Mark Pendergrast

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Chapter 11: Why Now?

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered,
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease.
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees.

But it’s all right, it’s all right,
For we’ve lived so well, so long.
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on,
I wonder what’s gone wrong.
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong.
–Paul Simon, “American Tune”


The current repressed-memory craze represents the continuation of a long-standing historical trend in which authorities have encouraged troubled women to act out the “symptom pool” of the era and accept an inappropriate diagnosis. But that does not explain why this particularly virulent form of delusion has become so popular at this time in our particular culture. The inevitable questions arise: Why now? Why here?

Revelations about real incest initially led to the search for repressed memories, as I documented in Chapter 1. But how could an idea with such shallow scientific grounding receive such ready and widespread acceptance? Although it is tempting to try to construct elaborate, convincing hypotheses, I believe that there are no simple answers. Rather, several historical and cultural threads seem to have woven together to produce a social fabric that is receptive to the current sex abuse witch hunt. These threads include victimology, the codependency movement, and a general trend in our society to seek specific causes for a multitude of problems. Permeating all of these factors is a high level of generalized societal stress.

As we saw in the last chapter, a frantic search for scapegoats invariably surfaces during times of cultural upheaval. As Frederic Bartlett observed in 1932, “times of social stress, threat from outside, insurrection from within, any state of high social tension” tend to exacerbate such “persistent tendencies” within a society.

By almost any standard, Americans feel disjointed, pressured, and confused as they approach the turn of the century. We face an insurmountable national debt, a shortage of decent jobs, the spread of AIDS, gratuitous random violence, the breakup of families, newly discovered dangers to our health and environment, an unwieldy health-care system … the list goes on. Is it any wonder that we want to lay the blame somewhere? Who allowed things to get this way, anyway? It wasn’t us, that’s for sure! It was the previous generation. They messed everything up, including us.

But there have been other times of generalized, free-floating anxiety. Why, this time, has our malaise taken the bizarre form of unwarranted accusations of incest? Why aren’t we searching for witches or branding political subversives instead? Perhaps clues can be found in historical trends involving our national character and attitudes toward psychology, religion, women, and sex.

A Nation in Search of a Disease

In 1881, Dr. George Beard published American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences , in which he asserted that the stress of modern life, with its telegraph, steam engine, and frantic pace, was causing more and more people to come down with “neurasthenia,” a disease that he both invented and treated. Its symptoms, which he himself described as “slippery, fleeting, and vague,” included sick headache, exhaustion, ringing in the ears, nightmares, insomnia, flushing and fidgetiness, palpitations, dyspepsia, vague pains and flying neuralgia, spinal irritation, uterine troubles, hopelessness, claustrophobia, lack of sexual interest, and several more pages filled with other options. Beard hypothesized that people inherited a certain finite amount of “nervous force,” and that when it was over-strained, neurasthenia resulted.

Beard proclaimed that neurasthenia was a disease of the upper class, whose refined, sensitive nervous systems were overwhelmed by the pace of modern life. While delicate women came down with the ailment most frequently, hard-pressed businessmen could also be afflicted. Overwork, the volatility of economic booms and busts, repression of turbulent emotions, and too much thinking –particularly by women, unaccustomed to such brain strain–supposedly contributed to this high state of nerves. “The rapidity with which new truths are discovered, accepted and popularized in modern times,” Beard wrote, “is a proof and result of the extravagance of our civilization.” While we may laugh at Beard’s naïveté, his diagnosis clearly struck a chord with the public in his time, a period remarkably similar to our own.

In the ’60s (1860s, that is), the United States was torn apart by a controversial war that sometimes pitted family members against one another. In the post-war period, physicians developed an interest in war-induced stress, and soon identified similar syndromes in the normal population. The pace of scientific and technological change seemed overwhelming. Religious faith lost ground to materialism and greed in the nation’s value system. A flood of immigrants entered the country. Reformers attempted to stem the tides of alcoholism, child abuse, and sexual deviance. Homelessness in the midst of affluence became common. Interest in alternative healing methods using herbs and traditional native American remedies blossomed, along with belief in psychic phenomena. Psychological self-help books proliferated. Some women rebelled against their traditional subservient roles, and many men reacted defensively. In this turbulent society, which stressed individualism over community, the psychologist replaced the priest, as people sought respite from their confusion and unhappiness.

Sound familiar? The above commentary could apply equally to the late 20th century.
“Americans are the most nervous people in the world,” Dr. John Pemberton wrote in 1885, the year before he invented Coca-Cola as a “nerve tonic” for neurasthenics. For Pemberton and Beard, this observation was a point of curious pride. Because Americans were so inventive, energetic, and sensitive, they suffered more magnificently than others. “Beard’s was an ambivalence characteristically American,” observed medical historian Charles Rosenberg, noting that Beard was torn between an “arrogant nationalism and a chronic national insecurity.” Nor was Beard alone. Since the late 1700s, Rosenberg continued, physicians such as Benjamin Rush had concluded that “the unique pace of American life, its competitiveness, its lack of stability in religion and government, was somehow related to an incidence of mental illness higher than that of other Western countries.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, who mused over the American character in the early 19th century, commented on the national obsession with self. The citizens were “apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.” For the Frenchman, who was accustomed to philosophical acceptance of adversity, it was “strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.” As an ironic consequence, the impatient individualistic American, straining after an instant cure, has traditionally placed a dependent faith in the latest theories and self-help books produced by self-proclaimed experts.

Beard exemplified both the sufferer’s search for certainty and the expert’s assertion of authority. His father and two brothers were ministers, but Beard could not bring himself to accept that vocation, largely because of his belief in Darwin’s theories of evolution. Until the age of 23, when he graduated from Yale, Beard experienced his own brand of neurasthenia, with ringing in the ears, acute dyspepsia, pains in the side, nervousness, morbid fears, and chronic exhaustion. As medical historian Barbara Sicherman observed, intellectuals such as Beard “suffered acutely from the loss of faith that accompanied Darwinism … and the growing authority of Science. In a society of changing and often conflicting values, the decline of spiritual certitude intensified feelings of isolation.”

Beard and his fellow nerve doctors, the forerunners of therapists, made a religion out of their supposedly scientific approach to emotional and spiritual problems. Beard declared that the physician must not only heal, but enlighten the public and become “a power in society .” Although Beard died in 1883, his colleague S. Weir Mitchell did indeed become a powerful figure, pulling down $70,000 a year while treating neurasthenics with his “rest cure,” which he first tried out on Civil War soldiers. Most of his subsequent patients, however, were upper-class women. According to an 1899 survey of neurasthenic patients, two-thirds were between the ages of 20 and 40, with an average age of 33.3.

In a typical rest cure, Mitchell ordered an afflicted woman to take to her bed, where she was fed and washed by attendants and forbidden to read, use her hands, or even speak. “Mitchell subsequently systematized the treatment to include total isolation of the patient from the family,” Barbara Sicherman writes. Such isolation enhanced the doctor’s control over the patient, which Mitchell considered all-important, writing: “The man who can insure belief in his opinions and obedience to his decrees secures very often most brilliant and sometimes easy success.” He sought a “trustful belief” and was at first surprised “that we ever get from any human being such childlike obedience. Yet we do get it, even from men.” Mitchell implicitly recognized that he was usurping the role formerly occupied by a minister. “The priest hears the crime or folly of the hour,” he wrote, “but to the physician are oftener told the long, sad tales of a whole life.”

In The Autobiography of a Neurasthene (1910), Margaret Cleaves provided, as Sicherman puts it, “a classic study of unresolved dependency needs that were at least partly met by her long-term relationship with her physician,” who visited her daily during her worst attacks. Cleaves blamed her rearing for all of her troubles, noting that the arrival of a younger sister deprived her of milk. Also, her father died when she was 14, and she had a recurrent dream of being a child cradled in his arms. Her doctor provided a fine substitute, however. “It seemed worthwhile,” she wrote, “to have suffered for the sake of all this comfort.”

I have taken us back a century in some detail for obvious reasons. As noted, the similarities between the two eras are striking. The late 19th century spawned the psychoanalytical enterprise, the shift from priest to therapist, and the abnegation of personal responsibility in the face of social turmoil. By medicalizing neurosis, the early psychologists and physicians initiated a disturbing trend that has now reached crisis proportions. As Barbara Sicherman notes, “They were interpreting behavioral symptoms that some found morally reprehensible (an inability to work for no apparent cause, compulsive or phobic behavior, bizarre thoughts) as signs of illness rather than wilfulness. They thus legitimized the right of individuals with such difficulties to be considered, and to consider themselves, victims of disease.” Beard, she writes, urged that “kleptomania, inebriety, and pyromania–all safely medical–replace the traditional moralistic designations of stealing, drunkenness, and arson.”

Victims All

In the late 20th century, we have taken such excuses to new and extraordinary heights. As numerous commentators have lamented, virtually everyone now claims to be a victim of something .

[Continued… To order the book directly from the publisher, Upper Access Books, click here.]