I could have either in a way come to terms with it by an intensification of my awareness of it or I could have intensified my unconsciousness of it. I think if I'd grown up in a, the same family perhaps my children have, I'd have taken the family so for granted they would have been quite invisible. You know. It wouldn't have been problematic, it wouldn't have been an issue. But you know if I'd grown up in a culture that wasn't so extremely sexually repressive then sexual issues wouldn't have been something that I was sensitised to notice. I remember one very urbane London psychiatrist saying that I was basically 'provincial'. If I'd grown up in a more urbane, opened-out sector of family and living, etc., I perhaps wouldn't have been so sensitized to notice and attribute importance to some things that people who've had these things find it very different to imagine what it's like they hadn't had that.

DK: What about your ambitions? Were you an ambitious young man?

RDL: I would say I was ambitious in a way that was almost in a sense past being ambitious. It was like Sartre describes how when he was 19, 20, 21 before he had really written anything he never really went through any doubt about being a writer because he said he thought he always was. Well, I went through both. From a comparatively early age what I mean that, maybe 15, 16, 17, 18 on through the teens I felt I was grooming myself in everything I was reading, etc., eventually to make some sort of record, some sort of statement, but I wasn't sure how best to do that in a way that wouldn't be trivial. I think I fully misunderstood the value and function of a novel or fiction. I think I was too ambitious to write fiction I wanted to be a scientist to probe into the depths of the human heart and soul and particularly to be a psychiatrist. So as soon as I'd read Nietzsche, soon as I'd read Freud, any of these people I would note at what age they were at when they had written this and that for instance Havelock Ellis wrote in his biography that when he was 19 he decided he would have his first book published by the age of 30. So I thought 'Well, I won't be behind that.' [laughs]. And that was my pace I thought it would take me all my time of reading and that sort of thing to be justified to join in that conversation of the scientific-academic tradition of Europe. I wanted to join in that conversation. Because books had meant so much to me because I think to a large extent they kept me sane because they gave me an awareness that there were people outside my little fish pond swimming the larger ocean, who had felt these things, observed these things, articulated these things and that was a great consolation.

DK: When you were at medical school was it a natural progression that you moved into psychiatry or did something in particular happen to you as a medical student that led you to go in this direction.

RDL: It wasn't so much that anything particularly happened, I think I only retrospectively discovered that psychiatry was in a sense my natural habitat. I'd gone into medicine in the first place as a combination of my own ambitions if you like and my parents. I felt that I wanted to find out about life, I wanted to find out directly about death and suffering and birth. Other subjects, generally speaking, at university one can study without being enrolled. Literature for example is up for grabs you don't have to go to university to become a writer but there are some things that one is precluded from, and psychiatry seemed to be that branch of medicine that gave explicit recognition to different varieties of misery and suffering and so a great deal of medicine is not so much trying to come to an understanding of these matters but simply as far as one can contribute physically, eliminate, and that is fine, but that wasn't so much my métier, as I say it came naturally to me. When I was in my first year as a medical student my father had what would now be called a bit of a nervous breakdown it wasn't a mental breakdown, he became very anxious at the point of about to get the job he'd been after for years and years when his boss was leaving. He became convinced that his boss was going to do everything to stop him getting that job, and this reduced him to a state of trembling and continued agitation for the best part of three months. He was in a sense my first patient at that point because he turned to me and sort of poured it all out to me and I remember saying to him before I realised it was an "interpretation" quite, "Well it's not your boss you're worked up about it's your father. And you're going on about exactly the same things about your boss that I've heard you say for years about your father." And this actually did get through to him and he afterwards expressed a lot of gratitude to me for saying that because he thought that it pulled him out of it. And he did in fact get the job and kept it and so on. So I suppose if one's got behind one that sense of assurance of reversal… and also I seemed to have some sort of flair as a medical student of being someone that other people talk to. I became the sort of person that fellow students and other people would seek me out to tell things to. And I had also in my childhood been to a considerable extent my mother's confidante. So I was used to that role I found it easy to listen to the other person, and was interested in it. So I sort of gradually discovered that in fact there was a branch of medicine that at least in one side of psychiatry, one aspect of psychiatry, one school of psychiatry that's what it's all about.

DK: And you say you were interested in death and birth and now you've been stating your current views of the birth experience. Could you tell me more about that? And the possibility of neonatal and even intrauterine memory.

RDL: Well this has been up for grabs for a while, from the days of the French clinician Charcot, with whom Freud studied and so on, it's been apparent that adults, some adultsuse very regularly the metaphor of birth to describe crises and phases in their lives.... continued

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