Jesus vs. Freud

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:20

    Mental healthprofessionals tend to react to Seth Farber's ideas with the sort of shock andoutrage with which heresy is condemned by faithful religious types. "Don'ttouch this book with a twenty foot pole," one of them wrote his publisheron reading the manuscript that would become his latest book, Unholy Madness(InterVarsity Press, 162 pages, $12.99). "I suspect the author is amental patient masquerading as a psychologist. Is he a mental patient?"

    A calmerone wrote that Farber's ideas "betray considerable long-standing personalproblems that account for his current bias." Others called his ideas "obsoleteand misguided" and "naive and unethical," and one warned thathe was most likely one of those dangerous New York City anarchist types.

    I don'tuse the religious analogy lightly. Farber's publisher, InterVarsity Press, isa Christian evangelical outfit. Those prepublication reviewers were Christianpsychologists. And Farber has declared psychology a form of pagan religion thatno good Christian should practice.

    True Christians,he says, would never treat the mentally ill the way psychiatrists do today.The mentally ill person "is having trouble adjusting to a world that iscrucifying Jesus Christ every day," he says. True Christians would be openingtheir churches and their homes to schizophrenics, not fobbing them off on institutionsand bombing them with drugs. "Christ said, 'What you do to the least ofmy brothers you do to me.'" Jesus welcomed the outcast, the possessed,the lowest of the low. In today's society, Farber says, you don't get any loweror more outcast than the schizophrenic. "Jesus went to the people of loweststatus and said that in his community they will be treated as equals... Howis it that the church abandons these people to the pagan religion of psychiatry?"

    When I tellhim it sounds to me like he's preaching a kind of liberation theology for mentalpatients, Farber admits that "I haven't read that much liberation theology.There are a lot of lacunae in my background. I wasn't raised with any of thisstuff, you know."

    Right, Iforgot: Farber's only been a Christian for a few years. Until he converted recently,the Upper West Sider lived the first four decades of his life as a nonpracticingJew.

    Well, youknow what they say about new converts.

    It's characteristicof Farber that he shows me the negative reactions to his book with as much prideas the positive jacket blurbs from prominent renegade shrinks like Thomas Szasz(The Myth of Mental Illness, The Manufacture of Madness) and PeterBreggin (Talking Back to Prozac and Talking Back to Ritalin).If only his hero R.D. Laing would come back from the grave and write him a blurb,I think Farber would feel truly vindicated.

    You rememberR.D. Laing? A long time ago I briefly worked as a nurse's aide on a locked wardof a state mental institution. I worked in a couple other mental health-relatedsettings, but that place, that prison for crazy people, was the topper. I'llnever disagree with what Laing said about them: "If I was feeling vulnerableor confused or terrified, I think the last place I would want to be would beone of those mental hospitals."

    If you'rea mental health professional, you'd disagree with just about everything Laingsaid, if you remember him at all. When I ask Farber if he's the last true believerin the renegade psychiatry of Laing and Szasz, he says there's a tiny handfulleft, "certainly less than one-half a percent" of practicing professionals;most of them are older than he is (47) and were in practice back in the 60s,at the beginning of psychiatry's epoch of hippie-dippy experimentation, beforethat was shut down and the entire profession went full-on pharmaco-behaviorist.

    Althoughthey had serious areas of disagreement with each other, Laing and Szasz convergedon the same radical notion: that there is no such thing as "mental illness."Szasz, a Hungarian Jew with conservative-to-libertarian leanings, declared ita stigmatized social caste; Laing, a lefty Brit, said it was even a sort of"career" foisted on certain people by the morally bankrupt, pseudo-scientificcabal of the mental health industry. It was Laing who uttered the famous, andlater much ridiculed, slogan to the effect that in a world as mad as ours perhapsonly the mad people are sane.

    Laing wasevidently an extremely charismatic man, and perhaps a bit of a Svengali or Cagliostro.He was well-known for an ability to really listen to the most severe schizophrenics,raving loonies who'd been abandoned as incomprehensible by the best shrinksin the business, and have them talking sense to him in no time. In a way itwas the ultimate in talk therapy, at a time when the rest of the professionwas beginning the wholesale abandonment of talk therapy in favor of drug therapy,and Laing's uniquely empathetic gift was shrugged off as a kind of psychiatricDr. Dolittle parlor trick.

    Not by Farber.Studying for his PhD in psychology in the late 70s, he writes, "I reachedthe conclusion that [Szasz and Laing] were correct: mental illness does notexist. I do not believe that mad people...are 'mentally ill' or 'schizophrenic.'I do not believe they suffer from a medical condition optimally treated by psychiatrists."

    Farber becamedisenchanted with Freudian psychotherapy, but enthralled with family therapy,"which convinced me...that the person deemed mentally ill by mental healthauthorities was being scapegoated for problems whose locus was not withinthe individual but between individuals, usually within the family.

    "Inother words, the model of family therapy that I studied maintained that thecause of the present distress of the 'identified patient' was not so much traumaticevents in the past but dysfunctional relationships in the present. The solutiontherefore was not, as Freudians insisted, to relive the past and attempt toachieve insight into the origins of one's problems but to modify the dynamicsof interpersonal relationships involving the 'patient' in the present."

    As a practitionerof family therapy in the late 80s, Farber became convinced that "psychiatricdrugs had a detrimental effect (for the most part) on clients." Under Breggin'sinfluence, he began to encourage patients at the clinic where he was workingto gradually wean themselves off Haldol, Thorazine and other antipsychotic (neuroleptic)drugs. The psychiatrist running the clinic was infuriated and canned him.

    In privatepractice, he became increasingly involved in what was called the "mentalpatients liberation movement," a network of renegade shrinks and clientswho felt they'd been victimized by the mental health industry. Farber's beenespecially active in putting people together with MDs who'll help them get offthose antipsychotic drugs, which come with an array of wicked side effects includingParkinsonism, encephalitis and, most prevalent, tardive dyskinesia (TD), thegrossly disfiguring lack of motor control that causes monstrous distortionsand tremors of the face and body. The American Psychiatric Association's owndata indicate that at least 20 percent and perhaps as many as 60 percent ofpatients taking neuroleptics develop TD. "The overwhelming majority ofthese people are at worst nuisances," he argues, yet in "medicating"them psychiatrists cause over half of them to develop "irreversible neurologicaldamage."

    MDs willingto help aren't all that easy to find. Farber says he's never known more thantwo or three in Manhattan, and at the moment he knows none.

    I firstmet Farber in 1993. His book Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angelshad just come out. In it he theorized that rather than an illness, psychoticepisodes might best be understood as severe spiritual crises that, viewed ina positive therapeutic way rather than simply as an opportunity to incarcerateand drug the sufferer, could lead to spiritual and personal growth. It got himon Geraldo, Oprah and Firing Line (the latter with Kate Millet), as aresult of which he was contacted, he says, by more than 10,000 "victimsor survivors of the mental health industry" around the country. (I remembertwo of them well, because I interviewed them by phone: They were former DoublemintTwins.)

    And alongthe way, in 1991, he became a Christian. He'd been having "some kinds ofmystical experiences, I think," and at first was leaning toward Hinduism.Then he started reading up on Christian eschatology, and "got baptized"at the liberal Madison Avenue Baptist Church. By 1994, under the influence ofRussian philosophers like Berdyaev, he switched to the Russian Orthodox Church.

    "WhenI first told my parents about it-I mean, they haven't been in temple in 40 years-butstill, they got very upset," he confesses. "My mother cried at first."

    To Jewishfamily and friends "I try to say that Jesus was a Jew and his mission wasonly to the Jews... I don't see myself as a goy or a gentile. I see myself asa kind of Jewish Christian."

    But not,he notes, like Jews for Jesus, whom he says are basically fundamentalist. "Ilike to think I'm inheriting, as Jesus did, the best of prophetic Judaism, ofIsaiah and Jeremiah... You know, standing up against the monarchs and the warmakersand denouncing the Jewish governments of their time for making alliances. Justas the New Left, or the New Right, did" more recently.

    In UnholyMadness-subtitled The Church's Surrender to Psychiatry-he arguesthat Christianity lost most of that old revolutionary spirit a long time ago,back when Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Itwas no longer underground or outcast or persecuted, but in fact at the verycenter of power in Europe. One theologian has written that if Jesus had preachedthis version of Christianity he never would've been crucified-indeed, the Romanswould have lionized him and sent him out to give speeches in trouble spots aroundthe empire.

    To Farber,modern Christianity has made the same sort of unholy alliance with psychiatry.He notes that Szasz once said that if you talk to God, you're praying; if Godtalks to you, you're a schizophrenic and you get locked up. If God starts talkingto you, Farber says, you better not tell your priest or rabbi, they'll justtell you to seek professional help.

    "Christianitywas the first powerful egalitarian movement to challenge these kinds of invidiousdistinctions made by people in power," he contends. In terms of the mentalhealth movement, he'd like to see it return to those roots.

    He and Idiscuss the treatment of mental illness today in the context of "Christiancommunity," family therapy and interpersonal responsibility. It used tobe that when people were sad, when kids were antsy, when grandparents got abit foggy in their minds, even when people acted "crazy" and had visionsor heard voices, you dealt with it in the family and in the community. It was-theywere-your responsibility. It's only been in the last 100, maybe 150 years thatwe've taken a whole range of such behaviors, conditions, events and activities-many,perhaps most of them, well within the boundaries of what for the entirety ofhuman existence before this would've been considered "normal" lifeevents-and pushed the responsibility for dealing with them off on "experts"and "professionals"-mental health professionals, child care professionals,senior care professionals, etc. If your kids are acting out now you take themto the expert who diagnoses them as having attention deficit disorder and bombsthem with Ritalin; if your husband's acting strange you take him to the expertwho diagnoses him as schizophrenic and bombs him with Haldol; when your parentsget old and feeble you ship them off to the warehouse for old and feeble peoplewhere the experts hold them until they die, at which point you take them tothe funeral expert for disposal, and take yourself to the grief counselor fora scrip of Prozac or Zoloft to get you through this moment of "depression."

    And that,Farber argues, is essentially an un-Christian way to live.

    Do you worry,I ask him, that you've not only become a Christian, you've become an anti-Semite?There's already a suggestion of anti-Semitism in denouncing modern psychology,because it's such a "Jewish" field. (Szasz, himself a Jew, complaineddecades ago that psychotherapy had become the new Jewish religion.) To set itup as a "pagan religion" Christians have a duty to denounce and oppose...To say things like, "People genuflect before Sigmund Freud. It's certainlya vile form of idolatry"... Well, it won't win him friends on the UpperWest Side.

    Farber knowshe'll get grief from some people, but says he can't let that blunt his message."Jesus was a Jew," he reiterates. "I'm talking about returningChristianity to its Jewish roots." Afterwords Two apparentlyunrelated articles in last Saturday's Times nicely bracketed someof the changes going on in book publishing lately. One was in the "Business"section, a small report on what will surely become another big flap: HarperCollins,owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., is seeking to buy Avon and Morrow, nowowned by Hearst. The move would further consolidate commercial book publishingin the hands of a few foreign-owned international conglomerates like the AussieMurdoch's group and the German Bertelsmann, which now owns Random House andhalf the known publishing universe. No doubt a new MorperCollvonrow beast willmean yet more divisions merged, staffs purged, more editors forced out or quittingin disgust and more outcry from mainstream authors and their agents about thedeath of competitive bidding for their manuscripts and ultimately the End ofAmerican Literature As We Know It. You knowmy riff on this. (a) American literature doesn't depend on commercial publishingfor its survival anyway; it lives mostly in the margins, among the small/independent/university/literarypresses. A lot of the titles that die when these mergers are made, especiallythe novels, are mediocrities that don't qualify as anything remotely literaryand the world didn't need to see them anyway. (b) Besides, its continuing conglomeratizationnotwithstanding, commercial publishing still somehow manages to put out itscustomary handful of fine books every year, its Mason and Dixon and AMan in Full and Turn of the Century, along with its small odd lotof outsiders, newcomers and contrarian intelligences like, just to name a fewexamples close at hand, Jim Knipfel, Amy Sohn, Jonathan Ames, Lionel Tiger and,in the near future, William Monahan and Dave Eggers. (c) Every writer who believesthey've written a book the world needs to read has numerous means beyond a six-figureRandom House deal of putting that book in front of the world. Most of theseways will not make them rich and famous, few will even help them pay the rent,but them's the breaks. The publishing industry doesn't owe everyone who wantsto be a writer a living any more than the record industry owes every band acontract or Hollywood owes a budget to everyone who decides they'd like to bea filmmaker. Yes, ofcourse the consolidation of commercial publishing is putting people out of work.I had lunch with one of them last week. As a senior editor at St. Martin's,Jim Fitzgerald was one of the last hipsters in mainstream publishing, kind ofa beatnik cowboy with cool tastes and interests. By last year the increasinglycorporate atmosphere at St. Martin's had gotten too much for him and he left;I get the impression the parting was mutually rots-a-ruck, fucker. He's resurrectedhimself as an agent with the Carol Mann agency, representing the kinds of authorshe used to publish anyway-Sonny Barger's a client-and looking more comfortablenow than when he was cooped up in the Flatiron Bldg. with the tightasses.

    The otherTimes article was in the "Arts" section. It was about the oppositeend of the publishing scale: how university presses, with private foundationbacking, are experimenting with publishing scholarly monographs online as opposedto in print. It's a smart use of electronic publishing. University presses,mandated to earn more through sales, are getting much better at publishing andmarketing general interest titles (NYU Press is a good example), but are alsocutting back on strictly scholarly ones. Meanwhile, the school libraries thatare the market for scholarly titles are cutting back as well. Yet getting yourmonograph published is still crucial to academic careers.

    Now thosemonographs can be published electronically for a fraction of the cost of print.As electronic texts, they can be linked to citations, which is a plus over print.For access to the website, libraries pay a subscription fee that's more affordablethan buying the print editions would have been. NYU Press editor-in-chief NikoPfund was telling me recently about a similar project to put scholarly and professionaljournals online; in print, the cost of subscriptions to these things have skyrocketed in recent years.

    James Poniewozik,whose smart and non-knee-jerk media columns have been one of the last reasonsI look at Salon anymore, is going to go write for Time. Now he'llbe one of my few reasons to pick up Time. Meanwhile, Salon's stillgot Camille (although she's wasted there, and would do much better with a realcolumn in a real weekly like NYPress) and little else to draw me back.

    As I write,Salon's IPO has been tentatively scheduled for this Friday, June 18.You wouldn't've thought the omens and oracles were especially propitious foran Internet stock offering at this time, but who knows? Maybe they're figuringthey better get it out there now before the market really tanks.