"Ten years ago you'd be thought daft if you went jogging through the streets in your shorts."
It's Ronald D. Laing, the man who has made us ask ourselves, How insane is insane, and why does the dividing line keep shifting around so? He's here to address the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and he is a good choice, because his work focuses on what happens to a mentally disturbed person in a social system like the family.
"Half the people in the Old Testament would be thought psychotic today. It was routine then to hear voices and see visions. It's that our perception of the abnormal changes over the years."
He tilts his undertaker chair against the wall of the Ohio Room, just vacated by a workshop on whether to have children or not, and tamps his pipe and throws out some names: Isaac and his meditations, William Blake, scolded for seeing an angel in a tree. Joan of Arc.
"When the psychiatric establishment announced that homosexuality wasn't an aberration, that was not a medical discover. It was a political declaration. With the rhetoric of medicine."
Masturbation was a terrible thing not so many years ago. Now they have masturbation therapy.And so on.
Before he emerged from the psychiatric chrysalis as a full-winged philosopher, the Scottish scientist established Kingsley Hall, the now-famous center in London where psychiatrists and disturbed persons live as equals, rejecting the patient-doctor relationship.
Today there are four such centers in England, with a population of about 60 in all. Laing says 80 percent of the nearly 600 people who have been through this experience have never gone near a psychiatrist again -- "which means they are coping with the world one way or another."
"Most of them had been psychiatrized before, and over half had been on drug or shock therapy. We don't make a point of getting psychiatric virgins, so to speak."
He challenges conventional psychiatry to show a better record than his method. Psychiatrists tend to take a dim view of Laing, at the very least on the ethical level, for abdicating his medical responsibilities by not exerting control, "sitting idly by when confronted with someone needing treatment."
His reply is to quote John Stuart Mill on the freedom of the mind. "There's absolutely no indication," he says, "that intervention is better than my ways. We respect the experiences of others, no matter how they may be defined in some textbook. They might be a problem-solving strategy of the mind."
He has even heard establishment scientists admit that our classifications of mental states are useless.
So the celebrated rebel (who will turn 52 tomorrow) could feel right at home with the marriage counselors. As the convention brochure puts it:
"As marriage and family therapists, we are faced with a little (or a lot) of craziness in every family with whom we work . . . Perhaps, if his message of acceptance of one's madness sinks in, our encounters with client madness will not be so frightening when it reminds us of our own family madness."
He sees no reason why a recovered patient should have to live "on edge for the rest of his life," forever anxious about whether his actions are acceptably "sane" or not.
This is the jumping-off point for Laing the existentialist philosopher. In one of his books, "Reason and Violence," he postulates that the power of today's institutions, today's establishment, "is not based on acceptance, but the acceptance of power is the interiorization of the powerlessness to refuse it."
To put it another way, instead of attacking institutions, or even assenting to them, we simply turn our backs in alienation. And conventional psychiatry can't help us break through this alienation because psychiatry itself has become an institution.
The convention ends tomorrow with a panel on family therapy for former mental patients.