Written for International Journal of Psychotherapy, special issue, 2011
Personal recollections of Ronnie Laing
EMMY VAN DEURZEN
This is a very personal account of contact with R.D. Laing and some of the spin-offs of his work into the Philadelphia Association / Arbours Association and anti-psychiatry movement in the 1970s by one of the founders of Existential Psychotherapy in the UK.
Key Words: R.D. Laing, personal memories, reflections, existential psychotherapy.
I came to the UK in 1977, from France, where I used to work as a clinical psychologist and existential therapist in psychiatric hospitals (though my first training was as a philosopher) in order to work with R.D. Laing. Reading The Divided Self and The Politics of Experience (in French), around 1971, had deeply affected me personally and had impacted greatly on the work I did with psychiatric patients.
I had sought out the Arbours Association[i] therapists when they spoke at a conference in Milan in 1975 and had come over to visit the Arbours Association to see whether it might be of interest to work with the group, and also with R.D. Laing in his Philadelphia Association (PA)[ii]. My ex-husband Jean-Pierre Fabre (a psychiatrist) and myself were promptly invited by Joseph Berke and Morton Schatzmann[iii] to come over to work with the Arbours Association in London, and we accepted their invitation.
We moved into an Arbours community house in South London in October 1977 and contributed to the work at the Arbours crisis centre as well. I also started teaching existential therapy on the Arbours training programme, when it emerged that such teaching was not happening, as the Arbours training programme was almost totally based in neo-Kleinian theory at that time. We set up some meetings with Ronnie Laing, with Paul and Carol Zeal, with Francis Huxley, and some others. We started attending some seminars with the P.A. too. But we got the impression from what people told us, and from what we observed for ourselves, that the Philadelphia Association was very run down by then. Several P.A. colleagues warned us not to get too involved, as it was crumbling and had become a ‘toxic’ organization, and Ronnie himself seemed to be in very bad shape. It was also a great disappointment to find that the P.A. was focusing many of its seminars on French psychoanalysis. Since Jean-Pierre and I had both been trained in this way of working for many years in France, and had been fighting the hegemony of Lacanian thinking, and had indeed specifically come to England to get away from all of that, it was rather ironic to be faced with rather poorly formulated French psychoanalytic thinking in the place where we had hoped to connect up with the existential tradition we were interested in. My idea that, coming to the UK, would allow us to work directly with existential therapy, quickly turned out to be illusory and I began to realize that I would actually have to create what I had hoped to find ready-made.
Not surprisingly, from the start, my relationship with Ronnie was not a very good one. He certainly at this stage did not like to engage with the critique that I was formulating. It seemed to me that he did not like to be on an equal level with colleagues, and was certainly not very interested in hearing about the rather revolutionary psychiatric and therapeutic work that J-P and I had been involved with in France. Ronnie, it was clear to me, expected to be treated as a guru, and I was certainly not looking for a guru, but for a fair and frank exchange. I remember him shouting at me one day on the phone that he was, “f…ing R.D. Laing and my husband and myself were just some f…ing psychiatrists from France”. With hindsight, it occurs to me that he may have wrongly assumed that we wanted to bring in more French psychoanalysis into the PA. Nothing could have been further from the truth. But his attitude was so haughty, disdainful and rejecting that I decided to steer clear of him as much as possible.
I gave it one more shot by attending his infamous lecture on ‘The Politics of Helplessness’ at the Round House, in early 1978, but I found it appallingly prepared, extremely poor in theoretical or practical contents, and completely uninspiring. I was shocked by the way the P.A. trainees were made to sit at his feet, on stage. I knew then for certain that this scene was not for me and that Laing’s work could not truly inform psychotherapeutic practice, but would only lead to un-productive adoration. Ronnie himself seemed burnt out by his own fame and I made a mental note never to let myself become famous, or too enamored with my own ideas or my own importance. Fame, I knew from observing him, corrupts as badly as power or money. Too much light shining on you, blinds you and weakens you.
What still sticks in my mind to this day is the story that he told at that conference of two climbers, tied to each other by ropes as they climbed a steep mountain slope, until one of them fell into a precipice, from which the other was unable to hoist him to safety. The question he asked his public was, ‘When do you decide to cut the rope?’ I was shocked by his metaphor for psychotherapy and knew instinctively that this was the wrong question, and a completely wrong image to use. My inner protest against his fatalism and his personal helplessness spurred me on to formulate a much more structured form of existential therapy that could enable others to think for themselves and find their own path, be it with some support.
Of course, living in an Arbours therapeutic community, I was only too aware of the impossibility of ‘saving’ other people in such a context, especially if one had to be apologetic about being a ‘therapist’, instead of just being a co-resident. It seemed obvious to me that, going out on a hazardous journey into madness without a compass, a map and some decent safety equipment and sensible planning, was mad indeed and could only lead to accidents.
But I carried on with this anti-psychiatric[iv] journey for a little longer yet, to make quite sure it really was the wrong path, and that I wasn’t just being dismissive and arrogant about it. I also felt I had more to learn from the people I lived with. It was through talking with them, and by studying and teaching the philosophical writings of my favourite existential authors, that I began to formulate my own ideas in a systematic way from this point onwards. One could say that my disenchantment with Ronnie catapulted me into my own writing, and released me to be creative in my own right.
I carried on seeing Leon Redler for therapy in one of the P.A. communities for a while in 1978, but soon decided to leave the Arbours and the P.A., and in April 1978 went to California to visit various mental health projects and to do some training at the Esalen Institute. Upon my return I got re-involved with the Arbours community in a different capacity, continued teaching for the Arbours training programme and became a supervisor to the trainees. I also, somewhat to my shame, was part of the Laing/Rogers encounter in the London Hilton Hotel in September 1978 and was one of Ronnie’s therapists, in the great rebirthing event on the dance-floor of the Hilton hotel.
After that I decided that enough was enough and preferred to continue developing my own work, and I took a job with Antioch University’s London-based MA (Master’s degree) in Humanistic Psychology, which was quite tied in with the P.A. I still attended occasional P.A. meetings and had many students who were in placement either with the P.A., or the Arbours. I also did some yoga-based work with Mel Huxley, and Arthur and Janet Balaskas, around the time my son was born (February 1981).
In fact, the night my son was born (more or less exactly thirty years ago at the time of this writing) Janet was going between the Royal Free, where she was my birthing partner and Ronnie’s house in Belsize Park, where she was helping him through a rough time during his marriage break down. I think this was a final confirmation for me that he was losing it and that – in some way – the future of existential therapy was in my hands. I set up the first Masters degree programme based on existential therapy for Antioch University in 1982 and then moved this to Regent’s College, London in 1985, where it grew into an entire school of psychotherapy. During those years of very hard work, raising my young family and establishing a new therapeutic approach at the same time, I lost touch with the Arbours Association, the P.A. and Ronnie Laing.
I only really got back in touch properly with Ronnie around the time that I decided to set up the Society for Existential Analysis. This was in 1987, on the strength of me just having completed my first book on Existential Psychotherapy (Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy in Practice, which was to be published by Sage in 1988) and, of which I sent him an early copy. He was much mellowed by that time and I was pleasantly surprised to find that we could talk sensibly about setting up a body for existential therapists to heal the splits between PA, Arbours and the Regent’s College-based programmes. I think Ronnie was quite impressed by what I had been able to achieve at Regent’s College and we discussed various ways in which he might be involved in it. But he did not want to come to the founding meeting of the Society for Existential Analysis and sent John Heaton instead, who kindly proposed me as first chair of the Society, which was duly created together with the Journal Existential Analysis.
I had promised Ronnie that though our first conference would be about existential analysis; the second would be about his contribution to psychotherapy and would be entitle ‘Demystifying Therapy’. So, John Heaton and I gave the keynote talks at the first SEA conference in 1988 and Ronnie was nowhere to be seen, but fully expected to be the star turn at the second conference. He was very keen that this second conference should be a platform for him to present some new ideas of his own about his way of doing therapy. I believed that he was actually interested in rising to the challenge that I had put to him to formulate an existential therapy that could be taught to others. But, in the middle of the process of us putting together the programme for that second SEA conference, he tragically died, in August 1989. It was a big shock.
The Society members immediately decided that the conference that we had been planning should be about Ronnie Laing and his work, even so, and Adrian Laing, his lawyer son, agreed to be our keynote speaker. Adrian gave a rather bracing and somewhat harsh paper about his father and this caused quite a stir. I think that for me, this was the end of any remaining attachment to Laingian theory and I wrote a paper arguing how much Laing had misunderstood the whole philosophical notion of ontological anxiety. This was later published in my book, Paradox and Passion in Psychotherapy.[v]
I am afraid that my recollection of Laing’s work has continued to be more about the ‘shadows’ that he created than about the light that his early work shone on my own life and that of many others. I came to the UK because of his work: no doubt about it. But instead of finding a flourishing existential scene, I found a chaotic situation where those who needed help were being plunged into confusion, rather than into elucidation and enlightenment. The great myth of the breakdown leading to a breakthrough had been shown to be just that: a myth!
So, I decided I could do better than that, and worked extremely hard to create the therapy that I had hoped to find in the UK, when I immigrated here in the seventies. I would like to think that my work, in good Laingian tradition, speaks for truth and enables people to find truth where confusion reigned, previously. I know for certain, that creating the Regent’s College[vi] courses and subsequently, and perhaps more importantly, the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling[vii], has allowed existential psychotherapy to become established as a formal, and now well recognized, tradition in the UK (see my book: Everyday Mysteries[viii]).
There are now thousands of people in the UK, who have had a structured and formal training in this approach, up to doctoral level. Many countries in the rest of Europe have also created existential training courses on this same model, especially through the work that Digby Tantam, myself and colleagues from other European countries have done in creating the European-funded, online, Septimus courses[ix] in a dozen European countries. Indeed, there is now a sweeping movement in this existential therapeutic direction all over the world.
\As I lecture on each continent, I find enthusiasm and dedication to philosophical therapy everywhere. There is something about the approach that allows for a cross-cultural non-doctrinaire take on the world and this is what liberates people to face our global and often paradoxical realities.
I think Laing’s work was so popular because it drew on this philosophy of liberation and connected directly with people’s sense of alienation. His early work will continue to be of much interest to many people over the next decades for that reason and he certainly figures prominently on New School syllabi.
But it wasn’t Laing’s work, on its own, that created the movement of existential therapy. In terms of actual psychotherapeutic method, his work stopped short of providing any practical guidance for trainees or clients, leaving people to turn to now outdated concepts from psychoanalysis or rebirthing instead.
I feel that the hard and ongoing work that many of us have done in creating existential psychotherapy as a distinct approach in the UK will have a much bigger impact and longer lasting effect in the long run. But this is a slow and carefully built impact, and not the flashy, fame-driven bolt of lightning that were the ideas of R.D. Laing.
It is the discipline of philosophy that now carries the approach, rather than the emotional passion of one person. Whilst this is every bit as inspirational as were Laing’s words, it takes a lot longer to absorb, fully understand, and apply. Ultimately, it has more therapeutic value and dynamism, as it is not based in wishful thinking, but in reality. While this form of existential therapy is in many ways a testimony to Laing’s brilliant ideas, it unfortunately owes very little to him directly.
Emmy van Deurzen is Principal of the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling in London, where she runs several masters and doctoral programmes in existential therapy and counselling psychology, jointly with Middlesex University. She is the author of ten books on existential therapy.
[i] Arbours Association: www.arboursassociation.org
[ii] Philadelphia Association: www.philadelphia-association.co.uk
[iii] Joseph Berke & Morton Schatzman – colleagues of R.D. Laing at Kingsley Hall and founders of the Arbours Association.
[iv] The movement that started in the UK around the work of R.D. Laing and David Cooper was sometimes known as the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-psychiatry
[v] van Deurzen, E. (1998). Paradox and Passion in Psychotherapy: An existential approach to therapy and counselling. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
[vi] Regent’s College: www.regents.ac.uk
[vii] New School for Psychotherapy & Counselling: www.nspc.org.uk
[viii] van Deurzen, E. (2000). Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy. Hove: Routledge.
[ix] SEPTIMUS (Strengthening European Psychotherapy Training through Innovative Methods and Unification of Standards) courses: see www.europsyche.org/contents/13120