One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance
by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel
St. Martin’s Press. 310pp. $23.95
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 9,000 “grief counselors” descended on New York City. Their mission was to provide the treatment and psychological guidance considered necessary to help both survivors and families of victims in coping with their trauma. So ubiquitous has this sort of intervention become after every disaster in America that we no longer stop to think about it. Yet, according to Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel in One Nation Under Therapy, it is just one manifestation of a much larger and in their view highly detrimental set of assumptions about how to deal with the vicissitudes of life—assumptions that now permeate many of our public institutions.
Christina Hoff Sommers is the author of Who Stole Feminism (1994) and The War Against Boys (2000), two trenchant analyses of the baleful impact of extreme feminist theory on the education of both boys and girls. Sally Satel, like Sommers a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a practicing psychiatrist and the author of PC MD (2002), an account of how “identity politics,” in the form of theories about race, gender, and poverty, has compromised the practice of medicine. The book they have now co-authored is a biting exposé of “therapism”—not the same thing as therapy per se, which can often provide real benefits, but a damaging mindset that, in their words, “pathologizes normal human emotion, promoting the illusion that we are very fragile beings and urging grand emotional displays as the prescription for coping.”
One Nation Under Therapy is organized around specific practices that have been promoted by the mental-health establishment and are now widely institutionalized. In many schools, for instance, certain games, including dodge ball and tag, have been eliminated, on the grounds that they inflict an esteem-killing competitiveness and sense of exclusion on the “fragile child”—a helpless creature of the therapists’ imagination who wilts at the slightest breath of criticism, judgment, or failure. Despite the fact that (as the authors put it) “the prevalence of depression among children and adolescents has not significantly changed in the past 30 years,” and that no scientific evidence links elevated self-esteem to success or happiness, a belief in children’s psychic vulnerability has become enshrined in school programs and curricula.
Sommers and Satel turn next to the so-called “human-potential movement,” a mid-20th-century offspring of the psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers and the parent, in turn, of the self-esteem craze. This school of thought posits the existence inside each of us of an ideal self, “buried under a lot of wreckage put there by a judgmental, emotionally withholding, unforgiving, and oppressive society.”
In this reading, persons we might once have considered sinners or wrongdoers are instead reconceived as the victims of malign social forces, and entitled as such to our empathy and compassion and, frequently, our tax dollars. They can be restored to health only through the ministrations of professionals who have been trained to guide them on the path of personal fulfillment “through a regimen of self-preoccupation, self-expression, and psychic release.” From this medicalizing of moral failure, write Sommers and Satel, have come such latter-day spectacles as the “treatment” accorded to some pedophiliac Catholic priests who, once “cured” of their “sickness,” were released to prey again on children in their parishes.
Still another expression of therapism is the doctrine of “emotional correctness.” According to its dictates, people who have suffered a tragedy are virtually required to dwell publicly on what they have undergone lest they be considered humanly inadequate. The idea here is that sudden or deep loss can leave a hidden dysfunction in the psyche, often in the form of “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD)—a term invented by antiwar activists in the late 1960’s to pathologize Vietnam veterans, now extended into an all-purpose “archetype for the experience of adversity in our culture.”
For Sommers and Satel, PTSD, like emotional correctness, “confuse[s] pathos with pathology.” Worse, it ignores “how frequently survivors find sustaining meaning in heartbreak and how often they persevere nobly” in the face of it, especially if they have the support of family, friends, or religious faith. By contrast, “when people are distraught, ruminating about their pain may only intensify the pain.”
This brings us back to 9/11 and its aftermath. As it turned out, the 9,000 counselors and therapists who gathered in New York ended up with very little to do. Most people, drawing on their own resources of resilience and inner strength, were quite able to deal with that life-shattering disaster. Indeed, as Sommers and Satel conclude, many victims of trauma “can point to ways they have benefited [emphasis added] from their struggle to cope” with catastrophe. What they need most from the helping arms of society is a reduction in the “disorder, uncertainty, and economic devastation” that accompany such events. Mental-health professionals unable to strike “a balance between offering [their] services and promoting them too eagerly” too often constitute only another source of disorder, and a hindrance to healing.
One Nation Under Therapy is a salutary book, one that not only provides convincing evidence of the harm done by therapism but also reminds us of the appropriateness—indeed, the necessity—of indignation and censoriousness in the face of destructive behavior. Beyond this, it seeks to recover the connection between such old-fashioned virtues and the preservation of a democratic culture founded on the ideals of autonomy and freedom. As Sommers and Satel rightly point out, “Only a society that treats its members as ethically responsible and personally accountable can achieve and sustain a democratic civil order.” The American creed, in particular, emphasizes “self-reliance, stoicism, courage in the face of adversity, and the valorization of excellence.” Therapism, unfortunately, “is at odds with them all.”
If I have a reservation about the authors’ argument, it has to do with their insistence on confining themselves to the realm of social science and social psychology. Given their perspective, this was perhaps unavoidable, but it leaves open the question of whether there is such a thing as a “science” of human identity and behavior in the first place. Sommers and Satel answer one deeply flawed conception of human well-being with another that is presumably more accurate and assuredly more mature. But, from the scientific point of view, psychological states are in general notoriously difficult to define, measure, and assess, and most efforts to do so are inevitably compromised by the subjectivity and fuzziness of terms like “happy,” “anxious,” and so forth. In the end one wonders whether we might not be better served simply by relying on our common moral sense, aided by the millennial teachings of literature and religion.
Within its own social-scientific framework, however, One Nation Under Therapy does an impressive job of documenting the shaky assumptions, bad science, and simplistic nostrums of therapism. It also offers powerful empirical reasons for resisting an ideology whose proponents seem bent on turning us not into free and responsible adults but into children dependent on their advice and treatment, if not subject to their control.