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Authenticity at the Northern Existential Group

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 5 Dec 2011, 11:02

24th November 2011 saw the third meeting of the Northern Existential Group (NEG). This month our reading was a paper called 'A Road Less Travelled' by M. Guy Thompson. Based on the author's own relationship with R.D. Laing, the paper wove together biography of the famous 'anti-psychiatrist' with an account of his understanding of the concept of 'authenticity'. What did authenticity mean to Laing, and how well did he embody it within his own life?

This paper was a perfect one for the NEG as our discussions tend to focus on the personal and pragmatic issues of the concepts under consideration. Are these existential ideas something that we want to strive for in our own lives and, if so, how might we go about that?

Here we will briefly introduce R. D. Laing for those who are unfamiliar with him. We will outline the concept of authenticity as it is presented in M. Guy Thompson's paper, and then give a flavour of the NEG discussion on the topic.

R. D. Laing

R. D. Laing (1927-1989) grew up in Glasgow. He studied medicine there and became a psychiatrist in the British army. Later he trained and worked at the Tavistock clinic alongside the likes of Bowlby and Winnicott. Laing formed the Philadelphia Association in 1965 and set up a psychiatric community project at Kingsley Hall and later other locations. At PA houses patients with diagnoses of psychosis lived together in communities with therapists and other patients, and there was minimal use of the restraints or drug treatments which were commonplace in mental health systems.

Although Laing did not embrace the term 'anti-psychiatrist', his views about mental illness were – and continue to be – radically challenging to conventional views. Influenced by existential philosophy he questioned the idea of mental illnesses which could be diagnosed according to symptoms (although his opinion on whether there were real mental illnesses or not altered over time). Instead he saw the feelings and behaviours of people with 'mental illness' as expressions of their lived experience and valid attempts to communicate their distress.

Instead of locating mental illness in biology, he saw it as a response to, often contradictory, messages within the family and wider society. Indeed, at times he suggested that 'madness' may be a saner response than 'sanity' to the impossible double binds in which people are placed when their experiences are not allowed to be articulated. These ideas are covered in Laing's famous book The Divided Self.


Laing's ideas about authenticity are explicitly related to his theories of mental illness because he suggests that people erect false versions of themselves in order to conform to society, and that this is why they frequently become confused about who they are. For this reason, part of the ethos of Kingsley Hall, and the other Philadelphia Association houses, was to communicate without falsity. People were encourage to speak in all conversations as honestly and openly as they would in a therapy session, with no small talk. Laing's own style was frequently confrontational in attempt to break through falsity in communication.

Thompson distinguishes Laing's version of authenticity from the kind of 'pop' authenticity of US talk-shows and self-help books. This latter form of authenticity is rooted in the humanistic view that there is some core inner self that we can get in touch with, often through our feelings rather than our thoughts, and that this authentic self will be a nicer, more loving, person. Such an idea is based on both a dualistic splitting of emotions and thoughts, an optimistic vision of what human beings are 'naturally' like, and a theory of selfhood that is problematic from an existential perspective.

Laing's authenticity was based more on Nietzsche and Heideggers' versions of authenticity which did not link authenticity and ethics and which dispute the idea of any core self beneath what we construct. This existential form of authenticity involves a courageous facing of the inevitable anxieties of life. This includes going against societal norms when they conflict with this. Heidegger's position was that humans were inauthentic the majority of the time (seeking approval, validation, recognition and so on). We get our sense of identity and – along with it – inauthenticity from the crowd we (seek to) belong to, but it is possible sometimes to transcend this. This is not about getting at any genuine self (because the self is always constructed) but rather being aware of our general inauthenticity and acting in a way that does not attempt to fit in or to court favour.

Laing's authenticity, however, was intrinsically related to ethics because he saw human suffering as resulting from inauthenticity (particularly the double-binds it places people in). Therefore authenticity was a superior way of relating which involved loving another person without 'trespassing' on them or doing them violence by using them for our own narcissistic ends. This requires both the courage to open up to another person, and the awareness to see when you are in danger of trespassing (for example, by demanding that they conform in some way rather than being authentic themselves). This is the awareness that Laing saw as frequently absent in the mental health profession: those who think they are being helpful deny the thoughtless way in which they treat the vulnerable people they are caring for, and the demands they place on them to act in inauthentic ways.

From Thompson's summary it seems that Laing's authenticity includes the following elements:

  • Honestly owning up to our inauthenticity

  • Acting without regard for what others will think of us (rather than being a 'phoney' and adhering to social niceties)

  • Having the courage to stick to our principles rather than being hypocritical

  • Being brave enough to open up, authentically, to others

  • Being aware enough not to trespass on others, doing violence to them by denying their authenticity



The rest of Thompson's paper – and much of our discussion – focused on whether Laing, himself, embodied the form of authenticity that he espoused. This is part of a wider question of whether such thinkers need to 'walk the walk as well as talk the talk' in order to be convincing, or for us to take up their ideas. We could see both positions on this. On the one hand, when the personal is political as it so clearly is in Laing's work perhaps his personal behaviour should be under scrutiny. On the other hand, all thinkers are likely to have feet of clay and we can question whether it is acceptable to use this to pathologise them and to dismiss their ideas, as has been done with Laing, Neitzsche and Heidegger.

Thompson points out that Laing's writing became increasingly pretentious and inaccessible over time, that he courted fame despite this surely being a form of inauthenticity, and that his behaviour became bullying and cruel in ways that alienated most of those he was close to. Again, this latter seems far from Laing's ideals of open-hearted communication and not trespassing on others, although it could be argued that he was deliberately trying to confront people with their own inauthenticity.

A classic example of this was in his exchange with the American humanistic therapist, Carl Rogers. Thompson tells the tale of the night before the organised debate between Rogers and Laing. Laing and his group invited Rogers and his group round to his home and then out to a restaurant. Laing told Rogers that his 'California nice-guy' act would make an authentic exchange impossible. Laing proceeded to get drunk and to shout out (about Rogers) 'he's not a man, he's a perrrrson!' (a sarcastic reference to Roger's book On Becoming a Person). Later he spat in the drink of one of Rogers' colleagues.

The NEG group spent much time considering Laing's idea that anger is the Royal Road to authenticity. Is niceness always inauthentic? Is it always authentic to strip away artificial niceness however much trespassing is required to do so? We found ourselves questioning why the so-called 'negative emotions' would be considered more authentic than the 'positive' ones. Is this another problematic dualism? Also, we noted the contradictions between two aspect of Laing's authenticity (in order to be authentic in this way one has to trespass on others, demanding that they be authentic according to his definition).

We wondered if Laing would have the same impact if he had not acted the 'trickster' in these ways: punching holes through inauthenticity. Then again, might he potentially have had more impact if he could have expressed his ideas in a way that was more palatable to people. Related to all of this there is the question of whether one person can ever really judge the authenticity of another.

In response to this latter, we reached the conclusion that we certainly can't judge the authenticity of another (there can be no objective measure of authenticity), but that equally that we cannot really trust our subjective sense of whether we are being authentic or not because we are likely to be a poor judge of whether or not we are in a form of 'false consciousness' (believing we are being authentic when actually we are simply saying or doing what is expected of us). There is also the question of whether it is always authentic to go against the norms and conventions around us. We considered Sartre's example of wearing a moustache when everyone else was doing so: Would it be authentic to sport such a moustache nowadays (as long as we weren't doing it for 'movember' – the charitable event where people grow moustaches for the month of November)? Even in going against convention are we still in relation to this and potentially even reinforcing it?

As often in our discussions we related Laing's ideas to gender. We considered how somebody with Laing's ideas and behaviours might have been treated if they were a woman, and this led us to consider whether it was possible for women to be seen as authentic in the same way that men could be, given the way that men are regarded as 'normal' humanity (according to Sartre, de Beuavoir and others), and the potentially harsher sanctions (internal and external) against women behaving authentically.

Another question we explored was whether authenticity may only be possible when all ways of being were open to us. For example, some of us felt that kind of anger that Laing displayed simply wasn't an option in our behavioural repertoire. Did that condemn us to 'inauthentic niceness'? We decided that there would always be limits and constraints on what was possible, but that authenticity was possible so long as there was some degree of choice over how we acted.

In the group there was a sense that it was valuable to hold both a Laingian and a Rogerian way of being. The question which we kept returning to was 'how far do you go?': How much do you flout convention and how much do you police yourself? These are important, and emotionally loaded, questions. 'Too far' in one direction can leave us alienated and alienating, 'too far' in the other and we can loose ourselves completely in the (contradictory) demands of others.

In a way the contradictory nature of Laing's version of authenticity can provide a helpful constant corrective: be honest and courageous, but in open-hearted ways that does not trespass on others. Of course it is impossible to know how our actions will be experienced by others, but if we hold these tensions when engaging with the world perhaps we will occasionally experience moments which at least feel authentic.


Questions to Consider

  • Do you agree with the components of authenticity that Laing identified?

  • Is inauthenticity implicated in human suffering?

  • Is anger the royal road to authenticity? Can we be nice and authentic?

  • If we are being authentic is it our task to point out the inauthenticity around us, and in others' behaviours?

  • Is authenticity equally open to everyone?

  • How can we know if we, or others, are being authentic?

  • Is authentic something to aspire to?

  • Does authenticity lie in our actions or in the reasons behind them?

  • How far do you go?


Find Our More

You can download M. Guy Thompson's paper here.

The international R. D. Laing institute is here.

The Philadelphia Association is here and has plenty of downloadable pdfs on existential topics.

The BBC documentary, The Trap, covers R. D. Laing's ideas in some depth, as does the documentary Just Another Sinner.

The website of the Northern Existential Group is coming soon!



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Meg-John Barker

Hell is other people?

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Hell is other people? The Northern Existential Group discuss No Exit

2nd June 2011 saw the inaugural meeting of the Northern Existential Group (a Manchester-based version of the London-based Society for Existential Analysis discussion group). For our first session we chose to discuss the Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit: a marvellously accessible introduction to the ideas of the French existentialists, and particularly resonant in these days of reality TV shows which place contestants in a very similar situation to the one in which his characters find themselves.

No Exit

In No Exit, three characters (Garcin, Inez and Estelle) are, one-by-one, escorted into a drawing room and left there together, locked in. We soon discover that all have recently died and that this room is the hell to which they have been condemned for eternity. The characters initially respond in surprise that the room is nothing like the fiery pit of torture and torment which they had always imagined hell to be. However, Inez quickly realises that the idea must be that 'each of us will act as torturer of the other two'. Whilst Estelle and Garcin try to deny that they would torment the others, and even the validity of them being in hell (perhaps it is all a mistake), Inez is more aware of their fate and resigned to her rightful damnation.

Over the course of the play, we discover that all three characters have done things that they regard as bad and/or cowardly: Inez had an affair with her cousin's partner and he ended up killing himself, which led to his partner killing both herself and Inez, and she admits that she needs to make others suffer. Estelle became pregnant as a result of an affair and killed her daughter despite her lover begging her not to. Garcin tried to run away rather than being sent to jail as a conscientious objector, and beat and cheated on his wife. They succeed in becoming each others' tormentors mostly by denying each other what they seek which they believed would alleviate their suffering: Estelle wants Garcin to want and desire her and Garcin wants somebody to see him as a hero and not a coward. Eventually Garcin realises that there will never be any escape from being looked upon by Inez and Estelle, and that they will never see him as he wants to be seen. This is when he delivers the famous line 'hell is – other people!'.

Discussion of the play

There is a certain awkward humour to finding yourself sitting in a room as a group of relative strangers discussing this particular play! One of us had researched the play a little online before attending and said that some have simply read it at face value: that it is about the kind of hell that might await these particularly (bad) people. However, we agreed that Sartre meant it to be a much wider comment on the human condition: other people are always hell for each other. There is some debate between Garcin, Inez and Estelle over whether they have been chosen as the ideal tormentors for one another, or whether they were simply allocated at random. We suspected that it was the latter: the point being that any human beings thrown together would inevitably end up being hell for each other in some way.

This idea relates to Sartre's wider philosophy: the notion that as soon as we are in the (real or even imagined) presence of another person, we begin to see ourselves through their eyes and this is the end of our freedom. In his early work Sartre only sees two ways that we can deal with this situation: either we can try to make ourselves something for the other person, or we can try to turn them into something for us. Thus in No Exit we see Estelle trying to turn herself into a desirable object for Garcin, and Garcin trying to get Inez to rescue him from his fear that he is a coward. The Look of other people has this incredible power. If only Inez (the truth-sayer) could see Garcin as not cowardly then that would mean that he is not. However, Sartre says that such strategies are doomed to failure. Our freedom will always bubble up and we will resent trying to be what others want us to be, or we will grow weary of another person who has turned themselves into an object for us, because they will no longer have the freedom that we were originally attracted to. It is also possible to bring this existential reading together with a more psychodynamic one in the form of the transactional analysis drama triangle whereby there is always a victim, a perpetrator and a rescuer, but these roles keep switching: We see such switches throughout No Exit as freedom ensures that no role remains static for long.

There are also strong echoes of Simone de Beauvoir's philosophies in No Exit (unsurprisingly given the close relationship between her and Sartre). Indeed, on discussing the play we were struck by the resonances between the characters and the triangles in Sartre and de Beauvoir's own life, particularly in relation to the younger women who Sartre became involved with. There are reverberations of The Second Sex in Inez's berating of Estelle for thinking that being a desirable object for a man is something to base her life (and even afterlife) around. And it is rather interesting for those of us who have reflected on the gendered treatment of Sartre and de Beauvoir's work that Inez sees the truth of the situation from the start, whilst Garcin (who was oblivious) is the one who is given the show-stopping line (which just summarises what Inez has been saying all along).

Is hell other people?

During our discussion of the play we were magnetically pulled, again and again, back to the big question that it raises. Are other people necessarily hell for each other? Is there another way? Garcin tries, in the play, to disengage from the others, thinking that if they all just sat there in silence it might be okay. But the futility of this demonstrates what existentialists know – that we are inevitably in-relation with others and can never truly escape their influence (even if we retreat or rebel we are doing it in relation to them).

But might there be another way of being-with-others? We were reminded of the Jewish parable of the long spoons, where hell is a place with a magnificent feast but everyone has spoons so long that they are unable to feed themselves and they starve. Heaven is exactly the same, but people are using the spoons to feed each other. Might the heaven version of No Exit consist of the exact same three people in the exact same room, but they have found a way to feed each other?

This idea sounds something like the form of mutual, or reciprocal, relating that de Beauvoir proposes in her work (notably her Ethics of Ambiguity), which also echoes in Merleau-Ponty's theories of intersubjectivity, and which Sartre was perhaps moving towards in his later, more Marxist influenced, writings. De Beauvoir argues that it is in all of our interests to recognise the freedom of others, not only because this is the reality of the situation, but because we need others to be free in order to trust their validations of us and to aid us in our own goals.

It seemed to us that it was necessary for Inez, Estelle and Garcin to recognise, themselves, that their cowardice or cruelty was there, but also that it was not all that they were, and was not fixed and unchangeable. But perhaps they do require the Look of others to affirm that plurality and flexibility in themselves (they cannot use the long spoons to feed themselves). Our discussion ended with a reflection on whether we inevitably regard others as objects for ourselves, or whether we can aspire to seeing others – and therefore ourselves – as unique, complex, changing, human beings. In fleeting moments of connection or mutuality can we experience a flash of heaven?

Find out more:

You can read No Exit here, and there are some fascinating clips and music videos based on the play if you search You Tube for No Exit.

There is a link to the drama triangle here, which comes across quite clearly in this play and represents another more psychodynamic reading.

If you would like to be on the mailing list for the Northern Existential Group, please send your details to Susan Iacovou: therapy@susaniacovou.com

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