One of the false starts I made towards the previous post was a review of this book, which I abandoned because it was making me too angry. I’m home sick today and feeling spiteful, so here it is.
I picked the book up one day when I was feeling sullen and grumpy with my side-effects: I’m glad that I bought it in a remainder store, I don’t want its author to earn any money from it, because it’s awful. I wouldn’t call myself an outright antipsychiatrist, but on top of my personal dissatisfaction with my meds, I feel like the profession and the pharmacological industry have serious problems and need some sort of reform, and I’m also fascinated by the history of the discipline. Despite this, I can’t remember the last time I read a book written from a position to which I thought I would be basically sympathetic which left me feeling that its author was not only a bad writer, but a bad person.
From the start, the book’s style, at once matey and hectoring, made me think of the last five years of British political debate, and I thought, facetiously, that people like Davis are why Brexit is happening. I persisted with it only because of a growing horror and fascination with the author’s sins, his smug contempt for patients disguised as concern, his apparent ignorance of how much of psychopharmacology’s flaws are those of the drug and medical industry as a whole, his sentimental and captious argument that what people need instead of medication is “traditional values” without ever having to spell out how exactly these should be delivered. By the time I reached the end, this didn’t feel like a cheap shot. People like Davies, and an intellectual and publishing culture which supports them, are exactly why Brexit is happening.
The single biggest problem I have with the book is its childish binary logic. It is assumed that we as a society or as individuals are faced with a neat choice: either submit to the corrupt technocracy of big pharma and keep swallowing ‘happy pills’, or shape up, go to humanistic psychotherapists like himself, and, one supposes, church. (Putting the phrase ‘happy pills’ in scare quotes is a perfect illustration of the book’s stylistic dishonesty: this is a phrase which is only used by his side in the debate, so they own it, and holding it at arms’ length is cheating.)
Davies never makes plain what he means by traditional values, so the reader is free to imagine his alternative to the status quo as some sort of pre-industrial idyll, at least if they’ve never cracked open a history book. There’s no connection in Davies’ thought with the anti-psychiatric tradition which sees modern society as regimenting and controlling alternate and viable ways of being; there’s no evidence that he’s read or even heard of Laing, much less Foucault. Nor is there any sign that he’s aware of the callous and violent ways in which traditional societies dealt with the mental illness before modern psychiatry, or the desperation and misery which has characterised the lives of the mentally ill for most of human history.
Outside the journalistic games of good guys and bad guys which books like these are playing, people with mental illness don’t just visit their GP, take the pills and hope for the best. They got to twelve-step and other self-help groups: they go to therapists and counsellors and family members and, yes, church. Davies is an anthropologist and psychotherapist, which makes his caricature of the actual experience of mental illness all the more frustrating. I found myself reminded of the rationalist blogger Scott Alexander and Jordan Peterson, both of whom are also clinical psychologists but who seem to have strange or deficient ways of understanding how actual human beings behave. All three seem very far removed, in terms of temperament, from the qualities I would look for in a good therapist or psychiatrist, or a priest or rabbi, for that matter.
If you want to read a good book on the divide between traditional psychoanalytical practice and psychopharmacology, written by an anthropologist who seems to be able to observe and interpret clinical behaviour, rather than just try to score rhetorical points off it, I can recommend T M Luhrmann’s Of Two Minds as a much better alternative.
Having just added the title to this post, I don’t know what I was expecting from a book about mental illness whose title is a clumsy play on a slur against mentally ill people. This might seem like a PC quibble, but it’s actually a distillation of the book’s awfulness. It’s like someone making dad jokes about matters of life or death and then expecting you to thank them for their intellectual bravery. Everyone involved in it can get fucked.