The Clare Spark Blog

November 6, 2009

Is the history of psychiatry one big mess?

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Martin Johnson Heade, "The Coming Storm" (1859)

 Like many others I am in shock after the Fort Hood Massacre of November 5, 2009, particularly since the assault on American soldiers did not come out of the blue, but could have been prevented, for numerous ominous signals in the conduct of Dr. Nidal Hasan had been overlooked, for reasons that may boil down to political correctness and the pieties of multiculturalism.

      Illustrated on this blog is the famous painting by Martin Johnson Heade, “The Coming Storm,” dated 1859 and on view in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum, NYC. Does anyone today think it was about American landscape and a fisherman with a little dog? Obviously, the title linked it to the growing polarization and apprehensiveness that the nation was headed toward Civil War. The 1850s were the years of increasing polarization over the question of the labor system in Western territories: would it be slave labor or “free soil?”  And did you notice the brown face on the red-shirted male figure in the foreground? Was he a free black (or even a mulatto, for the face seems coffee-colored), contemplating his future in a tumultuous period?

     Today we have a polarization that is not much different and with similar anxieties, but with a media industry that is less diverse in its politics than that prevailing during the 1830s on. Except that there is no resemblance between the antislavery men or abolitionists and the PC establishment that prevails in the humanities departments of our leading universities and apparently, much of network television, including those who run Fox News Channel, an outlet that is often more “moderate” than its detractors think (take the Arab-Israeli conflict for example).

     In the research that led up to my book on the revival of Herman Melville during the interwar period of the twentieth century, I had reason to educate myself in the history of psychiatry, for in the nineteenth century, that hyper-individualist Melville was held to be “crazy” and at times, the accusors included members of  his own family. While still on the radio (mostly the 1970s), I did a show on the proposed Center for the Study of Violence at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, and when it was aired, I was so frightened by the awful politics of the place, that I was faint with fear the next morning: my internist suggested that I take up another line of work (I didn’t listen to him). Later, in graduate school from 1988 onward, with the comradely assistance of the late Roy Porter, a leader in the field, I became acquainted with the generally bohemian thought of the Foucault contingent (huge), and matched them with the anti-psychiatry people I already knew about,  such as Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, and the Scientologists. In the history of science, there is tremendous interest in the contextualization of “scientific” knowledge altogether, so that all medical treatment, like science in general,  becomes ideological and the result of power plays in oppressive institutions in order to control dissidents or other rebels, such as housewives who balk at their tasks. There is much evidence to support this premise, such as the bizarre vogue for lobotomy, that flourished in the late 1930s and afterwards (I have lots of pictures and collages that I will post on the website). But there is also something called “evidence-based medicine and psychiatry” that deserves respect. I know at least one of these practitioners and he is a scientist, through and through, but often embattled within his profession, notwithstanding his international reputation. What do we know exactly about military psychiatry, its philosophy, and its oversight? Anything? *

     Nearly all the blogs on this website deal with problems that affect our emotions, including the political aims of that group I call “the moderate men” after a character, “the herb doctor,”  in Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857). We have seen the dubious premises of the Jungians or pseudo-Freudians, some of whom affected corporatist liberal remedies (e.g. preventive politics) for the maintenance of “social cohesion.” I did a two-part blog on the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, formerly of Harvard University. I have taken my readers on numerous tours through the tortured and ambivalent psyche of Harvard’s onetime Director of the Harvard Clinic, Dr. Henry A. Murray. There were fewer readers of these blogs than there should have been, given the gravity of what my research had uncovered. What to make of this?

     In private conversation and on the blogs, I have repeatedly called for education in mental health and physical health (intertwined concerns) beginning as early as children can understand and absorb the material. That means extensive parent education in the ways of a democratic polity, including the separation of Church and State. Some friends have called me absurdly utopian for demanding such a curriculum. Why? Because there is no agreement, none, on what constitutes a mentally healthy human being, let alone related matters such as meaning of patriotism, how far the state can or should reach into our private and public lives, or how to decode authoritarian propaganda and demagoguery in general, or what caused catastrophic wars and mass death in the twentieth century.  And how many political activists remain allergic to looking into their own family relationships, and how these may have affected their political choices and partisan affiliations, not to speak of their more intimate relationships and passions? I am only an historian, trained to examine selected aspects of the past and to create new interpretations as new evidence  becomes available to researchers. But I can say this about the future: if Americans and other Westerners refuse to look inside their own psyches to examine their most fundamental beliefs and relationships (with or without professional help), then there is bound to be the continued disappearance of what Melville, in another century, called “the Founder’s dream.”

*Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist himself, observed today that any psychiatrist who attempts to indoctrinate his patients (referring to Hasan) is guilty of malpractice. But what if other psychiatrists in the military are also indoctrinating, advocating medications and goals that are formulated from ideological motives, if not Islamic? This is not a trivial question and brings me back to the near panic I experienced when researching the state-funded UCLA Center for the Study of Violence.

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