Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review: Women and Madness

[Phyllis Chesler. Women and Madness: Revised and Updated. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. (Original edition published in 1972.)]

Be dynamically and empathetically responsive to people and situations. Get comfortable with ambiguity and complexity. These two things are perhaps not as obvious as "No means no," "Don't be a jerk," "Don't hit women," "Do your share of the (house)(affective)(reproductive)(sexual) labour," and "Shut up and listen for awhile" for the journeys of many men in trying to figure out how to live within-and-against social relations of patriarchy, but I think they are just as fundamental.

To say these things are gendered is not to make some sort of absolute claim that gender is purely binary and that women do these things while men do not. Rather, it is to identify a trend contrasting the dominant ways of doing masculinity and femininity in North America. Within that, individuals might manifest these things in very different ways and to different degrees. But with those provisos in mind, I'm pretty confident in asserting that many men in North America are not all that good at these two related but distinct things. This shows up in a lot of different ways that may not initially appear to be connected. For example, many men feel the need to either dominate space -- from a business meeting to a family's entire life -- or be absent from it rather than exist within it in an ever-shifting, negotiated, equitable way. Many men feel the need to sort messy social situations out into simple attributions of blame or responsibility rather than allowing the messiness to be its own thing, and feel the need to either disengage or fix things immediately rather than just sit with the messiness for awhile. Many men seem to have great difficulty tuning in to the people around them and balancing in the moment where the "I" is at and where the others are at. Many men -- and this is one that I find quite challenging -- have enormous difficulty understanding and revealing themselves to be "in process", incomplete, unsure, neither X nor Y. Even something as simple as the ways in which time and labour tend to be organized in gendered ways in our lives leads to many men being much less comfortable with the ambiguity and complexity of unchosen multitasking, which many women have no choice but to get good at. These are just some examples, and I'm sure given enough time I could come up with a lot more.

Of course I have my own idiosyncratic pattern, my own strengths and weaknesses, in how I navigate the pressures that result in this trend, but to fully explore it and my own relation to it would be a separate post. I raise it here because I think my own struggle with these things is relevant to my response to this book. One way in which it can show up in lefty men is a tendency to be categorical about particular political thinkers or particular texts as "good" or "bad", "getting it" or "not getting it," rather than beginning from the premise that all people and most texts are a contradictory jumble of useful and not-so-useful politics. In responding to this text I need to be very careful to see all of it, to respond to all of it. Because it contains material that I know I must listen to, that challenges me enough that at points I felt resistance in my body even when some part of me knew the book was right; and it also contains material with which I sharply disagree in ways that I feel politically obliged not to ignore.

I'll start with my concerns. Since she wrote the original edition of Women & Madness in the early 1970s, Phyllis Chesler's political journey has taken her to particular positions that mean that her approaches to racism, empire, and Zionism are radically at odds with the feminisms that I have tried to learn from and be responsible to in my own journey as a middle-class white settler North American man. For instance, Canadian feminist academic Sherene Razack's book Casting Out -- reviewed here -- uses Chesler's post-9/11 book The New Anti-Semitism as one of three paradigmatic examples in her chapter "Modern Women as Imperialists: Geopolitics, Culture Clash, and Gender after 9/11." Razack points out that all three of the authors she examines, including Chesler, "have somewhat of a right-wing reputation and advance neoliberal arguments" (p. 87). She notes that Chesler defends free-market capitalism and colonialism by acknowledging that they have certainly caused harms but that they are, in Razack's summation of Chesler's position, "in the end good things, especially for women" (p. 97). Chesler also laments that many feminists opposed what she understands as the 'liberation' of Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. bombs. Razack goes on to illustrate how Chesler's position is informed by and supports an underlying, culture-based, racialized logic dividing the world between Us and Them that is widely prevalent in political discourse across the spectrum in post-9/11 North America.

Now, given the nature of the book I'm reviewing, and given its pre-9/11 origins, none of this is quite as visible as in the book analyzed by Razack, but the concerns I have are related in that they largely have to do with how Chesler connects her feminist politics to experiences of oppression and resistance beyond gender, and to specificity and difference. For whatever impact it might have made, the edition of Women & Madness I'm reviewing was substantially updated in about 2005 and there are ways in which Chesler's particular attitude towards Muslims and towards feminists that adopt anti-imperial politics do show up, more often in asides than in the central argument. However, though she does engage with issues of race and racism throughout the book in fairly substantive ways, there are also ways in which a lot of that material is fairly troubling. I won't trace it through the book but offer just one illustrative quote:

I still have no single theory to offer of Third World female psychology in America. No single theory will do descriptive justice to women of African, Latin-American, Middle Eastern, Asian, and native American descent. Furthermore, as a psychologist and feminist, I'm really more interested in exploring the laws of female psychology than in exploring their various exceptions and variations. (p. 267, emphasis in original)

I don't think it's the only problem with this paragraph, but the choice to characterize women with various experiences of racialization as mere "exceptions and variations" to be emphatically contrasted with some sort of "female" essence encapsulates a lot of what troubles me about the book in this area. And the blunt declaration that as a "feminist" the specificities of the experiences of racialized women are only of interest to her up to a certain point.

The other most obvious example of politically problematic material in this book was around questions of male homosexuality. Chesler is completely supportive of the rights of those who desire people of the same gender, but still has an analysis of male homosexuality as being at heart misogynistic. I don't think I completely understand what she means, frankly. Of course, just as with straight guys, lots of queer guys exhibit blatantly misogynistic behaviour on an individual level. But I disagree strongly that there is something inherently hateful to women about men desiring and partnering with other men.

Simlutaneous with these politically troubling aspects is a lot that is both powerful and important, particularly when understood with the aforementioned limitations in mind. In fact, in a lot of ways it is hard to see in 2008 exactly how powerful and important a book it was in 1972. I recently went through the entire 10-year run of a Toronto-based anti-psychiatry publication, and a review of this book from the early '80s by a woman who is an anti-psychiatry activist and feminist radical therapist made the point that even by that point, a lot of what had been shocking ten years before no longer seemed so revelatory. Even then, many of its insights had been integrated into feminist and pro-feminist commonsense, because of how powerfully it spoke to the experiences of many women.

One of the basic ideas in the book is that much of what has historically been understood as "madness" in women is actually a response to experiences of gender oppression. Some women are significantly damaged by their experiences of gender oppression and need supports and, indeed, widespread feminist social change in order to thrive. Some women have been labelled "mad" because they adhere to mandated sex roles, and others have been given that label because they fail to adhere to mandated sex roles. Chesler writes, "Perhaps what we consider 'madness,' whether it appears in women or in men, is either the acting out of the devalued female role or the total or partial rejection of one's sex-role stereotype" (p. 116, original in italics). The book then uses mythology, historical research, and contemporary interviews to demonstrate the extent to which this is true.

The book begins by examining a number of stories of women in Greek mythology and relating them to the ways in which women's possibilities are constrained in contemporary culture. It then moves on to look at women's historical experience of asylums, including the distressingly common practice of men who wished to get rid of their wives simply deciding to label them "mad" and having them locked up. Though the word of a husband may not be taken as quite as final an authority today in this regard by psychiatric professionals, there is definitely a continuity between the ways this sort of psychiatric incarceration happened in, say, the 19th century, and the ways in which people's accounts of their lives are (de)valued in gendered ways today.

The book then examines clinicians by looking at common clinical ideologies, both traditional and oppositional. This chapter is some of the most directly useful to me because it both offers a critique of psychiatry for its sexism, but also a critique of the sexism of some of the most prominent radical therapists looked to as inspirations by some anti-psychiatry activists, including Wilhelm Reich, R.D. Laing, David Cooper, and Thomas Szasz. I am still educating myself about some of those thinkers so I don't yet have enough background to fully appreciate her criticisms, but they sound pretty reasonable to me. To simplify, her main objection to the most radical strands of anti-psychiatry is that they tend to be yet another way in which men abandon women who are experiencing genuine needs, whether those needs have a political cause, an organic cause, or some combination.

The remainder of the book is based on a series of interviews done by Chesler in the early '70s with women who had experience as psychiatric patients. In general, she found ample support for her thesis about the nature of what gets called "madness" and ample evidence of all manner of mistreatment of women by the psychiatric system. The book looks particularly at a number of groups of women who were or had been psychiatric patients, including those who had been in asylums, lesbians, racialized women, and feminist women. Notwithstanding the shortcomings identified above, the voices of these various groups of women convey powerful and important evidence of their negative experiences with psychiatry. One of the most explosive elements of this book when originally published was her extensive documentation of the experiences of women whose therapists had sex with them. It has since been documented elsewhere, including by professional bodies, but was the target of vicious resistance at the time. And I personally know one woman who is currently in the middle of legal action because of sexual improprieties by her male therapist, so I know that this is still a live issue of grave concern. Anyway, the book concludes with some of Chesler's own observations on "Female Psychology."

One of the most peculiar features of reading this book was my inability to shake the awareness of it being written at two widely separated points in time, 1972ish and 2005ish. I'm sure there are ways in which I'm oversimplifying by saying so, but there were literally passages where I said to myself, "This is from '72" and others where it was clear to me, "This is from '05," just based on the particular use of language, sensibility, and relationship to the data demonstrated in that paragraph. The text is not actually as disjointed as that makes it sound, but it was still distracting. Especially since it was not always clear to me how the experiences of women subjected to psychiatric intervention might have changed over the last three and a half decades, and how it has remained the same. Certainly some of the dynamics of patriarchal relations described by Chesler, while they remain very similar at heart, are expressed and experienced in somewhat different ways today than in the late '60s. Or so I have been lead to believe.

That actually ties in to another area of mixed comfort and discomfort for me: the extensive use of very categorical statements. On the one hand, there is something both exhilarating and challenging about the no-holds-barred, radical presentation of the painful truths of women's oppression found in many foundational feminist texts of the 1970s. This one is no exception, and I value it for this. However, as noted above, this is often accompanied by a different relationship to specificity and difference than I am really comfortable with, which can be both a political problem and aesthetically distracting to me. But perhaps more relevant to this text's use of such statements is its base in psychology and psychiatry, for all that it is critical of them. I have almost universally found in texts grounded in psychological, psychiatric, or psychoanalytic discourse a tendency to talk about human beings in ways that seem to me to be wild generalizations. I fully admit that I may just not be getting them, I don't know, but it seems to be widely true regardless of the ideological tendencies of the author.

The only other major question I would have liked this book to discuss more thoroughly is what "madness" really is. It was a crucial contribution of this book to demonstrate the origins of many women's so-called "madness" in their experiences of living under patriarchy. However, at various points the text distinguishes between madness with this sort of origin and "real" madness experienced by women and men without really examining what is meant by this distinction, or what the implications are for responding. I agree with Chesler that a critical understanding of psychiatry and its many abuses, past and present, should not in any way justify abandoning women (and men) who need support. But I think there is more to be said about what that might mean and what it might look like.

So. I am doing my best to be comfortable with my mixed reaction to this book, or perhaps to be present with my discomfort. It is important. It is troubling. And, of most direct relevance to me, it makes short work of the sexism present in a number of key thinkers associated with anti-psychiatry.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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