R. D. Laing, Philip Larkin, and exploring the psyche

When I was reading psychology in college, I remember being impressed with R. D Laing. Forty years later I vaguely remember that he believed that the person labeled as mentally ill was simply the one acting out the illness of the family. Finding The Politics of the Family on my daughter’s bookshelf made me curious to revisit his work. Much of this writing seems dated–definitely coming out of the revelations of the sixties–but I found the following passages extraordinarily thought-provoking. Maybe you will, too, despite the pesky overuse of commas! This is from the chapter on “Family Scenarios”:

Laing “One way to get someone to do what one wants, is to give an order. To get someone to be what one wants him to be…is another matter. In a hypnotic (or similar) context, one does not tell him what to be, but tells him what he is. Such attributions, in context, are many times more powerful than orders (or other forms of coercion or persuasion). An instruction need not be defined as an instruction. It is my impression that we receive most of our earliest and most lasting instructions in the form of attributions. We are told such and such is the case. One is, say, told one is a good or bad boy or girl…it is not [even] necessary to be told to be what one has already been ‘given to understand’ one is. The key medium for communication of this kind is probably not verbal language…

One may tell someone to feel something and not to remember he has been told. Simply tell him he feels it. Better still, tell a third party, in front of him, that he feels it…”

This passage really resonates for me. Laing goes on to compare this to hypnosis, adding:

“How much of what we ordinarily feel, is what we have all been hypnotized to feel? How much of who we are is what we have been hypnotized to be?…In the family situation, however, the hypnotists (the parents) are already hypnotized (by their parents) and are carrying out their instructions, by bringing their children up to bring their children up . . . in such a way, which includes not realizing that one is carrying out instructions: since the instruction is not to think that one is thus instructed.”

This immediately reminded me of the notorious Philip Larkin poem, which puts this succinctly and reminds me that you don’t need to agree with the editorial sentiment of a poem to thoroughly enjoy it:

 This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don't have any kids yourself.

Okay, a laugh and enough to ponder for today…

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