R. D. Laing’s accounts of Kingsley Hall (Guest Post: Dr Adrian Chapman, Visiting Fellow at the MHRC, University of Glasgow)

This blog was previously posted on the University of Glasgow Medical Humanities Research Centre blog. We have reposted here with permission.

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At the start of April I left London, where I teach British Literature to students from Florida State University, and moved up to Scotland. Thanks to a Wellcome Trust Research Bursary  I’ve been able to take up a position as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s University’s Medical Humanities Research Centre. In Glasgow, I’ve been researching the papers of the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing, whose archive can be found in the University Special Collections.

The archive is vast, including Laing’s personal library, drafts of work, patient records, correspondence, press cuttings, films of lectures, diaries and notebooks. My focus has been on a book with the intriguing title of Asylum: To Dwell in Strangeness.

This text, which never made it to the publisher, was going to be about Kingsley Hall (the experimental community that Laing and others set up in 1965 in East London), and subsequent communities of the 70s and 80s set up by The Philadelphia Association, the mental health charity that Laing and a small group established in the mid-60s.

The book project began in 1965 and continued off and on until the mid-80s. Laing wrote just the introduction; most of the contributions were by residents of, and visitors to, the Hall.

I’m asking myself how writers took up the challenge of representing Kingsley Hall, an experiment in letting madness take its ‘natural’ course in a non-medicalised setting that was, by all accounts, at once exciting and disturbing, adventurous and baffling.

How, I’m wondering, did writers take up the position of guide to somewhere that certainly wasn’t a hospital, but was underpinned by a desire to provide asylum (in the sense of a sanctuary, an inviolable place)?

I’m interested, too, in the relationship between Kingsley Hall, which became a place of countercultural pilgrimage and media interest, and the locals of Bromley-by-Bow in London’s East End. The Hall’s windows were smashed; some residents were attacked. But how open were the pioneers of 60s radical psychiatry to engaging with the world beyond their front door?

The stories of the Hall are engaging, and often amusing. Frequently, they convey a sense of adventure—of being involved in a community that disrupted (even if it didn’t completely overcome) boundaries between madness and sanity, normality and abnormality, and the professional and the patient. But there are doubts expressed, too, as well as negative viewpoints.

No scholar so far has spent much time with accounts of life at Kingsley Hall that can be found in the Laing archive. I’m privileged to be able to do so, and, having spoken about the Hall at two conferences this Summer (The PsyArt Conference on Psychology and the Arts, and The London Literary Society Conference), I’ll be writing up my research in a journal article.

Dr Adrian Chapman

Twitter: @dradrianchapman

One thought on “R. D. Laing’s accounts of Kingsley Hall (Guest Post: Dr Adrian Chapman, Visiting Fellow at the MHRC, University of Glasgow)

  1. Dear Dr. Chapman,

    I am glad that you are undertaking this important work, and look forward to your journal article. I interviewed several residents and visitors to Kingsley Hall while researching my book The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D.Laing (Harvard University Press, 1996.) The most memorable, by far, were Sidney Briskin and Loren Mosher. Thanks to Sidney, I can confirm that London’s east enders did not welcome Laing and his associates, and that the Philadelphia Associations efforts at community outreach were somewhat feeble, episodic and disorganized. They accomplished very little, and may even have back fired, in some instances.

    My published reflections on that phase of Laing’s life focused at least as much his family and marital woes and his theoretical advances at the time as they did on the texture of lived life at Kingsley Hall. Because of my focus on Laing’s personal and intellectual life, I never had the right venue or the opportunity to give Sidney – who was an extremely impressive fellow, and a very important figure at Kingsley Hall – his due. Here’s hoping you can do him justice as your work unfolds.

    Good luck!

    Daniel Burston
    Associate Professor of Psychology
    Duquesne University, Pittsburgh PA

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