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The groveling underside of therapy

In One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance (ISBN 0-312-30443-9, $23.95), Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys and Who Stole Feminism? and Dr. Sally Satel, author of PC, MD: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine, make the case that our therapeutic society has run amuck, leading to a steady collapse of moral values and traditional American virtues.

Building on the arguments of other social commentators like Allan Bloom, Phillip Reiff, Charles Sykes, and Wendy Kaminer, Sommers and Satel give us evidence for what Reiff called the “triumph of the therapeutic,” and demonstrate the damage done by “the incursion of therapism and the growing role of helping professionals in our daily lives.” They cite the television shows in which every form of behavior, normal or aberrant, is analyzed to death; the grief counselors who, after public tragedies, descend like vultures onto carcasses; the mental health professionals who have decided that large percentages of American schoolchildren need therapy, stress relief, and medication; the general culture in which the psycho-babble of discredited psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers remain a part of our language and system of belief.

Sommers and Satel demonstrate how in the 1960s, humanist psychology turned away from the harsh teachings of Sigmund Freud and other psychotherapists regarding human nature. As noted by author David Frum, “Freudianism originated in the lands of Kafka and Wagner, of the Brothers Grimm and the Thirty Years War... strict Freudians were in no danger of being conned into an excessively optimistic view of human nature” — to a sunnier view both of the human heart and of the possible benefits of therapy on that heart. Maslow and Rogers, leaders in this therapeutic movement, stressed personal fulfillment and personal happiness, with an emphasis on the development of individual self-esteem. Though their programs calling for self-actualization and the programs of their followers, including many first-class crackpots, are today frequently debunked by traditional psychologists, their original call for tolerance, acceptance, and “niceness” remain such powerful concepts even now that many would label these qualities chief among our American virtues.

Having established the origins of this therapeutic thrust into our society, Sommers and Satel next reveal its many effects. They begin by examining the effect of what they call therapism on our nation’s schools. Here Sommers and Satel study the ridiculous attempts of some educators to eliminate competition among students, who are not fools and who see, even at an early age, through these adult manipulations; they unmask the myth of the homework “crisis” by pointing out how little the average American student actually does for daily homework; they show how unreserved tolerance can lead to students defending Hitler as “a man of his own time. We cannot judge him by our different standards.”

Moving out of the classroom, Sommers and Satel broaden their attack on therapism. The chapter “Sin to Syndrome” contends that, contrary to the tenets of therapism, murderers, burglars, drug addicts, alcoholics, and others who make war on our society must in some sense be held ultimately responsible for their misdeeds. The alternative to this call for individual responsibility, therapism and its attendant helping handmaidens, leads society to forgive nearly every crime, to bear the blame for every personal flaw. This chapter concludes that “there is an important place for a therapeutic perspective, for even the gravest misconduct, but it is secondary to the moral perspective... Personal responsibility cannot be compromised without indignity and injustice for all.”

In “Emotional Correctness,” Sommers and Satel show us why we are now expected to respond in certain ways to certain tragedies or situations. Here they focus particularly on the “grief industry,” citing numerous instances where grief counselors were dispatched so that feelings could be explored, anger and fear vented, despite the fact that many of the supposed victims whom the counselors intended to help resented both their intrusions and their aid.

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Perhaps the best chapter in One Nation Under Therapy, probably because it focused on a single event, was “September 11, 2001: The Mental Health Crisis That Wasn’t.” Here Sommers and Satel conclude that in the days following the attacks on their city, New Yorkers didn’t want grief counseling so much as leadership, inspiration, and a sense of a common cause. Sommers and Satel write that:

New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani grasped this intuitively. On September 11 he spoke to New Yorkers as mature adults, giving practical advice, telling them what he knew and did not know. He asked people to help each other out. The mayor was deeply human — when asked how many casualties there were, he replied unforgettably, “more than any of us can bear” — yet he never urged New Yorkers, en masse, to seek psychological help or invited trauma experts to lead the city in a group cry.

Sommers and Satel conclude One Nation Under Therapy by reminding their readers of the importance of the resolution of this issue. They describe the philosophy that traditionally has guided Americans, which some social historians have called the American Creed, by recounting the values of that creed: self-reliance, stoicism, courage in the face of adversity, and the valorization of excellence. Therapism, they contend, with its emphasis on self-absorption, self-esteem, excessive tolerance, and moral debility, stands in opposition to that dream and must ultimately be rejected as a guiding light for any healthy society.

One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance by Christina Hoff Sommers and Dr. Sally Satel. St. Martin's Press, 2005. 310 pages.

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