Good psychologist, bad father?

There's a fairly damning article in the Observer about RD Laing and his failings as a father, connected to the fact his son recently drank himself to death in Spain.

Laing was, together with figures such as Michel Foucault and Thomas Szaz, a pioneer in the 'anti-psychiatry' movement of the 1960s, which claimed that mental illness was a rational response to an insane society. He also blamed many mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, on bad parenting.

'From the moment of birth [...],' Laing wrote in 1967, 'the baby is subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father have been, and their parents and their parents before them. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities. This enterprise is on the whole successful.'

It's rather ironic, then, that Laing himself seems to have been so conspicuously inconsiderate as a father:

He was an unpredictable, occasionally frenzied, father figure who acted with little regard for the consequences. When, in 1975, his second eldest child, Susan, was diagnosed with terminal monoblastic leukaemia, a row broke out between her parents. Anne felt it would be kinder not to tell Susan the diagnosis. Laing disagreed. In the face of fierce opposition from Anne, Susan's fiancé and her doctors, he insisted on travelling to the hospital to inform her that, in all likelihood, she would not live beyond her 21st birthday.

'That was the worst thing,' says Adrian. 'My mother just went potty. She said he was going to rot in hell for that. Then, after he told Susie, he went back to London and left us to deal with it. My mother was spitting blood.'

Susie died, aged 21, in March 1976. 'My father was riddled with guilt about it. He would have been aware of the statistics that demonstrate there is a higher chance of dying from that particular disease if you are from a broken family.'

A year later, Laing's eldest child, Fiona, had a nervous breakdown and was taken to Gartnavel Mental Hospital, Glasgow. Anxious that she should not be subjected to the brutal electric shock treatment and impersonal medical examinations that Laing so detested, Adrian called on his father for advice.

'I was really upset. I asked, "What the fuck are you going to do about it?"' Adrian pauses. A curious smile curls at the corner of his lips. 'At the time we were living in a house called Ruskin Place, and his response was: "Gartnavel or Ruskin Place, what's the fucking difference?" It was a double-bind, you see. Either he had nothing to do with it [Fiona's breakdown] and his theories were shit, or he had everything to do with it and he was shit.'

But how on earth could RD Laing, the celebrated psychiatrist whose entire reputation rested on his theories espousing the compassionate treatment of the mentally ill, reconcile his professional position with his personal behaviour? How could he empathise so profoundly with a naked, rocking schizophrenic patient he had never met and yet fail so spectacularly to do the same with his own daughter?

Adrian leans forward, resting his elbows on the stainless steel cafe table. 'In terms of how he rationalised it... erm... I'm not sure that... I don't think my father felt he was the cause [of the breakdown] so he wouldn't feel it was hypocritical.'

Later he tells a revealing story about Susan being interviewed in 1974 by a journalist writing a feature on the children of famous people. The piece ended with a memorable quote from her: 'He can solve everybody else's problems but not our own.'

The Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz puts it a different way. Laing, he wrote in 2004, displayed 'an avoidance of responsibility for his first family, indefensible since his line had been that the breakdown of children could be attributed to parents and families.'

I suppose you could say geniuses, or people obsessed with getting their vision across to the world, are often remarkably inconsiderate of their families - one thinks of Tolstoy, or Coleridge, or VS Naipaul. Still, you can't help feeling it lessens the psychologist, as well as the man, that he so utterly failed to practice the paternal compassion and understanding that he preached to others.