The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement

The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594774485
Publisher: Inner Traditions/Bear & Company
Publication date: 04/17/2012
Edition description: Original
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Seth Farber, Ph.D., is a psychologist, public speaker, and a founder of the Network against Coercive Psychiatry. The author of several books, including Unholy Madness, and an editor of The Journal of Mind and Behavior, he lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 9
The Roots of the Icarus Project

Mad Pride began in America with the foundation of the Icarus Project (TIP) in 2002 by Sascha DuBrul and Ashley McNamara. The Icarus Project was created “for people living with dangerous gifts that are commonly diagnosed and labeled as ‘mental illnesses.’” The bold mission statement of the Icarus Project declared, “We are a network of people living with and/or affected by experiences that are often diagnosed and labeled as psychiatric conditions. We believe these experiences are mad gifts needing cultivation and care, rather than diseases or disorders. By joining together as individuals and as a community, the intertwined threads of madness, creativity, and collaboration can inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world. Participation in The Icarus Project helps us overcome alienation and tap into the true potential that lies between brilliance and madness.”

This statement is subversive of received wisdom in several ways. First it emphasizes and valorizes the idea of the distinctiveness of mad people, which it is stated enables them to make an unusual and indispensable contribution to the healing of the world. This extraordinary claim had never been made by the patients’ rights movement in the past. Only R. D. Laing made such a claim and was ignored by the patients’ movement. This theme was elaborated upon by various members of the Icarus Project who posted on its website and by Ashley McNamara in essays.

Note also that it defines madness as a “gift”—to a mad person and to the human community. Mad gifts entail responsibility—to care for and cultivate them. Although the sentence with the word “transformation” is vaguely formulated, the implication—reinforced by the evocative wording of the subsequent sentence—is that mad persons as a community, as Mad Pride, can contribute to the profound transformation, and ultimately the salvation, of the world.

This is what I have termed a redemptive-messianic vision.

The Icarus Project’s conversation forum demonstrates what has been obvious for years to many therapists who have worked with the mad: the mad are fascinated with spirituality. As stated in the introduction, there is abundant evidence that many of the mad have had messianic experiences, including feeling a sense of mission. Mental health professionals regard these messianic experiences as definitive symptoms of psychosis. In myriad ways the Icarus Project and the Mad Pride movement have differentiated their position from the secularism of the psychiatric survivors’ movement. Yet within Mad Pride there is a tension between a redemptive-messianic perspective and the noncommittal position of postmodern pluralism.

Mad Pride and the Postmodern Vision

The secular pluralist zeitgeist seems to be dominant today within the Mad Pride movement, although TIP forums still team with discussions about spirituality. In early 2008, DuBrul was experimenting with explorations in “the spirit world” (one can find a similar distinction between two worlds both in shamanism and in the literature on out-of body experiences). He believed that as a mad person he had a natural penchant for exploring the spirit world.

After his “breakdown” and hospitalization in 2008, DuBrul went to a Hindu ashram in upstate New York to study, meditate, and worship in order to develop a greater capacity for mental and spiritual discipline.

Sascha DuBrul: I was raised an atheist. I was raised by a man who was beaten by nuns in Catholic school in the 1950s in Queens. I remember very clearly asking my dad if there was a God and he said “No.”

Farber: Were you still an atheist when you founded the Icarus Project?

Sascha DuBrul: Yes. I dropped out of college when I was twenty and I started traveling, and shortly thereafter I had some intense spiritual experiences. I definitely wouldn’t have used the word God. After my first hospitalization when I was eighteen, I had visions. I had this vision that the world was going to end, but somehow we were all going to live on—on some other kind of world that was like television. I came out of that experience and didn’t know what to think of it.

In a 2002 article, DuBrul had defined his position that psychiatric drugs were indispensable (for some people) as the sensible “middle ground”: “I think it’s really about time we start carving some more of the middle ground with stories from outside the mainstream and creating a new language for ourselves that reflects all the complexity and brilliance that we hold inside.” Of course this last phrase, “creating a new language,” suggests that DuBrul had something else in mind besides a middle ground. Thus it is not surprising that by the time he coauthored the Icarus mission statement he was far away from the middle ground (although he continued to feel he needed psychiatric drugs) and was moving increasingly toward a commitment to a messianic-redemptive vision, a trajectory that came to a halt after his hospitalization in 2008.

The postmodern pluralist perspective (as defined by Tarnas) is antithetical to the “totalizing” perspective of redemptive visions. Mad Pride activists are increasingly attracted to postmodernism for a number of reasons. In the first place it accepts difference per se and promotes acceptance of madness in its myriad forms. Second, it is in accord with the ironically detached and skeptical temper of the times, unlike an explicitly spiritual messianic-redemptive vision, which, in the times sounds passionate, “fanatical,” intolerant—too mad, too 1960s-ish. As Mad Pride grows, and becomes more socially visible, the temptation increases to accommodate to larger cultural forces, to sound “reasonable.” Also, a relativistic even-tempered pluralism is friendly and inclusive of everyone—it avoids the risk of alienating those mad people who have not yet broken free of the influence of psychiatry. Repeatedly I was told by the more radical psychiatric survivors that different paradigms work for different people—even the psychiatric paradigm.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Kate Millett



Discovering the Higher Sanity within Madness

Part One
The Failure of the Psychiatric System and the Biomedical Myth

1 Interview with Peter Stastny, M.D.: The Psychiatric-Pharmaceutical Complex and Its Critics
2 The Mind Freedom Hunger Strike
3 Interview with David Oaks: From Harvard to the Psychiatric Survivors’ Movement

Part Two
The Intellectual Background of Mad Pride

4 Mental Patients’ Liberation
5 R. D. Laing, John Weir Perry, and the Sanctuary for Visionaries
6 Interview with Chaya Grossberg: Spiritually Informed Social Activism
7 Interview with Caty Simon: The Communitarian Vision

Part Three
Dangerous Gifts

8 The Roots of The Icarus Project
9 Interview with Sascha DuBrul: The Reluctant Warrior, May 2009
10 The Warrior in Retreat
11 The Icarus Project and the Future of Mad Pride

Part Four
Prophets of Madness or Messiahs among Us?

12 The Messianic or Postmodern Paradigm?
13 The Relationship of Mad Pride to Messianic Transformation
14 Interview with Dr. Ed Whitney: Finding Oneself at the Age of Forty-five; Messianic Visions

Part Five
Awakenings in History and Social Activism

15 Cultural Revitalization Movements
16 Interview with Paul Levy: “They May Say I’m a Dreamer”
17 Revitalization and the Messianic-Redemptive Vision of Sri Aurobindo
18 Whither Mad Pride?

Beating the System

Extracts from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri




What People are Saying About This

Frank Schaeffer

“Seth Farber is one of the most provocative and original thinkers in America. He brings us to the threshold of the only questions that really matter: the demarcation lines between imagination and objective reality and between ‘madness’ and ‘sanity’. The Spiritual Gift of Madness is an important book that could revolutionize the way progressive religious people regard what is called mental health. ”

Linda F. Petty

“The book will appeal to devotees of spirituality and/or metaphysics.”

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The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SethF1968 More than 1 year ago
Author’s Statement, Seth Farber, Ph.D. (This is 2500 words, so you may want to skim.) Let me say first although I appreciate the Library Journal review there are some inaccuracies. For example, I don’t urge or expect professionals (except for a few rare birds) to encourage the spirituality of the mad. That argument is made to others, outside the system.) Let me explain a bit more about The Spiritual Gift of Madness. By "gift" I mean not just an individual talent but a potential asset to society. (The term mad gifts was coined by 2 leaders in the Mad Pride movement.) But first I want you to know that if you are a victim or "survivor" of the psychiatric system this book will help you get off psychiatric drugs (but remember to do it gradually, or you may have terrible withdrawal effects), get out of the "mental health" system and recover your self-respect. My interview with maverick psychiatrist Dr Peter Stastny, and interview with MindFreedom founder, Harvard grad and ex-"mental-patient" activist (for 30 years),David Oaks reveal that the idea of "bio-chemical imbalances" is a propaganda ploy. In my discussion of the famous 2003 "hunger strike" by ex-mental patients, you'll see that the idea of biochemical imbalances is a myth used by the American Psychiatric Association to keep patients dependent on toxic psychiatric drugs. The hunger strikers forced the APA to admit it--they had no evidence that those with "mental disorders" have chemical imbalances or brain defects. The renowned journalist Robert Whitaker revealed in his newest book that psychiatric drugs are iatrogenic. Psychotropics often shrink the prefrontal cortex and undermine the brain's resilience--they transform episodic emotional crises into chronic disability. Thus it's dangerous and often debilitating to take these drugs regularly. Many activists in the Mad Pride movement have gotten off the drugs-- thus you can also. The book will help show you how. Those of you who have been told you have serious psychiatric disorders need not worry: There is nothing wrong with your brain. The 6 people I interviewed were all told by psychiatrists that they had brain disorders, serious incurable diseases like diabetes-- all but one got off of psychiatric drugs, and they are all doing fine today, as you'll see. I documented the same phenomenon in my first book in 1993, Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angels. And I've witnessed it many times. You may be more emotionally sensitive than "normal" persons or "normates" (as Goffman first termed them) but you can learn to use that to your advantage, as did the heroes of my book. Dr Stuart Sovatsky, transpersonal psychologist and VP of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology, wrote about this book, "Seth Farber has dedicated his decades of professional life to not merely destigmatizing 'mental illness,' but to giving us an all-inclusive, spiritual perspective on the evolution of consciousness that will, hopefully, end the iatrogenic suffering caused to so many in 'the doctor's (iatro’s) efforts to heal.' The existence of this book is, in itself, uplifting; its many cogent insights will surely inspire similarly dedicated readers to further this great humanitarian work." Stuart Sovatsky, PhD, author, Words From the Soul: Time, East/West Spirituality and the Psychotherapeutic Narrative Many of the mad, so called "bipolars, "schizophrenics" etc, feel a strong yearning to make the world a better place. Like the late radical psychiatrist R. D Laing, I believe the mad--"schizophrenics," "biopolars" -- have had spiritual/mystical experiences. Many of you feel or have felt you have a messianic mission to "save" the world, that God has chosen you to play an important role in bringing about the new world. I want you to know I think you are right --I think you are on to something. Psychiatrists and other mental health "experts"—my fellow psychologists-- say this is pathological, mentally ill-- e.g.,"grandiose delusions." I believe your sense of having a mission is what biblical scholars have termed the "calling" of the prophet. You are being called by God. You will be under great pressure to repudiate your calling. My book shows why you should hold on to your sense of mission. I've seen too many psychiatric survivors who, a few years older, yearn to fit in, and thus change their minds and say, " I realize now my sense of mission was a symptom of my mental illness. I'm normal now. I just want to belong." This makes psychiatrists-- and many in your family-- happy. Or I’ve known ex-patients to say, "I'm not grandiose anymore. I've conquered my ego. I'm humble now. I only want to help a few people." Or “I just want to get a job.” That's a noble sentiment to want to help a few people, but the problem is—crazy as it sounds--we need to save the world, not just help a few people. Fulfilling your mission is not egotism. It is serving society, serving the Divine. We have to aim high and risk failure. I suppose these ideas make me “grandiose” also. Well I managed to get a PhD in psychology 25 years ago, and get by in society----and so far they haven’t tried to lock me up or put me on psychiatric drugs. Martin Luther King Jr said, "The world will be saved by the creatively maladjusted." Your “visions” of a harmonious society, of the garden before the Fall, of paradise, is a gift from God. You have seen the Promised Land. These are one of your "mad gifts," as The Icarus Project called them. There are many people, most people, who are adjusted to this American death culture-- the US is now in a state of PERMANENT war with other countries; one half the US population is now living in poverty while the 1% gets increasingly richer; 60 billion animals are tortured and slaughtered every year globally for "food," (10 billion in the US alone) as described by Jim Mason in An Unnatural Order;the oil industry continues to endanger the earth with deep oil drilling and fracking, new technologies that accelerate global warming (see Bill McKibben’s article in The Rolling Stone, Aug 3);President Obama gave away public money to construct new nuclear power, and as global warming gets worse and we head toward global catastrophe THIS century, the politicians and corporations in America refuse to do anything to mitigate it. Many climate scientists say that unless we start cutting back on global warming RIGHT NOW humanity will not last through this century. But at the last global warming conference Obama’s spokesman said the US will not decrease global warming until 2020. That may be too late. We voted for Obama because we wanted change— but sadly all we’ve seen is more of the same. The only thing our political leaders and big corporations (the 1%) care about is profits. Money is their God. Salvation of our mother earth lies in OUR hands. My book is also a philosophical argument for a "messianic-redemptive paradigm" of madness and social transformation. I've spent 30 years studying spiritual traditions. My messianic-redemptive paradigm draws upon philosophers, theologians and historians in the transpersonal, Jungian, Christian and neo-Hindu traditions - including R D Laing, John Weir Perry, Richard Tarnas, the Christian theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (not Reinhold), and the greatest spiritual genius of the modern world, the philosopher and yogi Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950).Many who have read about the life of Sri Aurobindo believe he was a modern-day Christ--what Hindus call an "avatar." He believed that as humanity evolves to a higher state of consciousness, the principle of unity will replace the principle of division as the ruling principle in social life, in the earth- consciousness. As we act out of a sense of unity, EVEN the "laws" of nature will change. They are really only habits of nature. We will no longer be subject to disease and death. This is also what Isaiah said, what Jesus said, what St Paul said. This is the idea of a messianic-redemptive change--many of you have seen it in your visions. We need to seed these kind of ideas, myths and visions throughout the collective imagination--to gradually transform and expand toward infinity our constricted sense of possibility. "[F]or the trumpet shall sound," writes St Paul, "and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." Death will be "swallowed up in victory." This is just one aspect of the new joyous order that the Divine is seeking to manifest but it illustrates that the present order is not the limit of our potential, that our dreams could come true--if we changed our way of life, if we beat our swords into plowshares, if we treated all of Nature's vulnerable creatures as if we were their caretakers, not their hunters, not their murderers, not their masters. If we become stewards of the earth, instead of its rapists and plunderers, paradise will materialize before our eyes. St Paul spread the messianic idea all over the Western world (although it later became corrupted) after he had what psychiatrists today would call a "schizophrenic episode" --an 'hallucination" -- on the road to Damascus. What a powerful and dedicated prophet this mad man was! All the Biblical prophets had this sense of calling that the mad person frequently has. Today there are many women prophets. The idea that ONE messiah will accomplish the messianic work for humanity is primitive, anachronistic. Jewish mystics had developed an alternative concept by the 15th century. The messianic function must be distributed; thus they envisioned many mystics participating in the messianic endeavor--"tikkun olam." This is democratization. But nor can we expect that everyone will suddenly be enlightened all together. We see how great the resistance is. There must be prophets who point the way. Prophets are the catalysts of messianic change. In this book I discuss two periods in America history--one was the 1960s’ counterculture-- in which large segments of the population began to believe it was possible to create heaven on earth. In the 2nd Great Awakening in the 1820-30s, the idea of spiritual transformation was spread by many prophets and preachers who were Christian post-millennialists. We need pioneers, catalysts of transformation. AMONG THE MAD ARE THE PIONEERS OF THE MESSIANIC-REDEMPTIVE TRANSFORMATION. I envision a messianic wing of the Mad Pride movement. The brilliant writer Anton Boisen, who recovered from a "psychotic" breakdown in the 1920s and then became a pastoral counselor in a mental hospital wrote in the 1930s, "Even the hospital schizophrenic who thinks of himself as Christ may not be wholly mistaken. Jesus exemplifies the truth which the acutely disturbed hospital patient is groping after, that man is made in the image of God ..." Boisen says to be like Christ means: "to give ourselves completely to the sacrificial task of bringing in the new world which ought to be." Boisen realized we need many messiahs, many Christs--and he realized that many of the prophets of old were "psychotic" by psychiatric standards. We need pioneers--mad and others-- to bring in the new world, to give ourselves "completely to the.. task of bringing in the new world which ought to be." I think among the mad there are many who are ready for this. Sri Aurobindo said "All great changes find their FIRST clear and effective power and their direct shaping force in the mind and spirit of the individual or a limited number of individuals." We can see this has been happening among the mad. He said "There must be the individual and individuals who are able to see, to develop, to re-create themselves in the image of the Spirit and communicate both their idea and its power to the mass [my emphasis]." What is the idea, the vision, Aurobindo believes must be communicated? "The ascent of man into heaven is not the key, but rather his ascent here into the spirit and the descent also of the spirit into his normal humanity and the transformation of this earthly nature." This, and not "some post-mortem salvation," Aurobindo tells us, is "the new birth" for which humanity waits as "the crowning movement" of its "long, obscure and painful history." The transformation of the individual is ultimately the means for the transformation of the earth-consciousness, the transformation of the earth. This is described in Aurobindo's epic poem, Savitri: Savitri, the female avatar of Aurobindo's vision, does battle with Death and demands that Death return to her Satyavan, her spouse of one year who had died in the bloom of youth. (Savitri was modeled on Mira Richard, the Mother, Aurobindo's adamantine "soul-mate.") Aurobindo's heroine proclaims she has found God not in some transcendental realm, but in the soul and body of her spouse. "I have discovered my glad reality Beyond my body in another's being....I have loved too the body of my God." When she met Satyavan she discovered the purpose of her incarnation, "My spirit has glimpsed the glory for which it came, The beating of one vast heart in the flame of things, My eternity clasped by his eternity... This, this is first, last joy and to its throb The riches of a thousand fortunate years Are poverty... For I know now why my spirit came on earth And who I am and who he is I love. I have looked at him from my immortal Self, I have seen God smile at me in Satyavan; I have seen the Eternal in a human face." Savitri proclaims."To raise the world to God in deathless Light, To bring God down to the world on earth we came." She defeats death who returns Satyavan. She and Satyavan return to society "a dual power of God in an ignorant world" to persuade humanity to forsake the ways of the past, to prepare humanity for the New Age, when man will "light up Truth's fire in Nature's night," and God will "annul the decree of death and pain." Thus Sri Aurobindo in sublime transcendental verse depicts the realization of what Jesus called the kingdom of God on earth, the union of Heaven and Earth, of spirit and matter, the final marriage feast of "the eternal bridegroom and the eternal bride." It is the task of the Mad Pride movement to contribute to the realization of the messianic transformation by communicating the messianic ideal and vision in its many myriad forms--not necessarily Christian or Hindu or Aurobindonian-- to the masses. This is the as yet undiscovered task of the new Mad Pride movement--to which of course I hope my book is a contribution. As Professor Banerji wrote about my book, "Seth Farber, makes a powerful case for the Mad Pride movement, based on a challenge to the normative humanism of modernity. He draws on a number of thinkers, prominently the redemptive-messianic vision of Sri Aurobindo, who saw the human as a "transitional being"and earth as the habitation for a divine life. This is a valuable addition to the expanding library of handbooks for charting a new passage to the future through what Michel Foucault has called "an insurrection of subjugated knowledges." Debashish Banerji, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, Seven Quartets of Becoming: A Transformative Yoga Psychology Based on the Diaries of Sri Aurobindo