One Nation Under Therapy

One Nation Under Therapy : How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance
by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel 
320pp | St. Martin's Press, New York | ISBN 0312304439 | US$23.95rrp | 2005

Earlier this week, a 19-year-old English schoolboy, Brian Blackwell, was convicted of the manslaughter of his elderly parents. A year ago he bludgeoned and stabbed them to death in a row about his profligate spending. He then flew first class with his girlfriend to New York where they stayed three days in the presidential suite of the Plaza Hotel, followed by holidays in Miami, Barbados and San Francisco. Oddly enough, murder charges against Blackwell were dropped because psychologists agreed that he suffered from acute narcissistic personality disorder.

Brian and his mother in happier days It was an intriguing excuse for a brilliant student who had led a cosseted life of wealth and privilege. A British psychologist explained what it means to be a acute narcissist: “We all have egos, and we all have a sense of self and self-esteem. It is good to think highly of yourself, but for these people it is out of control -- it has gone off the scale.”

And off the scale is where the authors of One Nation Under Therapy fear the education of children is heading today. The rages and delusions of Brian Blackwell are a horrifying extreme, but they reflect the flowering of a preoccupation with feelings and self absorption, the fatuous acceptance of the increasingly lead role given to mental health professionals and of the snake oil psychology that prevails in child rearing and crisis counseling in recent decades.

As the author of Who Stole Feminism (1997) and The War Against Boys (2000) Christina Hoff Sommers is no stranger to controversy. She and her co-author Sally Satel, a psychiatrist, have done their homework. Their research is exhaustively footnoted and compellingly written. They identify and track several strains of therapism: the growing tendency to shield children from negative feelings, the rise of the self-esteem movement, a tendency to pathologise errant behaviours and addictions, the continued application of discredited theories of venting emotion and group therapies, and the myths surrounding post traumatic stress disorder. The authors argue that, in fact, most Americans are traveling along pretty well, and that this trend seriously threatens to undermine American traditions of self reliance, stoicism, and courage. Despite the stars-and-stripes cover, much of this critique transfers easily to other Western countries.

The first chapter, "The Myth of the Fragile Child", warns against swaddling healthy young people in cotton wool. We protect children from competition, we under-challenge them, we patronise them in the classroom, and we find excuses for them. But as the authors remind us, “Overprotected children are denied essential life lessons. Healthy young people are shortchanged.” We are reminded, “In competing and striving to succeed, students learn self-discipline, concentration, and good work habits.”

Linked to this is a neglect of children’s moral development. The authors argue that although there is a need for more focus on character education, some parents have lost even the sense of their children’s vital need for it. Too often we see the growth of a “moral agnosticism”, a type of “no-fault history”, characterized, at the extreme, even by a refusal to condemn a Hitler. Non-judgementalism has morphed into philosophical relativism.

Sommers and Satel argue that writers such as Daniel Goleman, the author of the popular book Emotional Intelligence, have helped parents and teachers to cultivate feelings rather than ethics. “What healthy children need most is guidance on how to be civil and ethical – not how to be self-obsessed,” they say. By overemphasizing self-esteem, we can mistakenly teach children to seek happiness with no foundation in ethics: “even Saddam has high self esteem”. Ultimately by all this, “teachers (are distracted) from focusing on their true mission – to educate children and prepare them to be effective adults”.

In the following chapter, "Esteem thyself", the authors trace the self-esteem movement to its sources in Rousseau and more recently in the humanism of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and other followers of the human potential movement in its efforts to displace moral philosophy and religion with a science of man. Through self-discovery man overcomes the corruption and demoralization wrought by society. Through emotional self-expression he unlocks his genuine self. Through intensive group experience he discovers the regard and acceptance of others. Yet the authors remark wryly that the Maslovian tenet, “Sick people are made by a sick culture” has been a belief “highly resistant to empirical verification.” Ultimately Maslow would have had us believe “immoral behaviour is caused by frustrated physical or emotional needs in early life.” A dangerous half-truth, yet one that endures.

A further consequence of these attitudes is explored in the following chapter "Sin to Syndrome". The authors target what they see as a growing tendency to replace ethical judgements with psychological diagnoses -- viewing child abuse principally as a psychological illness, thus bypassing moral responsibility; excusing adolescent violent crime as a result of the inability of the immature brain to apply breaks to emotional responses; excusing addictions as diseases of the brain. They warn of the perfect alibi: “Is this the bright future promised by the sciences of human nature – it wasn’t me, it was my amygdale? Darwin made me do it? The genes ate my homework?”

Here is the core concern of the authors… the flight from responsibility, what Shakespeare in King Lear denounced as “excellent foppery”. The authors warn: “When sin becomes syndrome, ethically inexcusable behaviour is granted absolution and innocents suffer.” “There can be no forgiveness before repentance.” They rightly point out that accountability is essential for democratic institutions and is at the centre of the moral and legal structures of Western society.

Hoff Sommers and Satel dissect and discredit fashionable theories advocating the need to vent emotion to restore health. Historically, this is an aberrant novelty. In the light of current research Charles Darwin’s observation that “the free expression of the outward signs of an emotion intensifies it” seems truer than ever. Another nineteenth century luminary, John Stuart Mill, had the common sense to opine that: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit”.

The Freudian idea that emotions and drives need to be discharged to obtain psychic equilibrium is bankrupt. Anxiety does not necessarily vanish when we talk about negative experiences. In fact the opposite is often true, argue Hoff Sommers and Satel. Ruminations in the midst of a depressed mood are likely to dredge up negative memories. “(The) popular psychological imperatives to ‘get it all out’… do not always work. Cancer patients who talk about their ordeal in therapy groups do not live longer.... healthy grieving does not require wrenching sadness. Expressing anger does not invariably alleviate it; on the contrary it can make one angrier.” Repression and distraction often do more to cheer you up than chattering about your pain. 

From here the authors torpedo the myths surrounding post traumatic stress disorder. A focus on the accumulated PTSD studies of Vietnam veterans shows that the mischief has often been perpetuated by professionals working in the PTSD industry. The authors demonstrate that beliefs about the universal necessity and incurability of PTSD are woefully exaggerated, at a terrible cost to veterans themselves who have been denied the possibility of reconstructing their lives and recovering health. Only in recent years have standard PTSD therapies moved away from “retellings” of experiences. Freudian venting therapy has failed the veterans: “There is much documentation that people naturally reconstruct the past in terms of present circumstances, exaggerating the degree of earlier misfortune and trauma, if feeling bad currently”.

Studies of the aftermath of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 uphold the authors’ thesis that most people are actually very resilient. The much anticipated explosion of PTSD cases following the collapse of the towers never eventuated. In fact, 9/11 turned much of the accepted wisdom about crisis counseling on its head. Most people affected by crises will not require specialist stress counselling. In fact, more than half of all people who experience crises benefit from them: "for many people life crises are like catalysts… leading to greater self reliance, better relationships with family and friends, new problem solving skills".

Are there shortcomings in this work? I would have liked the authors to look more critically at issues of criminality, self-harm and depression in young persons, focusing not so much on the actual victims but on implications about the way Western society raises its children. I believe a more realistic emphasis on the scale of this problem would have strengthened the position of the authors. Surely the lack of resilience that we see in so many young people today reflects an endemic inability to manage the negative influences impacting on impressionable children, compounded by the very lack of moral guidance identified by the authors. And surely this widespread lack of resilience signifies that many children are not at all in good shape.

When all is said and done, we are writing about a society that brought the world Columbine, a society where there are 40,000 deaths by gunshot each year. We are talking about a society with high rates of incarceration and violent crime, of a society where about 6 million people are in jail or under some kind of criminal justice supervision. The authors reassure us that the US is experiencing its lowest rates of juvenile crime in three decades, and rightly ridicule the concept of “post traumatic slavery disorder”; but the measure of the underlying problems require serious acknowledgement and not glib dismissal. To acknowledge signs such as the troubled youth indicators identified in the early 90s by Thomas Lickona would not weaken the case of the authors.

Nevertheless, these criticisms must not detract from the achievement of Hoff Summers and Satel. This is a serious work that demands solemn reflection. By rights it should lead to substantial readjustment in public policy. May it assist greatly in the fightback of common sense against clichés and slogans.

Andrew Mullins is headmaster of Redfield College, a school in Sydney for boys in Years 2 to 12. His book Parenting for Character will be published next month by Finch Publishing.


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