Published in Psychoanalytic Studies, Vol 3, No.2, 2001, p 268-269, article by Roberta Russell




The Crucible of Experience, RD Laing & The Crisis of Psychotherapy

Daniel Burston, 2000

Cambridge, Harvard University Press


pp.168, ISBN0-674-00217-2


At last, is this a book about RD Laing's therapeutic technique and the crisis in psychotherapy? The book jacket of The Crucible of Experience, RD Laing & The Crisis of Psychotherapy by Daniel Burston presents the promise of detailed report of Laing's practice as a therapist. The title leads us to believe that Laing's perception of a crisis in psychotherapy will be examined, as well.


The book opens with a dry distillation of Laing's life story, followed by an admittedly self-propelled treatise on existential phenomenology. Although the author's erudition is in evidence--he is assistant professor of psychology at Dunesque University-- the connection to Laing's thinking is academic at best. Burston's relentless attempt to show what he perceives to be Laing's indebtedness to other theorists is abstract and labored.


One of Laing's most important therapeutic mentors, the interdisciplinary Eric Graham Howe, who introduced Eastern philosophy to psychotherapy in England, is not discussed, nor is any reference to his body of work to be found in this bibliography. Howe hired Laing as Director of The Langham Clinic in 1962 and then dismissed him in December of 1965, primarily because he disapproved of his use of drugs. By 1965, Laing's mentor, Howe, had published 9 books and been a member of the original Tavistock Clinic in 1928. Before their falling out, in 1965, Laing wrote a glowing forward to Howe's popular book Cure or Heal, referring to him as a master psychologist: "What we have here is not a synthesis of different schools, but an original expression in the modern idiom of that which all schools seek to express in more or less rigid and desiccated ways. But the expression here is supple and fresh." For himself, he would, no doubt, have preferred this epitaph, to the series of intellectual debts ascribed to him by Burston. The exciting and disturbing thing shared by Laing and his mentor, Howe, is that they both brought to bear on therapeutic issues an understanding derived from spiritual experience, germinated in flesh and blood reality.


A vital sense of the intuitive genius of Laing's therapeutic interventions is missing from this account, by Burston, who never had the benefit of meeting Laing.


In the course of knowing Laing and observing his sessions during our 9-year project of writing RD Laing & Me: Lessons in Love, a book that both depicts and describes our therapeutic alliance, much of Laing's therapeutic style was revealed. Here Laing acted as if discussing method was like discussing sex, as if it took away from the effect. Laing's reticence on methodology made Burston's task of describing Laing's method all the more difficult.  His "method" was more of an attitude, a presence, and a receptiveness to the person called the patient. It was a suspension of one's own agenda for the purpose of letting another's out into the light. Both points are illustrated by the fact that he allowed me to analyze our relationship in our book in psychoanalytic terms as "resistance" and "transference," while avoiding such terminology himself.


Burston does point out Laing's emphasis on the present  (p47) and conveniently distills his conception of Laing's therapeutic goals to four points:

"1. to restore the person's capacity for relatedness to others and authentic self disclosure

2. to reduce anxiety by overcoming the person's feelings/fears of engulfment, implosion and petrification.

3. to help patients differentiate between 'true' and 'false' guilt and to minimize or abolish the latter, and

4. to make the 'unconscious' conscious, … by illuminating the person's recourse to pretense and self-deception…and elucidating patterns of collusion and/or mystification…."(p51)


Burston distills Laing's positive methodological recommendations to only 2 points:

" tact, courtesy, and empathy for patients, and

2. be fully awake, aware, and present to them."


Unfortunately, these points do not depict Laing's capacity for therapeutic relationship, nor do they sufficiently differentiate him from most practitioners. In fact, I observed Laing to be quite unusual in his therapeutic approach.


He might be playful with a patient, and go with him to watch old war movies, or join him in song with a piano accompaniment. He was willing and able to participate in another's world. A believer in the healing benefits that could be found in altered states, he was not afraid of losing himself in this extension. He tended to the patients according to their wants and their needs.


Actually, Laing wasn't known for his courteous behavior, and could be quite confrontational with patients and friends alike. In therapy or out he didn't hesitate to point out inappropriate or maladaptive behavior in others.


The uniqueness of his way was that he could share the experience of others with great compassion, sagacity and wit, and without distancing himself from them with diagnostic reification. Many people experienced being closer to him than anyone else. He was quite good at establishing trust, and his trick there was honesty and attention. After a strategic therapeutic session with a female patient in New York City, at which I was present, he asked her if she had received her money's worth, a rather uncommon question from any professional to his client. She had.


The crisis referred to in the subtitle, RD Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy, which apparently refers to the impending death of psychotherapy and a loss of some of the exclusivity of professional practice, is contrived as it relates to Laing. Laing did not fear accountability. Neither did he try to keep psychotherapy as a closely held profession. On the contrary, he embraced the opportunity to increase the options for people to help each other. My first book, Report of Effective Psychotherapy: Legislative Testimony, summarized and analyzed the egalitarian findings of psychotherapy outcome research. Laing described it as "illuminating and insightful," and even used that book with at least one student who asked for an explanation of psychotherapy. He was holding on with an opened hand.


Laing's effect still reverberates through those who have been touched by him. The whole field of psychotherapy has been altered and empowered by his ideas. Although Burston's book attempts to place Laing in an intellectual zeitgeist, it suffers from the proverbial hardening of the categories, and fails to convey the vitality and subtlety that was Laing's gift.



Roberta Russell

New York City,  


Co-author with RD Laing

RD Laing & Me: Lessons in Love, Hillgarth Press, Lake Placid NY, 1992


©Roberta Russell, 3 February 2001