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The Liberating Shaman of Kingsley Hall1

Francis Huxley

R.D.LAING, who died on Wednesday at the age of 61, did much to demystify mental illness before mystifying his own admirers in his later writings. Along the way he outraged psychiatry, but left the profession a good deal more humane than he found it.

FRANCIS HUXLEY here recalls working with Laing in his therapeutic community at Kingsley Hall in the Sixties

Ronald David Laing was born in Glasgow. His father was an engineer, who otherwise filled his life with music and became a professional baritone of some note. Laing himself had large gifts as a musician, and was well on the way to becoming a concert pianist when his love for vigorous activities made him play one game of rugby too many, during which the bones of his right had were crushed.

This put paid to any professional ambitions he had, though all his life he would play Bach, all with spirit and intelligence, and sometimes with majesty. I do not think that music alone would have satisfied him, however, for he also had a mother whose mind was very much not that of an engineer or musician.

Laing published a number of wry anecdotes about his childhood, both in The Facts of Life and Wisdom, Madness and Folly. The ones that really made the mouth pucker he told only to his friends, as befits the darker skeletons in the family cupboard, and I have no wish to say more about these saddening vehicles of psychological inheritance than that they were of a particularly anguishing kind.

He read widely ­ Hume, Sartre, Nietzsche, Calvin, rationalists and Buddhists ­ he got his degree as a doctor and became a psychiatrist. As such he found himself dealing with many a fellow victim of the same torment who in addition had to suffer the indignities of prejudicial diagnosis and treatment. He himself had a wonderfully attentive ear and soon trained himself to speak and understand schizophrenese; and when he read Bateson’s theory of the double bind and its action in schizophrenic families he at once saw that this was indeed the master engineer’s blueprint of the mad-machine.

The Divided Self was an extraordinary fruit of this moment, in which many a leader as yet undiagnosed found their predicament writ large and with deep empathy. Here was one of the clearest voices of the sixties, which immediately gathered allies to its cause.

The cause, of course, was to exorcise the double bind from civilised life, and this meant not only diagnosing its presence but breaking the habit in oneself. There is no way to do this but in company, and so Kingsley Hall was set up, that first household for those who either feared for their sanity or looked for something better, while longing for conviviality and meaning. It was run, as were its successors , on two major principles. The first was: “It’s all up for grabs”; the second, “Everything that is not forbidden is allowed, and everything that is not allowed is forbidden”.

Axioms such as these produced a great deal of animation, and if some of it was confusing the general effect was all that a therapeutic household might reasonably ask for. Indeed, it was much more, for Kingsley Hall was one of the centres of sixties’ life; it attracted a wildly interesting network of people who, once fallen under Laing’s spell, gave life to the place and between them gave birth to other ventures, such as the conference on the Dialectics of Liberation.

Ah, the dear dead days! It was then that I first met Laing, who later invited me to join the Philadelphia Association. He did so because of my interest as a social anthropologist in such things as shamanism, which I had recently come into powerful contact with. Laing, there is not doubt, had the shamanic temperament and recognised the fact. This gift, which so often begins as a disorder, is not recognised as such in western psychiatry, which therefore cannot use its therapeutic advantages: a fact which, of course, underlies so much of Laing’s writing on ‘anti-psychiatry’ which surmounts to no less than what psychiatry should be doing if it truly understood the facts of the case.

At any rate, this gift of his was often difficult to live with both for himself and for those around him. I once accused him of hitting below the belt during a business meeting. At which he snarled that I should know by now that there was no difference between above and below. He was a master in this form of psychic aikido, as her termed it, and the Chinese restaurant round the corner from his house saw many such an encounter, as when he told a visiting bigwig that though he might work with him, he didn’t see how he could ever be his friend. It reminds me that some years ago we were talking of Californians and he asked me whether I could really ever befriend such nice, normal, eager, boring people. How he enjoyed making mischief in such company, given less than half a chance, for what annoyed him in the conventional was not only that it was boring, but that it was full of lies.

As for real, thick, black lies, they always roused his combativeness and his ire, and he could hunt them down mercilessly. Lies destroy love, whether they be in the family or in the institution: and as far as institutional life is build on lies, it should be destroyed, was his constant argument.

He was himself a deeply loving man, if often rough, and one who fought his way continually back to moral principles: I shall not easily forget the time at the Ojai Foundation when he allowed himself to be made into a scapegoat for the complaints of all and sundry at the conference, suffered some grievous blows at the hands of a would be exorcist, and brought understanding at the end through an extraordinary sermon on unconditional love. He did many unconditional things in his life but this was his finest and his saving grace.


Ronald David Laing, born October 7, 1927; died August 23, 1989.


The Liberating Shaman of Kingsley Hall,
by Francis Huxley
first printed in The Guardian on 25th August, 1989

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