The Politics of the Family and Other Essays
R. D. Laing
I first encountered the title of this book’s central essay in college where it was used to label one of the courses in the nascent Women’s Studies curriculum. I sat in on a session, and opted not to take the class, but I did pick up a useful phrase and concept.
Eventually a First Edition of the original fell into my hands and I dove in. I already knew who R.D. Laing was. At a formative stage–actually I think I’m eternally in a formative stage–I read widely among the, ahem, thinkers of what was then called the New Left.
That was a ragtag bunch, at least in the United States. C. Wright Mills, the motorcycle-riding-Columbia-University-teaching sociologist who died the year I was born, was the most scholarly of those I read. There were others–Hayden, Oglesby, Hoffman, Reich, and so on–but the anger is what I recall, not any particular rigor.
Ronald David Laing, to the extent that he allowed himself to be allied with any particular camp, was associated with the European wing of the movement. (I am intentionally foregoing the sometimes/often used upper case ‘M’ both to differentiate a school of thought from the more narrow anti-Vietnam War protests and because a spectacular intellectual failure probably shouldn’t be rewarded with proper noun status.)
As I was saying, Laing was a psychiatrist of Scot descent who focused on psychoses in general and schizophrenia in particular. To the extent he is known at all it’s for one particular statement which, in rough paraphrase, is, “What if schizophrenia is a sane response to an insane situation?” I love the anarchic spirit of that question. If Laing had done nothing else it would still endear him to me forever.It should come as no surprise that such thinking out loud was not entirely welcomed in his professional community. I think it probably wouldn’t be today, either. To an extent that’s hard to admit, a lot of psychiatry and psychology today is focused on economic outcomes. Let’s help people fend for themselves. Let’s not create burdens for the state or families. Let’s not pursue open-ended talking cures. The a prioris overwhelm the patient in the room.
I think Laing would sympathize with that sketch rather than pick it apart as so many would. We live in a back to the future sort of world. One of the more trenchant criticisms of the New Left was that many of the activities deemed to be for one’s own good actually spoke more to the needs of social order maintenance.
So much so that there was a group within the psychiatric community that actively worked against that role. Sometimes referred to as the anti-psychiatry movement (it was more a group of like-minded individuals), it included , depending on whoever was doing the populating, Laing, Jacques Lacan, Thomas Szasz, David Cooper and others. I know of Lacan and Szazs, Cooper and the rest are new to me.
Laing never said that the mentally ill should not be treated. If I understand him at all it’s that the narrow questions need to be set aside. Otherwise, as the song has it, it’s all “That’s what you’re there for/square pegs in square holes/round pegs in round.” Not a pretty picture but not an unfamiliar one in the age of Prozac and corporate coaches.
The present volume contains three shorter essays and the longer, multi-section paper the book draws its title from. The subject of all four is not so much the family as family dynamics. As Laing says in the title essay, speaking of his knowledge of his own family, “Children are the last to be told what ‘really’ was going on before they came into the world,…” (p. 67) And yet, “What is the texture of the actual lived experiences of family life? How is the texture of this experience related to a dramatic structure, the social product of the interweaving of many lives over many generations.” (Ibid)
That sets up what all four essays are really about, which is how do you treat a patient whose suffering is, in part, a social product? There’s a lot going on here and Laing posits a quasi-dramaturgical model to get at the function the family plays. If that sounds familiar it should, because he’s borrowing (and quoting) from Goffman, and we’ve already seen the value in that.
Laing states that all psychiatrists who have treated schizoid personalities understand the family situation plays a role. He uses generic case studies to illustrate this point repeatedly.
In one he says “The case is typical–a psychiatrist has seen the boy, but not the family.” (p. 30) Why should that matter? A page later he tells us: “The situation is one of many that have the characteristic: no one in the situation knows what the situation is.” (p.31, emphasis in the original) The good doctor’s solution? Someone should spend some time with the boy’s mother and grandmother regardless of whether the lad chooses to cooperate or not.
The sad thing, Laing tells us, is that psychiatrists–the learned professionals we’ve charged with helping us when the mind itself appears diseased–have seldom seen an entire family as opposed to a single patient. They are, in his words, “extraordinarily socially naive.”
That’s a worrisome thought. And yet it helps me, at least, understand why pills and directed outcomes are preferred to the messy soup that is the human mind.