Daily Archives: November 11, 2006

What happens when you ignore power relationships.


I’m not feeling the greatest again today, so here’s another post I found in my archive of drafts. I’m not at all sure when I wrote it:

My mind is currently in a rather boggled state. I’m reading an old review of Irit Shimrat’s book Call Me Crazy, in the Women’s Review of Books. Call Me Crazy is about the mad movement in Canada, and it’s entirely by people who’ve been in the psych system.

Here’s a quote from the review by Sheila Bienenfeld:

As a psychologist who for several years (eons ago) worked in a psychiatric hospital, I had some trouble with this seeming wholesale dismissal of psychology and allied professions. It was a bit of an injury to my professional narcissism. But one of the motifs of Call Me Crazy is that Shimrat and many of her fellow “survivors” feel that in their times of personal crisis they were treated by psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers and nurses, as incompetent or simply bad: their value as human beings was derided and their opinions dismissed. My feeling of being discounted and unfairly stigmatized in this book parallels what Shimrat and her colleagues often felt as patients.

Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay. (I had to stare at that last sentence several times over, and try not to laugh, and stare at it and stare at it and try to get it to make any more sense, and it didn’t, so I’m writing this.)

Am I to assume then, that Irit Shimrat and her co-authors locked Dr. Bienenfeld in a small room and would not let her out until she renounced her profession? Did they put her in a building where her every movement, statement, and feeling was noted and controlled by anti-psychiatry activists who repeatedly put pressure on her to stop practicing? Is she unable to practice her preferred profession or even state it openly for fear of housing, educational, and job discrimination? Do the police watch her more carefully when they find out that she is a psychology professor?

Are there a constant stream of articles in “reputable” newspapers that imply that violent criminals tend to be psychology professors? Does Bienenfeld lack any sort of standard recourse when Shimrat publishes her views on people like Bienenfeld? Does Bienenfeld have to worry, when she publishes opinions like this in a book review, that people will not take her seriously anymore, and may even discriminate against her?

Would it be possible for most people to truthfully relegate Bienenfeld’s views to a relic of the seventies (even though they’re being expressed in the nineties) and totally dismiss what she has to say on that basis? Is psychology treated like a joke by people with the real power? Would Bienenfeld have to struggle to get a book published about her views on psychology and keep it in print? Would it be close to the only psychology book out there, and then fade into obscurity almost as soon as it was published? Does she have to constantly have to remind people she’s not a cult member?

She got it right when she talked about ‘professional narcissism’. The things I just described have happened to the people who wrote the book. All she did was pick up a book and feel insulted by the fact that they took issue with people who had, and almost undoubtedly abused, power over their lives. I see no parallel between Bienenfeld’s experience reading Shimrat’s book, and Shimrat’s experiences at the hands of people in Bienenfeld’s profession.

This is an excellent example, though, of what happens when people do not take note of power imbalances. Being an inmate in the psych system, or even an ex-inmate or the sort of person most likely to become an inmate, is nothing whatsoever like being a psychology professor who dislikes a book written by ex-inmates of the psych system. This is a common mistake, though. Shimrat and her co-authors experienced threat to almost everything good about their lives (and sometimes their lives themselves) at the hands of people in the psych professions. Dr. Bienenfeld got her feelings hurt. I know where my sympathies lie on this one. Some people will go to great lengths to act as if power relationships don’t exist.