I do not experience your experience. But I experience you as experiencing. I experience myself as experienced by you. And I experience you as experiencing yourself as experienced by me. And so on. – R D Laing, The Politics of Experience
A post over at my friend Dave King’s blog where he was looking for his readers to submit lines of poetry that we felt were immortal started me thinking about the poetry that has had the greatest influence on me. It’s not a long list I’m sorry to say but that says more about how little poetry I’ve been exposed to rather than the quality of that poetry. In the main it’s been individual poems but there is one exception, a book of poetry, and a most unusual book it is. For starters it was written by a man who is far better known as a psychiatrist than a poet. That man was Ronald David Laing.
I’ve never had a great deal of interest in the big three sciences – biology, chemistry and physics – but I do like formulae. I think it’s simply amazing that you can reduce things to a stream (and often a very short stream) of letters, symbols and numbers. The one I remember from school is something called the coefficient of friction – µ. (µ is the twelfth letter of the Greek alphabet which we pronounce ‘mu’.) It tells you how slippery things are. Ice on steel has a low coefficient of friction, while rubber on pavement has a high coefficient of friction. Under good conditions, a tire on concrete may have a coefficient of friction of about 1.7 where a value of 0 means no friction whatsoever. The coefficient of friction is, however, an empirical measurement – it has to be measured experimentally, and cannot be found through calculations. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a formula, and here it is:
μ = F /N
In other words: the static friction coefficient (μ) between two solid surfaces is defined as the ratio of the tangential force (F) required to produce sliding divided by the normal force between the surfaces (N).
So what has all this to do with Ronnie Laing? Bear with me.
In 1953 Laing began working at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow becoming, at the time, the youngest consultant in the country. Anyone who has seen or read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will have some idea how mentally ill patients were treated back then. Only this sounds worse. Laing noticed that none of the doctors actually talked with the patients – they treated them as ailing organisms as opposed to poorly people – and so he proposed something radical: he took twelve women patients, all schizophrenics, and spent months getting them to open up about their lives and their illnesses allowing them to talk to each other and form bonds in the so-called ‘Rumpus Room' rehabilitative project. His peers couldn’t decide if he was extraordinarily dedicated or simply a bit eccentric. The results, however, were dramatic. After only a few months all twelve of them were considered well enough to leave hospital and return to their families. Within a year though every last one of them had been readmitted. Laing would seem to have failed. But he didn’t give up. Instead he refocused his attention and began to research the families of these patients. His conclusion was that the doctors who were treating these people so that they could be returned to their families using what was available at the time – insulin comas (which brought patients to the brink of death only to see them revived by glucose solution fed into the stomach) and electroconvulsive therapy – were making a terrible mistake: they were sending them back to the private horror that had first created their patients’ individual madnesses. To suggest that he was blaming parents for causing schizophrenia in their offspring is simplistic however but it did start him wondering just how much environment contributed towards mental instability.
Thomas Szasz, a contemporary of Laing and someone with whom he felt some affinity, put forth this theory:
Mental illness is the game-playing tactic adopted … by those who are dissatisfied with the rules of the game in which they are a player.
And an article looking back on Szasz’s long career opens as follows:
Future historians may well cast Thomas Szasz as an intrepid campaigner for the blindingly obvious: people do not have “mental illnesses” but experience a wide range of moral, interpersonal, social and political “problems in living.” All such problems concern, or have an impact on, our sense of who and what we are and could just as easily be called spiritual crises.
Much the same could be said about Laing indeed, along with Laing’s friend, David Cooper, “[t]he quite different ideas of these men came to be bracketed inappropriately under the rubric of “anti-psychiatry”—an expression coined by Cooper though disclaimed by Laing and rejected outright by Szasz..” It’s a wonder that we’re not all crazy, every single one of us.
If mental illness was what happened in extreme cases of family problems then what about the thin edge of the wedge? What about (so called) normal families? What coping mechanisms did the individual members employ? To investigate this Laing turned to something called game theory. And, no, he didn’t simply sit them down and watch them playing Scrabble. He was more interested in those secret games people play.
What Laing found was that couples used their everyday actions as strategies to control and manipulate each other. Even acts of kindness and love he viewed as weapons used to exert power and control. In the first episode of the TV series, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, an excerpt of which I’ve embedded at the end of this article, one of his colleagues, Clancy Sigal, an American novelist and screenwriter and a co-founder of the Philadelphia Association along with Laing and others, had this to say:
Laing really did feel that the family was an area for strategising. Love was a way in which one person tried to dominate another person: I love you but I’m making a condition for that love which is impossible for you to fulfil and so there’s nothing you can do to earn my love even though I’m telling you you have to earn my love.
What began simply as scepticism towards ways of thinking that are too often taken for granted became a way of life for Laing. He began publishing books and became a media celebrity, very much a British Timothy Leary, a primal force in the UK’s growing antiestablishmentarianism – no ‘dis’. As in the States in the United Kingdom the counterculture movement of the 1960s was mainly a reaction against the social norms of the 1940s and 1950s. At no other time has the family and ‘traditional family values’ been under attack.
According to an article in The Independent back in 2008 there was talk about an up-and-coming film (provisionally titled Mad to Be Normal) that was to be made about Laing’s life starring, I would have thought, a perfectly-cast fellow Glaswegian Robert Carlyle. Although it now looks as if the film may never appear the article had this to say about Laing:
Among those considered to be his most celebrated admirers at the height of his influence in the 1960s when he was a regular feature on television were The Beatles, Jim Morrison, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
But by the time of his death on a Riviera tennis court in 1989 at the age of 61, R D Laing's reputation was at an all-time low, dismissed as the drunken high priest of failed Sixties hedonism, a fallen icon of the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll generation and wrecker-in-chief of traditional nuclear family values.
So what happened?
Laing was born and raised in Govanhill in Glasgow. It was, and still is, one of the roughest areas in the city. It has a reputation for deprivation and poverty and the high rates of crime that follow them. If that was not bad enough he was brought up in the mother and father of dysfunctional families. His parents had been married for ten years before they had Ronnie, an event that surprised the neighbours because his mother managed to conceal her pregnancy and even denied having had sex with her husband. By comparison with their neighbours the Laings were actually reasonably well off but that didn’t stop his father, David, worrying about his career which caused him to have a three-month breakdown.
His mother, Amelia, was nothing less that peculiar:
According to one friend and neighbour, ‘Everyone in the street knew she was mad.’ The Laing family home was frequently curtained and dark; and, as if to avoid contamination by the outside world, Amelia ‘was rarely seen outside her house. She even burnt her own rubbish at home, lest neighbours found what it contained’.
He was clearly not a wanted child, nevertheless, “Amelia felt constrained to behave in ways that conformed to the prevailing standards of what a mother should feel towards her offspring.” On one occasion she gave her son an expensive pedal car for his fifth birthday but he only received this after she had burned his much-loved rocking horse on the grounds that he was excessively attached to it. It was around about this time that his parents told him Santa Claus did not exist. He never forgave them, claiming in later years that the realisation they had been lying to him triggered his first existential crisis. Amelia also policed his diet in case he ate anything that had come in touch with the lower sort of people – jam and jelly babies were especially offensive to her. (I mean, seriously, how could any wean be brought up in Glasgow without a steady diet of ‘jeely pieces’?) Ronnie’s relationship with his father was better but only up to a point because his father often sided with his wife, probably to keep the peace.
Jeely Piece Song: Matt McGinn (lyrics here).
Ronnie’s salvation was education. Not only did he have school to escape to but just across the back garden lay one of Glasgow's original Carnegie libraries in which he spent his time, as he put it, “working my way from A to Z.” By the time he was fifteen he was familiar with Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche and, of course, Freud. In 1945 he entered Glasgow University to study medicine. Failing his final exams – and having to face his parents’ sense of disgrace – caused him to leave home and he hardly ever returned; he passed his finals six months later and graduated in February 1951. There seems little doubt that his life-long empathy for the mentally disturbed can be traced back to his relationship with his mother. in fact in the documentary film, Did You Use to be R D Laing? he said as much. She died in 1986, a little under three years before her son. During the service he began to cry uncontrollably and one of the mourners commented: “[H]e was still three years old in relation to her, his rage still there.”
Needless to say when he came to have his own family it was not a rip-roaring success. His son Adrian, speaking in 2008 said:
It was ironic that my father became well-known as a family psychiatrist, when, in the meantime, he had nothing to do with his own family. … When people ask me what it was like to be R D Laing's son I tell them it was a crock of shit.
And his daughter, Karen, who now works as a humanistic psychotherapist said:
I have sat in on sessions with my father while he was working with clients and experienced his genius as a man who could relate to another human’s pain and suffering. There seems to me to be a huge void and contradiction between R D Laing the psychiatrist and Ronnie Laing the father. There was something he was constantly searching for within himself and it tortured him.
Although Laing’s excesses in later life will certainly make an entertaining film the fact is that his role in overturning the established orthodoxy of the day cannot be ignored:
Laing believed that mental illness was a sane response to an insane world and that a psychiatrist had a duty to communicate empathetically with patients. Once, when faced with a naked schizophrenic woman rocking silently to and fro in a padded cell, Laing took off his own clothes and sat next to her, rocking to the same rhythm until she spoke for the first time in months.
As a psychiatrist, both brilliant and unconventional, RD Laing pioneered the humane treatment of the mentally ill. But as a father, clinically depressed and alcoholic, he bequeathed his ten children and his two wives a more chequered legacy.
A few years before I became aware of R D Laing I wrote a poem called ‘Street Games’ which I showed to my own father. His response was that life was not a game and, of course, he was right – life is serious business – but he was also so very wrong. At the time I didn’t have the words to defend myself but I knew he was wrong. It wasn’t until I got my hands on a library copy of Laing’s book of poetry, Knots, and read the opening poem that I had the words:
They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.
Okay it’s not Wordsworth and there will be those who might argue that it’s not even proper poetry but I don’t care. My Vintage edition catalogues it under ‘Psychology’ and that’s fine by me.
I read that single piece over and over again. Never had so few words made so much sense to me.
Does my bum look big in this? Honestly, is there a right answer to that question? The answer she wants to hear is, “No, dear,” and any man who doesn’t give that answer toute de suite and with a smile on his face needs his head seeing to. Care needs to be taken so as not to sound disingenuous. You have to say that, “No, dear,” with just the right amount of sincerity and without too much pussyfooting around the issue or it might look as if that was not your initial reaction. It’s a game. She knows exactly how big her bum is and how big that thing she’s squeezed it into makes it look. Words show 7% of our feelings and attitudes, tone of voice shows 38% and body language shows 55% – she will know if you say one thing and mean another and yet she wants you to lie to her, to be in cahoots with her. She’s not interested in the truth. She’s not interested in constructive feedback. She’s looking for positive reinforcement. You can take the moral high ground – “It’s for your own good” – and the best of luck if you do.
Collusion has resonances of playing at and of deception. It is a ‘game’ played by two or more people whereby they deceive themselves. The game is the game of mutual self-deception. Whereas delusion and elusion and illusion can be applied to one person, collusion is necessarily a two-or-more-person game. Each plays the other’s game, through he may not necessarily be fully aware of doing so. An essential feature of this game is not admitting that it is a game.
Now is that not what Laing’s poem is saying but far more eloquently? But who is the ‘I’ in the poem? As far as Bobby Matherne’s concerned it’s the therapist who “must join them in their game to keep them as clients, or else they will leave therapy. In addition, the therapist must break up the game for the couple to move from a disjunctive conjunction to a copulative conjunction from now on.” I didn’t read it that way when I was nineteen (which is probably how old I was at the time): I saw the ‘I’ in the book as me and the ‘they’ were my parents.
Of course no one played games more than Ronnie:
[L]ike a contemporary pop star Laing was, in some respects, a product of the publics who read and celebrated him; a point which is nicely captured in the distinction that Adrian Laing draws between ‘Ronnie’, the father he knew, and ‘R.D. Laing’, the public celebrity. … I do not mean that he was a mere representation in radical culture. R.D. was one of Ronnie’s roles and had to be played to exist. [italics mine]
A number of the poems feature Jack and Jill but no hills as far as I can remember. Jack and Jill also appear throughout his book Self and Others as proxies to help him get his points over, like this one about elusion:
Jill is married to Jack. She does not want to be married to Jack. She is frightened to leave Jack. So she stays with Jack but imagines she is not married to him. Eventually she does not feel married to Jack. So she has to imagine she is. ‘I have to remind myself that he is my husband.’
A common manoeuvre. Elusion is a way of getting round conflict without direct confrontation, or its resolution. It eludes conflict by playing off one modality of experience against another. She imagines she is not married and then imagines she is. Elusive spirals go on and on.
There isn’t a ‘Jack and Jill’ poem in the book to fit the above scenario but this one here is typical (and not too knotty):
Jill can see Jack can't see,
and can't see he can't see.
Jill can see WHY
Jack can't see,
but Jill cannot see WHY
Jack can't see he can't see.
Jack 'sees' Jill is blind
and that Jill can't see she is.
Jack realises they both are.
If the blind must lead the blind, it is as well
that the leader knows he is.
Jack can't see he can't see
and can't see
Jill can't see Jill can't see it.
and visa versa...
The word ‘knots’ only appears three times in Self and Others and all in the one paragraph, here:
Some people undoubtedly have a remarkable aptitude for keeping the other tied in knots. There are those who excel in tying knots and those who excel in being tied in knots. Tyer and tied are often both unconscious of how it is done, or even that it is being done at all. It is strikingly how difficult it is for the parties concerned to see what is happening. We must remember that part of the knot is not to see that it is a knot.
It is, however, the perfect metaphor and made a huge impression on me at the time and still. The expression Laing uses in the book’s introduction to describe these ‘knots’ is “the final formal elegance in these webs of maya.” Maya is a Sanskrit word that in Indian religions has multiple meanings centred around the concept of "illusion".
At the time when I first read this book I had only been married for a few months and my wife and I were still trying to work out what our respective roles were. Yes, she was ‘the wife’ and I was ‘the husband’ but what did that mean? We knew what it meant for our respective sets of parents but surely that wasn’t what it was going to mean for us. And for months we circled around each other, each of us trying to ‘read’ the other. It was impossible not to look at Jack and Jill and not wonder if either of us really knew the other. As Laing says in the opening chapter to The Politics of Experience:
I see you, and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me. Just as you cannot "see" my experience of you. My experience of you is not "inside" me. It is simply you, as I experience you. And I do not experience you as inside me. Similarly, I take it that you do not experience me as inside you.
"My experience of you" is just another form of words for "you-as-l-experience-you", and "your experience of me" equals "me-as-you-experience-me". Your experience of me is not inside you and my experience of you is not inside me, but your experience of me is invisible to me and my experience of you is invisible to you.
Having been brought up in a religious household the second poem in the book really hit home with me:
They are not having fun.
I can't have fun if they don't.
If I get them to have fun, then I can have fun with them.
Getting them to have fun, is not fun. It is hard work.
I might get fun out of finding out why they're not.
I'm not supposed to get fun out of working out why
But there is even some fun in pretending to them I'm not
having fun finding out why they're not.
A little girl comes along and says: let's have fun.
But having fun is a waste of time, because it doesn't
help to figure out why they're not having fun.
How dare you have fun when Christ died on the Cross for you! Was He having fun?
Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
meltin' in a pot of thieves
wild card up my sleeve
thick heart of stone
my sins my own
they belong to me, me
Religion is a game. It was in our house. God may not have played dice with the universe but he did with us. I was told I had to have “a personal relationship” with God, something to this day I struggle to comprehend, and so I did what any other kid with any sense would do: I faked it. He was a parentally-sanctioned imaginary friend. So I played along. I went through the motions. I lied. No one taught me to and by the time someone told me it was wrong I had amassed so much evidence to the contrary that I just kept schtum and went about my business appearing to be what they expected me to be. No one even told me we were playing a game, what the rules were (but we still weren’t supposed to cheat). All I knew was what the prize was and I was supposed to keep my eyes on it:
Paul and Silas thought they was lost
Dungeon shook and the chains come off
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Freedom's name is mighty sweet
And soon we're gonna meet
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
(from ‘Keep Your Eyes On The Prize’)
After a few weeks Knots went back to the library and it was to be about thirty years before I owned my own which I bought in a little second-hand bookstore in Hayward, California of all places. The book’s imagery never left me though and in 1996 I penned this poem:
Cathexis (in memoriam RDL)
Jack loved Jill
because he needed someone to love
and Jill happened to be there.
Jill wasn't sure if Jack loved her
but she wanted to be loved
so she believed that he did.
Jack said the words he felt he should
not realising Jill would only hear
what she wanted to.
But saying the words felt good too
and no one was being hurt
so what's so wrong with that?
Truth is over-rated if you ask me.
2 March, 1996
It’s a poem that still pleases me very much but I’m also not the only person to be inspired by Knots. In my researches I found this poem by Bruce Whealton:
Just act naturally!
Naturally, I am learning,
just what to do,
Do people learn, naturally,
how to act natural?
I must learn social skills
so that I will know
what to do, naturally,
when I want to act,
There is also the poem ‘v. (for R.D.L.)’ by Phyllis Webb here.
I started off talking about formulae and so let me finish there. Some people object to poems being viewed as problems to be solved. Formulae are not problems – they’re the answer to problems and that’s what many poems are, a working example. In Knots R D Laing presents us with scenarios but he’s not asking us to solve these so much as to see if we can relate to them. And isn’t that something we do with all poetry, look for ourselves in the lines and in between them?
One Amazon reviewer made this observation about the collection: “Broadly mirroring the pattern of a life, from a child's observation of adults, through adult sexual relationships and finally to the nihilistic aspects of old age…” I hadn’t noticed that myself but it’s an interesting observation. though not one that affected my own choice to arrange my poetry collection in that order.
There was a short film made in the early seventies with Ronnie explaining how “people have a habit of tying each other up in knots” and some actors did readings of some of the poems but I’ve not been able to track down a clip. You can read examples of some of Laing’s ‘knots’ here. Here is the link to that BBC documentary I quoted from earlier:
Finally, let me leave you with a clip from Did You Used to be R D Laing where Laing talks about his mother and, if what he’s relating is accurate (you can never be too sure with him) then it’s clear to see where his first knots originated:
Janus Head, Vol.4 No.1 – Special Issue: The Legacy of R. D. Laing
 Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing, p.25
 Ron Roberts, ‘Madness, Myth and Medicine—The Continuing Relevance of Thomas Szasz, Now in his 91st Year’, The Psychologist, 2nd August 2010
 Jonathan Brown, R D Laing: ‘The celebrity shrink who put the psychedelia into psychiatry’, The Independent, 29th December 2008
 Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing, p.7
 Daniel Burston, The Crucible of Experience: R.D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy, p.2
 Ibid, p.9
 Ibid, p.17
 This quote, or similar, is often attributed to Laing but the nearest I can find is from chapter 5 of The Politics of Experience: “The experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unliveable situation.”
 Elizabeth Day and Graham Keeley, 'Dad solved other people's problems - but not his own', The Guardian, 1st June 2008
 Nick Crossley, Contesting Psychiatry: Social Movements in Mental Health, p.102
 Ibid, p.139