[David Cooper] set up Villa 21 in Shenley Hospital between January 1962 and April 1966. An experimental phase of staff withdrawal led to rubbish accumulating in the corridors and dining room tables being covered with the previous days' unwashed plates. Some staff controls were re-introduced with the threat of discharge if patients did not conform to the rules. These apparent limits to institutional change led to the conclusion that a successful unit could only be developed in the community rather than the hospital. Cooper was involved as part of the Philadelphia Association in setting up Kingsley Hall, a 'counterculture' centre in the east end of London.


Cooper's theoretical perspective was built on earlier family studies of schizophrenia that attempted to characterise the predominant traits of parents of schizophrenic people. In the initial studies, mothers were seen as characteristically emotionally manipulative, dominating, over-protective and yet at the same time rejecting; fathers were characteristically weak, passive, preoccupied, ill, or, in some other sense 'absent' as an effective parent. In particular, Cooper utilised the theory of Bateson et al (1956) about the role of the double-bind manoeuvre. In this situation, parents convey two or more conflicting and incompatible messages at the same time. As the child is involved in an intense relationship, s/he feels that the communication must be understood but is unable to comment on the inconsistency because it meets with disapproval from the parents. Schizophrenia is, therefore, not to be understood as a disease entity but as a set of person-interactional patterns that require demystification of the confusion of the double-bind.


Families at Villa 21 were studied by participant observation and tape-recording of group situations with families and of the patient in ward groups. Laing & Esterson (1964) used similar techniques. As far as Cooper was concerned, the research succeeded in making the apparently absurd symptoms of schizophrenia intelligible. The results of family orientated therapy with schizophrenics were seen as comparing favourably with those reported for other methods of treatment (Esterson et al, 1965).





The basic purpose of Laing's (1960) first book The divided self was to make madness, and the process of going mad, comprehensible. To do this, Laing resorted to the existential tradition in philosophy. He described the schizoid existence of persons split from the world and themselves. This way of being is based on anxiety due to ontological insecurity because of the lack of a strong sense of personal identity. This deficient sense of basic unity leads to the unembodied self, which experiences itself as detached from the body. The body, therefore, becomes felt as part of a false-self system. As far as Laing was concerned, and this may have been the reason for the success of the book, comparatively little had been written about the self that is divided in this way.


Transition to psychosis occurs when these defences fail in their primary purpose of keeping the self alive. The inner self loses any firmly anchored identity and if the veil of the false-self is removed, the individual expresses the 'existential' truth about him/herself in a psychotic matter-of-fact way.


Laing undertook research at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the Tavistock Clinic on interactional processes, especially in marriages and families, with particular but not exclusive reference to psychosis. His second book The self and others (Laing, 1961) was part of the outcome of this research. It is a study of interpersonal relations. An understanding of how an individual acts on others and how others act on him/her is essential for an adequate account of the experience and behaviour of persons. Like Cooper, Laing mentions Bateson's double-bind theory as one way in which a person can be in a false and untenable position. He also shows he was influenced by the paper by Searles (1959) on 'The effort to drive the other person crazy'.


Sanity, madness and the family (Laing & Esterson, 1964) was the result of five years of study of the families of schizophrenics. It is a phenomenological study in the sense that the judgement that the diagnosed patient is behaving in a biologically dysfunctional (hence pathological) way is held in parenthesis. The aim was to establish the social intelligibility of the events in the family that prompted the diagnosis of schizophrenia in one of its members. Unlike The divided self and The self and others, the case histories are allowed to stand for themselves with little elaboration of theory. Esterson (1972) later enriched the details of one of these families in The leaves of spring.


Laing (1967) in The politics of experience and The bird of paradise moved on to describe how humanity is estranged from its authentic possibilities. Schizophrenia is a special strategy that a person creates to live in an unliveable situation. It is a label applied to people as part of a psychiatric ceremonial. For some people, the schizophrenic process may be a natural healing process, but this is generally prevented from happening in our society. 


The politics of experience provides a stark, political perspective that was absent from his earlier work. Laing later acknowledged for the later Penguin edition of The divided self that, as far as he was concerned, he did not originally focus enough on social context when attempting to describe individual existence. He became explicit that civilisation represses transcendence and so-called 'normality' is too often an abdication of our true potentialities. 


The politics of experience and The bird of paradise was first published by Penguin books. Most of the contents had been published as articles or lectures during 1964/5. The divided self was republished by Penguin in 1965 under the Pelican imprint, and Laing's other books were also eventually republished by Penguin making him a bestseller and cult figure. Laing helped to articulate for the counter-culture the need for the free spirit of the age to escape from the nightmare of the world (Nuttall, 1970). 

In 1965 Laing and colleagues founded the Philadelphia Association (PA) as a charity. The PA leased Kingsley Hall, which was the first of several therapeutic community households that it established. Kingsley Hall did not attempt to 'cure' but provided a place where "some may encounter selves long forgotten or distorted" (Schatzman, 1972). The local community was largely hostile to the project. Windows were regularly smashed, faeces pushed through the letter box and residents harassed at local shops. After five years, Kingsley Hall was largely trashed and uninhabitable. Even for Laing, Kingsley Hall was "not a roaring success" (Mullan, 1995).


In March 1971, Laing went to Ceylon, where he spent two months studying meditation in a Buddhist retreat. In India he spent three weeks studying under Gangroti Baba, a Hindu ascetic, who initiated him into the cult of the Hindu goddess Kali. He also spent time learning Sanskrit and visiting Govinda Lama, who had been a guru to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. For many commentators, this retreat symbolised a lack of commitment to the theory and therapy of mainstream psychiatry (Sedgwick, 1972).

Laing returned the following year and lectured to large audiences as well as engaging in private practice. Knots (Laing, 1970) was another bestseller. It described relational 'knots' or in Laing's words "tangles, fankles, impasses, disjunctions, whirligogs, binds". It was couched in playful, poetic language and was successfully performed on stage. 


The politics of the family (Laing, 1971) reinforced the importance of understanding people in social situations. Laing made clear that he was not asserting that families cause schizophrenia. Despite this clear statement, the charge has been repeatedly made. For example, Clare (1997) states:

Many parents of sufferers from schizophrenia cannot forgive him for adding the guilt of having 'caused' the illness in the first place to their strains and stresses of having to be the main providers of support.

Even if it is true that many parents cannot forgive him, it is obviously wrong and nave to suggest that he was blaming families. Laing was not talking about conscious, deliberate motivation to cause harm.