In the last five years there has been a surprising rush of biographies, memoirs, and recollections of R.D. Laing. I very much enjoyed the personal touch of the biography by his son, Adrian Laing . Daniel Burstons The Wings of Madness is more of an intellectual account of Laings life, with much less emphasis on the number of times Laing got drunk. Burstons account, although on the dry side, performs a valuable service in clarifying the importance of Laings heritage.
Burston is well aware that Laings declining reputation is linked to Laings money problems and his increasingly desperate attempts to solve them, his often irresponsible public behavior, and his intellectual decline. Laing started out as a powerful intellectual force, and then disgraced himself. It can be hard to remember why he was ever taken seriously. But Laings work was important in the 1960s and 1970s, and Burston makes a good case that it still has relevance today.
Laings childhood is covered very quickly, and Burston soon gets into Laings intellectual development. It is striking both how passionate he was about his work, and how bitter were the arguments he had with peers and colleagues. It is also clear that the label of antipsychiatrist, which Laing disliked, does not describe him well. Laing was a supporter of the idea of psychiatry, while a trenchant critic of the way it was often practiced. Burstons aim is to present Laings point of view systematically: his way of doing this is to not only tell the story of Laings life, but also in the final hundred pages of the book, to set out and appraise Laings ideas more systematically.
While he greatly respects Laings contributions, Burston is no blindly following disciple of Laing. He makes thoughtful and clear criticisms of Laings ideas and actions. He explains Laings position in comparison with other theories in psychology and philosophy such as behaviorism and existentialism. Furthermore, he shows the roots of Laings apparently bizarre later enthusiasms (such as the rebirthing movement) in his early work.
What is less clear after reading Burstons intellectual biography is whether it is worth it for modern critics of psychiatry to make the effort to master the subtleties of Laings approach. Laing certainly provides a possible starting point for those unhappy with the unrelenting reductionism of psychiatry, but is it the best starting point? One can only make this judgment through comparing Laings approach with those of other theorists such as Foucault, Szasz, and feminist authors. For my part, I suspect Laings thought was too schematic and eclectic, and that his project was not completed enough. While critical psychiatry should acknowledge its influences, it does not need to root itself in such mixed soil.