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Review of "The Wing of Madness"

By Daniel Burston
Harvard University Press, 1996
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 30th 2000
The Wing of Madness

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 Burston’s The Wings of Madness is more of an intellectual account of Laing’s life, with much less emphasis on the number of times Laing got drunk. Burston’s account, although on the dry side, performs a valuable service in clarifying the importance of Laing’s heritage.


Burston is well aware that Laing’s declining reputation is linked to Laing’s 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 Laing’s work was important in the 1960s and 1970s, and Burston makes a good case that it still has relevance today.


Laing’s childhood is covered very quickly, and Burston soon gets into Laing’s 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. Burston’s aim is to present Laing’s point of view systematically: his way of doing this is to not only tell the story of Laing’s life, but also in the final hundred pages of the book, to set out and appraise Laing’s ideas more systematically.


While he greatly respects Laing’s contributions, Burston is no blindly following disciple of Laing. He makes thoughtful and clear criticisms of Laing’s ideas and actions. He explains Laing’s position in comparison with other theories in psychology and philosophy such as behaviorism and existentialism. Furthermore, he shows the roots of Laing’s apparently bizarre later enthusiasms (such as the rebirthing movement) in his early work.


What is less clear after reading Burston’s intellectual biography is whether it is worth it for modern critics of psychiatry to make the effort to master the subtleties of Laing’s 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 Laing’s approach with those of other theorists such as Foucault, Szasz, and feminist authors. For my part, I suspect Laing’s 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.