Theater of Disorder: Patients, Doctors, and the Construction of Illness

Theater of Disorder: Patients, Doctors, and the Construction of Illness

Theater of Disorder: Patients, Doctors, and the Construction of Illness

Theater of Disorder: Patients, Doctors, and the Construction of Illness

Synopsis

There are certain phenomena, such as hypnosis, hysteria, multiple personality disorder, recovered memory syndrome, claims of satanic ritual abuse, alien abduction syndrome, and culture-specific disorders that, although common, are difficult to explain completely. The purpose of this volume is to apply a model of social relations to these phenomena in order to provide a different explanation for them. Wenegrat argues that they are socially-constructed illness roles or purposivebehavior patterns into which patients fall while receiving either unintentional or intentional cues during interactions with caretakers and authority figures. The application of the social-relations model raises some important, yet previously overlooked, questions about these phenomena, illustratessome important aspects of human nature and consciousness, places illness behaviors in their larger, cultural context, and shows the way to a new and different view of mental life.

Excerpt

In recent years, even as scientists have made progress in the treatment of serious mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression, some odd events have occurred in the field of mental health. In the late 1970s, multiple personality disorder, a hysterical illness once consigned to the dustbin of history, suddenly reappeared in many American clinics. Within a decade, hospital wards were filled with patients said to have “alters,” or alternate personalities, able to seize control of their voices and bodies. The nineteenth-century antecedent of psychoanalysis, recovered memory therapy, also reappeared. Patients began to remember being abused by parents they had once thought were loving. Some clinicians specialized in the treatment of patients whose parents had supposedly involved them in satanic rituals. Patients remembered ritually killing and cannibalizing babies, orgiastic sexual rites, incest, and molestation. Professionals made public statements attesting to the importance of satanic abuse as a cause of illness. As if that weren't enough, by the end of the century, a psychiatrist teaching at Harvard had publicized his belief that abduction by extraterrestrials was a cause of much mental illness. Earthbound covens suddenly seemed passé.

The outrageous statements and practices of multiple personality specialists and recovered memory therapists have badly wounded the reputations of mental health practitioners and the interests of the psychologically ill. Citing such statements and practices, some authors condemned the practice of so-called depth psychotherapy, from which the multiple personality and recovered memory movements ostensibly emerged. According to these authors, insofar as it spawns absurdities, the process of depth psychotherapy must itself be flawed. Unable to make fine distinctions in a field they don't understand, some people in need of assistance may reach the same conclusions.

Fascinated by the seeming temporary insanity of a profession devoted to treating, not imitating, the mentally ill, I and many others have tried to place the events of the past 30 years in larger conceptual frameworks. The framework that I develop in this book is that of “invented illness.” As I show, other instances of invented illness include possession disorders, medieval lovesickness, early-modern and modern-day European tarantism, the various forms of hysteria recognized by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European physicians, and most of the many recent cases of chronic fatigue syndrome and mul-

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