R.D. Laing; Guru of ‘60s Counterculture

From Associated Press

Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who became a guru of the 1960s counterculture by arguing that madness probably was the only way to face the modern world, is dead at age 61.

His son Adrian said Laing died Wednesday while playing tennis in St. Tropez, France.

Laing pioneered new treatment for schizophrenics, believing them to be victims of family stress. He contended that there was little distinction between the sane and the mad, that most psychiatry increased patient misery and that marijuana should be legalized.

His unorthodox views caused an uproar in his profession for nearly three decades, but he lived to see fellow psychiatrists take the heresies seriously.

“He made individual contributions to new and constructive thinking about the care of psychiatric patients,” said a statement from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.


Laing’s first book, “The Divided Self: An Existentialist Study in Sanity and Madness,” in 1960 made him famous and wealthy. He wrote 14 other books, including a volume of sonnets.

He recently had been living in Austria with his wife, Margarita, and their infant son, who survive him.

Adrian Laing, 31, one of two sons by his first wife, told Associated Press that his father collapsed on a tennis court at St. Tropez while on vacation, but said he did not know the cause of death.

“It’s a shock,” he said. “He was an anti-establishment character, but wasn’t an anti-psychiatrist. He was more an alternative psychiatrist. In later life he matured and mellowed.”

“He wanted to listen more to what people were saying, to look at schizophrenic minds from their point of view,” the son said. “His idea was just to let them go crazy, just let them get on with it. He said you’ve got to understand the politics of the family.”

Ronald David Laing was born in a three-room tenement apartment in Glasgow, where his father was a city engineer, on Oct. 7, 1927. He wrote in “The Facts of Life,” published in 1976, that his father beat him for minor infractions of orders and that his parents never tried to communicate with or understand him.

He said he was influenced by Sigmund Freud, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.

After receiving a doctorate at Glasgow University, Laing served with a psychiatric unit in the army and studied psychoanalysis at the Tavistock Institute in London.

Laing refused to treat patients with drugs or electric shock unless they requested them. His best-known practical experiment was to establish Kingsley Hall, a London hostel for schizophrenics, where he pioneered therapeutic use of mescaline and LSD.

“His policy was to have people staying there to go through madness as a self-healing process,” his son said.

In 1964, Laing founded the Philadelphia Assn., a network of establishments to house the mentally distressed without conventional treatment.

In later life, Laing had a private practice in London. He became interested in Zen Buddhism in the 1970s and published transcripts of conversations between himself and his children.

He also is survived by his first wife, Anne, and their two sons and two daughters. Fiona, the elder daughter, spent years in mental institutions and was treated for schizophrenia.

Two sons and a daughter from a second marriage also survive, as well as a son by a third wife, Adrian said.