By Leslie Mann
Modern psychology can do more harm than good, asserts retired psychiatrist Anthony Daniels (pen name: Theodore Dalrymple) in his book, “Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality.”
Instead of taking responsibility for ourselves, “checklist psychiatry” allows us to blame any pattern of behavior on a “disease,” said Daniels, 65.
When he is not writing books (this is his 23rd), Daniels serves as an expert witness at murder trials, chases wild boars from his wife’s garden and dreams of having a tidy study. He and his wife, Agnes, a retired psychogeriatrician, split their time between their homes in France and England.
The Tribune caught up with Daniels during a recent trip to the U.S.:
Q: Why the pen name?
A: When I started writing books, I was a prison psychiatrist, so I wanted to keep my name separate. I thought “Theodore Dalrymple” sounded old-fashioned and ill-tempered.
Q: You lead with Shakespeare’s King Lear saying mental illness is “the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune…we (blame) the sun, the moon and the stars.”
A: Four hundred years later, it’s still true, but we blame psychology instead of astrology. We call it progress. Literature is far more illuminating into the human condition than psychology could ever hope to be.
Q: By giving us excuses for our behavior, you say, psychology becomes a barrier to self-understanding?
A: It’s not our fault if we’re obese, for example. It’s a disease. It’s the food manufacturers’ and restaurants’ fault. Portions are too big.
Q: What are our primary excuses?
A: Our genes, evolution, our neurochemistry, our brain scans, chemical imbalances, our childhoods. I have a friend who goes up to people at parties and says, “I hate my parents; don’t you?” People always go on about how their parents caused all their problems.
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Q: Do we have an epidemic of depression?
A: We’ve loosened the definition of “depression” to include most forms of unhappiness. The result: 13 percent of adults (2013 Mayo Clinic) are on antidepressants. Saying “depressed” instead of “unhappy” means someone has to cure it for us. Using antidepressants is the modern-day equivalent of exorcising alien spirits. I like the quote from the late Dr. Thomas Szasz: “Happiness is an imaginary condition, formerly attributed by the living to the dead, now attributed by adults to children and by children to adults.”
Q: How is profit a factor?
A: For a doctor to be reimbursed by the insurance company, he must fit the patient into a category, and the DSM (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” the industry bible) keeps adding more. The new edition (DSM-5) includes hoarding disorder, penetration disorder, impulse-control disorder and gambling disorder. You could say I have a “book-buying disorder” because I cannot walk by a bookstore without buying a book. Then, you must stay in therapy so the doctor keeps getting paid. I cite one woman in the book who has had 4,000 appointments. It’s expensive, so we justify it.
Q: So we undergo psychoanalysis, as you explain, “ad infinitum”?
A: It’s a journey from which we don’t return. The most minor utterance is potentially the profoundest significance. Thus criteria of importance are lost. Instead of spending years and years in therapy talking about yourself so you can find yourself, you should lose yourself in a cause, interest or activity. I’m working on three books; they’re my purpose. The paradox is overtreatment of people who don’t need treatment and undertreatment of people who are genuinely disturbed. Bad behavior can be the result of genuine mental or physical illness, but that’s the small percentage of cases.
Q: Is there such thing as a perfectly behaved person?
A: No. We’re all imperfect, and no one’s life is fully satisfactory. If there was a perfect person, imagine how extremely boring he would be.