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Posted in: Gender, Psychology & Law

Published on Nov 12, 2012 by

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R.D. Laing and Phyllis Chesler: In Conversation

Some time ago, I was asked to contribute to a volume about the late British psychiatrist, R.D. Laing. At the height of his fame, he visited New York City and asked to meet with me. I considered it an honor. Our 1972 conversation is now contained in a new book R.D. Laing: 50 Years Since The Divided Self.

The book was edited by two psychotherapists: Dr. Theodore Itten, past President of the Swiss Psychotherapeutic Association and Executive Editor of the International Journal of Psychotherapy and Dr. Courtenay Young, formerly the resident psychotherapist at the Findhorn Foundation, an author, and an editor of the International Journal of Psychotherapy. This book has just been published by PCCS Books, which specializes in "independent thinkers, counseling, psychotherapy, and radical, critical, psychology."

Here is the beginning of my contribution.

"Conversation in two beds."

When R.D. Laing ("Ronnie") came to America, he asked that we meet. I was thrilled to do so. I was certainly familiar with his work. We met at the Algonquin Hotel, where he was staying. I had expected that we would be alone but it was not to be. One, possibly two film crews were at work. The full unpublished transcript runs to 42 single spaced pages, so this is just an edited selection from that transcript.

At a certain point, I asked him to come into the bathroom (!) with me so that we might have a brief, private conversation. We did so.

C: Well, should we sing songs, or tap dance? I haven't any ostrich feathers, no props for a one night stand.

We each take off our jackets, sweaters, shoes and stretch out, side by side, in two single beds.

C: This has got to be called Conversation in Two Beds (laughter)

Two women film-makers, Amalie Rothchild and Claudia Weil, come in, joining the small camera crew that has already begun to film us.

L: In many of the women that you meet going around, what's your feeling about… I mean what's the way that opens it up most?

C: How do you get people to hear you?

L: Yes

C: Well, I'm discovering one of the ways, at least as a moment in a mixed audience, or on television, is never to show strong emotions. Never anger, because that's an emotion that women are not supposed to show. Women are supposed to be "nice", conciliatory, reasonable, peace-makers.

Often people who've read my book (Women and Madness) when they meet me, say "Gee, I didn't expect you to look like you look" or "You're really a nice person." What they really mean is, "You're not a threat at all." I can say things on television rather casually like "God is dead and she was a woman," and I can get the entire audience to go along with it because I'm smiling and being very attractive, and very reasonable. This is one of the limited privileges that women have that allows them to be heard. But I don't think that justice or truth is something, that if you are eloquent enough, will immediately cause people to lay down their guns or take off their body armor, and we'll all go out into the streets and celebrate life.

L: One may state the truth, but the stating of it doesn't insure the triumph of it. More than that one cannot do, but state it whatever is the most effective manner, according to time and circumstances that they dictate.

C: I think also that Christ is always crucified. If people put their bodies where their ideas are, they are frequently called "mad". If anybody speaks the truth, or their truth, in a way that is socially un-acceptable, or in a way that is really terrifying because it has no socially redeeming factors in it, they're going to be crucified, either being socially labeled insane or being labeled criminal, or by having their spirits broken. I think that Wilhelm Reich was very good on this in the first three chapters of "The Murder of Christ".

L: Some people got away with it more than others. I think that Erasmus got away with it. Here's an eminently sane man "In Praise of Folly", who, when people are freaked out all round him, he lampooned every establishment, power, money, the church, theology.

C: How did he get away with it?

L: He kept on the move. He had powerful friends. He stayed with the right people. Like Voltaire; he just got away with it.

C: Where would a woman have powerful friends like that who weren't men?

L: It's like being the court Jew in the Hitler regime. All the chiefs, including Himmler, the Nazis had one or two Jewish friends. They told them, "Oh nothing will happen to you." Those one or two people they kept. If it's just a matter of getting away with one's skin, one's name, which is something, isn't it? I would certainly prefer to get away with my body. Zen, as the one that never suffers, not just Socrates. Women never even sort of suffer in Greek or Judaic History. Their suffering has been stamped out as a historically recognised fact by the time male history starts to be written.

C: Of course, if one can save one's skin that does not insure the triumph of one's word.

L: Oh, no.


L: You never know – you're getting kudos, you can start something.

C: I'd be very surprised – I was fired and rehired at my job last year because, after womanning the radical barricades within the university institution, I dared to start publishing successfully. If she's so "famous" she can't be serious.

L: What?

C: Just life in petty, mediocre Academe.

What happened to your wonderful book "The Divided Self"?

L: In the first three or 4 years that it was published in this country it sold under 1500 copies in all.

C: I read through it in one night. I was a psychology major, an awful life, and that was a good evening.

L: I would have thought that anything that men can't put into a bracket takes a little while to be a newsmaker.

To read the rest of this interesting and far ranging conversation you may order the book at Amazon.

There are other interesting conversations as well: one with Dr. Manfred Bleuler, a professor of Psychiatry and the son of Eugen Bleuler, and interesting pieces by Dr. Andrew Feldmar, Susan Griffin, Francis Huxley, Mina Semyon, etc.

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