Mad, or bad? Attacking the Concept of Madness
2013-04-15 0:00

By Holly Case | AEON



In 1961, a young psychiatrist initiated a one-man insurgency against his own profession. ‘Psychiatry is conventionally defined as a medical specialty concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mental diseases,’ he wrote. ‘I submit that this definition, which is still widely accepted, places psychiatry in the company of alchemy and astrology and commits it to the category of pseudoscience. The reason for this is that there is no such thing as “mental illness”.’

Fifty years after his book The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct first ventured this uncompromising view, its author Thomas Szasz visited Cornell University in upstate New York. He was there to speak to an audience of students, many of them coerced or bribed by their professors to attend, plus a few local lawyers and psychiatrists. His subject was ‘The Insanity Defence: The Case for Abolition’. The talk started late because a man in a wheelchair was being positioned near the front of the lecture hall. Szasz greeted him enthusiastically; the audience would later learn that he was Ronald Leifer, a psychiatrist who had been denied tenure at the Upstate Medical Center at Syracuse in 1966 for defending Szasz and his iconoclastic ideas against practically the whole of the psychiatric profession.

When it finally started, the lecture was heavily anecdotal and lasted barely half an hour. The 91-year-old psychiatrist spoke in a quiet voice and with a thick Hungarian accent. Students shifted in their seats. Then came the Q&A. Although the subject was the insanity defence, the audience was more interested in Szasz’s assertion that there was no such thing as mental illness. ‘What about schizophrenia?’ ‘How can you be a practising psychiatrist if you don’t believe in mental illness?’

One student asked him: ‘Are you trying to say we all have different brains?’ The lecturer seemed unsteady on his feet. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘we do.’ Another student put it to him that we might be determined by our neurological make-up. ‘I think you and I have different brains,’ Szasz replied. That got a laugh from the audience. It was clear that being the only one in the room with a brain like his was part of his persona; being contrarian was his way of being right. Throughout his career, even friendly co-optation irked him. When scholars started associating him with the anti-psychiatry movement, he wrote a book entitled Antipsychiatry: Quackery Squared (2009).

The psychiatrist inherited from the Inquisition the task of quarantining society’s dangerous elements


Szasz liked to present himself as a dissident. And yet, when he began dynamiting the foundations of psychiatry in the 1960s, rebellion was in vogue, and he seemed very much a man of his time. Along with so many other radicals of the decade of dissent who got half of what they wished for, he has largely been forgotten, his troubling declarations defused by decades over which he worked as an academic and a practising psychiatrist.

After the talk at Cornell, he confided over a stiff drink that he generally did not give talks anymore. ‘I’m too old,’ he told me. ‘Plus, not many people know I’m still alive.’ Indeed, not long after our conversation, Szasz died, last fall. But did his ideas die with him? On the contrary, it might be that the world has only recently come around to his way of thinking.

Near Szasz’s school in Budapest there stood a statue of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician who found posthumous fame as a 19th-century martyr of science. To Szasz, the sickly and discontented young son of a Jewish businessman, Semmelweis became something of a hero. The late doctor’s claim to fame had been the discovery that it was possible to practically eliminate the often-fatal ‘childbed fever’ common among new mothers in hospitals if doctors simply washed their hands before assisting with childbirth — especially if they had just been performing autopsies. When his findings became more widely known in the 1840s, he expected a revolution in hospital hygiene. It didn’t come, and Semmelweis grew increasingly outspoken and hostile towards doctors who refused to acknowledge his discovery. Vitriolic academic exchanges ensued, and he was eventually lured to a mental hospital where his opponents had arranged for his incarceration. He was beaten severely and put in a straitjacket. He died within two weeks. Echoing Voltaire, Szasz recalled the doctor’s tragic life in an autobiographical sketch in 2004:
It taught me, at an early age, the lesson that it can be dangerous to be wrong, but, to be right, when society regards the majority’s falsehood as truth, could be fatal. This principle is especially true with respect to false truths that form an important part of an entire society’s belief system. In the past, such basic false truths were religious in nature. In the modern world, they are medical and political in nature.


[...]

Read the full article at: aeonmagazine.com




Related Articles


Latest News from our Front Page

Gunman Storms Dutch TV Station Demanding Airtime
2015-01-30 23:32
Dutch authorities have released few details about the bizarre case of 19-year-old Tarik Zahzah’s attack on the main news studio of television station NOS on Thursday. To get the obvious question out of the way first, the police say there is no evidence that Zahzah, who is half-Egyptian, acted on behalf of organized terrorism. The authorities always say that on the ...
How Alan Dershowitz bullied rape victims to protect a serial child molester
2015-01-30 23:40
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz always felt children were fair game for Israeli missiles. Now the question is whether he thinks they are fair game for the sexual exploits of his powerful associates and himself. Dershowitz and the UK’s Prince Andrew were accused in a recent court filing of raping a teenage girl who was forced into sexual slavery by ...
Alchemical Banksters
2015-01-30 22:39
This past week, the world's preeminent vultures, the economic power elite, met in Davos to discuss the maintenance of their global fiat hegemony. Highlights included furthering austerity, noting that the serf class can't have air conditioning and cars, as well as cheering on the death of privacy through the rise of technocracy. The degenerate elite, completely out of touch with ...
Men must prove a woman said ’Yes’ under tough new rape rules
2015-01-30 4:54
New guidance will be issued to all police forces and prosecutors as part of a ’toolkit’ to move rape investigations into the 21st century Men accused of date rape will need to convince police that a woman consented to sex as part of a major change in the way sex offences are investigated. The Director of Public Prosecutions said it was ...
4 beheaded in Saudi Arabia less than a week into King Salman's rule
2015-01-30 3:13
Comment: So when will the the "Human rights" promoting liberal west elite decide invade Saudi Arabia like they did Libya? Members of Magic Movement stage a mock execution scene in protest of Saudi Arabia beheading of eight Bangladeshi workers in October 2011. Four people have been executed in Saudi Arabia less than a week after 79-year-old King Salman assumed power following the ...
More News »