Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Therapy as a Social Disease

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Therapy as a Social Disease

Article excerpt

Therapy As a Social Disease

The plague of the overexamined life

By Richard Handler

Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age

By Frank Furedi

Routledge. 245 pp. ISBN 0-415-32159-X

"Civil wars" regularly break out in any profession, and in the world of therapy, sometimes they're not so civil. Therapists have sniped at each other from the beginning, first within Freud's circle and continuing on within the broader field until Freud, the old king himself, was overthrown. Those espousing shorter therapies took aim at the interminability of traditional therapy. Family therapists attacked the solo enterprise of one-on-one sessions. Cognitive therapists critiqued dynamic therapists, claiming that therapy is merely a matter of correcting defective thoughts and that good sense can sometimes be taught in a workbook, over a weekend. Other new therapies extol their methods as the only sensible way: Promote resilience! Don't pathologize your patients! Change your patients' stories! And let's not forget the neurobiologists and pharmo-psychiatrists. The new biology will change therapy forever . . . . until the next big thing.

In addition to these civil disputes, the popular press has regularly weighed in to call attention to therapy's various excesses. In the '90s, recovered memories that were found to be made up with the help of intrusive therapists became front-page news. Therapeutic fashions like the "codependency movement" and the idea that the ventilation of anger led to anything more than the further expression of anger became the object of ridicule. Social critics began taking a dim view of therapists who confirmed saintly status on anyone who claimed to be a victim.

But there's a second kind of assault that doesn't so much address the excesses of therapy as question the very enterprise itself. After World War II, sociologists like Talcott Parsons and Philip Rieff, who coined the magisterial phrase "the triumph of the therapeutic," began describing how the new therapeutic perspective was transforming the social landscape, leading people to believe that therapy could help them deal with problems and unhappiness that previous generations had just put up with. As the field's influence continued to grow, the criticism of the field became sharper. The maverick psychiatrist Thomas Szasz attacked "the therapeutic state" and the excuse-mongering that turned people who avoid responsibility for what they'd done into patients. The often caustic Szasz wrote, "One man's psychotherapy is another man's psychopathology. " Bernie Zilbergeld, a clinical psychologist, wrote The Shrinking of America: Myths of Psychological Change, in which he argued that therapy promises too much and often delivers only disappointment. In the process, life becomes psychologized, making us all worse off. In Haven in a Heartless World, social historian Christopher Lasch decried the family's loss of authority to therapists, doctors, social workers, and teachers. It was Lasch who identified therapy as one of the chief culprits in the development of what he called "the culture of narcissism."

Now comes along the latest of these cultural critics, British sociologist Frank Furedi, who adds a new fierceness to the attack on therapy in Therapy Culture. By his own confession, Furedi is an old fashioned "Enlightenment" guy--not the zen variety but the 18th-century sort. He wants people to be free and autonomous, instead of trapped in a vast "pyramid-selling scheme," managed by the new "priests" of our time, society's therapists. …

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