“The true poet is the one who inspires”
- Paul Valery*
It’s the dead of winter. A cold day in February. I’m sitting outside (that’s right dudes, OUTSIDE!) at Timothy’s in the heart of Toronto’s gay village (Church/Wellesley). I’m sipping my English Breakfast Tea and feeling very nostalgic for London where I had spent the last 25 years of my life before returning to T.O. the previous spring. I’m missing my close friends terribly and wondering when it will be that I see them again. Maybe at the 40th anniversary celebration of the PA scheduled for end of June/2005. 40 years since Kingsley Hall. Wow!
Margreta Carr, admin extraordinaire and co-founder (along with Dan Burston, author of 2 books about Laing) of the recently formed (2003) on-line Society for Laingian Studies (SLS) joins me. Hot off the press is the Society’s newsletter (The Benign Conspiracy, put together by new director Brent Potter). There’s an announcement about the 3rd R.D. Laing conference taking place in London in early March. Excitement starts to course through my veins. Remembering that I am an international gonzo journalist a la HST I decide to cover the conference for Asylum: A Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry. (I have been part of their editorial collective since it’s inception in 1987).
So I don black toque, scarf and gloves and board the plane for London on 25/02/05.
Arriving in London is wonderful! I just sit back and pick up on the vibes! So good to be here again in this crazy magical city of Dickensian eccentrics and oddballs. Can’t believe it’s been 27 years since I came to London to study with R.D. and Co. having already spent a year (4 years earlier) acting as David Cooper’s impresario. I stay initially with my good friend Nick Zinovieff in Chiswick. He takes me to the graduation ceremony at Regent’s College where I lectured and supervised in the 90’s. Good to see old colleagues again. Anthony Stadlen is being made a Fellow (Nick turns to me and says I should be made an Odd Fellow!) of the College. I ask him if he’s going to the Laing conference on Saturday and he says he’s not keen to. I’m wondering how keen he is on Laing period. When the chips are down Aaron Esterson is his man.
It’s finally Saturday and the conference is about to happen. I try to persuade Mina Semyon, my dear friend and yoga teacher and author of The Distracted Centipede to join me but she’s worried that it will do her head in (She’s absolutely right. It will!). So I rent a car and take it into central London. This proves to be a totally mad idea as I end up getting caught in a parking nightmare and dodging traffic wardens all day long.
The conference is being held at my favorite University of London building-- The School of Oriental and African Studies. I was once registered there as a postgraduate student but that was primarily so I could get cheap travel to North America. And I remember once having an argument with Professor Sasha Piatogorsky (he of the 5 mountains) who taught Phenomenology of Religion there. He was defending Jung and I Laing. “But at least Jung cured people!”, he kept saying, “Who did Laing ever cure?” I was reminded of David Cooper’s dictum in the Grammar of Living (A book for which I ghost revised the second chapter when I visited him in Argentina in 1972) “The only thing that needs curing is bacon”!
As I enter the Brunei Gallery just across from the School and go down stairs, I’m greeted by Pat Blackett the new PA secretary who helped to organize the conference. As I look around I begin to see a few of the usual PA suspects--John Heaton, his wife Barbara Latham (who is never quite sure if I’m bona fide PA or not) and Lucy King. The Oakleys of course are conspicuously absent and Leon Redler doesn’t pitch up until later in the morning. James Low who is supposed to chair one of the sessions doesn’t show but nice to see Miles Clapham who takes his place. Haven’t seen him (or rarely) since the days of the Napsbury Hospital Crisis Intervention Team. He’s now a fully qualified consultant child psychiatrist and PA-trained psychoanalytic psychotherapist (two things I can’t myself lay claim to).
I’m joined by my 2 friends Nick Zinovieff and Philip Chandler and we go over to talk to John Heaton who surprisingly remembers us (well, except for Philip) and we ask him whatever happened to Paul Zenft a Czechoslovakian phenomenologist who edited a 60’s journal The Human Condition and took part in the early discussions with Ronnie and David which led to the formation of the PA. Simple answer. The dude died. One can only wonder if the same thing happened to Philipson and Lee!
Finally the conference begins. It is convened by retired consultant psychiatrist Salman Raschid who apparently did the same for the first two. He has recently edited and published R.D. Laing: Contemporary Perspectives which is essentially the proceedings of the 2nd conference. According to the Free Association Books blurb “this book aims to re-establish Laing’s work as a continuing source of inspiration for the development of a truly humanistic psychiatry and psychology, while providing the basis of a radical and profound critique of conventional psychiatry, concluding that R.D.Laing is one of the major contributors to the theory and practice of psychiatry, worthy of being ranked alongside such other extraordinary pioneers as Emil Kraepelin, Henry Maudsley, Adolf Meyer and Harry Stack Sullivan”.
Raschid clearly has an encyclopedic knowledge of Ronnie’s life and work and also talks about David Cooper (my own private guru, not to mention man of my dreams) which I am pleased to see. But he speaks too quickly and progressively becomes intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity-- or is it inebriated with the mellifluence of his own prolixity--so that he just seems to go on and on until finally he concludes by introducing Jutta Laing (Ronnie’s second wife) as the conference’s special guest for the day. (I will meet Jutta at the first break and ask her how she and the children are doing. She says everyone is fine and she is teaching yoga. I mention being in touch with Dan Burston now that I’m back in North America and she winces. And I’m thinking “ah c’mon Jutta, Dan may be a little flat-footed but his heart is in the right place. Surely you would have yoga-ed that one out by now!”
Barbara Latham chairs the first lecture given by William Fulford. He is Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health at Warwick University. He is also Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Oxford University and editor of the journal, Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology. As well he is one of the series editors for International Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry. A small, mild-mannered Lockean, he brings we good Laingians glad tidings or so he thinks. He tells us that R.D. is a Socratic gadfly no more. That his radical critique has been incorporated into mainstream psychiatry and is reflected in the value-based (as opposed to the evidence-based) approach now coming into play in the British National Health Services. So it looks like the empiricists are beginning to acknowledge that we good skeptics and iconoclasts have something important to say to them after all. At long last! But wait! Wasn’t there a word for this whole process back in the 60’s Oh yeah. I remember. COOPTATION!
The next speaker is Nicholas Rose Professor and Chair of the Sociology Dept at LSE. In the 80’s he put together a very interesting book with his colleague Peter Miller entitled The Power of Psychiatry drawing heavily on the works of French philosopher and epistemological historian Michel Foucault and French sociologist Robert Castel. Now he gives an excellent talk entitled "Foucault, Psychiatric Power and R.D.Laing". He does a good job of teasing out some of the differences between Foucault’s and Laing’s approach to madness. He points out that Michel’s Madness and Civilization was published in Poland in 1958 before the whole anti-psychiatry phenomenon came on the scene. So the book is not so much an anti-psychiatric diatribe but a history of the breakdown in the dialogue between reason and madness. However by the 70’s Foucault is certainly au courant of critical developments in Britain and becomes very supportive of people involved in the anti-psychiatry movement. He helps David Cooper get work at the College de France (David once told me that of all the people he had met in Paris since his move there in 1975 only Foucault really understood what he was on about), and he is interested in subjects of psychiatry having a voice (part of his ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges‘) and even being able to determine their own treatment.
At this juncture I leave to dodge another parking warden and when I return I sit beside Leon who is taking notes on Andrew Scull’s talk entitled “Madness and the Body”. Scull is a British-born professor of sociology now teaching at the University of California in San Diego. Since the 1980’s he has been writing a series of books (Museums of Madness, Customers and Patrons of the Mad Trade, etc.) which are critical of the psychiatric profession. His latest one is called Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine. This is basically the story of Dr. Henry Cotton who practiced in Trenton, New Jersey in the 1930’s and fervently believed in the idea of psychosis often being the result of focal sepsis in various parts of the body. As a result a multitude of diseased organs had to be removed in order to bring about the proverbial cure. This is in fact a very gruesome tale in the annals of psychiatric history which resulted in mutilated bodies and premature deaths. Somehow it is not surprising when we learn that Cotton himself eventually went psychotic and 2 of his sons committed suicide. Yet he is praised as a brilliant student of Meyer and someone who had finally brought medicine into psychiatry. A virtual modern day Lister. (Anyone who has read Robert Whittaker’s powerful book Mad in America will be familiar with similar tragic ‘breakthroughs’ in psychiatric treatment.) Scull is masterful in his presentation and Leon is completely blown away.
Finally the much awaited lunch break and I’m distributing Margreta’s SLS leaflets, talking with friends and dashing back to the parking meter. I see Theo Itten talking with Jutta. Theo has just set up (2004) the International R.D. Laing Institute (ILI) and plans to hold the first master classes in October 2006 at City University, London. He will eventually make an announcement about it at the conference, which I, true gonzo journalist that I am, will naturally miss-yeah, you got it, evading traffic wardens. Later that evening in an Indian restaurant celebrating Mina’s birthday, he will invite me to join the faculty of ILI. I will initially decline, feeling that I am one of those people who, as John Heaton once so aptly pointed out, “have nothing to say” but then subsequently, with support from Leon, will happily accept.
In the afternoon we are initially entertained by David Healy. He is Professor in Psychological Medicine at the University of Wales College of Medicine and author of about 12 books often focused on the topic of psychopharmacology. His is a very important critical voice in the wilderness sounding a note of alarm about random controlled drug trials (RCTs), evidence-based care, and DSM diagnoses (which he believes are at the heart of the problem.). Zoloft, for example, one of the best selling anti-depressants at the moment only beat placebo in 1of 5 trials. In another SSRI trial he reports that 9% of the children treated became suicidal. He concludes by pointing out that the evidence seems to suggest that the serotonin systems in most people’s brains are normal and that anti-depressants throws them 100 fold out of whack. (All of this dovetails with what Peter Breggin wrote in Toxic Psychiatry and the aforementioned Whittaker book). On his way out I approach him and ask him to sign my copy of Let Them Eat Prozac (wonderful title!). He writes “to the anti-son of the anti-father of anti-psychiatry”. This was how I introduced myself to Thomas Szasz 10 years before when I went along to meet him with Adrian Laing. “Oh you’re David Cooper’s son” he says. No Tom, his anti-son! Now he just refers to me as ‘The Mystery Man”.
At the break I go out to discover that my car has been clamped. As a result I spend the next 2 hours dealing with the situation (Where is Chief Constable Alderson when you need him, not to mention Chief Fantino?). I missed the last lecture completely. This was Professor Thomas Craig from the Institute of Psychiatry talking about the Causation of Psychosis: Current Thinking on Psychosocial Issues. The impression I have is that of a good liberal eclectic psychiatrist who is interested in the social origins of severe psychiatric illness but I did not get a whiff of a more radical critique.
By the time I get back to the conference the panel discussion is well underway and I can’t make head nor tails of what’s going on. John Heaton is shouting something about orgasm (which was always more David Cooper’s ploy) and manually gesticulating with those idiosyncratic kinesics of his that always made me reluctant to go into therapy with him. And Leon is sitting on the edge of the stage cause there’s no room for him around the panel’s table.(not a bad time for the Lotus position dude). As to what this session was all about your guess is as good as mine.
As I left the conference sometime after 6pm, I was aware of having enjoyed myself but I began to wonder if I had actually been to an R.D.Laing conference. Certainly he had inspired the day but the speakers, by and large, had their own agendas and really seemed to just pay passing homage to him. There was no in depth discussion of his work and the title of the conference “Madness and Civilization” was straight out of Michel Foucault. If only Gene Nameche (whatever happened to that biography of Jung that you and Ronnie were working on?) had pitched up then I’m sure something of Ronnie’s spirit, in the words of Leonard Cohen, would have “continued to drool”.
Three days before the confreence I'm sitting at Pizza Express (not a patch on George's in midtown Toronto) and the waitress comes up to me and informs me that Hunter S. Thompson has just shot himself while talking to his wife over the phone. My great gonzo hero has just bitten the dust! But hey he got to cover a lot of super conferences. Think of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (film version starrring Johnny Depp). Surrounded by big burly police chiefs whose bellissimo bellies are bulging over their belts (how's that for alliteration!) Yeah, I know, it toatally freaked him out (as it probably would most people). But remember one man's drug-crazed paranoid nightmare is another man's erotic dream come true!
With regard to my comments about Anthony Stadlen, in case there is any misrepresentation, I would like to point out that Anthony continues to promote the serious study of Laing's work in his seminar series on Sanity, Madness and the Family.