Therapism July 10, 2006

Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance . New York: St. Martin’s, 2005. 310 pp.

PE classes are dangerous places. Dodge ball might leave nasty bruises, and, worse, the frustrations of competition and failure permanently destroy a kid’s psyche. Non-competitive activities like juggling or learning to use a wheel-chair are possible alternatives, but anyone who’s tried juggling knows how psychologically destructive that can be. One expert helpfully suggests juggling silk scarves, which “are soft, nonthreatening, and float down slowly.”

As Ken Myers says, Pity the satirist.

According to Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, both resident scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, much contemporary child-rearing is founded on the assumption that kids are fragile and need to be kept inside a protective bubble. This is no insult to children, though, since “therapism” treats all of us as hand-wringing Hamlets and flower-throwing Ophelias, teetering on the edge of breakdown. Moral accountability is painful, so we avoid it. Addicts do not lack self-control; they are victims of “brain hijacking.” The helping industry pathologizes normal human reactions to death, disaster, and loss, and in the process of pathologizing, professionalizes.

One Nation Under Therapy not only argues that the helping professions don’t. The authors insist that therapism often, as in the case of Post-Vietnam Syndrome, makes a bad situation worse.

Hoff Sommers and Satel’s polemic is well-researched, convincing, and frequently entertaining, but I had reservations. I wonder if the helping professionals are as dominant as the authors suggest. Virtually every high school in America, after all, still has a football team, and millions of Americans have the good sense to scorn the self-absorption of psychology.

At the same time, I’m also unconvinced by the authors’ prescription that we just need to “cowboy up” in defense of the good ol’ American “creed of stoicism and the ideology of achievement.” If, as the authors say, psychology has displaced religion and ethics, a creed of self-reliance will not be a sufficient response.

And then, I wonder if the creed of stoicism really does justice to the complexities of the human soul. Augustine would be no supporter of the therapeutic culture, but he was deeply in awe of the intricacies of human passion and behavior.

One Nation Under Therapy is loaded with information, but Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic , because it zeroes in on the religious dimension of therapism, is a far superior book, more relevant now than when it was published in 1966.

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