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.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

12 responses »

  1. Excellent article. There really is no comparision between what patients have gone through and how this psychologist feels about being “stigmatized”. It goes to show how even further she can not empathize with her patients or understand where they are coming from.

  2. That’s a great example of ignoring power dynamics, and putting feelings over reality. Because if one envisions Sheila Bienenfeld and Irit Shimrat as two individuals floating is space, it makes perfect sense. Irit felt stigmatized and discounted, Sheila felt stigmatized and discounted. They both have bad feelings. They match! Now they can both express their feelings at each other, come to some ‘wouldn’t it be nice if everyone were nice’ understanding, hug, and the problem is solved.

    Except if you look at the reality where they’re not floating in space, and there’s things like actual experiences and social structure, and power differences, one woman was designated as ‘crazy’ and subjected to confinement, had other people with authority over her life attempt to control how she thought, and gets to live with the stigma of being considered untrustworthy, unreliable, and potentially dangerous. The other woman has a professional title, very likely earns a nice salary and lives in a good home, and read a book about people who don’t like her job. It’s a lot harded to pretend that’s somehow the same.

  3. You wrote:

    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?

    In fact, Bienenfeld can choose to stop practicing. The best we can do is pretend not to be autistic, often not very well, and at great personal expense. We can’t choose not to be autistic.

  4. This happens with all power relationships. I saw a story in one of our quality newspapers last week about the hidden shame of battered husbands. We were supposed to feel that the whole history of violence against women was somehow balanced by the fact that in a small number of cases the boot was literally on the other foot.

  5. It is very common and typical act of “professional narcissism” (as Sheila B. so aptly defined her own response) to immediately scream “victimization” and try to turn the tables at the slightest criticism.

  6. What a delightfully simple-minded parallel. And doubtless plausible, to vast numbers of people.

    (Semi-randomly, and not really: a friend asserts that psychiatry isn’t as bad as scientology, on the grounds that psychiatric types have good intentions.)

  7. I found your site recently and am really liking it. As an ex-inmate I’ve often felt that psychiatrists or people working in the psychiatry industry get paranoid and upset when Mad movement activists call them on their shit. It gets to the point where they demand we find SOME decent thing about our experience and that for that one thing alone we should be grateful. Like “I was put in four point restraints for six hours, sure, but I also got a cup of ice cream with my dinner, so it wasn’t so bad.” Just ridiculous.

  8. Please contact me. I’m locked up and being given harmful “medications” in a town called Comox in British Columbia. I can no longer access my main (gmail) account on the computer for use by patients so I googled myself and found you. I can be phoned at 250-339-1490 but e-mail is probably better. The hospital is called St. Joseph’s General Hospital and I’m in the inpatient psychiatric ward. I’ve been here since July 5 or 6 and was in “seclusion” 12 days; don’t know quite how or when I’ll get out but have a paradoxical reaction to a drug my psychiatrist, though a good man, can’t understand he needs to stop giving me every day – it makes me quite ill. I thank you for having found me and very much wish you to find me again.

    Yours in big trouble and much fear,

    Irit Shimrat

  9. Pingback: Assorted Thingies › A relatively lucky escape

  10. I`ve never been locked up anywhere but even I can see what an absolute stupid statement this woman made, and how someone like this is completely detached from the reality of her patients. Someone like this is a prime example of a person that needs to stay out of people professions.

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