Monday, November 27, 2006

Jeffrey Oliver on The Myth of Thomas Szasz

This is a very fine article in The New Atlantis on the too little-known renegade psychiatrist who has inveighed against the excesses of the therapeutic culture for the last 40 years. He's generally thought to have turned into a crank a long time ago, but maybe that's better than being a quack. Richard John Neuhaus' bit in First Things includes a nice summary, in addition to a few other interesting items. A quotation from the quotation:
For Szasz, the extreme induced by his war against psychiatry was both equal and opposite to that of his profession. When psychiatry failed to shut Szasz up, it went about forgetting him. When Szasz failed to persuade his peers, he seemed to devote his career to enraging them. In 1963, shortly after the crisis at SUNY, Szasz wrote: ‘To maintain that a social institution suffers from certain “abuses” is to imply that it has certain other desirable or good uses. . . . My thesis is quite different: Simply put, it is that there are, and can be, no abuses of Institutional Psychiatry, because Institutional Psychiatry is, itself, an abuse.’ By the 1970s he was comparing psychiatrists to witch hunters. By the 1980s it was slave owners and Nazis. While such extreme rhetoric made Szasz a public figure for a while, his polemical excess eventually ensured his professional obscurity.

“Yet we are also right to give the earlier Szasz his due. ‘Quite probably,’ wrote Edwin Schur in The Atlantic Monthly in the 1960s, ‘he has done more than any other man to alert the American public to the potential dangers of an excessively psychiatrized society.’ . . . Perhaps the most remarkable tribute, however, came in 1989, when an ailing Karl Menninger, the long-time patriarch of American psychiatry, wrote Szasz the following:

“I am holding your new book, Insanity: The Idea and Its Consequences, in my hands. I read part of it yesterday and I have also read reviews of it. I think I know what it says but I did enjoy hearing it said again. I think I understand better what has disturbed you these years and, in fact, it disturbs me, too, now. We don’t like the situation that prevails whereby a fellow human being is put aside, outcast as it were, ignored, labeled and said to be “sick in his mind.” . . .

Today, Szasz lives alone in a suburb of Syracuse where he continues to write. He has already published one new book this year—“My Madness Saved Me”: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf—and he recently finished a draft of yet another critical history of his profession. If the trend continues, the books will be read by few and endorsed by almost none. After forty years of comparing psychiatrists to the scum of the earth, Szasz now stands as one of the biggest obstacles to his own ideas. It is simply too easy to dismiss him as an axe-grinding zealot, a ‘musician who does not like music,’ as one critic put it. ‘The atheist who cannot stop speaking about God.’ But perhaps a new generation of critics will arise—aware of psychiatry’s achievements but also its limits, leading us not to extremes but to a much-needed reformation of psychiatry from within, and a much-needed de-medicalization of human life in the culture as a whole.
The entire article by Oliver is well worth reading, and on the whole I think his take on the way our society views mental illness is more balanced than that of Dworkin's Artificial Happiness, which I was reading and excerpting here and there and a few weeks ago.


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