It has been less than a year since R.D. Laing, the radical Scottish psychiatrist and social critic, died at 61. Remembering him, I feel gratitude for the contours his agile mind gave to my thinking about the familial and social origins of human suffering and for the example of his rich and original therapeutic approach to psychotic people.

Mixed with my appreciation, there is sadness, not only for Laing's death, but for possibilities he left unexplored.

In "The Divided Self," published when he was 30, Laing presented exquisitely rendered, heartbreaking descriptions of the inner world of withdrawn schizoid people. Laing noted that these people were divided between a "false" and a "true" self.

The false, conforming, outer self had arisen in childhood, Laing wrote, "in compliance with the intentions and expectations of {the parents} or with what one imagines to be {their} intentions and expectations." The true self, with its genuine feelings, had meanwhile retreated in fear, detaching itself from actions of the false self that seemed like betrayals.

Under certain kinds of stress, the camouflage that the false self provided might be torn away: "What is called psychosis," Laing wrote, "is sometimes simply the sudden removal of the veil of the false self, which had been serving to maintain an outer behavioral normality that may long ago have failed to be a reflection of the state of affairs in the secret self."

I first read Laing as a medical student while working on an inpatient psychiatric ward. To me he was a guide as well as fellow traveler. His respectful jargon-free descriptions of his patients' lives were the standards to which I had intuitively aspired. And his approach to treatment -- empathic, emotionally risky and mutually enlightening -- appealed to me. I remember nodding in agreement as I read Laing's summary of the therapeutic process: "Psychotherapy is the obdurate attempt of two people to recover the wholeness of being human between them."

In the books that quickly followed, Laing seemed to be creating a new existential psychiatry.

He revealed the subjectivity of psychiatric observation and judgment, clarified the role of disordered family communication in mental illness and provided a model for a respectful therapeutic encounter. Still, outside of a small group of psychotherapists and philosophers, he was little known.

All that changed in 1967, with the publication of "The Politics of Experience." Individual madness, Laing declared, was a reasonable response to the collective madness that we called normal; the ego-shattering plunge into psychosis, perhaps the only route to an integration we might justly consider sanity. Diagnosing the connection between individual psychological disorders and the disease in the body politic, he became the psychiatrist to the New Left and the counterculture: When he spoke at Brandeis University in 1967, he was mobbed like a movie star.

In 1970, as chief resident in psychiatry, I flew to London to spend a few weeks with Laing, who had created an experimental therapeutic community. I heard that at Kingsley Hall, as the place was known, psychiatrists and schizophrenics lived communally and democratically, that it was possible there to take the healing journey into madness about which Laing had written.

In person, Laing was a patchwork of contradictions -- charismatic, charming, direct, as well as shy and evasive. He introduced me to Kingsley Hall's therapists and to Mary Barnes, the woman whose journey through madness exemplified his theories. In the safety of Kingsley Hall, "guided and guarded" by Laing and the others, Barnes had dropped her desperately preserved "normalcy," gone mad, regressed to infancy and grown up again.

Toward the end of my visit, Laing invited me to sit in on a private session with a schizophrenic young man and his family. It turned out to be a lovely demonstration of therapeutic skill and tact, not, as Laing's detractors would have guessed, a pretext for blaming the parents.

Later, when I asked about his childhood, Laing said he had been raised in a sin-obsessed, rigid Presbyterian working-class family in Glasgow. As a child, he had survived the confused communication and oppression of a mentally ill mother and a sometimes brutal father. Gifted with "perfect pitch," he had been a good enough pianist so that his teachers thought he might appear on the concert stage. Instead, he had elected to go to medical school. He became a psychiatrist as a compromise among literature, philosophy and science, and was fascinated first with the madness of individuals and then with the maddening situations in the family and society that produced individual psychosis.

In the months after I left Laing, I created a therapeutic community that was inspired by his work, one of several that would appear in the United States and Canada in the 1970s. Later, when I came to the National Institute of Mental Health, my work with services for runaway and homeless teenagers reflected the perspective I shared with him. Sometimes, in the midst of a crisis -- a suicidal kid demanding the right to exercise his "option," a counselor unable to bear the psychic pain of dealing with so much adolescent chaos -- I wondered how Laing would have handled the situation.

During the 1970s, Laing's writings slowed to a trickle. Even the most ambitious of his books, "The Facts of Life," an autobiographical account that appeared in 1976, was little more than a pastiche. In place of the deep engagement with his material, with people, that I felt in his earlier work, there was now a remoteness. Mutual friends told me first that he was preparing to give a concert, then that he was drinking too much. In the 1980s I began to travel to London again. On one trip, I went to one of the new houses, successors to Kingsley Hall. It was depressing. In 1970, when Kingsley Hall closed, the residents were desperate to avoid being sent to institutions. Ten years later, a man took me aside to ask (I had to check twice to see if he was putting me on) if I knew of "any good mental hospitals."

I saw Laing several times during these visits. One night, a distinguished elderly couple was present at dinner. Their daughter had just tried to kill herself and they had come to ask Laing's advice. I heard bits of the conversation, but there was no mistaking the sarcasm in Laing's voice, the disappointment in their faces. I remembered the family I had watched him interview years before and felt sad, angry, puzzled at the contrast. After dinner, Laing asked several of us back to the house. He was a different man now, kind and hospitable, making sure each of us had enough to eat and drink. He sat at the piano and played show tunes.

Several of Laing's obituaries implied that as the years passed, strong evidence of the biological basis of schizophrenia made him and his work less relevant, that Laing himself was simply an artifact of the '60s. I thought the writers missed the point. Laing's interests, particularly his concern with the shaping force of social interactions and expectations on behavior, were far broader than schizophrenia. His problem was less the incompleteness or inaccuracy of his perspective than his difficulty in expanding or growing beyond it.

Like the schizoid people he had described in "The Divided Self," he was in retreat from those who wanted to define him, to make him their own. But in his retreat, he cut himself off from what had infused his work with life -- his capacity for disciplined empathy, his willingness to look at social situations with great intelligence and freshness, and his sustained engagement with troubled and troubling people.None of this is meant to slight Laing's importance to psychiatry. In our rush to find and treat the "cause" of "mental illness," in our discomfort with its content, we are too often blind to the context that may help shape it, deaf to the experience, to the notes of sanity, that are sounded by those who are suffering. Laing, visionary and insistent, refused to turn away, and faithfully transcribed them for us.

James S. Gordon, author of "The Golden Guru: The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh" and of a forthcoming book on stress management for teenagers, practices psychiatry in Washington and teaches at Georgetown University School of Medicine.