A guide to therapy that explores the intersection between the personal and the political.
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A Feminist Alternative Therapy
By Betty McLellan, Janet Mackenzie
Spinifex PressCopyright © 1995 Betty McLellan,
All rights reserved.
PSYCHOTHERAPY AND FEMINISM A HISTORY
During the 1960s and early 1970s, when consciousness-raising (CR) groups made it possible for women in Western cultures to speak out about their various oppressions, many women — and some men — were appalled to learn of the high incidence of what are now called the "private" oppressions of women. As women took courage and spoke about their own experiences over many years, the gruesome picture slowly unfolded of women and children in great numbers suffering physical, emotional and sexual abuse in their own homes, at the hands of the very men society said should be their protectors.
Another of the "private" oppressions of women that began to come to light at that time was the oppression that took place in therapy, almost always by a male therapist. Women told of years of hospitalisation, shock therapy, excessive use of tranquillisers and anti-depressants. They told of the crazy mind-games that therapists played with them until they were so confused that they began to believe they must, in fact, be mad. They told horrific stories of sexual exploitation by male therapists. They told of mystification, intimidation, manipulation, lies — all in the name of therapy.
They told of the conspiracy between husbands and therapists which kept them incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals for months and years, or drugged so heavily that they could be nothing but dependent and submissive. They gave examples of therapist after therapist not believing them, not even listening to them.
They told of their feelings of guilt and helplessness and hopelessness as blame was heaped on them by therapists, regardless of what they went to talk to the therapists about. If a woman talked about her husband's violence, she was encouraged to try to be more understanding of the stresses her husband might be experiencing or, worse still, she was encouraged to look at what she was doing to "provoke" his violence. If she talked about her lack of interest in sex, she was reminded that men needed sex, and warned that if her marriage broke up and her children were fatherless, it would be her fault. If she ventured to speak about having been sexually abused in childhood, she was led to believe that perhaps it was all in her imagination, because men simply did not behave in this way. There was very little support forthcoming from therapists: only blame. The victim was to blame.
Women who had previously remained silent about their experiences in therapy were now, in CR groups, finding the courage to share their stories with each other. The more they talked, the more they understood what had really happened, and the angrier they became.
Barbara Findlay's account of her experiences appears in a book edited by Dorothy Smith and Sara David, called Women Look at Psychiatry. Published in 1975 by the Press Gang collective in Vancouver, Canada, this anthology contains several powerful accounts of women's experiences and is compulsory reading for any feminist with an interest in therapy.
In her first year of university, feeling lonely and isolated and unable to find anyone to talk to, Barbara Findlay decided to make an appointment to see a psychiatrist. She was just seventeen years old. As she recalls, she had "absolute confidence in psychiatrists and their ability to help" (p. 61), and consequently had no idea that this was to be the beginning of several years of hell on earth. The following are excerpts from her account of her experiences:
I have been mentally ill ... I have credentials as long as my arm certifying that I am an abnormal female, desperately in need of help to adjust to society and function in it "normally" ...
I have done the whole trip — psychoanalysis, tranquilizers, suicide attempts, mental institutions. And the only surprising thing about it is that I emerged from it all still sane (p. 59).
Referring to her numerous experiences of interrogation by psychiatrists, she said:
It was a double bind ... If I refused to answer their questions I was resistant; if I told them it didn't matter I was denying. There was no way to convince them otherwise. Because they are the sane, normal, healers, and I was the insane, abnormal, sick patient. They got to decide what was true and real for me. And their job was to convince, persuade, seduce or threaten me to accept that reality as my own (p. 63).
She gives a frightening description of the total lack of privacy accorded to her during her first experience as a patient in a psychiatric ward.
My first incarceration coincided with my first-year university exams, which terrified me, and were largely responsible, in retrospect, for my panic ...
However it never occurred to me at the time that the exams were worrying me; I was just psychotic. And so I ended up in the psychiatric ward of the general hospital. The hospital was hideous. Since I was suicidal they put me on "constant observation" which meant that I was watched 24 hours a day by a ward aide who sat at the foot of my bed ... Every move that I made was "symptomatic" — a feature of my disease. They searched my belongings ... They read my poetry anthology while I was asleep, and the fact that many of the poems were "morbid" was a bad sign. They sifted through my garbage and picked up all the bits I'd written. I was naked and there was nowhere to go to escape their eyes (pp. 68–9).
At the end of her story, Barbara Findlay describes how she came to realise she was not insane and did not actually need to depend on psychiatrists.
In my last years at that university I had three very fine women friends, who were very important in making me see that at least I was not alone. Friendships with women were discounted by the shrinks as trivial. It never occurred to them that women had anything to say to each other or to learn from each other. I couldn't put together what I heard the women saying with what I heard the shrinks saying. But when I moved away at the end of the four years, and set myself up away from the shrinks' insidious influence, the credibility gap got greater and greater. I read Sisterhood is Powerful, and I was on my way to understanding what the psychiatric trip had been all about.
As a woman I am now much more at home in the world, because I see that the "fault", which I saw as my moral fault, was only the "fault" of having been born female. My guilt and fear of competence have dropped away (p. 71).
Many women around that time also revealed that they had been victims of sexual advances by male therapists. Phyllis Chesler devotes a whole chapter in Women and Madness to the issue of sex between patient and therapist. "Such a transaction between patient and therapist, euphemistically termed 'seduction' or 'part of the treatment process'," she says, "is legally a form of rape and psychologically a form of incest" (1972, p. 138). An excerpt from Chesler's interview with a patient called Joyce describes how sex with her male therapist started, and gives an indication of the mind-games he used to play with her:
The week before he'd made me put my head on his lap just like I used to do with my father when I had a bad headache, and he'd stroked my hair. It was very warm; I was a little girl and he was my father. Then his hand slipped ... The next session he helped me on with my coat, turned me around to him, and kissed me quite passionately. And I was quite shocked ... and then I burst into tears. I'm melodramatic anyway, but I was really upset. Because I didn't know what to make of it. And I said, "Why did you do that?" It was a stupid question to ask, really, and he said, "What? Do what? What are you talking about?" And I said, "Kiss me." "I don't know what you mean," he said ... he was really playing into my hangup. Because my parents would do that to me. Whenever my mother did something or said something and I said: "Why did you do that?" she'd go "What? I didn't do anything" (p. 152).
Another very common theme in the stories women shared with each other was that of the role of therapists in maintaining the status quo. An excerpt from Barbara Joyce's story, in Women Look at Psychiatry, presents a good example of women being urged to keep their proper place, which was always subordinate to their husbands:
My two-year struggle to keep my marriage together had just ended in failure ... In addition, I was just starting to pull out of the worst stages of a "nervous breakdown" which began, rather ironically, only weeks after the wedding. And it was now apparent that because of financial difficulties I would also be a failure in my attempt to educate myself. I had married at 24 ... it had soon become obvious to me that there were more thorns than roses surrounding my marital cottage, and I had sought help in the only way available to working-class women: my general practitioner had referred me to one and then the other of ... two psychiatrists ... who ... told me to quit competing with my husband (I, too, had wanted to go to school), and to wash out the toilet when I was depressed. When I rejected this, I then resorted to paying a Catholic marriage counsellor who told me to stay home and be a good wife (Smith and David, 1975, pp. 183–4).
The above accounts are representative of the flood of stories that began to be told at that time by women whose eyes were finally opened to the ways in which therapy and therapists had oppressed them. In addition to the powerful voices of recipients of therapy, there were also practitioners and academics who began exposing the oppression inherent in therapy, particularly when the one receiving the therapy was a woman. The following history of feminist attitudes towards therapy, since the early 1970s, reveals the radical nature of those early voices compared with the more accommodating libertarian influences that followed.
Influenced by the consciousness-raising that was occurring at all levels, feminists who had some involvement with psychology or psychiatry, either as academics or practitioners, began writing about the institution of therapy and exposing it as an oppressive tool in the hands of the patriarchy.
They began pointing out that therapy, which had always been seen as concerned with the personal and not the political, was indeed a very political activity. It was about power. It was being used deliberately as a vehicle of social control. One of its main functions was to ensure that those who tried to deviate from the roles and attitudes expected of them were brought back into line. In particular, because women were more discontented with their allotted roles and were, therefore, clients of therapy in far greater numbers than men, it was used to keep women in their proper place in relation to men.
One of the earliest feminist critiques of psychotherapy was that by Naomi Weisstein in a paper she delivered at a meeting of the American Studies Association in 1968, called "'Kinder, Kuche, Kirche' as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female". In this paper, she exposed psychology as a field of study and research that already had its mind made up about women. Women's anatomy and biological functioning determined that they would be happy and fulfilled only if they were immersed in the roles of wife and mother. Psychologists believed that, because women were "made" for those roles, they were not fit for anything else, and it was only when women became dissatisfied and tried to move out of those roles that they began to have problems.
Weisstein voiced her strong objection to such stereotyping of women and charged that psychology had been "strangled and deflected" by the "common prejudice" against women (Weisstein, in Morgan, 1970, p. 207). To illustrate her point, she quoted two well-known and very influential psychologists of the day. The first was Bruno Bettelheim of the University of Chicago, who said:
We must start with the realization that, as much as women want to be good scientists or engineers, they want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers (Weisstein, p. 206).
The other was Erik Erikson of Harvard University, noted for his work on the struggle for identity in adolescence, who said, when asked about identity development in women:
Much of a young woman's identity is already defined in her kind of attractiveness and in the selectivity of her search for the man (or men) by whom she wishes to be sought ...
According to Erikson, fulfilment for women rests on the fact that their somatic design harbors an "inner space" destined to bear the offspring of chosen men, and with it, a biological, psychological, and ethical commitment to take care of human infancy (Weisstein, p. 206).
In other words, a woman's biology is her destiny and she will not be happy or fulfilled unless she does what her body is designed for — to mate with a man of her choice, and produce and care for "his" babies.
Weisstein went on to say that because psychology is bound by such prejudices against women, "it is relatively useless in describing, explaining or predicting humans and their behavior" (p. 208). She continues:
It then goes without saying that present psychology is less than worthless in contributing to a vision which could truly liberate — men as well as women.
My central argument ... is this. Psychology has nothing to say about what women are really like, what they need and what they want, essentially, because psychology does not know (p. 208).
Then she addresses the question of the causes of psychology's failure which, she says, are "obvious and appalling":
the first reason for psychology's failure to understand what people are and how they act, is that clinicians and psychiatrists, who are generally the theoreticians on these matters, have essentially made up myths without any evidence to support these myths; the second reason for psychology's failure is that personality theory has looked for inner traits when it should have been looking at social context (p. 209).
In discussing the first reason, the use of theory without evidence, Weisstein points to Freud as the one who started this tradition which has been so destructive of women. Freud based his theories on the "insights" he gained through "years of clinical experience", and his example has been followed by clinicians and psychiatrists ever since (p. 209). "The problem with insight, sensitivity, and intuition", she warns, "is that it can confirm for all time the biases that one started out with" (p. 210).
The second cause of psychology's failure discussed by Weisstein is that which she calls inner traits. She urges psychologists to "turn away from the theory of the causal nature of the inner dynamic and look to the social context within which individuals live" (p. 213). To understand human behaviour, one must understand the context in which people live, the expectations that are put on them, and the pressure they experience to conform (p. 218). In response to the "uselessness of present psychology with regard to women", she insisted that "one must understand social expectations about women if one is going to characterize the behavior of women" (p. 219).
Phyllis Chesler's now classic text, Women and Madness, was the next major feminist assault on traditional psychotherapy. Published in 1972, it examined women's socially defined "madness" and presented serious criticisms of those who had the power to pronounce women sick or mad, and of the society that gave psychotherapists such power.
An important theme in the early years of this wave of feminism was the oppressive nature of "sex-role stereotyping", and Chesler's criticisms of psychology and psychiatry were based on that theme. Women were expected to be dependent, passive, compliant, lacking in confidence, indecisive, emotional and so on, while men were expected to be independent, assertive, individual, confident, decisive and rational. Chesler made the point that those expectations which accompanied the female sex-role were all representative of behaviour that had no value in Western societies, and that was often associated with mental illness. Women are rendered powerless by society's expectations and then, because of their powerlessness, they are proclaimed "mad".
Most twentieth-century women who are psychiatrically labelled, privately treated, and publicly hospitalized are not mad ... they may be deeply unhappy, self-destructive, economically powerless, and sexually impotent — but as women they're supposed to be (p. 25).
Chesler's central criticism of psychology's definition of "madness" as it related to women was that it made it very difficult for any woman to escape being labelled mentally ill. On the one hand, a woman who immersed herself fully in the female role was vulnerable to being labelled sick or mad while, on the other hand, a woman who refused to take on the female role could just as easily be labelled sick or mad.
Excerpted from Beyond Psychoppression by Betty McLellan, Janet Mackenzie. Copyright © 1995 Betty McLellan,. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE: FEMINIST VOICES, PAST AND PRESENT,
1. Psychotherapy and Feminism: A History,
PART TWO: THEORETICAL ISSUES FOR A FEMINIST THERAPY,
2. Oppression: Cause of Women's Distress,
3. Access and Honesty,
4. Passion and Justice,
PART THREE: BLAME-THE-VICTIM THERAPIES,
5. Freud and Psychoanalysis,
6. Humanistic Therapies,
7. New Age and Popular Psychologies,
8. Lesbian Sex Therapy,
PART FOUR: PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF A FEMINIST THERAPY,
9. Elements of a Feminist Therapy,
10. Feminist Therapy in Practice,
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF WORKS CITED,