Tag Archives: RD Laing

Some Thoughts on Parenting and Parent Blaming.

By Dr David Laing Dawson

I read R. D. Laing years ago. He was a good writer, a poet, and unfortunately good writing can hide a bad argument. At the time I thought there was one glaring problem with his thesis, and that was, that if we are to believe that the parenting style, the behaviour of the parents, especially the mother, was entirely to blame for the child’s woes, or even schizophrenia, and therefore was BAD, as in “she is a bad mother”, then logically we could trace her badness to the behaviour of her parents, and then to their parents and on through the lineage.

So with that logic, if it were true that all of one generation’s woes can be traced to the behaviour of the parents, there was no blame to be assigned, except perhaps to Adam and Eve. And as I recall, with every theory of motherly behaviour causing schizophrenia being discussed in our study groups, (Laing’s conspiracies, double bind, skew and schism, the schizophrenogenic mother) someone would say, “Don’t all mothers do that?” And we would laugh at this obvious truth. For to be a parent means to be sometimes overprotective, sometimes a bit neglectful, sometimes too preoccupied, sometimes angry, sometimes demanding, sometimes in disagreement, sometimes short tempered, sometimes too tolerant, sometimes offering conflicting advice, sometimes playing on guilt, sometimes encouraging, sometimes discouraging, sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

On the other hand there is nothing to stop brutal, immature, even sociopathic teens and adults from having children. Some terrible things do happen to children. In this part of the world we have imperfect systems in place to discover this, to intervene, and to apprehend if necessary. The worst of these situations often go undetected for years, for by their very nature, they are secretive, antisocial, and sometimes very mobile. And the children who suffer through this are often scarred for life.

The systems to protect children will continue to be imperfect, for to perfect them would require a level of state surveillance and interference our society would not tolerate. But we can continue to do our best, discuss it, adjust our laws and processes, rescue many, and try to help others recover.

Professional Parenting advice changes with every decade, as often as other fads and fancies. It often follows the zeitgeist of the time, and usually echoes the current advice or wisdom found within other human endeavours, such as best management practices in the new information industries. Fortunately most parents ignore this formal advice and seek the guidance of their own common sense, knowledge of child and teen behaviour and development, and the wisdom of their own parents, aunts and uncles. And most parents struggle to find the right balance, the right expectations, the right levels of support, love, acceptance, control and discipline.

But I don’t think we are biologically programmed to thrive, at least after age 3 or 4, within a cocoon of family perfection and complete safety. We need some challenge and adversity; we need some things to overcome, some fears to conquer, some skills to acquire. We need some adversity in our childhoods and adolescence. We need to experience failure, at least once or twice. We need to experience the death of a pet, perhaps a grandparent. We need to skin our knees, get lost and find our way home. We need to do some things that cause us anxiety. We need to experience disappointment. We do not need perfect parents.

But one child’s adversity may leave scars while another child’s proves to be the cauldron for a very successful life. Barack Obama is only one of several US presidents who lost their fathers by death or abandonment in childhood.

To paraphrase an actor/comedian who gave the Commencement address at his Alma Mater, The University of Western Australia: “You are all very lucky to be here. Some of you because you were lucky enough to have stable, wealthy parents, who guided you, inspired you, and paid your tuition. The rest of you because you were born with the genetic makeup to overcome whatever obstacles were in your way and get here on your own.”

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Madness and Meaning

By Dr David Laing Dawson

As a young physician entering the world of the asylum, the mental hospital, the world of insanity, like many others before and since, I was fascinated by the prospect of finding meaning within madness, understanding behaviours that appeared, at first blush, inexplicable, understanding the de-contextualized speech patterns of many patients, understanding their delusions and voices.

This was the era of Timothy Leary, of a wish on the part of some to find a chemical path to enlightenment, the era of R.D. Laing seeking parental and family causes of insanity, of Thomas Szasz telling us that mental illness is a myth, the time of Foucault telling us that our society causes madness, and Alan Watts telling us that, really, madness was just an alternate flight path.

And, I must admit, madness, delusions, hallucinations, voices, fractured speech patterns, catatonia, mania, and even stuporous depression, contain rich and fertile ground for an artistic and literary imagination, and always fodder for philosophical questions about reality, meaning, semiotics, the nature of a human being, the manner in which we define deviance.

In our therapeutic communities of the day we talked and talked, in small groups and large groups. We listened to delusional ranting, to the reporting of voices emanating from the back of the head or from the dead, from an alien spacecraft, from God, and from the devil. I have spoken with several Queens, a few Christs, a man who tried to kill a president, a man harbouring evil beings inside his body, a man with the gift of teleportation, with many who believed the radio and television and popular songs were sending them personal messages, to many who believed they were being controlled by radar, radio waves, microchips, to men who wanted to cut off their genitals, to others who wanted to gouge out their eyes, to a few who wanted to kill someone who was controlling them from afar.

Of course we can find meaning in all of this, in each and every delusion, in each and every ephemeral message. And the meanings can be deep, intellectual, fanciful, alluding to Greek Mythology, Shakespeare, intrusive government programs, Kafka. They can be Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Foucaultian. They can even be new age and theosophic.

Or the meaning can be found more simply in those basic parameters of our social world and our sense of self: power, control, influence, intimacy, sexuality, responsibility, worth, love, hate, guilt, fear.

But does this help?

If it helps us empathize, yes. If it helps us form a relationship, develop trust, rapport, acceptance, yes. If it helps us accept these sufferers as fellow human beings, yes.

But might it not be more important to treat that young man who wants to gouge out his eye, before he actually does it, rather than worry about Oedipus Rex?

Shrinks – The Untold Story of Psychiatry – A Review

Marvin RossBy Marvin Ross

Last week my colleague, Dr David Laing Dawson, provided his own personal history of prescribing psychiatric medications since he became a physician in the late 1960s. David’s experiences fit in with the development of that profession as described by Dr Jeffrey Lieberman in his new book Shrinks, The Untold Story of Psychiatry. Lieberman is a psychiatrist himself, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University and the past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

It is highly readable book and what I particularly enjoyed were his anecdotes based on his many connections within the profession. He points out that RD Laing, one of the father’s of the anti-psychiatry movement, had his “convictions ….. put to the test when his daughter developed schizophrenia. After that, he became disillusioned with his own ideas. People who knew Laing told me that he became a guy asking for money by giving lectures on ideas that he no longer believed in.”

Lieberman attributes this information to Dr. E Fuller Torrey. Lieberman also mentions that the other leader of anti-psychiatry, Thomas Szasz, made it clear that schizophrenia did qualify as a true brain disease but that he was never going to say that in public.

Of less intellectual interest is the origin of the term shrink. Headshrinker entered broad use after a 1950 Time Magazine article about Hopalong Cassidy saying that anyone who predicted that he would become a hero of kids would have been led off to a headshrinker – Hollywood jargon for a psychiatrist. Hopy was my hero and I still remember lining up for hours in Toronto wearing my Hopy chaps and vest waiting for a chance to shake his hand.

North American psychiatry was heavily influenced by the psychoanalysts who, Lieberman points out, followed a rigid set of theories that were not grounded in science or scientific proof. In fact, two psychoanalysts from different schools of thought would likely come up with different interpretations for the same patient. As a reaction to this lack of rigour, science and the criticism from anti-psychiatrist, some in the profession began to establish menus of symptoms for each disorder based on data from published research. This was an effort influenced by the Kraeplin approach of the previous century.

And while the psychoanalysts had always emphasized cause based on unconscious conflicts, the development of this new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) was to be based on two key concepts. First was that the symptoms must be distressing to the individual or must impair his ability to function. Second was that these symptoms must be enduring. It is interesting that the development of the DSM partly arose from the criticisms of the lack of evidence by anti-psychiatrists. Today, the anti-psychiatrists argue that the DSM is pathologizing everyday life. Lieberman states that the DSM-5 has actually reduced the number of diagnoses to 265 from the 297 in the DSM-4.

In addition to his description of the serendipitous discoveries of effective anti-psychotics, lithium for mania and anti-depressants, Dr Lieberman’s comments about families will please all who have kids with schizophrenia. It is worth quoting in its entirety:

It was not enough that parents had to endure the tragedy of a child’s mental illness; after this onslaught of inane diagnostic formulations, they also had to suffer the indignity of being blamed for the illness because of their own misbehavior. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder……were now believed to be curable through the right kind of talk therapy. Like a pet cat in a tree, a deranged individual merely had to be coaxed into climbing down to reality.

All in all, a very informative and entertaining read.