One Nation Under Therapy by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 9,000 “grief counselors” descended on New York City. Their mission was to provide the treatment and psychological guidance considered necessary to help both survivors and families of victims in coping with their trauma. So ubiquitous has this sort of intervention become after every disaster in America that we no longer stop to think about it. Yet, according to Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel in One Nation Under Therapy, it is just one manifestation of a much larger and in their view highly detrimental set of assumptions about how to deal with the vicissitudes of life—assumptions that now permeate many of our public institutions.
Christina Hoff Sommers is the author of Who Stole Feminism (1994) and The War Against Boys (2000), two trenchant analyses of the baleful impact of extreme feminist theory on the education of both boys and girls. Sally Satel, like Sommers a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a practicing psychiatrist and the author of PC MD (2002), an account of how “identity politics,” in the form of theories about race, gender, and poverty, has compromised the practice of medicine. The book they have now co-authored is a biting exposé of “therapism”—not the same thing as therapy per se, which can often provide real benefits, but a damaging mindset that, in their words, “pathologizes normal human emotion, promoting the illusion that we are very fragile beings and urging grand emotional displays as the prescription for coping.” One Nation Under Therapy is organized around specific practices that have been promoted by the mental-health establishment and are now widely institutionalized. In many schools, for instance, certain games, including dodge ball and tag, have been eliminated, on the grounds that they inflict an esteem-killing competitiveness and sense of exclusion on the “fragile child”—a helpless creature of the therapists’ imagination who wilts at the slightest breath of criticism, judgment, or failure. Despite the fact that (as the authors put it) “the prevalence of depression among children and adolescents has not significantly changed in the past 30 years,” and that no scientific evidence links elevated self-esteem to success or happiness, a belief in children’s psychic vulnerability has become enshrined in school programs and curricula. Sommers and Satel turn next to the so-called “human-potential movement,” a mid-20th-century offspring of the psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers and the parent, in turn, of the self-esteem craze. This school of thought posits the existence inside each of us of an ideal self, “buried under a lot of wreckage put there by a judgmental, emotionally withholding, unforgiving, and oppressive society.” In this reading, persons we might once have considered sinners or wrongdoers are instead reconceived as the victims of malign social forces, and entitled as such to our empathy and compassion and, frequently, our tax dollars.
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