Psychotherapy reading list (or, Should I go into therapy?)

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Against Therapy, Jeffrey Masson, Flamingo 1992
To my mind Masson is a genius. A timely critique of psychotherapy. He looks at the historical roots of therapy and present day practice and finds dishonesty everywhere. He doesn’t offer an alternative and those reading this book who are ‘in’ therapy may feel he isn’t addressing them. It is not a self help book; though he does tentatively suggest that supportive groups of people who have had similar experiences offering self-help is the best way to provide support .

Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, Richard
Webster, Fontana 1996
Quite a long book. In parts excellent. Webster carries out a detailed forensic examination of the letters and texts of Freud and demonstrates his lying. The book contains some shocking material about the ‘cocaine episode’ – something not widely advertised by psychotherapy. Freud recommended a cocaine treatment for a case of morphine addiction and when the patient became addicted to cocaine as well did not admit this but rather claimed the treatment a success. Even more shocking is the case of the botched surgery he arranged for a young girl apparently based on some mistaken ideas about the role of the nose in some neuroses. Webster argues that Freud had a deep-seated psychological need to become famous and wealthy and distorted his work repeatedly until he found a way to do this. There is also a clear and convincing though theoretical exposition of the dynamics at play between a psychoanalyst and their patient.

Really, this book can’t be praised enough. There are two matters I would take issue with; having done irreparable damage to psychoanalysis Webster concludes rather strangely that he isn’t against all psychotherapy and some is quite good. Since most modern psychotherapy has its roots in Freudian analysis this is odd. Secondly, he states that anyone who says that Freud has some merit is making the mistake of still holding on to some ‘residual piety’ .

He doesn’t really demonstrate this; to show that Freud lied about matters, that his theories tend to depend on a kind of circular logic where Freudian theories are used to interpret material which is then used to prove the theories, to  show that his patients didn’t recover is all great. But it doesn’t totally demolish all of Freud’s insights. I found myself reading the passages from Freud which Webster quotes and often thinking that there were psychological insights here of some value – while not accepting the system (or religion as Webster might have) of the psychoanalytic church.

Webster ends with a call for a new kind of ‘holistic positivism’. While claiming to be a positivist he does offer a correction – which allows what some might call common-sense or intuition to guide empirical science. I haven’t done this part of the book justice I am aware.

Despite its faults a devastating take-down of psychoanalysis.

Therapy Culture, Frank Furedi, Routledge 2004

His critics from within the psychotherapy camp say that Furedi is being ‘nostalgic for the fifties’ but this slinging an emotional ‘diagnosis’ at him rather than offering a rational criticism seems rather to support Furedi’s view of the trivialisation inherent in ‘Therapy culture’.

An insightful work of force and scholarship. A profound critique of contemporary culture. Furedi looks at how emotionalism and the values of therapy are becoming pervasive. He argues that far from this being an
emotional liberation the tendency to ‘get it out into the open’ is in fact a way of making emotions shallow. He argues that the professionalisation of emotional relations.

This book is essential reading for anyone trying to understand where we are at.

H. J. Eysenck, Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire, 1985
Written from the point of view of a behaviourist. I was surprised by the imagination and humanity of this work. Eysenck offers a very useful critique of Freudian dream theory and a general overview of the unscientific nature of psychoanalysis without sounding like he does not value the realm of literature and art. In itself a sufficient take-down of psychoanalysis.

Jeffey Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the
Seduction Theory, Ballantine Books 2003
Freud’s initial theory of hysteria and neurosis was the somewhat astonishing claim that these always resulted from childhood seduction – what we would now call child sexual abuse. Subsequently he changed this theory; the seductions his patients had described to him were in fact phantasies. The theory finally emerged as the Oedipal theory; children phantasise about sexual union with the parent of the opposite sex, development involves a healthy repression of these feelings. Neurosis occurs when the repression goes wrong in some way. Masson argues that the dropping of the seduction theory marks a shift in Freud’s work from pioneer to fraud. The seduction theory was unpopular and unlikely to bring him many friends. This is an important work; psychoanalysis and in its soft-packaging variant of psychotherapy continues to this day (despite appearances to the contrary) to ignore the abuse suffered by patients and indeed often to perpetrate further abuse.

Masson again shows a deep understanding of what psychoanalysis is all about.

Buy on Amazon

Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, (1887. Various editions. e.g. Oxford
World Classics, 1996)
In the third essay ‘What is the meaning of Ascetic Ideals’ Nietzsche offers a critique of Christian priests. The underlying context is his theory of two moralities; a morality of the noble, ascendant, people and a different morality of the slaves, the downtrodden and humble. He describes the priest as the guardian of the ascetic ideal, an ideal which ” is derived from the protective and healing instincts of a degenerating life”. This essay is intended as a criticism of the ascetic ideal and its embodiment in the person of the Christian priest. Without any changes at all the criticism rings out too against psychotherapy. The priest offers consolation, he “renders the sick to a certain extent harmless” (Chp. 16, p107 in above edition), he uses an excess of emotion to anaesthetize pain, he enjoins people to feel a Christian love of their neighbour. This all comes from weakness and a degenerating life-force, not strength. From Nietzsche’s point of view (were he to have lived to see the rise of psychotherapy) psychotherapy can be seen perhaps as the last gasp of Christian, ascetic, morality.

Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deluze and Félix Guattari, 1984 The Athlone Press
A difficult work which presumes some knowledge of psychoanalytic trends. The essential critique seems to be that the productions of the unconscious are first and foremost just that – the productions of ‘desiring machines’. The authors eschew the interpretative approach which is used in their view to castrate patients. The Oedipal theory is seen as a chain, hung round the neck of the patient – something which he must conform too to get better. In fact while the parents are important to the child they are not the sole points of reference for the child’s developing libido, there is no three-point system in reality. The child engages with all the world. The prevalence of the Oedipal theory in psychoanalysis is linked to a de-historicisation in psychoanalysis. It isn’t clear to me if the authors believe in psychoanalysis but are trying to purge it of the Oedipal theory or whether they don’t accept psychoanalysis at all. I will expand this review later.

Life is like piloting your ship

An analogy. Living your life is like piloting a ship. You have to learn to avoid the rocks. If you do get holed you have to learn how to patch the hole and carry on. You have to learn how to manage a mutinous crew who may well lead you astray through excesses (your “id” if you like theoretical super-models); or just your desires. If you don’t have a destination in mind you will go round in circles, which is a bit pointless. Sometimes you may get becalmed for a while. In which case you need to seek out a favourable wind. In general the course has difficulties. No one makes a perfect pilot from the outset. And anyway the weather and state of the sea you are sailing in is largely beyond your control. Therefore it won’t all be plain sailing. Learning how to deal with the difficulties is part of the challenge. It’s fun. (And at any time and sooner or later your ship and you will suffer an ultimate catastrophe and will sink leaving only a temporary ripple).

Therapy takes a different attitude to the difficulties. It is an ideology. If you find yourself becalmed it is because there is a problem in the boiler room. It you’ve hit the rocks it is because there is a problem in the boiler room. If you find yourself wondering which direction to sail in it is because there is a problem in the boiler room. The fix is that you have to take the boiler to pieces and put it back together again. Of course to do this you need an expert mechanic. (No surprises there). You cannot do it yourself. With therapy you stop looking over the prow of your ship at the wide ocean. And you stop learning from your mistakes. You bury yourself deep in the bowels of your ship and fiddle with the engine. Hoping that that will make the wind blow or will stop you running into the rocks again.

But. It won’t make the wind blow. And while you can possibly make adjustments to the hidden parts of the engine you could simply have learned to change course without getting grease all over your hands. It is interesting for the mechanic. It confirms his theories about how engines work. But don’t believe him when he tells you that you can’t sail well without taking your engine to bits and putting it back together again.

To put it another way. 99.9% of the time when you crash into the reefs and 99.9% of the time when you find yourself becalmed and 99.9% of the time when you find yourself lacking a direction it is not because there is a problem with the engine. These are just problems intrinsic to the business of sailing. Everyone has them to some degree or other. And, because they don’t result from a problem with your engine, there is nothing to be gained by taking it to bits and reassembling it. It is just a waste of time.

Acceptance and Genuiness

This from an ad. by a counsellor:

I offer the therapeutic conditions of understanding, acceptance, genuineness and warmth – a safe place for you to explore your inner feelings and help you find the changes you seek.

Just to clarify: money can’t buy you love. Nor can it buy you “understanding, acceptance, genuineness and warmth”. If there really was “understanding, acceptance, genuineness and warmth” she wouldn’t be charging you a fee for a 50 minute meeting in her office. (Terms and conditions apply). (Try asking for the “understanding, acceptance, genuineness and warmth” outside of the paid-for 50 minutes).

Really this is so cheap and cynical. We all crave for “understanding, acceptance, genuineness and warmth”. The trick in life is to get this. The usual way it works is you have to give it to someone else. And in exchange you’ll get it back. It is about mutual exchange, and nothing to do with money.

If you have to pay for it it isn’t love.

You can pay for a substitute if you want. But you are probably better spending your time and money looking for real love.





Psychotherapists complain about austerity.

A coalition of psychotherapists and counsellors (442 of them) have published an open letter denouncing the effect of cuts in public spending on the emotional state of the nation. [1] They are concerned about the effects of the cuts on their clients. That is, they couldn’t give a toss that some people are losing the roof over their heads. But they “care” about the effect this will have on their emotions. There doesn’t appear to be any sign that any one of these 442 therapists and counsellors are planning to cut their fees to help their clients.

They complain that the government apparently plans to link some social security payments to people accepting therapeutic interventions to help them get back to work. This is hysterically funny. It is the therapy industry which has driven the ideology that environmental and external world problems can always be solved by fixing some internal deficit. They’ve driven that ideology because that is their business model. Not surprisingly then we can notice that not one of the 442 concerned counsellors has taken the opportunity to swear they won’t take work from this quarter.

Therapists must be the most myopic and self-interested “profession” in the country. Even at a time of public sector cuts all they can think about is their apolitical “work” of the emotions. And, of course, their fees. No sign that they are even aware of the real suffering that people who do lose their jobs and homes will be experiencing. This is just a panicked reaction trying to protect their fees.