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Book review: One Nation Under Therapy - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Book review: One Nation Under Therapy
I can rarely resist a rant on our therapeutic culture, which pathologizes normal behavior (a little boy is being aggressive with his toy trucks? Off to the school psychologist), so I was looking forward to the cleverly titled One Nation Under Therapy by Christina Hoff Sommers (of Who Stole Feminism?, a book I like a great deal) and Sally Satel. The subtitle is "How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance."

As a rant I'm all for it. If they put it up on LJ, I'd probably fangirl the post and their many examples. As a book?

I'm not impressed.

First, before I start ripping it, I have to say that I agree with the general principle. The grief vultures and forced "sharing" sessions and general belief that it's a great idea to express every emotion we have, no matter how hurtful to other people... it's enough to drive me into therapy, you know?

But the book doesn't make the case. When I picked it up, my very first thought was that they'd show statistics suggesting that things weren't going particularly well--a rise in suicides since "therapism" started or whatnot. But here's a lesson in how perspective works. I was looking in terms of a general sense of well-being and so on--were people happier or unhappier since the rise of therapism? Therefore, I was thinking that data on decreased happiness would be what they'd present. But their goal was to show that we aren't a bunch of wilting flowers ready to go into psychotic episodes at the slightest trauma, so they published findings on lower numbers of suicides and self-destructive behavior in order to prove that we are healthier than the psychology industry would have us think. So the same data that would have, from my perspective, suggested that therapism has made us happier, from their perspective shows that it's an unnecessary industry trying to make healthy people feel sick. The exact same data, two opposing interpretations. I like theirs better than mine--:)--but the truth is that both are perfectly fair ways to look at the information gathered.

I'd want to know more about methodology and the exact answers, of course. Were the people on the survey people who had never attended therapy and yet were happy anyway? Or people who rejected the therapeutic culture and were happy? Or people who lived by the tenets of therapism and were happy because of it? The endnotes reference the National Opinion Research Center, and maybe I'll have a gander at their website, but the lack of information on the subjects of these surveys in the text proper of the book rings a big alarm bell about what the results represent.

There's also a bit of incoherence--on the one hand, they say that the profession is slowly turning away from things like psychological debriefing as a useful tool but that it's all embedded in popular culture and people in general identify with it, then on the other, they point out that, particularly on 9/11 and at Columbine, the general population ignored the grief counsellors in favor our more traditional means of coping with grief--in the case of New York, by doing something, like spontaneously helping people escape by bringing boats up and rescuing them, and in the case of Columbine, by turning to the churches instead. So is it the populace holding back the profession, or the profession trying to snag an unwilling populace? The impression they give is that there are responsible members of the profession who are raising the alarm, but a lot of well-intentioned but ill-trained amateurs running around trying to force people to deal with trauma in ways inappropriate to them, but as the overriding notion is that non-professionals altogether (friends, family, etc) are better sources of support, the argument gets muddy. It's the sort of thing I'd expect on a blog, and for a blog entry, it would be very good, because someone could ask these questions and someone else could go looking for the answers, and maybe they do support the contentions (I suspect the answers support the contentions, just based on experience)... but a book? As in something that should have been at the very least examined closely by an editor?

It doesn't cut the mustard.

(Off-topic: It did--unintentionally, I'm sure--raise a question that interests me. The "grief vultures" and "helping professionals" are people who are desperately seeking employment, and this is one of those created employment niches, aggressively seeking ground and trying to make itself necessary. It's a hard sell, like most new-ish products (think about the advertisement for a spaghetti strainer that makes draining a pot of spaghetti the old way look like it's the most difficult feat going--make the customer feel a shortcoming in current methods, that way you can convince him or her that the new product is absolutely necessary to make life more livable). Leaving aside the specific nature of the thing, it is an economic question. More and more jobs are automated, meaning more and more of the work to be done is person-to-person, service sort of stuff, which means creating niches that make us valuable--necessary, even--where we never were before, if only to remain gainfully employed. Say we did finally get over our conviction of neurosis--how would we handle the vast unemployment, and what sort of industry would we create next? The more jobs are automated, the more we're going to run into this. No one wants to do the manual stuff, but at the same time, what happens when we have a whole society all doing arts or humanities? Those are worthy pursuits--in fact, the highest pursuits of civilization, imho--but how many economic niches are there for them? What happens when we hit overload? I have this weird view of us as eternal medieval fief lords and ladies, idly passing the time while our mechanical serfs do work. It might be nice for a few weeks a year, but wouldn't it get boring?)
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Comments
story645 From: story645 Date: October 3rd, 2005 04:03 am (UTC) (Link)
No one wants to do the manual stuff, but at the same time, what happens when we have a whole society all doing arts or humanities? Those are worthy pursuits--in fact, the highest pursuits of civilization, imho--but how many economic niches are there for them?
Where would things such as math, architecture, the pure sciences or engineering fit in? All are necessary for the arts and humanities to exist and improve, not to mention that architecture is an overlapping field. But, those can't be automated. So are they unworthy in your eyes? Is working in a lab studing bacteria some how a lesser pursuit than painting a portrait?

I'm conflicted on the whole psych thing. On the one hand, I do think that society over-medicates, and that the cult of therapy sometimes creates more damage than harm. Someone on my f-list mentioned teenagers manufacturing psychologucal drama, and then self-medicating. The DSM is way to thick, and some of the definitions too vague. Absoluetly. On the other hand, I miss my old social workers, and back then, my mommy couldn't give me the attention I wanted or the advice I needed. I likely wouldn't have been sent to a social worker when my parents got divorced had therapy been firmly entrenched as a common thing.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 3rd, 2005 05:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Not lesser, but necessary. I should have added the sciences to that--my arts and humanities background is showing. The idea is that it's think-work, work that isn't directly involved with getting food to grow up out of the ground or metal to come up out of the earth, or shaping it into usable forms. It's work that's purely in and of the mind.
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: October 3rd, 2005 02:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
The impression they give is that there are responsible members of the profession who are raising the alarm, but a lot of well-intentioned but ill-trained amateurs running around trying to force people to deal with trauma in ways inappropriate to them, but as the overriding notion is that non-professionals altogether (friends, family, etc) are better sources of support, the argument gets muddy.

I can see some validity to this, in spite of the apparent contradiction. A few years ago, a friend of mine became so obsessed with a man in her class (it was her first year in medical school) she called me several times a week to talk about him. I tried to be supportive and helpful, but after six months in which she never even asked how I was, I got pretty annoyed.

Only later, when she called to tell me she'd gone on medication, did I realize that she'd been depressed the whole time. (Call me clueless, but I have no medical training - I just didn't understand.) So while I did my best, I really couldn't give her the help she needed, and she was draining me to the point where it was wearing on our friendship. There's a limit to how much help even family and friends can give us before we become too much of a burden. Plus they can only give advice based on their own knowledge, which may be as limited as mine was.

I think therapy is like every tool - it's good if used the right way, but has the potential for destruction if used the wrong way. Talking about a problem can be an enormous relief, and taking some kind of action can feel very empowering, but only if they're the right sort of talk and the right sort of action; otherwise, they could be ways to avoid actually dealing with the problem. We generally know when to get out the hammer, and when we should call a handyman; I think as a society we just haven't quite figured out when our personal troubles require a professional, and when they're a DIY.
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thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: October 3rd, 2005 08:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think this 'therapism' thing is more prominent on your side of the pond (although, like McD's, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Starbucks, it's being exported). The last remnants of the famous stiff upper lip, I suppose. I first realised this when I was writing SW fic with Leia and my Alderaanian OC, Keiten. I thought that 'shove it out of the way while you do what needs doing, and deal with it later' was a perfectly plausible and normal coping mechanism, especially when one has a Rebellion to run, but my readers' reaction was 'how terrible to bottle it up like that!' My reaction was 'Bwah? Oh, okay."
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 3rd, 2005 08:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's a disease that spreads from the west coast. Americans used to be perfectly well known for being level-headed and sensible. Tocqueville commented on it. This silliness...!

Aargh.

Yes, as a naturally reserved person with centuries of sensible Yankee blood swirling around inside her, I find myself quite annoyed by it. Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, has done many columns dealing with alarm at being hugged by strangers, or expected to express all of her feelings about something. (Paraphrase, "Even imagining for a moment that all of my feelings were suitable for public display, who's to say that they will be appropriate at the moment I happen to feel them!")

There's an increasing body of evidence suggesting that the "repressive" manner of dealing with things is actually healthier--that people get past traumas faster and are more productive and, yes, happier, than people who emote and obsess over their feelings, but Hollywood has made such a fetish of being uninhibited that it's going to take awhile to shake this nonsense.
eir_de_scania From: eir_de_scania Date: October 3rd, 2005 08:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, there IS a big difference! When first entering into Potterverse discussion I was surprised to see how close my Swedish look at things was to the British!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 3rd, 2005 08:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
I honestly think that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with it as well--we are, after all, a former British colony and our culture since founding has been profoundly shaped by that. Unfortunately, somehow or other, this thing has grabbed hold of public image making imagination, so now we're being told that if we'd rather do something practical than ruminate about our feelings, there must be something wrong with us. It's starting to be challenged--this book isn't the first on the topic--but it's going to take awhile. Harry's reactions throughout the book are the ones I was raised to think of as normal and which coincide with the way I'd respond, but then I find people saying that he's bottling things up and is unhealthy and so on. Sigh.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 3rd, 2005 09:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Actually, to be nerdishly and technically correct, we were thirteen different British colonies, and then added some French ones and acquired some Spanish ones.)
From: (Anonymous) Date: October 4th, 2005 05:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hey. I stumbled upon this post while looking for Shades update. I hope you don't mind my 2 cents.

First, this is a sharp, intelligent book review. I hate when books or articles have an interesting premise but don't meet scholarly standards.

Secondly, I disagree with your position on 'therapeutic culture.' It has always seemed to me that therapy is about self-awareness and effective coping methods, two qualities that strengthen self-reliance. Regarding therapy "pathologizing normal behavior:" this is a very common misconception, one my therapist and I were discussing the other day. He said that people outside the profession rarely understand that all the conditions in that big DSMV book are only disorders when they negatively impact normal behavior and interpersonal relations. Ok, one more point. Of course it's not a good idea, "to express every emotion we have, no matter how hurtful to other people!" Blech, that would be gross.
spellingwitch From: spellingwitch Date: October 9th, 2005 06:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
LOL, never mind - I'll just read this entry :)
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