Book Review: Adrian Charles Laing, R.D. Laing: A Biography

pub. Peter Owen London 1994, ISBN 0 7206 0934 8, £25.00 stg.

R.D. Laing wrote in his diary on his fortieth birthday that he was making “the transition from Icarus to Daedalus, from Oedipus to Laius, from enfant terrible to grand old man … From simply son to father to one of the elders who has failed … from one of yesterday’s young men of tomorrow to one of tomorrow’s old men of yesterday …” For his son, Adrian, the author of this unassuming but nonetheless fascinating biography of Laing, this diary entry shows that “Ronnie knew, from as early as 1967, that the consequence of reaching a pinnacle, of climbing to the highest height … (is) the sadness that comes with the realization that the only way forward is downhill.” In attempting to recount, and therefore also to organize, his father’s apparently chaotic and excessive life story, it is perhaps inevitable that the son should choose this archetypally tragic view of the rise and fall of a great man. Indeed, the reworking of this myth in concrete form is of very great interest in the book, and in itself makes it worth reading. I would compare it with Peter Reich’s account of his father, Wilhelm (A Book of Dreams, 1974); both sons of famous psychotherapist fathers, they seem unable to give up the myth of the hero, even though that hero has let them down so badly and so often. It is this very inability which makes the book so helpful to us in reviewing the phenomenon, or the myth, of R.D. Laing – the burnt-out, drunken therapist with the immense gifts of healing and insight. Where maybe any other biographer would feel obliged to find some consistent, psychological interpretation to link the life and work, the son is free to mourn and rage, even when he does so as quietly and rationally as Adrian Laing does here.

But the grief and rage show up anyway. Even as early as page 14, Adrian Laing is describing his father as “almost masochistic” in his “dedication to his work.” The interesting reversal here, of course, is that the sufferings this ‘dedication’ inflicted on his wife and family are totally subsumed by this view. The son’s story is subsumed in that of the father. The ambivalence towards Laing which constantly makes itself felt throughout the book is therefore highly understandable and the reader is given a firm purchase on the material: the family story is enacted, even if it is repressed, by the narrative. For example, Adrian Laing ends the book most appropriately with an account of his father’s death; but the way in which he does this is itself revealing of the troubled depths of his relationship with the man. He tells us that the last time he spoke to his father (by phone, a month before R.D. Laing’s death in August 1989), they discussed R.D. Laing’s biography. The older man had appointed Bob Mullan as “authorized biographer” but the son made it plain, not only that he intended to write his own book on the subject, but also that he would not “co-operate” with Mullan. He justifies this refusal on the grounds that “Ronnie was being taken for a sucker” and paid far too little for the material, which is doubtless true; but it is not difficult to understand that Adrian Laing could not agree to “co-operate” in being silenced himself.

The son’s problem in writing this book is contained in a nutshell on the very first page: “I rarely felt close to that person others talk about – ‘Ronnie’, and never personally referred to him as such. He was ‘Dad’ or ‘the old man’.” Yet he always refers to the subject of the biography as ‘Ronnie’, as if he is trying to explain, or even to claim, the famous R.D. Laing. The father who deserted Adrian’s mother appears chiefly as the child of Adrian’s (loved) grandparents. The blame which the famous ‘Ronnie’ heaped on families, and by implication on his own family, is repudiated: “His mother was deeply shocked … (she) was deeply ashamed, and remained so, for whether she read all of Ronnie’s books or not, she was perfectly aware … of what her son was saying about families and society …” Adrian Laing, representing the family in spite of himself, is able to say nastier things about ‘Ronnie’ than any other biographer would dare, I think – because the reader can so clearly sympathize with both father and son. “He was tied in a knot, sometimes described as hypocrisy,” fumes the son, wittily playing on the title of ‘Ronnie’s’ most successful book; and the reader can distinguish with ease both the gordian knot of R.D. Laing’s brilliant insight, and the sword of the son which cannot cut it. At times, the book reads like a game of chess between two well-matched opponents.

The task which Adrian Laing has imposed on himself is therefore very complex. He is writing his father’s biography, that is, the biography of a famous psychotherapist whose particular merit lay in connecting so lucidly the issue of personal madness (schizophrenia) with the familial structures of society. At the same time, he is writing about the personal failures of his father especially in regard to his families. It is essential for him to preserve his view of the heroic achievement of his father’s work, or else his hero is gone. But at the same time, he must pull to pieces the “guru” who abandoned him, or else his own story as the son cannot be told. The conflict between these motives is continuous, from the anecdote with which he opens the Introduction – “My relationship with Ronnie has greatly improved since his death” – to the final words of the book, quoting ‘Ronnie’s’ own final words: “Doctor, what fucking doctor?” – in which it seems as if father and son can finally agree if only by disbelieving in ‘Ronnie’, R.D. Laing, the doctor (or psychotherapist?).

Adrian Laing frequently acknowledges that there is a need for other biographies of his father, and I would agree with him. But this book is much more than a biography – it is the reworking of the Oedipal (or Icarus) myth which R.D. Laing quoted in his diary and elsewhere, for real. This is why the moment I treasure most from the book is not one of the lurid anecdotes of R.D. Laing’s drunken misbehaviour, though the son tells these admiringly (“What a guy!”); but the almost throwaway confession that he could not bear to watch his father cry.

Mary Montaut