Back in 1851, a doctor named Samuel A. Cartwright proposed a new category of mental illness he named drapetomania. It was a mental aberration particular to enslaved African-Americans, and it’s primary symptom was the act of attempting to escape from slavery. Slaves attempting to abscond with themselves were obviously sick, in the head so Dr. Cartwright reasoned, because clearly they were intended by God and nature for a condition of servitude. Happily, Dr. Cartwright reported, with the right treatment this form of mental illness could be avoided and slaves kept in their happy and natural condition of bondage.
I’m not making any of this up, you know. And it seems like the practice of therapy has advanced less since Dr. Cartwritght’s time than perhaps most of us would like to admit.
Now maybe it’s sometimes the case that the unhappy individual is in some way ill — in any event I cannot rule out the possibility. Maybe something like psychotherapy can help like that. Maybe. But I find rather galling about the very idea of therapy is the reductive presumption that where the individual is in conflict with the world and therefore unhappy that it is the individual that will be treated as sick and broken and the world treated as being as just fine with what it is. Laura Kipnis, in her brilliant polemic Against Love parenthetically remarks about therapy (here in the context of people who are unhappy in monogamous relationships, but generalizable well beyond this domain), therapy implicitly tells its patients “You can be fairly certain it’s not going to be those social norms that need a tune-up — sorry hon, it’s you.”
And what a deadly insult to human dignity that is! Consider what horizons open up when we entertain the possibility that it’s the world that’s dysfunctional, not us. I admit that I am skeptical (more than skeptical) about any global claim that we can achieve general human happiness through better social policy. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that there are pockets of social dysfunction that ought to be fixed. Some things can and should be fixed in the world. For bored, miserable housewives lost in Leaveittobeaverland what as needed was feminist consciousness-raising and jobs, not prescriptions for Miltown. (Guess what psychotherapists had to offer.) For gay men and lesbians trapped in pre-Stonewall America was was needed was liberation, not bizarre attempts to somehow turn them straight. (Guess what profession — what paragon of scientific rationality — treated gay men and lesbian’s desires to sleep with who they loved as a mental disorder until 1974!) And golly gee, don’t you think what African-Americans really needed was freedom and dignity, not advice patronizing advice to their masters about how to prevent and cure drapetomania?
And yet from how many therapists is once going to get the advice that what an unhappy person ought to do is not to cure herself of what is not in fact an illness but to become an activist to right the injustices that are the source of her misery? Sorry hon, but the social norms do not need a tune-up. It’s you. Take this happy pill.
Of course, many problems might not be fixable by activism or protest. But even then, it’s an insult to stigmatize someone unhappy about them as sick and broken. Isn’t it rational to be unhappy about a wretched world? Wouldn’t it be wiser to try to help people reduce their suffering through palliation? Or for those for whom the outlook is unrelentingly grim, a quick, painless suicide? But no, that too seems to be off the table with most therapists, stigmatized as immature, non-adult, irresponsible. And don’t even think about suicide. That’s way off the table.
Being stigmatized as sick for having doubts about the world strikes me as a good reason for wanting to run away from psychotherapists, toward whatever free soil we can find.