THE WING OF MADNESS by Daniel Burston

THE WING OF MADNESS

The Life and Work of R.D. Laing
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

 Burston (The Legacy of Erich Fromm, not reviewed) reevaluates the controversial, best-selling ``anti-psychiatrist'' of the '60s, explicating his controversial theories and tracing his deterioration into quackery and alcoholism in the years before his death in 1989. Burston (Psychology/Duquesne Univ.) sets out Laing's confused and miserable life before he tries to reappraise his work. After an unhappy, impoverished childhood in Glasgow, with a distant father and an uncaring mother--apparently a borderline psychotic--the brilliant young Laing flourished at university, eventually choosing psychiatry as his profession. Laing's apprenticeship occurred at a time when lobotomies and insulin comas were applied regularly as treatments for mental problems, and the practices appalled him. Laing became further disillusioned with his profession during his compulsory military service, when he was given the job of determining if soldiers were sane enough to fight in the Korean War. Combining Freudian theories and existentialism, Laing's first works, The Divided Self (1960), Self and Others (1961), and Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964), stressed the burden of insanity on the families of those afflicted and on society, albeit with sympathy, even respect, for the insane. His more strident works, such as The Politics of Experience (1967), which asserted that society itself was dangerously delusional, made him one of the gurus of the rebellious '60s. The following decades, however, brought only personal, professional, and financial setbacks until he finished by espousing prenatal memory and ``rebirthing'' techniques. Burston cogently places Laing among the heated debates and schisms within psychoanalysis, and he offers a careful reading of Laing's theories. As for contributions to psychiatric care, Burston's case for the relevance of Laing's therapy commune for today's community care is less convincing. If the biographical side verges on special pleading, Burston's critique of Laing's writings manages to salvage some philosophical cohesion, though not quite enough to offset the sad record of Laing's peculiar life and headlong decline.

Pub Date: Aug. 18th, 1996
ISBN: 0-674-95358-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1996