From International Socialism, No.71, September 1974, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Women and Madness
Allen Lane, £4
IN 1687, Daniel Defoe attacked
‘the vile practice now so much in vogue among the better sort as they are called, but the worst sort, in fact, namely the sending of their wives to Mad-Houses at every Whim and personal Dislike; if they are not mad when they go into these cursed Houses, they are soon made so by the barbarous usage they there suffer ... Is it not enough to make one mad to be suddenly clapp’d up, stripp’d, whipp’d, ill-fed, and worse us’d?’
Phyllis Chester’s book investigates the same abuses current today, only now they are refined by psychoanalysis, drug-therapy and electric shock treatment.
She begins with a feminist reinterpretation of the ancient myths and taboos which form the basis of psycho-analytical theory and terminology. She points out how much the modern theories depend on sex-role assumptions; how the profession is dominated by men; how the great masters Freud, Jung, and even Reich ignored some of the basic facts about female sexuality; and how much they oppressed and tyrannised their own wives and daughters.
Women who seek psychiatric help seem to fall into two categories. First there are those who have typically ‘female’ symptoms. They live as slaves, and their disorders are slavish. They suffer from excessive timidity, inferiority, frigidity, and depression. They are self-hating and self-critical to the point of self-destruction.
They attempt to kill themselves far more often than men, and succeed far less often. But when it comes to psychic and emotional self destruction, they excel.
On the other hand are the women who show aggressive, assertive symptoms, women who fight their slavish role, and who are all too often rejected as unloveable and unfeminine because of it. Most women learn young that it’s useless for them to try and win a physical fight with an individual man. So they learn and develop verbal hostility. If they become over-active and dominating they are classed as schizophrenics, and the point of incarcerating them is to make them conform.
Men are allowed more self expression, more sexually assertive behaviour, more obsessions than women. But if you are a poor or black man, and you try too hard to act out the male aggressive role, you too are liable to be incarcerated, because your self-expression may be through fighting and stealing.
Using personal interviews, Phyllis Chester builds up a horrifying picture of the consistent way in which women under mental stress and looking for help are abused and exploited. Private psychoanalysts both inside and outside of institutions are shown guilty of the most degrading and cruel crimes against their patients. Many of the women interviewed have whole careers as patients, and several record the same abuses over many years by respected professional individuals. Some had been committed to institutions against their will, with no warning, by strong-arm private analysts hired by their husbands. Many had been raped and beaten inside hospitals. Almost without exception they had been made to perform menial and unnecessarily degrading work, often for years at a time.
One very common syndrome is where the analyst persuades the patient to have sexual intercourse with him, saying he will cure her frustration or frigidity. Without exception the experience was brutal for the woman, lacking any trust or affection, performed perfunctorily and cruelly. Many of the women had been encouraged to take on typing or cleaning work for the doctors concerned. All had been led on and made to feel special, then rejected. If the poor woman persisted in needing to see or telephone the doctor, he often resorted to saying she was hopeless, he could do nothing more for her.
The lesson of this book is that therapy in this system always reinforces, often in the most brutal way, the experiences which made the woman seek for help in the first place. Phyllis Chester documents a perverse kind of female prostitution, where in private practice the woman is persuaded to hand over money in order to be raped and abused. She turns to the doctor for help, at a time of stress and inadequacy. He may be the last hope before intended suicide. Instead of help she gets the same kind of bullying, rejection, and downright obscenity she gets elsewhere.
Of course Phyllis Chester limits her argument to women. Of course she bends the stick a bit too far in making out the differences of treatment suffered by men and women at the hands of the system. But don’t kid yourself that you should ignore the horrors she’s uncovered.
Last updated on 25.3.2008