The strange history of shrinks: Book review

Lieberman lets the facts of his research propel the story forward and is intent on dispelling any doubt that psychiatry is rooted in science



Jeffrey A. Lieberman

Mental illness, it was once thought, could be caused by an accretion of energy particles, called orgones, which were trapped inside the body. To treat the condition, Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychiatrist of some renown, would place his patient inside a wooden box, where the rogue elements could be caught and released with a surge of exhilaration (it’s no coincidence that “orgone” shares a root with “orgasm”). This theory was eventually debunked, and Dr. Reich—who, ironically, succumbed to paranoid delusions—was ultimately jailed. But his unconventional methods live on, alongside a host of other vivid examples, in this detailed account of the evolution of psychiatry.

A former president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University, Lieberman is acutely familiar with the misconceptions that plague both mental illness and the professionals who treat it. While he uses a handful of personal anecdotes to punctuate his narrative, Lieberman strives for a classical psychoanalyst’s state of emotional remove, allowing the facts of his research to propel the story forward—a deliberate choice, one suspects, for a man intent on dispelling any doubt that his chosen field is rooted in science.

Lieberman describes the horror of 18th -century asylums, “wretched, filthy, overcrowded dungeons” for the gravely disturbed, and Enlightenment-era reforms to the field. He lays out the rapid expansion of psychiatry in the 20th century, a period marked by the rise of Eastern European pioneers like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung—and, yes, Wilhelm Reich—who brought their craft to the United States when they emigrated during and between the World Wars. Shrinks moves from the “headshrinkers” of silver-screen Hollywood to the advent of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM—founded on Second World War-era guidelines that determined whether prospective soldiers were draftable. And it covers the anti-psychiatry backlash of the ’60s and the great leaps in psychopharmacology that have all but defined our current era.

As a card-carrying representative of the psychiatric establishment, Lieberman has obvious biases. Though he does a fine job of outlining some of the unsavoury treatments prescribed by his early forebears, he seems loath to critique his contemporaries—a section on electro-convulsive therapy doesn’t acknowledge that the approach has often been imposed on unwilling patients. He talks about the fraught historic relationship between psychiatry and the gay community, but ignores issues over transgender politics that afflict it today. His history is also almost exclusively an American one. But Shrinks is a fascinating chronicle of our collective psychic—and psychiatric—demons, and how we’ve tried to exorcise them.


The strange history of shrinks: Book review

  1. If that’s what Dr. Leiberman said about Dr. Wilhelm Reich then Leiberman threw his own credibility right out the window. That is one of the most bizarre distortions of Reich’s discoveries I’ve seen yet, and this in a book allegedly driven by facts.

    Ms. Liss, if you’d like the truth about Reich, read Reich! Start with his groundbreaking book, “Function of the Orgasm”. There you will find a truly intellectually and emotionally satisfying natural scientific basis to psychiatry. If you’d like an excellent summary of Reich’s discoveries and an accurate, scholarly and detailed history of the relentless slanders and attacks Reich continues to be subjected to – even 50 years after his death (as unfortunately evidenced by Leiberman’s book) – read Dr. James DeMeo’s “In Defense of Wilhelm Reich: Opposing the 80-Years’ War of Mainstream Defamatory Slander Against One of the 20th Century’s Most Brilliant Physicians and Natural Scientists”.

    I promise you, based on your review, you will find Reich’s work profoundly more satisfying than anything Leiberman has to offer about human behavior. I wish Lieberman were putting as much energy into critiquing his contemporaries as he puts into slandering Reich.

  2. Dr. Leiberman is simply fabricating slander against a dead man. Maybe he wishes to help cover up how American psychiatry participated in a 1950s witch-hunt, which included very similar public slander to what’s written here, leading to the burning of Reich’s scientific books and journals, and his later death in prison. Reich dared to use the word “orgasm” in the title of his important books on human sexuality, and dared to defend his research findings to a severely biased US court system, which approved the burning of his many books. The same FDA and APA which by the way never saw a psychiatric drug unworthy to approve of, or to prescribe to even children as a routine, much to the detriment of the American public health. Reich had argued for the social causation of mental-emotional illness, indicating they were preventable by social changes. Bad and cruel families, hospitals, school systems. Bad marriages, without love. He also developed drug-free therapeutic methods of what is today called “body-oriented psychotherapy” resolving the “mind-body problem” with very deep and important understandings. Have a good cry, or a good rage beating a pillow, safely within a therapeutic setting, and you then breathe deeper, see more clearly, feel better inside and can progressively move on towards greater pleasure in life. Find love and have a good orgasm, and you felt even better still. Emotional conflicts then melted away, gradually as one moved towards healthy living. And — horrors! — you might then become less prone to public propaganda and think more clearly as well!

    Science has been steadily confirming these “outrageous” ideas of Reich, but American psychiatry is still stuck in a dark age, of demonic genes having replaced old Original Sin. Reich found the libido was bioelectrical, by experiments, and later viewed it as a life-energy, which was then proven out by experiments using a device similar to a Faraday cage, his orgone energy accumulator, but nothing like what Dr. Lie-berman says, in wretched distortion.

    What can I say. Read Reich for yourself, his “Function of the Orgasm” for starters. I wrote a book “In Defense of Wilhelm Reich” with the subtitle “Opposing the 80-Years War of Mainstream Defamatory Slander Against One of the 20th Century’s Most Brilliant Physicians and Natural Scientists”. It documents in detail this tragedy of American anti-science and thuggery. Suggest to read that also, to know how this hurricane blizzard of “lying press” media slander against Reich has gone on for more than 80 years. What obsesses them to do this, he’s been dead since 1957? Is he still such a threat to the Men In Power? They are still afraid of him, of his ghost, of the legacy of his work which remains alive and vital.

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