The Shrink who Shrunk Himself: The Rise and Fall of Ronnie Laing
Robert M. Kaplan
Affiliation: University of Wollongong, Australia
Keywords: RD Laing, Antipsychiatry, Kingsley Hall, Psychoanalysis, Existentialism, David Cooper, Mary Barnes
In the sixties, RD “Ronnie” Laing was the most famous psychiatrist in the world. He became the leading figure of the British anti-psychiatry movement and a public celebrity. Laing saw existentialism as the explanation for the problem of psychosis, leading to alienation. He was the charismatic spokesman for an era that wanted to hear that psychiatry was the punitive arm of the state and that psychosis was a creative response to the bourgeois family. With a group of like-minded psychiatrists, they set up the experimental Kingsley Hall. The most famous patient was Mary Barnes, who later achieved fame with her painting. The enterprise was chaotic and ended after five years in disarray. The key issue in producing schizophrenia for these psychiatrists was the bourgeois nuclear family, who became something of a hate figure to therapists. Laing steadily unwound, becoming incomprehensible and dissolute in public. He espoused transcendental meditation and rebirthing, but this had little impact. He died prematurely at the age of 62. After decades, Laing is being seen in a new light. He has earned a number of biographies, is seen as a facilitator of the deinstitutionalisation movement and credited with changing the way psychiatric patients are regarded – the patient is to be listened to.