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A Few Notes on the Culture of Therapy

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So, here’s the thing–I think the problem with the therapeutic culture is bigger than excusing murderers because they couldn’t help themselves.  If that was all this strain of the culture was doing, it would be far more benign than it actually is.

What it’s mostly doing, however, is redefining undesirable personal traits–especially in children–as somehow “pathological.”

The most notorious instance of this is in the use of  Ritalin to treat “attention deficit disorder” and “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” which may actually exist on some level–and I’ve heard stories from parents with children whose behavior is apparently extreme, so I don’t rule it out–but in practice is usually foisted on a kid (almost always a boy) who is either not much interested in paying attention to class and homework and is thereby bugging his teachers, or doing the same and giving his middle or upper middle class parents the vapors that he won’t get into a “good” college.

To get back to one of my favorite points–the fact that you can learn more about human nature, and human psychology, from literature than you ever will be able to from a psychology textbook–Mark Twain knew better, and we should know better, too, but we don’t anymore.

Young boys have lots of pent up energy.  They almost always would prefer to be outside doing something than sitting in a classroom studying stuff that bores the hell out of them.  And they are often bored.  That’s why  Tom  Sawyer spent so much time skipping school, and  Tom  Sawyer’s people had a single prescription for his “problem”–he should grow up.

These days, though, a boy who is bored and restless in class isn’t just a boy, doing what boys do.  He has a “disorder,” and if his parents resist putting him on a daily does of speed to “fix” him, they’re likely to be turned into the juvenile authorities and forced to dose him.  Never mind the fact that this has been one of the largest pharmacalogical experiments in history and we as yet have no idea how taking speed for a decade while your body develops will affect you in the long run.

It goes beyond Ritalin and ADHD, though–remember rebellious teenagers?  They don’t exist anymore.  There’s “oppositional defiant disorder” instead, so if your sixteen year old hates your politics and won’t let anybody tell him what to do, he’s mentally ill and can be required to attend therapy sessions to “manage” his “disorder.”

The best one I’ve ever heard, though, is this:  it’s a symptom of “mental illness” in young boys and adolescents if they’re slobs.

I’m not making that up.

You throw the kid in the bath in the morning, you dress him in nice clean clothes, you make sure he looks beautiful and you send him out to the bus stop or drop him off at school–and, of course, by the time he hits home room, his shirt has come out of his pants, his socks are down around his ankles, and he’s somehow acquired a weird mustard yellow stain on the right leg of his pants.

This, I’m told, is a “symptom,” a sign of schizophrenia, even–not caring about your appearance is a big indicator of “mental illness.” 

As far as I can figure out, my father was “mentally ill” as an adolescent by this criteria, as was my brother, my husband, and both my nephews.   All the adlescent male characters in literature at least through the 1950s were similarly mentally ill, as were most of the ones in movies and on television. 

If you point out the silliness of all this to people committed to the therapeutic view of reality, you get told that it’s all about extremes–you have to look for the “extreme” cases.

But “extreme” is in the eye of the beholder, and what looks extreme to one person does not look extreme to another.  A lot depends on how you define the “problem” you’re looking at.   If I’m primed to see adolescent boys as immature slobs who ditch class and homework for videogames if they get half a chance, then all I’m going to “see” when they do that is a normal kid who needs to mature some, or even a lot, and get his act together.  If I’m primed to see a “pathology,” on the other hand, then a few weeks of bad hair suddenly become a “symptom.”

What really bugs me, though, in all of this, is the extent to which predominantly female behavior has been defined as “normal,” leaving what boys do naturally as “pathological.”

Girls commonly sit still in class and pay attention.  Girls commonly care desperately about their appearance.  Girls tend to like to make nice to authority and make a show of doing what they’re told.

What the therapeutic culture seems to want is for boys to act like girls–and if they don’t, then there must be something wrong with them.

Back to Mark Twain again, in literature we know better.  The rebellious adolescent has been a staple of every literary tradition since the beginning of time–a sure indication that what we’re looking at here is completely normal.  In no literature anywhere are adolescent males portrayed as polite, obedient neat freaks who want only to do their homework well and make their teachers love them.

Yes, okay, I know, individual girls and individual boys are often more like the other gender than their own.  But my point remains, I think, valid.  The therapeautid culture defines as “normal” a set of traits largely only normal in female children and adolescents, and brands anybody who strays from those traits as “ill,” and not only as “ill,” but as needing to be fixed, forcibly if they or their parents will not cooperate.  

Okay, I’ll admit it.  My animosity to this goes even further.  It’s not just that the therapeutic culture defines female behavior as “normal,” it’s that it defines as normal the behavior of the kind of female I never could stand even as a child.  Prissy, obedient, eager to suck up to people in authority, obsessed with appearance over substance, unimaginative and conventional–the perfect picture of the sort of girl who Gets  Good  Grades because she’s so utterly unoriginal she doesn’t threaten anybody, ever. 

Of course, some of this is the triumph of the culture of the school–as school coming to be seen as something “normal” that most of us do most of the time, for most of our lives.  Even many workplaces have been redefined as school-like, complete with regularly scheduled report cards called “performance reviews” and the expectation that middle management will be obedient and conventional, if it wants to stay employed.

Maybe the other problem with this is that it seems to me to be so insidious.  Our elected representatives are not installing laws to implement these ideas–if they were, there would be some public discussion of them.   Instead, these are the trends and fads in teachers’ colleges and schools of social work, and they’re implemented as departmental policy in public institutions.  You’re unlikely to know what’s going on until you crash right into it. 

I don’t know how it can be undone, or if it can be undone, but lately I’ve thought that I might know a place to start trying.

Maybe it’s time to eliminate the centrality of schools.

And more on that later.

Written by janeh

March 11th, 2009 at 5:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'A Few Notes on the Culture of Therapy'

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  1. I think you may be slightly biased on this issue – possibly because you have sons.

    Oh, I agree with you on the vast over-prescription of ritalin, mainly to energetic boys who could quite possibly benefit more from learning to direct their energy into something – sports, exercise, work – anything productive and physical (and if I said that in some circles, the LEAST of the comments I’d get was that I was both ignorant and arrogant – after all, how many boys have I given birth to or raised? None, right?

    But I’m not convinced that this is supposed to feminize boys – although you’re not the first person I’ve read who has made that suggestion. As you also say, only a particular type of ‘femininity’ is approved, and that’s one that all too often involves a dangerous emphasis on maintaining a pre-pubescent skinniness that can only be obtained by dangerous dieting – and that’s in spite of official ad campaigns trying to insist there are many ways to be beautiful. Then you get into clothes for the really pre-pubescent girls and the clothing that a street prostitute might not wear and the preponderance on pink. I hate pink; I must not be a real female! And that’s without getting into the prissy behaviour you describe. Where are the big bosomy mother figures and the powerful matriarchs (in potential at that age, I suppose!); the adventurous and curious? I think we still have them, but they aren’t the ones in the public eye. Sometimes I think society is far less rigid than it was when I was growing up (late 50s and 60s), sometimes I think only the type of rigidity has changed. We were expected to dress neatly and behave well and most of us expected to work for a few years and become SAH wives and mothers. Now girls seem to expect to dress, not neatly, but still strictly in accord with fashion and to demonstrate that they fit in – not by planning the work + SAM path, but by work + serial relationships and maybe children. It’s like those boring older people said back in the 60s and 70s said – everyone rebels against the status quo in exactly the same way.

    But there were then and there are now people who don’t follow the status quo.

    I am extremely reluctant to eliminate the centrality of schools if by that you mean anything like not having required public education with some kind of common core curriculum. Sure, some people can and do successfully school at home, and some can afford private schools. But without something for all children, some children – probably those most at risk anyway – are going to miss out on any education at all.

    And the standardization of behaviour in workplaces goes back to the Industrial Revolution. I think actually the change in the schools came after the change in society required workers who were used to living under the rule of the bell and a rigid schedule.


    11 Mar 09 at 6:43 am

  2. I read an article, I think in “Salon” recently that there’s a movement (kinda like a bowel movement) to define climate-change skeptics and deniers as pathological. So yeah, that trend is out there. When one faction wants to define another as pathological when they don’t agree with politics or scientific interpretation, then not only is free speech and dissent stifled, it’s grounds for committal.

    On the other hand, not all prescription of Ritalin is wrong. When an acquaintance of our daughter was prescribed it, we asked him directly what the effects were. He’d definitely been a “jump off the walls” kind of kid. His response was that he felt better because now “I can concentrate on something and learn it” and he himself saw it as a positive benefit. While we do not know the long term effects, the long term effects of failing in school for more than a decade is pretty obvious.

    Feminization of a particular type, well, let me tell you I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life attempting to overcome that Good Girl. In fact one of my major art quilt works, still in progress, is called “Killing the Good Girl.” Boy do I hate her, and all her requirements to be still, not challenge authority, not confront anyone or disagree with them. This also is a work in progress.

    I was very disappointed with what I saw in my son’s schooling of the inevitable insistence on conforming behavior. It’s not possible to manage several thousand lively young people without having standards of behavior that apply to all. Or is it? On one hand, he needed to respect authority when it came to safety, health and treatment of others. On the other, when they insisted on stupid, often wrong answers to questions, or tried to enforce meaningless behavior for its own sake, I encouraged him to resist. This is very hard to define for a child.

    I don’t think the traits you’re defining as “normal” to a female actually are. I just think females are naturally more socially malleable, and if society valued independence, forthrightness and self-respect more in females, that’s what we’d see. The trend toward wanting the same traits in males is just further standardization. We wouldn’t want to treat women as we’ve treated men, and it would be scandalous to have women acting like men, so the standard must become female behavior if everyone is going to be treated the same.

    A sad trend, if you ask me.


    11 Mar 09 at 9:36 am

  3. The more things change, the more they are the same. Back in the twentieth century (and earlier) various kinds of behaviour was considered evidence of ‘maladjustment’ and cause for committal – to a prison or psychiatric asylum. The reasons vary – having sex outside marriage (for a female) used to be a far more serious offence than having unpopular views on scientific theories.

    I’m not at all sure women are more socially malleable than men, although women do seem to respond to pressure to conform differently than men do, and to be treated differently when they offend against the norms, perhaps partly as a result of the different ways they tend to offend.

    The balance between individual and group norms; no, not norms exactly, maybe role as a source of authority has changed a lot. Even there, of course, the idea that the individual is the source of authority goes way back, too. You need a certain level of conforming behaviour to have a group function efficiently and effectively. The more the individual decides which behaviour is ‘meaningless’ and shouldn’t be carried out, the harder it is for a group to function. I don’t think anyone can manage large – or even moderately large – groups of people without reducing their ability to decide as individuals how they want to behave.

    We exaggerate how much increased liberty we have gained over the last 50 years or so. Oh, we’ve got some – there’s increased employment opportunties for women, for example. But a lot of the supposed increased freedoms really consist of new orthodoxies enforced in much the same ways as the old ones.


    11 Mar 09 at 10:13 am

  4. I take your point on the usual behavior of boys vs girls. And I’d also agree that not all of life has to resemble school.

    But performance reviews have a real function aside from keeping people in place – without them, you have no mechanism to recognize and deal with the fact that some people do their jobs and others don’t.

    When I started here (at my company) we didn’t have them, and it was up to each manager to get the people who worked for them to do their jobs. The problem is, nothing in anyone’s performance had any effect on their compensation so the managers were pretty powerless. At least with a decently managed performance review system we can stop paying people for things they aren’t doing.

    But I’ll admit that some people do use them to elicit behavior rather than performance. I’ve consciously tried not to do that – it’s not necessary for Tess and Eric and Ben (people who work for me) to be just like me, if they get their jobs done effectively.


    11 Mar 09 at 10:22 am

  5. You left out tattletale–another of those delightful “certain kind of female” traits that the educational powers that be love to encourage.

    But of course they’re, if not right, at least consistent. If you’ve built a branch of feminist theory over the absence of “gender” differences, then obviously the boys who behave in an unsatisfactory fashion can’t just be normal boys, because then there really would be sexual differences. It’s SO much easier to drug the boys than to reexamine the ideology.

    Find a way to diminish the centrality of schools and I’ll certainly give it a good look. Putting more men–especially ones who never were education majors–in elementary and secondary classrooms might also help.

    More likely, we’ll do it the New American way: have the young men who were drugged as boys sue the pants off the school systems that did it. It should work out at least as well as it’s doing for asbestos.


    11 Mar 09 at 4:28 pm

  6. I’m going to ask a stupid question. When did the idea of teenager as a special category develop?

    If I recall correctly, nobles in Europe during the age of chivalry used to send their sons to other families to serve as pages and squires.

    Merchants and tradesmen used to send their sons out to be apprentices.

    The idea that the teen years should be spent in school is fairly recent. What happened and why?


    12 Mar 09 at 3:49 pm

  7. jd, didn’t the whole idea of extending childhood into one’s 20s arise after the Industrial Revolution? Well after, actually – possibly in the Victoria era?


    12 Mar 09 at 3:57 pm

  8. What happened is that as a culture, we needed our adolescents to not enter society as adults until much later, so we invented all sorts of methods for extending childhood. There weren’t enough jobs after WWII, remember all those women who had worked during it thrown out of jobs for the men who returned? Well, we couldn’t have all those graduating high-school seniors entering the workforce either. So enter college as a great way to keep young people out of the workforce. The GI Bill itself helped keep lots of returning soldiers in school and let them reenter the work force gradually.

    Also, standards for age of consent and marriage have constantly crept up. Drinking age leapt 3 years. Seems stupid that some young person who could marry, vote and die for his or her country can’t drink, dunnit??

    Before WWII teenagers were young adults, on the edge of employment, marriage and full entry into life. Now they’re considered children. What a difference 70 years makes, huh? Think of all the teenage movies made in the 50s, Frankie and Annette, Gidget on the beach, etc. All portraying teenagers as carefree and with no adult demands placed upon them. “Don’t grow up too fast” is the message, though that Gidget is hot to trot.

    Before WWII, there was some extension of childhood for college kids (think of the 1920s) but that was only the upper classes. Everybody else got married and got to work. There too, Daddy didn’t want Junior coming into the family money or at the helm of the financial ship too soon.

    In 70 more years, the age of majority may be 35, if current trends continue. Or, it may be dropped to 15, if all we old folks need the young ones to work and support us. I plan to observer personally. ;)


    12 Mar 09 at 4:17 pm

  9. That sounds about right to me, Mary & Lymaree.

    As an anecdote – we used to finish school with Grade 11 in my home province. It seemed to work fine. The local university had a ‘foundation year’, but bright students went to other universities without it. It wasn’t at all unusual to have people graduating from high school at 16. I graduated at 15, and I wasn’t unique by a long shot – it depended on your birthday and whether your school allowed skipping grades. I think in at least one school, they had children starting Grade 1 at 5-years-old-before Dec. 31 instead of starting Kindergarten.

    Then the government decided we needed a more modern school system. A major aim of that particular reform was to offer a program that had more breadth (and possibly less depth) by offering more subjects, almost all in semesterized versions so as to allow maximum flexibility in scheduling. That the flexibility didn’t always work well in a largely rural province with mostly small rural schools …. well, that’s a topic for another post. The other big aim was to give the students another year to mature before leaving home, ‘solving’ a problem I don’t think existed. Sure, some people of my generation didn’t do well leaving home so early (and if you wanted further education, you had to leave home). But the post-Grade 12 generation, if anything, appeared less mature on leaving school, and I don’t think the effect was entirely due to me being older myself. What would you expect when you treated them like children for another year?

    And the possibility that an unstated reason for the change was to keep those high school graduates who *didn’t* go off to university or Trades School, as we called it then, off the Unemployment Insurance rolls for a year did get mentioned.

    Ontario, now, did the reverse. They used to have a Grade 13. They cancelled it, dumping a double lot of graduates onto the job markets and post-secondary institutions for one year, and ensuring the subsequent graduates had to pay for that extra year out of their pocket in the form of extra courses in a post-secondary school.


    13 Mar 09 at 6:30 am

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