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Politics & Other Works


An Interview With R.D. Laing

broadcast May 1987 Arts & Entertainment Network [*Notes]

[In progress]

RDL: they are so paralysed by their fear...ah, people are afraid ... more than anything else I would say, of other people. Children and other people, sometimes, get on the other side of being socialised and so and they become frightened. Not of cats and dogs or the sky falling down or falling through the air they become frightened of other people, they become frightened of human beings. Now if you are frightened of a human being you cringe... Now if I start to be frightened of you and start to cringe and if I become so frightened of you I feel that you know, it's terrifying to say anything to you, then I'm cringing, I can't make a move in relationship to you and I can't say anything so from a psychiatric point of view I'm suddenly a mute...catatonic schizophrenic....

So I get a guy coming in to see me and he stands in front of me and he's absolute can't move and can't say anything now from a psychiatric point of view I say, 'Right, you are a catatonic schizophrenic and you may need electric shock. From a human point of view you are a guy like me who for reasons I don't know but I can maybe stretch my mind and imagine have got frightened of other people and you're so frightened of other people... you haven't met me but you you're standing there.' So here's a guy who is frozen with terror.... Now if a guy comes to meet me for my help and I realise he's frozen with terror what I do is I behave, intuitively, as one human being to another in such a way, that he might... um... from the way I conduct myself in the first place, not have any reason to be frightened of me because I'm you know, I tell him, 'You know, I can see you are absolutely [laughing] terrified of me and I've never met you...I want you to know, that you don't have to believe me, but I'm just telling you anyway, I've got no designs on you, I'm not going to put drugs into you, don't want to I'm not going to assault you, I'm not going to lock you up, I'm not going to give you electricity and so on, et cetera, brother you're frightened of me, I'm not frightened...'


HOST: Where you differ from a big part of the psychiatric community is the way that we treat this person once they are so frightened, you're saying - if I hear you right - that the shocks and the drugs and the conventional psychiatric 'tell me your problems', but...

RDL: but ... will make him frightened more....This guy, that we've got in front of me, is not asking for drugs, or he might be, I mean he might say, 'I'm so terrified please give me something just to calm me down', I'll give him something. You know....'What can I do for you? You're so frightened.' ... You're getting that he's frightened of the treatment is going to get, he's afraid of electricity on his brain because he's frightened. Then he's called paranoid because he's frightened of what's going to be done to him. And he's perfectly right.

HOST: So you're saying conventional treatments, shock, drugs, whatever, is not going to help this terrified man - and - is it true that you feel that if you allow the course of this insanity just to run its course that this person will come out well?

RDL: Not necessarily. I've been quoted in that... sense, a lot comes out of a few paragraphs in The Politics of Experience in particular, and I think that it's definitely true that some people, ah, you might say, blow it... they go over the hill, you know. Well, they go over the hill, they go into the wilderness, they lose their bearings, they lose their way, they become completely disorientated, they don't know who they are or I've been in a certain amount of that territory myself, ah, without being labeled insane, and I can sometimes - sometimes - you know, when someone has gone over the hill and got lost, I can sometimes go out if I, if I want to take the trouble to do so, and go out and hunt for that person, and find them, where they've got to, and meet them there, and say, '... do you want to come back?'

HOST: Well let me ask you, what, if the drugs do work, if they do calm a person down, and allow them to re-enter society, lithium and a number of drug treatments do. If shock therapy does take a person out of the depression, if mental institutions are a place for families to put frighteningly disturbed people, what's wrong with that?

RDL: I don't think there's anything wrong... with all that, um, as far as you've said it. If someone prefers acid to electric shock to get them out of their depression as far as I'm concerned, fine. Let it be even. But in this world it's, it's not even. If you are depressed, you can only have electric shocks...' I'm not allowed to prescribe people acid, I'm only allowed to prescribe the electric shock. Now I would like to be able to prescribe acid or electric shocks if someone wants the electric shock.

HOST: Now if I understand you, you prefer neither, your form of treatment you say the doctor and the patient and your commune...

RDL: We're on the same side.

HOST: Yet the very premise of medicine is that the doctor knows what's going on and is going to oversee our getting well.

RDL: That's the premise of technological medicine, nowadays, it's not the basic premise of Hypocratic medicine that medicine comes out of or still less, what you might call Aesculapian medicine.

HOST: And how do you weigh that?

RDL: Well you ask yourself, what is this disturbance on about? What is the.... biofeedback? What is the... cybernetic relationship of this disturbance in one person to the system that they're in? And you provide yourself with a lot of contexts to try to understand what is going on, for instance if someone's got asthma, alright that means that they can't breathe out basically they take a breath in but... you.. why someone, you ask that question within the context of ... you give someone drugs... I mean, I suffered from asthma for years I haven't suffered from asthma for the last fifteen years or so but... I would take cortisone derivatives and anything else to release my breath and at the same time I would like to ask myself 'Why am I not breathing freely?' ... Why can't I breathe freely? Well, if it becomes clearer to me why I can't breathe freely, or I'm not breathing freely, why I feel suffocated and I'm dramatizing that, then, I've got another route out of this asphyxiation. Now, I don't see it as an either/or but a both/and, you see I'm not condemning the use of any drug, whatever, from aspirin to lithium to any sort of tranquilizer, or even electric shock but I'm saying that there are basically two things that ... mess that up these days. One is, that the doctor's got an idea that he knows best, though he knows nothing, actually, about this person, and there's a whole generation of psychiatrists that...

HOST: Wait a minute, the doctors have been training for years and years and years, they may not know John Jones personally, but they may be very well aware of the symptoms that are common to particular illness.

RDL: How does he know any illness, or anyone personally, if he arrests the course of the illness or whatever is happening within... for instance there's been a study in America which has shown on average that doctors diagnose someone psychotic within three minutes. Now, I went round America several times in the last twelve years and so I've been repeatedly asked to do interviews with patients in front of sort of master classes, you might say in front of psychiatrists at Yale and Harvard and Illinois and Chicago and the West Coast, and so on, etc., and I said I would do this if you would produce a non-tranquilized or non-drug treated patient who could speak to me. Not once ... did they produce someone like that. Because as soon as someone is seen for even three minutes or ten minutes or twenty minutes by a psychiatrist in the first place, and diagnosed psychotic, that diagnosis is a tautology, ... or it's equivalent to saying, that person needs to have their state of mind stopped right away by drugs or electricity otherwise it will get worse.

HOST: And your point is let it go and...

RDL: My point is that psychiatrists don't know what they're talking about because they don't know anything after what happens when they administer the prescription. They just don't know anything...

HOST: -- Give us an example...if necessary make one up. John Jones comes to the office of a regular psychiatrist. Diagnosed as psychotic, given drugs to interrupt that process. Same John Jones comes to you, you don't give them drugs. What do you want that John Jones to do?

RDL: Well I recognise he's deeply confused, probably.... His sense of reality is definitely different from mine... he may ah, believe all sorts of things that I don't, he may even see things that I don't, and hear voices that I don't.. and etc., etc., and ... we've got two situations here. Let's take, from my point of view, the simpler issue, that this guy actually wants me to help him. Might say, 'It's a nice day let's go out for a walk.'

HOST: This is a guy who thinks he's Napoleon now...

RDL: 'Let's go out for a walk.. and it's a nice day.. and let's.. let's, you know, just talk about this or not talk about this situation.' Now I offer him what's available of me for human companionship, camaraderie, the possibility of considering this situation. Um, I'm not offering him friendship because I might not like this guy... I'm not offering him unlimited time on my part or commitment in my life, I'm offering him in the first place... ah, because he I mean he might think he's Napoleon but absolutely no one else does... actually I haven't met anyone who thought he was Napoleon for years and years and years and years and years... as some people think...there was one guy who came to see me from Germany who declared he was Jesus Christ so I said to him well, in effect...

HOST: In effect you said, "You ain't Jesus."

RDL: Um, in effect... in effect, but there was a bit more than that, I was a bit annoyed you know, I'm pressed in my life, I've got my problems too, this guy coming to me and saying he's Jesus Christ and he's also saying that he's um... he doesn't want anything from me, and he wants to save me, you see.....With this particular person I said, 'Well, you know make your way somewhere apart from me...' but you see if I say that, now, this guy can't be incorporated into a textbook of psychiatric medicine... this was just between us as a sort of flashpoint... and I'm saying 'I'm not going to put you in a mental hospital because you think you're Jesus Christ, I mean okay ... you know I don't believe you're Jesus Christ any more than I believe I am... okay.. you know, but... If you want to break even with me, then... ah, Jesus was a carpenter...would you like to... do some work on my desk?'


HOST: You know what disturbs me listening to you, is, you may be a genius at dealing with the mentally ill, but is your philosophy, is your point of view, something other members of the community, psychiatrists if you will, can practice? Or is this something just terribly individualistic that R. D. Laing happens to do well?

RDL: Well, I mean, as I said earlier, I don't think it's matter of genius in terms of how you look at it. If...if you change the metaphor, it's a metaphor in either case...of um, say, mental distress. And you say, well, this is an illness, and that means like a physical illness and so forth, et cetera, which it might be but what is an illness anyway and we could go on arguing about that... Or you say, it's like a shipwreck. Someone has come to grief, someone has crumbled, someone... it's a shipwreck. I mean, what do you do to a ship that's wrecked?... throw down... ah, lightning and thunderbolts on the shipwreck... or do you ... attempt a rescue operation? Ah... it's not all that obscure... I would say to anyone who is prepared to look at it that way.

HOST: Well why do think that you and the psychiatric establishment don't agree. What's different?

RDL: Well, one of the things I keep on... one of the most constant observations in psychiatry since the middle of the 19th century is that... when people come in this state of distress, which is a psychiatric distress, you look at them, you look at their bodies you examine them from head to toe and there's nothing the matter with them physically... they might not be in very good shape, might be a bit seedy, etc., but basically physically nothing the matter with them at all... so, medical theories and doctors have been trained, absolutely trained, into thinking this way, so they say well there's nothing the matter with them physically but there's something the matter with them so there must be something the matter with them mentally and the only category that they've been trained to have to hand is 'it must be a mental illness'.

HOST: So what's your point?

RDL: Well I'm saying don't flip into the metaphor that this is a, 'This is...' as though it was more than a metaphor of physical illness.. keep that human communication, if you don't shred it... it's there in the first place between another human being who is suffering and oneself, and respond as best one can under those circumstances to that suffering. But the excommunication of some in this way is exactly you might say is the worse thing that could happen to them because they've already excommunicated themselves.

HOST: I don't find anything that you're saying that's so off the modern-day good young psychiatrist position.

RDL: And I don't see it either, and there's quite a lot of so-called young psychiatrists who see it exactly the same way as I do. But... the but is... that there's a tremendous amount, a tremendous amount of money comes from drug companies. There's a tremendous amount of institutional investment of roles and distancing, and ideological-scientific training... that makes it very difficult for a young psychiatrist to meet someone... When you meet someone who is a patient as a psychiatrist, 'I'm a patient, you're a psychiatrist...' now behind you as a psychiatrist there's a human being and behind me as a patient there's a human being and it's that broken relationship between humans and humans is that, I think is the arena of the madness. Now it's difficult to get to that human... thing, across that institutional gulf, and young psychiatrists find that very difficult... ah, you know 'how are we going to do that'? They've got their white coats on they've got their tendon hammer and they've got their opthalmascope they've got all the power and patients have come to them in this abject situation can we actually level this person as an actual human being without using your authority without uh being chucked out of a job? When I was a... after I'd come out of the army when I was in a big office with a big desk and a chair behind it and patients came in front of it I moved my chair to the other side of my desk.. and I took a chair that was the same height and exactly the same as the patient's chair...

HOST: But, well. In summary if I may be admitted an editorial comment uncalled-for, perhaps what's most astonishing about the story of your therapy is the fact that it was controversial at all.

RDL: That's the saddest thing I think, to me about it.

HOST: Dr. Laing thank you for being with us.


This transcript is provided from an incomplete taped recording of the televised
broadcast; the ellipses (...) are placed to denote extended pauses in speech
and not as edit or abridgment of the interview.

A complete copy of the interview is currently unavailable from the A&E network;
apologies for the inconvenience.
Interview transcribed by
Margreta Carr December 2001.

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