We've Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy And the World's Getting Worse is a tonic for the hundreds of pop-psyche books pouring out of publishing houses every year. The book consists mainly of letters between the authors, Michael Ventura and James Hillman. Ventura is a columnist for the L.A. Weekly and a novelist; Hillman is a scholar, writer, and psychologist who has written numerous books, including Re-Visioning Psychology and Dreams and the Underworld.
The book's first and last sections consist of conversations between Hillman and Ventura on subjects ranging from philosophy to psychoanalysis, aesthetics to acting, politics, existentialism, child abuse, inner child theory, romantic love, and much more.
Hillman contends psychotherapy has caused a decline in the political sense of Americans by making intelligent people too passive and introspective. The sensitive, intelligent people of the middle classes, he says, have been in therapy in the U.S. for thirty or forty years, "and during that time there's been a tremendous political decline in this country." It is questionable whether this decline can be solely ascribed to the influence of psychotherapy; however, Hillman's critique of psychotherapy rings true.
Psychotherapy, according to Hillman, by locating soul (Greek: psyche) inside of oneself, has contributed to a devaluation of architecture, aesthetics, art, urban planning--indeed, to the devaluation of the entire phenomenal world. The result of this is the soul-stifling ugliness we find all around us in urban America: misplaced freeways, ugly skyscrapers, ticky-tacky suburban tracts, and rampant urban sprawl.
A central tenet of many therapists and people who might loosely be categorized as among the Human Potential or New Age movements has been that if enough people raise their consciousness--through therapy, meditation, or some other consciousness-raising method--we'll have a better society, better schools, better buildings, and better people. Hillman claims this is false.
Our inner knowledge has gotten more subtle while our ability to deal with issues in the world has deteriorated. "Personal growth doesn't automatically lead to political results," he says. "Look at Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Psychoanalysis was banned for decades, and look at the political changes that have come up and startled everybody. Not the result of therapy, their revolutions. (7)"
Hillman also targets the Recovery movement. Quoting a Boston Globe article claiming that each week 200 types of 12-step recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeater's Anonymous draw 15 million Americans to 500,000 meetings across the nation, Hillman asks:
Meanwhile, where are the small political meetings, the ward heelers of yesteryear Where are the Irish, the Italian, the Polish groups--the little ethnic and neighborhood groups--who met about city power (yes, graft and nepotism too), but who came together to push politics There was a common cause as well as self-advancement and protection (support). (137)"
Hillman is not saying there isn't a need for some of these recovery groups--or, for that matter, for psychotherapists. He does say, however, that "there is plenty for a recovery group to give their love to besides one another; there is the world. (138)" While these recovery groups foster togetherness, they do not constitute community, according to Hillman.
It isn't community. I'm there, everybody is there, in order to support me. "I have a terrible time with my smoking. And you do, too. And each of us is there to deal with my smoking problem.
...Now, a possibility of community does arise. The loyalty to that group is a very strong thing...People don't miss their groups...There is deep affection. But the focus of this "community" is still not on any communal activity. (208-9)"
Only a few generations ago, the word "recovery" carried a communal connotation, quite in contrast to the individualistic spirit it carries today.
During Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, recovery meant dealing with one-third of a nation, which he said were ill fed, ill clothed, and ill housed. He invented the NRA, the National Recovery Act. With a little spin and a little shove, all the 500,000 recovery meetings going on each week all across the U.S.A. could turn from individualism to the body politic, recovering some of the political concern for the plight of the nation that necessitated recovery groups in the first place. As I see it, we cannot recover alone or even in support groups. We need communal recovery, recovery of communal feeling, and each group provides the nucleus of that feeling. (138)"
Hillman claims that another negative effect of psychotherapy is it's finding the source of present psychological symptoms in childhood, in faulty parenting, rather than seeing the symptom as the Soul's cry for meaning, here and now. Partly, this preoccupation with childhood comes from psychotherapy's assumption that we are born as blank slates, and hence innocent, and in the course of our upbringing, we lose our original innocence. But according to Hillman and Ventura, we are not born as blank slates; we are born with a destiny to fulfill, and we enter this world with a momentum of our own. We have an agenda from the start, albeit an unconscious one.
The child is to the adult as the acorn is to the oak tree. This notion of our being born innocent is part of what's behind the fascination both psychotherapy and the Recovery movement have with child abuse and the "inner child." Caring for one's "inner child" is all the rage now in America. And the obsession with child abuse may represent the shadow side of our collective abandonment of children to poverty, second-rate schools, illiteracy, unemployment and drug addiction.
This is a radical book. It questions many cherished beliefs of what Bernie Zilbergeld, in The Shrinking of America, called "the therapeutic sensibility." Yet while Hillman decries the mediocrity and tepid "adjustment" that so often seem to be the results of psychotherapy, his call is not for the elimination of psychotherapy but for raising it to a new, higher level. He sees psychotherapy more as a religious and artistic venture than a quasi-medical one; by adopting the medical model, as a science, psychotherapy gained popularity. And in Freud's day, psychotherapy even had a kind of "revolutionary idealism," challenging the repression of Victorian puritanism; but gradually, "[it] became more passive, boring, repetitive, even trivial. (157)"
This notion of psychotherapy as revolutionary and idealistic is debatable; by today's standards, Freud was certainly no idealist about human possibilities. But in contrast to the repressive Victorian attitudes of his time, his recognition of unconscious motivation and the importance of sexuality was revolutionary and idealistic. Yet ultimately, psychotherapy came up against the limits of both the medical model and Freud's own pessimistic philosophy.
Hillman wants to "reimagine therapy as a practice deriving from a poetic basis of mind. (156)" To do that, however, requires a total abandonment of the medical model, and a recognition of not only the cognitive and emotional but also the political roots of pathology.
If therapy imagines its task to be that of helping people cope (and not protest), to adapt (and not rebel), to normalize their oddity, and to accept themselves "and work within your situation; make it work for you" (rather than refuse the unacceptable), then therapy is collaborating with what the state wants: docile plebes. Coping simply equals compliance. Community mental health, with its pamphlets giving advice on every "dysfunction" from thumb sucking to cock sucking, actually serves to keep the people pacified and satisfied with their white bread. (156)"
We've Had A Hundred Years of Therapy is a provocative, dangerous, and high-spirited book. It joins a growing chorus of challenges to the psychotherapeutic orthodoxy which has grown up in the last couple generations. It should be read and studied by all sensitive, thoughtful Americans, especially those who are or have been in therapy.