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Chapter 11: Why Now?
I don't know a soul who's not been battered,
I don't have a friend who feels at ease.
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees.
But it's all right, it's all right,
For we've lived so well, so long.
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on,
I wonder what's gone wrong.
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong.
--Paul Simon, "American Tune"
The current repressed-memory craze represents
the continuation of a long-standing historical trend in which authorities
have encouraged troubled women to act out the "symptom pool" of the
era and accept an inappropriate diagnosis. But that does not explain
why this particularly virulent form of delusion has become so popular
at this time in our particular culture. The inevitable questions arise:
Why now? Why here?
Revelations about real incest
initially led to the search for repressed memories, as I documented
in Chapter 1. But how could an idea with such shallow scientific grounding
receive such ready and widespread acceptance? Although it is tempting
to try to construct elaborate, convincing hypotheses, I believe that
there are no simple answers. Rather, several historical and cultural
threads seem to have woven together to produce a social fabric that
is receptive to the current sex abuse witch hunt. These threads include
victimology, the codependency movement, and a general trend in our society
to seek specific causes for a multitude of problems. Permeating all
of these factors is a high level of generalized societal stress.
As we saw in the last chapter, a frantic
search for scapegoats invariably surfaces during times of cultural upheaval.
As Frederic Bartlett observed in 1932, "times of social stress, threat
from outside, insurrection from within, any state of high social tension"
tend to exacerbate such "persistent tendencies" within a society.
By almost any standard, Americans feel disjointed,
pressured, and confused as they approach the turn of the century. We
face an insurmountable national debt, a shortage of decent jobs, the
spread of AIDS, gratuitous random violence, the breakup of families,
newly discovered dangers to our health and environment, an unwieldy
health-care system ... the list goes on. Is it any wonder that we want
to lay the blame somewhere? Who allowed things to get this way, anyway?
It wasn't us, that's for sure! It was the previous generation. They
messed everything up, including us.
But there have been other times of generalized,
free-floating anxiety. Why, this time, has our malaise taken the bizarre
form of unwarranted accusations of incest? Why aren't we searching for
witches or branding political subversives instead? Perhaps clues can
be found in historical trends involving our national character and attitudes
toward psychology, religion, women, and sex.
A Nation in Search of a Disease
In 1881, Dr. George Beard published American
Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences , in which he asserted
that the stress of modern life, with its telegraph, steam engine, and
frantic pace, was causing more and more people to come down with "neurasthenia,"
a disease that he both invented and treated. Its symptoms, which he
himself described as "slippery, fleeting, and vague," included sick
headache, exhaustion, ringing in the ears, nightmares, insomnia, flushing
and fidgetiness, palpitations, dyspepsia, vague pains and flying neuralgia,
spinal irritation, uterine troubles, hopelessness, claustrophobia, lack
of sexual interest, and several more pages filled with other options.
Beard hypothesized that people inherited a certain finite amount of
"nervous force," and that when it was over-strained, neurasthenia resulted.
Beard proclaimed that neurasthenia was a
disease of the upper class, whose refined, sensitive nervous systems
were overwhelmed by the pace of modern life. While delicate women came
down with the ailment most frequently, hard-pressed businessmen could
also be afflicted. Overwork, the volatility of economic booms and busts,
repression of turbulent emotions, and too much thinking
--particularly by women, unaccustomed to such brain strain--supposedly
contributed to this high state of nerves. "The rapidity with which new
truths are discovered, accepted and popularized in modern times," Beard
wrote, "is a proof and result of the extravagance of our civilization."
While we may laugh at Beard's naïveté, his diagnosis clearly
struck a chord with the public in his time, a period remarkably similar
to our own.
In the '60s (1860s, that is), the United
States was torn apart by a controversial war that sometimes pitted family
members against one another. In the post-war period, physicians developed
an interest in war-induced stress, and soon identified similar syndromes
in the normal population. The pace of scientific and technological change
seemed overwhelming. Religious faith lost ground to materialism and
greed in the nation's value system. A flood of immigrants entered the
country. Reformers attempted to stem the tides of alcoholism, child
abuse, and sexual deviance. Homelessness in the midst of affluence became
common. Interest in alternative healing methods using herbs and traditional
native American remedies blossomed, along with belief in psychic phenomena.
Psychological self-help books proliferated. Some women rebelled against
their traditional subservient roles, and many men reacted defensively.
In this turbulent society, which stressed individualism over community,
the psychologist replaced the priest, as people sought respite from
their confusion and unhappiness.
Sound familiar? The above commentary could
apply equally to the late 20th century.
"Americans are the most nervous people in
the world," Dr. John Pemberton wrote in 1885, the year before he invented
Coca-Cola as a "nerve tonic" for neurasthenics. For Pemberton and Beard,
this observation was a point of curious pride. Because Americans were
so inventive, energetic, and sensitive, they suffered more magnificently
than others. "Beard's was an ambivalence characteristically American,"
observed medical historian Charles Rosenberg, noting that Beard was
torn between an "arrogant nationalism and a chronic national insecurity."
Nor was Beard alone. Since the late 1700s, Rosenberg continued, physicians
such as Benjamin Rush had concluded that "the unique pace of American
life, its competitiveness, its lack of stability in religion and government,
was somehow related to an incidence of mental illness higher than that
of other Western countries."
Alexis de Tocqueville, who mused over the
American character in the early 19th century, commented on the national
obsession with self. The citizens were "apt to imagine that their whole
destiny is in their hands." For the Frenchman, who was accustomed to
philosophical acceptance of adversity, it was "strange to see with what
feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch
the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have
chosen the shortest path which may lead to it." As an ironic consequence,
the impatient individualistic American, straining after an instant cure,
has traditionally placed a dependent faith in the latest theories and
self-help books produced by self-proclaimed experts.
Beard exemplified both the sufferer's search
for certainty and the expert's assertion of authority. His father and
two brothers were ministers, but Beard could not bring himself to accept
that vocation, largely because of his belief in Darwin's theories of
evolution. Until the age of 23, when he graduated from Yale, Beard experienced
his own brand of neurasthenia, with ringing in the ears, acute dyspepsia,
pains in the side, nervousness, morbid fears, and chronic exhaustion.
As medical historian Barbara Sicherman observed, intellectuals such
as Beard "suffered acutely from the loss of faith that accompanied Darwinism
... and the growing authority of Science. In a society of changing and
often conflicting values, the decline of spiritual certitude intensified
feelings of isolation."
Beard and his fellow nerve doctors, the forerunners
of therapists, made a religion out of their supposedly scientific approach
to emotional and spiritual problems. Beard declared that the physician
must not only heal, but enlighten the public and become "a power
in society ." Although Beard died in 1883, his colleague S. Weir
Mitchell did indeed become a powerful figure, pulling down $70,000 a
year while treating neurasthenics with his "rest cure," which he first
tried out on Civil War soldiers. Most of his subsequent patients, however,
were upper-class women. According to an 1899 survey of neurasthenic
patients, two-thirds were between the ages of 20 and 40, with an average
age of 33.3.
In a typical rest cure, Mitchell ordered
an afflicted woman to take to her bed, where she was fed and washed
by attendants and forbidden to read, use her hands, or even speak. "Mitchell
subsequently systematized the treatment to include total isolation of
the patient from the family," Barbara Sicherman writes. Such isolation
enhanced the doctor's control over the patient, which Mitchell considered
all-important, writing: "The man who can insure belief in his opinions
and obedience to his decrees secures very often most brilliant and sometimes
easy success." He sought a "trustful belief" and was at first surprised
"that we ever get from any human being such childlike obedience. Yet
we do get it, even from men." Mitchell implicitly recognized that he
was usurping the role formerly occupied by a minister. "The priest hears
the crime or folly of the hour," he wrote, "but to the physician are
oftener told the long, sad tales of a whole life."
In The Autobiography of a Neurasthene
(1910), Margaret Cleaves provided, as Sicherman puts it, "a classic
study of unresolved dependency needs that were at least partly met by
her long-term relationship with her physician," who visited her daily
during her worst attacks. Cleaves blamed her rearing for all of her
troubles, noting that the arrival of a younger sister deprived her of
milk. Also, her father died when she was 14, and she had a recurrent
dream of being a child cradled in his arms. Her doctor provided a fine
substitute, however. "It seemed worthwhile," she wrote, "to have suffered
for the sake of all this comfort."
I have taken us back a century in some detail
for obvious reasons. As noted, the similarities between the two eras
are striking. The late 19th century spawned the psychoanalytical enterprise,
the shift from priest to therapist, and the abnegation of personal responsibility
in the face of social turmoil. By medicalizing neurosis, the early psychologists
and physicians initiated a disturbing trend that has now reached crisis
proportions. As Barbara Sicherman notes, "They were interpreting behavioral
symptoms that some found morally reprehensible (an inability to work
for no apparent cause, compulsive or phobic behavior, bizarre thoughts)
as signs of illness rather than wilfulness. They thus legitimized the
right of individuals with such difficulties to be considered, and to
consider themselves, victims of disease." Beard, she writes, urged that
"kleptomania, inebriety, and pyromania--all safely medical--replace
the traditional moralistic designations of stealing, drunkenness, and
In the late 20th century, we have taken such
excuses to new and extraordinary heights. As numerous commentators have
lamented, virtually everyone now claims to be a victim of something
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