A new film about R D Laing should be something for the left to watch and learn from, about the politics of madness and the connection between different forms of liberation. But you won’t find any of that in Mad to be Normal which stars David Tennant reincarnated in some place called ‘the sixties’ as Dr Ronnie. Most of the action is set at Kingsley Hall, the alternative non-medical facility directed by Ronnie Laing in East London from 1965 to 1970, though a poster in Ronnie’s bedroom – that’s where he beds a composite character American student besotted with his work – is of the Dialectics of Liberation conference which took place in July 1967, so we are actually in a very compressed time-scale in Laing’s medical and anti-psychiatric celebrity career.
There is a heck of a lot of ‘acting’ going on in this film, and ‘mad’ people have often provided good fodder for thespians wanting to try out their skills at challenging notions of normality. The funniest moment is when two old thesps, Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon, have a muddled conversation, and it is funny not because they are good at playing crazy but because it is difficult not to imagine them chuckling away to each other during rehearsals. The shame is that, apart from Ronnie’s valiant efforts to spring one of his patients from a psychiatric hospital towards the end of the film, there is plenty of play-acting and very little actual resistance to power in the film. This makes it very different from the classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, where at least there is rebellion by the patients themselves against the institution.
The sequence of vignettes – patients doing stereotypically mad things, Laing behaving badly, traditional psychiatrists enraged to the point of closing down Kingsley Hall – strip out the history of Laing’s evolution from undergoing medical training, to training as a psychoanalyst, realising that patients are more than bundles of chemical reactions, searching for alternatives, linking with other liberation movements, raging against the nuclear family, finding Eastern religion, and then celebrating the family again before dying of a heart attack while playing tennis in St Tropez. We have nothing of the work of the therapists who worked with an argued with Laing in the organisations he founded, and nothing of the legacy of those debates in the present-day radical training organisation the Philadelphia Association.
And, apart from the Dialectics of Liberation conference poster, there is nothing of the political context for that resistance against medical power. One of the characters in the film is a young Black man who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and subjected to Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – electroshock that has seen an over ten percent rise of use in the last ten years and which is given disproportionally to Black people (and elderly women). His parents bring him to Kingsley Hall, running the gauntlet of hostile locals who stand outside the main entrance taunting the residents. It seems odd that there is no mention at any point that this guy is Black, no discussion of the racism that pervades mental health services, but then, there is no mention of either racism or sexism or the conditions that cause distress.
At his most radical moments – and, yes, these were limited – Laing did, at least, begin to indict alienation under capitalism as a factor in distress, that’s why he was invited to the Dialectics of Liberation conference to speak alongside Stokely Carmichael and Herbert Marcuse. In this respect, he was very different from the right-wing libertarians like Thomas Szasz who argued both against psychiatric coercion and what he called ‘psychiatric excuses’. And Laing was much more cautious than those who were always on the left such as Franco Basaglia, founder of Democratic Psychiatry in Italy (Basaglia, who Laing, toward the end of his career, attacked for being an anti-family Marxist). Why the anti-psychiatry movement should have developed is a mystery in this film, with some suggestion, instead, that poor pathetic Ronnie never got over the death of his dad.
The film warns us that none of the characters depicted in the film have any relationship with actual people, living or dead, and it is tempting to apply that warning to Laing himself. Tennant does a good job on his hesitant drunk narcissistic drawling when surrounded by admirers and there are occasional hints of his charismatic humane approach to people in distress, but this Laing is a one-dimensional snapshot of a much more complicated figure in the history of resistance to mainstream medical psychiatry. I went into the cinema wishing I had taken packs of leaflets for the Asylum Democratic Psychiatry conference, but by the end I was relieved that I had not, for this was a film that does not do revolutionary politics any favours, for what it omits as much as what it portrays. This film evokes a mythical folk character, a time and movement, reducing them to caricature. This is one doctor to avoid.