Jesus vs. Freud

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:21

    Mental health professionals tend to react to Seth Farber's ideas with the sort of shock and outrage with which heresy is condemned by faithful religious types. "Don't touch this book with a twenty foot pole," one of them wrote his publisher on reading the manuscript that would become his latest book, Unholy Madness (InterVarsity Press, 162 pages, $12.99). "I suspect the author is a mental patient masquerading as a psychologist. Is he a mental patient?"

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

    I don't use the religious analogy lightly. Farber's publisher, InterVarsity Press, is a Christian evangelical outfit. Those prepublication reviewers were Christian psychologists. And Farber has declared psychology a form of pagan religion that no 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 is crucifying Jesus Christ every day," he says. True Christians would be opening their churches and their homes to schizophrenics, not fobbing them off on institutions and bombing them with drugs. "Christ said, 'What you do to the least of my 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 lower or more outcast than the schizophrenic. "Jesus went to the people of lowest status and said that in his community they will be treated as equals... How is it that the church abandons these people to the pagan religion of psychiatry?"

    When I tell him it sounds to me like he's preaching a kind of liberation theology for mental patients, 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 this stuff, you know."

    Right, I forgot: 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 nonpracticing Jew.

    Well, you know what they say about new converts. 

    It's characteristic of Farber that he shows me the negative reactions to his book with as much pride as the positive jacket blurbs from prominent renegade shrinks like Thomas Szasz (The Myth of Mental Illness, The Manufacture of Madness) and Peter Breggin (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 remember R.D. Laing? A long time ago I briefly worked as a nurse's aide on a locked ward of a state mental institution. I worked in a couple other mental health-related settings, but that place, that prison for crazy people, was the topper. I'll never disagree with what Laing said about them: "If I was feeling vulnerable or confused or terrified, I think the last place I would want to be would be one of those mental hospitals."

    If you're a mental health professional, you'd disagree with just about everything Laing said, if you remember him at all. When I ask Farber if he's the last true believer in the renegade psychiatry of Laing and Szasz, he says there's a tiny handful left, "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, before that was shut down and the entire profession went full-on pharmaco-behaviorist.

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

    Laing was evidently 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 shrinks in the business, and have them talking sense to him in no time. In a way it was the ultimate in talk therapy, at a time when the rest of the profession was 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 psychiatric Dr. Dolittle parlor trick.

    Not by Farber. Studying for his PhD in psychology in the late 70s, he writes, "I reached the conclusion that [Szasz and Laing] were correct: mental illness does not exist. 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 became disenchanted with Freudian psychotherapy, but enthralled with family therapy, "which convinced me...that the person deemed mentally ill by mental health authorities was being scapegoated for problems whose locus was not within the individual but between individuals, usually within the family.

    "In other words, the model of family therapy that I studied maintained that the cause of the present distress of the 'identified patient' was not so much traumatic events in the past but dysfunctional relationships in the present. The solution therefore was not, as Freudians insisted, to relive the past and attempt to achieve insight into the origins of one's problems but to modify the dynamics of interpersonal relationships involving the 'patient' in the present."

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

    In private practice, he became increasingly involved in what was called the "mental patients liberation movement," a network of renegade shrinks and clients who felt they'd been victimized by the mental health industry. Farber's been especially active in putting people together with MDs who'll help them get off those antipsychotic drugs, which come with an array of wicked side effects including Parkinsonism, encephalitis and, most prevalent, tardive dyskinesia (TD), the grossly disfiguring lack of motor control that causes monstrous distortions and tremors of the face and body. The American Psychiatric Association's own data indicate that at least 20 percent and perhaps as many as 60 percent of patients taking neuroleptics develop TD. "The overwhelming majority of these people are at worst nuisances," he argues, yet in "medicating" them psychiatrists cause over half of them to develop "irreversible neurological damage."

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

    I first met Farber in 1993. His book Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angels had just come out. In it he theorized that rather than an illness, psychotic episodes might best be understood as severe spiritual crises that, viewed in a positive therapeutic way rather than simply as an opportunity to incarcerate and drug the sufferer, could lead to spiritual and personal growth. It got him on Geraldo, Oprah and Firing Line (the latter with Kate Millet), as a result of which he was contacted, he says, by more than 10,000 "victims or survivors of the mental health industry" around the country. (I remember two of them well, because I interviewed them by phone: They were former Doublemint Twins.)

    And along the way, in 1991, he became a Christian. He'd been having "some kinds of mystical 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 of Russian philosophers like Berdyaev, he switched to the Russian Orthodox Church.

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

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

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

    In Unholy Madness?subtitled The Church's Surrender to Psychiatry?he argues that Christianity lost most of that old revolutionary spirit a long time ago, back when Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was no longer underground or outcast or persecuted, but in fact at the very center of power in Europe. One theologian has written that if Jesus had preached this version of Christianity he never would've been crucified?indeed, the Romans would have lionized him and sent him out to give speeches in trouble spots around the 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 God talks to you, you're a schizophrenic and you get locked up. If God starts talking to you, Farber says, you better not tell your priest or rabbi, they'll just tell you to seek professional help.

    "Christianity was the first powerful egalitarian movement to challenge these kinds of invidious distinctions made by people in power," he contends. In terms of the mental health movement, he'd like to see it return to those roots.

    He and I discuss the treatment of mental illness today in the context of "Christian community," family therapy and interpersonal responsibility. It used to be that when people were sad, when kids were antsy, when grandparents got a bit foggy in their minds, even when people acted "crazy" and had visions or heard voices, you dealt with it in the family and in the community. It was?they were?your responsibility. It's only been in the last 100, maybe 150 years that we'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 of human existence before this would've been considered "normal" life events?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 them to the expert who diagnoses them as having attention deficit disorder and bombs them with Ritalin; if your husband's acting strange you take him to the expert who diagnoses him as schizophrenic and bombs him with Haldol; when your parents get old and feeble you ship them off to the warehouse for old and feeble people where the experts hold them until they die, at which point you take them to the funeral expert for disposal, and take yourself to the grief counselor for a 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, complained decades ago that psychotherapy had become the new Jewish religion.) To set it up as a "pagan religion" Christians have a duty to denounce and oppose... To say things like, "People genuflect before Sigmund Freud. It's certainly a vile form of idolatry"... Well, it won't win him friends on the Upper West Side.

    Farber knows he'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 returning Christianity to its Jewish roots." Afterwords Two apparently unrelated articles in last Saturday's Times nicely bracketed some of 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, now owned by Hearst. The move would further consolidate commercial book publishing in the hands of a few foreign-owned international conglomerates like the Aussie Murdoch's group and the German Bertelsmann, which now owns Random House and half the known publishing universe. No doubt a new MorperCollvonrow beast will mean yet more divisions merged, staffs purged, more editors forced out or quitting in disgust and more outcry from mainstream authors and their agents about the death of competitive bidding for their manuscripts and ultimately the End of American Literature As We Know It. You know my riff on this. (a) American literature doesn't depend on commercial publishing for its survival anyway; it lives mostly in the margins, among the small/independent/university/literary presses. A lot of the titles that die when these mergers are made, especially the novels, are mediocrities that don't qualify as anything remotely literary and the world didn't need to see them anyway. (b) Besides, its continuing conglomeratization notwithstanding, commercial publishing still somehow manages to put out its customary handful of fine books every year, its Mason and Dixon and A Man in Full and Turn of the Century, along with its small odd lot of outsiders, newcomers and contrarian intelligences like, just to name a few examples 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 believes they've written a book the world needs to read has numerous means beyond a six-figure Random House deal of putting that book in front of the world. Most of these ways 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 wants to be a writer a living any more than the record industry owes every band a contract or Hollywood owes a budget to everyone who decides they'd like to be a filmmaker.

    Yes, of course 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 of a beatnik cowboy with cool tastes and interests. By last year the increasingly corporate 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 resurrected himself as an agent with the Carol Mann agency, representing the kinds of authors he used to publish anyway?Sonny Barger's a client?and looking more comfortable now than when he was cooped up in the Flatiron Bldg. with the tightasses.

    The other Times article was in the "Arts" section. It was about the opposite end of the publishing scale: how university presses, with private foundation backing, are experimenting with publishing scholarly monographs online as opposed to in print. It's a smart use of electronic publishing. University presses, mandated to earn more through sales, are getting much better at publishing and marketing general interest titles (NYU Press is a good example), but are also cutting back on strictly scholarly ones. Meanwhile, the school libraries that are the market for scholarly titles are cutting back as well. Yet getting your monograph published is still crucial to academic careers.

    Now those monographs 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 affordable than buying the print editions would have been. NYU Press editor-in-chief Niko Pfund was telling me recently about a similar project to put scholarly and professional journals 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 reasons I look at Salon anymore, is going to go write for Time. Now he'll be one of my few reasons to pick up Time. Meanwhile, Salon's still got Camille (although she's wasted there, and would do much better with a real column 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 for an Internet stock offering at this time, but who knows? Maybe they're figuring they better get it out there now before the market really tanks.