and Self-Help in America
Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession with Self Fulfillment
Moskowitz Johns Hopkins Press, 342 pp. $ 34.95.
Joan Baum, Ph.D.
well researched, scholarly but readable cultural history has an
ironic main complaint: aside from what its subtitle indicates
about American society’s over-reliance on the helping professions,
it argues that in focusing on the depraved as ‘psychologically
deprived,’ therapists tend to ignore real-world deprivation. In
other words, “obsession with the psyche,” whether so-called normal
or abnormal, “has blinded us to underlying social realities”—problems
inherent in pressing social issues of class, race and gender.
“We need a politics and a therapeutics that are not mutually exclusive,”
the author concludes. Any reasonable reader is bound to agree.
Moscowitz’s larger theme, however, about America’s obsessive attraction
to “soul doctoring” will be of particular interest to educators,
who inherit a tradition of feeling good through “mind-cure,” a
therapeutics that takes off in the mid 19th century as a quasi
“science” and that now, in its most pervasive and vapid forms,
rides high on daytime and nighttime TV and in the mass media.
Challenging the apparently unique belief by Americans that “happiness
should be our supreme goal,” Moscowitz moves in great detail over
a trail that starts in the 1850s with one Phineas Pankhurtst Quimby
who, in effect, replaced the disease of religion with a worship
of psychology in order to diagnose and heal. The trail leads through
a thicket of well-intentioned, but naïve and impractical programs
to inculcate self-esteem and effect psychological cures and takes
the reader up to the present day, a time of cultism, confession
and con-artist mentality, whereby quick and easy therapeutic solutions
are offered—for a price—to complex and difficult problems. As
she shows, Americans were not always so addicted to personal dilemmas
and emotional cures.
Moscowitz, who currently serves on the New York City Council and
has taught American history at Vanderbilt University, the University
of Virginia and CUNY, and who has produced and directed a documentary
on the changing roles of women after WWII, has done her homework.
In fastening on this peculiarly American theme, Moscowitz has
found an engaging way to retell American history. It seems hard
to quarrel with Moscowitz’s suggestion that if only Clinton had
not denied his guilt and had promised to go for therapy, all would
have been forgiven.
This is a serious, critical study—a Must Read for teachers, school
psychologists and administrators.
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