We have an unofficial mantra in America. If your life is in the toilet, don’t worry, because inevitably somebody is in a worse spot than you. It’s no secret we live in a voyeuristic society—we love to hear about other people’s problems. And that’s why In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession with Self-Fulfillment is so entertaining. The reader gets to peek at over a century’s worth of the issues and problems of others.
Moskowitz’s book gives us an informal look at the history of self-analysis and self-fulfillment in America, beginning in 1859 with Phineas Quimby’s “conversational” medical treatments, ending with Oprah and therapy websites. Sometimes she offers insight as to how successful these different psychological measures are, but she rarely goes very deep. Let’s face it, it’s more fun to move onto “Fuck You, I’m Me” therapy of the ‘70’s then to spend too much time dissecting the “New Thought” theories from the turn of the century. If you’re an ordinary Joe, you’d rather read about “crotch-eyeballing” than forcing your tiny brain to consider all the social, economical, sexual, and cultural ramifications of America’s obsession with itself.
In Therapy We Trust
America's Obsessions With Self-fulfillment
(The Johns Hopkins University Press)
In Therapy We Trust is psychology- and history-lite. The reader gleans a good basic history of “the worship of the psyche,” but not a whole lot more. I finished the book realizing that Moskowitz failed to touch largely upon American insane asylums, or the jump in the popularity of personal therapists in the last 25 years or so. I didn’t even find out how the term “shrink” was coined. The book in some ways reads like a women’s magazine quiz—fun and a little insightful, but in the end not very enlightening.
But that’s not to say Moskowitz’s book isn’t food for thought. As long as the reader doesn’t expect an incredibly detailed or scientific analysis, he will find the book interesting. Moskowitz states that America today has become consumed by a “therapeutic gospel”—who could argue with that? But while Moskowitz fails to present a challenging thesis, she does give the reader pause to consider the large psychological nature of our nation, by revealing the little analyses that infiltrate our world without knowing it. Her chapters on the psychological issues of marriage and war are especially engrossing, and her section called “Women’s Magazines and the Therapeutic Gospel,” will make any magazine reader realize how much of the messaging within these periodicals is aimed towards a woman’s psyche.
One element of Moskowitz’s book is that while she does not debase the value of therapy, she maintains a certain sense of irony which is essential. An overly p.c. interpretation of the subject matter would have made me regurgitate, especially after recently reading a book about the Middle Ages, where many happily looked forward to death, not the “I’m OK-You’re OK” kind of thinking. But Moskowitz, I think, correctly picks apart some of the thinner ideas of self-help:
Perhaps no psychological condition better illustrates the foolishness of trying to avoid being diagnosed with some form of mental disorder than “happiness anxiety.” This condition frequently afflicts those (presumably rare) people who are actually happy. Though temporarily content, they are tortured by the awareness that they may someday become unhappy, an awareness undoubtedly heightened when they look around and see what a miracle it is that they are still psychologically healthy.
I do not knock the importance of counseling for people with serious problems such as mental disorders or alcoholism. After reading about such issues as “The Super Bowl syndrome,” however, my own personal analysis about much of mental America is this: we’re self-centered wimps. Only a culture like ours can develop on-line therapeutic support systems and then diagnose Internet Addiction Disorder. Moskowitz outlines a troubling trend as Americans have slowly stopped finding faults with themselves and begun blaming them on external sources—being overweight/alcoholic/promiscuous is not your fault, for example, you were made that way. We have seen this trend exploited at its greatest by false claims made after psychologists supposedly explore suppressed memory. How unusual is this sentence regarding early 20th-century therapy: “Patients [were not] accustomed to the idea, readily accepted today, that they should disclose intimate personal facts to perfect strangers.” Not only do we accept that idea today, we love it.
We also see a growing tendency to over-diagnose, as Moskowitz lists a newly coined childhood disorder called oppositional defiant disorder, “suffered by childen who do at least four of the following for a period of six months: lose their temper, argue with adults, refuse to comply with adult’s rules, annoy people, blame others for their misbehavior, or act touchy, angry, or spiteful.” According to this description, I would diagnose all children, as well as most adults, as suffering from this disorder. Moskowitz points out that our obsession with the psyche has often crowded out more important and immediate issues and realities. Take, for instance, the many attempts to cure the low self-esteem of low-income individuals. Sure, they have low self-esteem, but they don’t need therapy, they need a leg up.
Moskowitz does highlight some truly interesting and emotional perspectives of the human psyche, and the strides made in our ability to address them. Her studies of the reforming of the juvenile court system and the mental health of American soldiers both pre- and post-battle were especially insightful, but the hard data lies amidst a lot of dish, especially during the last few chapters, where Moskowitz seems to take pleasure in detailing the outrageous efforts of the “me” decade and the food fights on Jerry Springer. Here there is not much analysis beyond the story.
Essentially, the problems with Moskowitz’s book are the exact problems with therapy itself. The book is fun to read, just as it is often satisfying to spend time focusing on ourselves and our problems, making ourselves feel important. But Moskowitz does not come up with many revelations or new ideas, and simply identifying our mental problems does not solve them.
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