Fifty Years Down And Maybe A Clockwork Brown Could Use A Little Touch Up

I have for awhile now been doing almost daily internet searches for the appearence of the term anti-psychiatry in the news. In most instances this word is used as an expression of disparagement, or as an example of a trend from which a journalist or a blogger wishes to disassociate him or herself. If trend it is, it isn’t a very popular trend. These are the primary instances in which the term makes an appearance. There is another instance, too, when the term puts in an appearance, and that is when psychiatrists use the term themselves. Here the term is being used to scapegoat critics of conventional psychiatry. Anti-psychiatry is the great bug-a-boo of mainstream psychiatry today. It doesn’t have much of a substantial existence, and yet psychiatry feels a need to defend itself from this amorphous and mysterious malevolent force it feels is being directed against itself. Anti-psychiatry Disorder is the great white whale of a ‘sickness’ the contemporary megalomaniacal mad Dr. Ahab feels most challenged by.

When it comes down to it, I think there is very little difference between anti-psychiatry and non-psychiatry. Non-psychiatry is basically indifferent to, and not in need of, psychiatry. I think non-psychiatry has a great future. Anti-psychiatry, on the other hand, is more dependent on psychiatry. Anti-psychiatry is antipathetic to psychiatry, and this creates no end of problems for psychiatrists. Its future is tied up with the future of psychiatry. I don’t think it very ironic at all that a psychiatrist came up with the term anti-psychiatry. Disciples of Christianity came up with the beast 666, the Anti-Christ, to describe the nemesis and antithesis of their own faith. Atheism is altogether another creature entirely. Faith is the key-word here, and faith is not a matter for scientific inquiry. Science itself demands a certain amount of healthy skepticism.

Recently Dr. Edward Shorter, a psychiatrist, a historian, and a critic of critics of contemporary psychiatric practice co-authored with Susan Belanger, another partisan of coercive treatment, an article for the Oxford University Press blog, Anti-psychiatry in A Clockwork Orange. A Clockwork Orange is turning 50. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, another classic, achieved 50 not so long ago as well, but these two experts were not so enthused about celebrating that momentous occasion.

Political interest in behavioural programming is represented by the Minister of the Interior (whom Alex nicknames Minister of the Inferior, or — in a nod to the truncations of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 — Int Inf Min). The “Min” visits the prison to implement the treatment in order to fight crime “on a purely curative basis. Kill the criminal reflex.” He reappears as Alex’s “cure” is demonstrated and boasts to the media about government efforts to suppress “young hooligans and perverts and burglars.” In fact the police are now recruiting former hooligans to rough up whomever they choose and round up enemies of the Government, an agenda suggested by the Minister’s earlier comment about clearing the prisons for “political offenders.” This combination of political tyranny and abusive (Pavlovian!) conditioning in a future Britain where adolescent thugs speak a mixture of Cockney rhyming slang, archaisms, and anglicized Russian (“Propaganda. Subliminal penetration,” a doctor suggests) creates an additional sinister note that would have been especially potent in the Cold War era when A Clockwork Orange was published.

Now if we interpret this work in the way that Dr. Shorter and Ms. Belanger interpret this work it has something to do with the cold war era in which it came out. What neither of them are looking at is the way this work relates to the increasing medicalization of life taking place in our own time. After calling insulin shock, metrasol therapy, and ECT used extensively durring the 1930’s “highly effective”, a claim I find highly dubious. The authors point out ECT gained popularity in the 1950s. Then we get this paragraph.

Beginning in the 1950s, a series of revolutionary drug treatments arose: antipsychotics, antidepressants and anxiolytics. So widespread was their use that, by the time Burgess penned Clockwork, they had become the subjects of cocktail party chitchat. Medical psychotherapy, which had ruled the roost in previous decades, was wobbling (the Brits never had much interest in Freud’s psychoanalysis) and was about to be pushed out the door. All these innovations lent themselves marvelously to being parodied, sent up, and pulled down by scornful novelists.

This is hardly the end of the story. Those revolutionary treatments didn’t turn out to be so revolutionary after all. This psychiatric drug treatment revolution has lead, rather than to an end of “psychosis” in our lifetime as was hoped, to the favoring of drug maintenance over any approach emphasizing the possibility and hope of achieving complete recovery from, say, the youth, immaturity and thuggish nature exhibited by the chief protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, Alex. People in mental health treatment are also dying off at an earlier age than the rest of the population because of these drugs. Rather than eluding the “laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation”, those “laws and conditions” are incorporated into a lifetime prescription drug taking regimen.

I’d say the times haven’t changed so much as these mental health professionals would envision them to have changed, and maybe the Anthony Burgess classic novel, and the movie based on that novel, could use a serious update to illustrate how similar the treatments parodied in his book are to treatments still being practiced on a widescale and regular basis today.