Cover image for In therapy we trust : America's obsession with self-fulfillment
In therapy we trust : America's obsession with self-fulfillment
Moskowitz, Eva S.
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Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
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x, 342 pages, 10 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
The therapeutic gospel -- Illness : a new cure, a new faith, 1850-1900 -- Poverty : reformers offer treatment, 1890-1930 -- Marriage : a science of personal relations, 1920-1940 -- War : the soldier's psyche, 1941-1945 -- Home : the unhappy housewife, 1945-1965 -- Social protest : liberating the psyche, 1960-1975 -- Feelings : expressing the self, 1970-1980 -- Personal problems and public debate.
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From self-esteem talk on Oprah to self-help books like Negaholics and Your Sacred Self, we live in an age fixated on emotional well-being. Rich or poor, black or white, male or female, straight or gay, Americans share a belief in the therapeutic gospel. As Eva Moskowitz argues, Americans today turn to psychological cures as confidently as they once petitioned the Lord with prayer. How did the land of the free become obsessed with self-fulfilment? Has America gained or lost by placing so much emphasis on personal well-being? Taking a historical approach, Moskowitz explores the country's tendency to find psychological explanations - and excuses - for nearly everything.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Historian Moskowitz explores the U.S. history of a "therapeutic gospel" with three central tenets: "happiness should be our supreme goal," "our problems stem from psychological causes," and "the psychological problems that underlie our failures and unhappiness are in fact treatable and . . . we can, indeed should, address these problems both individually and as a society." She traces this changing "gospel" from Phineas Quimby's "mental therapeutics" through early-twentieth-century New Thought, the Progressives' therapeutic agenda, marriage counseling, the armed forces' use of psychology during and after World War II, and 1950s women's magazines. National fascination with the psyche continued to develop through the social movements of the 1960s, the "me generation" of the 1970s, and the intimate TV talk shows and recovery movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Moskowitz's objections to this long-running obsession are that "our emphasis on the individual psyche has blinded us to underlying social realities," and "the emphasis on individuals and mental healing often comes at the expense of considerations of the larger public good." --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

I may be OK, and you may be OK, but what about the culture at large? Are Americans obsessed with self-fulfillment? Has illusory self-esteem become a highly lucrative commodity? In this entertaining, informative and provocative cultural analysis, Moskowitz, sometime college history teacher and New York City Council member, explores how the desire for personal happiness became supreme, and how success in every arena from sports to geopolitics has come to be measured "with a psychological yardstick." Moskowitz's lengthy historical view encompasses the mid-19th-century New Thought movement (epitomized by Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science), which sought physical happiness through mental will, as well as the impact of various forms of therapy on education movements. She also analyzes how the therapeutic community helped shape postwar social reforms such as desegregation by arguing that legalized racism was psychologically harmful to African-Americans, and how second-wave feminists in the 1960s and '70s "blamed psychological experts for women's false consciousness," while simultaneously citing "the psychological nature of women's oppression." While Moskowitz charts what she sees as the excesses of this culture Oprah and Sally Jesse Raphael's confessional televised therapy fests, and the glut of 12-step programs for everyone from nail-biters to "dataholics" and information addicts her criticism is as judicious as her careful praise of an encompassing therapy culture. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Chronicling the national need for therapeutic absolution, Moskowitz examines how therapy has become our secular religion. Connecting this need to 19th-century roots, she chronologically examines how the use of therapy as a national panacea gradually permeated various institutions--hospitals, schools, corrections, the military--as the 20th century progressed. This trend penetrated every aspect of society and culture after 1945. Even social protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s incorporated the jargon of "liberating the psyche." The retreat of the 1970s was not only to the commune, but to getting in touch with one's feelings through various therapies. The 1980s witnessed self-help programs such as 12-step. The past decade has seen the proliferation of therapy via mass media on various talk shows on television, radio, and cable. The author points out that the emphasis has been on "psychological happiness" based on facile therapy techniques, rather than rigorous psychological analysis. She concludes that the stress on individual fulfillment has tended to blind people to deeper social issues and promote self-absorption. Obsession with self-fulfillment is basically an obsession with "self." This work will generate much discussion. General readers. N. C. Rothman University of Maryland University College



Chapter One ILLNESS A New Cure, A New Faith 1850-1900     Phineas Pankhurst Quimby was born in Lebanon, New Hampshire, in 1802. He spent most of his life in Belfast, Maine, where he worked as a watch-and clockmaker. One day in 1838 Quimby went to hear Charles Poyen, a French mesmerist, who happened to be passing through Belfast. Mesmerism was a theory first proposed by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), who apparently had "discovered" the principle of animal magnetism and had become well known in Europe for his "marvelous cures."     Upon hearing Poyen, Quimby immediately became a convert and took up mesmerism on a part-time basis. With the help of a man named Lucus Burkmar, Quimby began giving exhibitions of mesmerism throughout New England. Over the years--exactly when is not clear--Quimby renounced mesmerism. By 1859, when he set up his medical practice in Portland, Maine, Quimby had dissociated himself from mesmerism and a host of other healing movements. Announcements specifically billed him as "opposed to Deism or Rochester Rapping Spiritualism." He was said to offer instead "Spiritual Science."     Newspapers throughout New England came to cover what was reported as a startling development, the discovery of "a new principle of treatment of diseases." Apparently, Quimby's novel medical practice involved "investigations in psychology." The press reported that Quimby's "new theory of disease" was "so contrary to the commonly received opinions" that people "hardly dare believe there can be any truth in it." Quimby would treat his patients simply by "sit[ting] down beside [the patient], and put[ting] himself en rapport with him." He did "not use medicine or any material agency, nor call to his aid mesmerism or any spiritual influence whatever." Rather, observers maintained, "his power over disease arises from his subtle knowledge of the mind."     What mid-nineteenth-century Americans found strangely fascinating--Quimby's reliance upon psychology to diagnose and heal--has become commonplace today. So thoroughly infused are we with psychological conceptions of health that it is almost impossible to imagine that such a conception might be new or even nonexistent. Yet, in Quimby's story we see a snapshot of America's journey to the therapeutic altar. Several decades before Freud came on the scene, Quimby proclaimed the mind's role in producing illness. He also announced that the psyche had curative powers if only man knew how to harness them. Quimby claimed to have the secret to such a therapeutics. The secret lay in science and in faith. Quimby's "mental therapeutics"--or mind cure, as it came to be called--preached a "therapeutic ethos," a new psychological gospel.     Quimby's New Moral Calculus After Quimby's death many of his followers sought to explain the essence of his methods and philosophy; however, the best source is his own writings. Quimby's four-hundred-page tome Science of Health and Happiness explores a wide range of topics, including language, mind, patriotism, the cause of man's troubles, the rich and the poor, music, parables, death, imagination, the efficacy of prayer, shadow and substance, superstitious beliefs, the identity of man and God, right and wrong, the senses, knowledge and wisdom, odor, the standard of law, character, happiness, conservatism, intelligence, aristocracy and democracy, and false reasoning.     Despite the book's many subjects, Quimby's interest, at least in his own eyes, was actually quite singular: "I frequently introduce subjects into my articles which do not seem to have any bearing on the subject of disease, but they do." Writing before the era of specialization but at a time when science was acquiring enormous prestige, Quimby related all topics to disease. Indeed, he criticized his contemporaries for failing to recognize the centrality of health and happiness to all aspects of life. In particular, he took the religion, medicine, and the morality of his day to task for embracing an untherapeutic agenda.     Quimby denounced religion as it was currently practiced for contributing to sickness and distress. Indeed, he went so far as to argue that "religion and disease is synonymous" (235). According to Quimby, religion promoted disease by idealizing suffering. He insisted that most people "believe ... if they suffer, it is for their good to convince them of the weakness of man's wisdom and his dependence on a superior power and if they suffer for his sake they will receive a reward in heaven that shall recompense them for all their suffering" (177). Mocking his contemporaries, Quimby rejected a logic that connected deprivation and reward.     Quimby objected to religion's convincing believers that denial in this world would result in salvation in the next: he lambasted those who "tell you, you are in danger of losing your soul" and those who "offer great inducements for you to enlist in the army of the Lord and fight for their own particular creed, promising you a crown of glory at the end of the war or when you die, so you are deprived of every pleasure you might otherwise enjoy, and torment yourself to death, merely for what you are promised at the end of your lives." Quimby viewed his contemporaries' obsession with punishment and the afterlife as both sacrilegious and unhealthful.     By contrast, Quimby imagined his "spiritual science" as a religion that was therapeutic. It sought to help man understand himself. Quimby's God not only had no need for punishment but had done everything in his power to help man achieve health and happiness in this world. According to Quimby, postponement of happiness was a false idea, a form of idolatry that man practiced at his own peril. Indeed, Quimby argued that man had both a moral and a medical obligation to get out from under such falsehoods. He preached that spiritual science would lead the way out.     It would do so by curing the sick of their false beliefs. Quimby maintained that such an approach was one that Jesus himself had practiced. He sought to save his followers "from the misery of belief, and introduce a new science of kingdom, where there would be no offering up of prayer or forgiving of sins, but a consciousness or science that would put them in possession of a knowledge of themselves." Quimby imagined religion as a science that helped man gain self-knowledge and find happiness. His therapeutic vision of religion was one in which self-consciousness released man from ideas that bound him to his troubles.     Quimby believed that to be cured, man had to cast off false ideas promoted not only by religion but also by medicine. He accused doctors of promoting the false idea that disease was physiological in origin and material in nature. He scoffed at such falsehoods, ridiculing physicians who asserted that disease was "a certain something that comes in various shapes and on various accounts or causes, and attacks people in various parts of the body." A consideration of the evidence demonstrated the absurdity of this medical principle: "If [the disease] is a thing of itself, did anyone ever see it? In all postmortem examinations and dissections of bodies which have taken place, had the thing dissected been found in the body?" Confident that the answer to both questions would be no, Quimby concluded, "You know yourself that it [is] not a material thing of itself." For Quimby the problem with the medicine of his age was not simply that it did not hold up to Victorian standards of evidence--a faith in the visibility or readability of truth--but that it was lethal.     Quimby viewed the medicine of the age as superstition with deadly consequences. It deserved not respect but contempt. "For instance a physician, from his theory, which is based on the lowest grade of ignorance and superstition produces a chemical change in your friend and blows him up or kills him from his science, and your friend gives him credit for being a scientific man. Now to kill a person by the theory of science of the faculty is one of the easiest things in the world." Quimby attributed medicine's murderous record to its emphasis on physiology. In Quimby's view, doctors failed to cure because they neglected the mind; they mistakenly believed the body to be all important.     According to Quimby, even when medicine did not kill, it did more harm than good. He gave as an example the case of a woman with "a very fine piano." The woman in question placed "a great value" upon the piano. She "feel[s] annoyed by everyone coming in and thrumming on the keys." Indeed, when anyone approaches the piano the patient becomes nervous. Eventually a physician is sent for. "He comes in as ignorant of music as the rest, goes to the piano and begins to look at it." As the doctor fiddles with the piano the patient becomes increasingly agitated. The doctor says, "You look sick and your blood is low. You need some little tonic.... I will leave you some powders." On his way out the doctor strikes the piano keys once more, and the patient's condition worsens.     In a few days the doctor returns: "The sight of the doctor reminds [the patient] of the instrument and [the patient] grows nervous." This process is repeated until "they have run through the medical faculty." So consumed with the body are the doctors that they fail to understand the patient's possessive attitude toward her piano. They also fail to comprehend the power of imagery and association, for even the sight of the doctor recalls the patient's feelings of possessiveness and nervousness. Because medicine focused on the corporal and neglected the patient's mind, it did not succeed. In this case, material interventions were bound to fail, according to Quimby, because the woman's sickness stemmed from an emotional association, a set of feelings about the piano.     Few today would dispute Quimby's theory of association. Psychotherapists believe that images can trigger emotional as well as physical reactions and that therapists need to be sensitive to the patient's psychological history. Quimby's appreciation of psychodynamics makes him strikingly modern. Yet, his account of going through the entire medical faculty and even his description of the piano lady's problem is thoroughly nineteenth-century. Quimby's vision of psychodynamics is utterly mechanical and literal. The doctor's presence calls up unpleasant experiences, and "the sight" of him makes the piano lady ill.     Quimby maintained that despite the damage done by doctors in such a case, his "true" or "spiritual" science could cure. It was an effective medicine, for it took account of the role of beliefs in producing sickness. Quimby placed ideas and the mind at the heart of his medicine. What his contemporaries called disease, Quimby saw as the external manifestation of internal error or ignorance. Disease existed in the mind "in the form of belief, and the body being under the control of the mind, and subject to its influence is molded and affected just in proportion to the state of mind, in its belief." The trick to therapeutics, according to Quimby, was to set the mind in the "true direction." A sick person, "deceived by error" and "in trouble," needed to be shown his "false direction." He needed to be put "in possession of a science" that taught "that thought is matter governed by another power and that his own belief is the cause of his trouble, and that to correct his belief is his cure." According to Quimby, his spiritual science was such a science.     With his spiritual science Quimby forged not only a fundamentally new vision of religion and medicine but indeed a new morality. Dismissing self-denial as untherapeutic, immoral, and sacrilegious, Quimby's new moral calculus emphasized the ideal of self-fulfillment. His science, or medicine, was designed to secure happiness. In fact, he argued that contentment and growth were the standards by which his healing methods could be judged. As his book, Science of Health and Happiness , indicated, all interventions that resulted in the patient's feeling better were clearly successful. This new perspective links Quimby to the modern therapeutic project. Independent of Freud, Americans chartered their own therapeutic course.     Quimby's therapeutic morality was created out of a Victorian vocabulary of moral absolutism and self-improvement. It relied heavily on the dichotomies of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, knowledge and ignorance. It defined these absolutes, however, in terms of subjective feelings of health and well-being. The goal of Quimby's medicine was to put man in possession of truth so that he could be cured of his false ideas. Quimby admitted only two kinds of ideas, true and false ones. False ideas made people sick. As Quimby explained it, "The effect of error is discord, disease, and death." Conversely, truth "takes matter in a deranged state, giving a true direction, and the effect is harmony, happiness, and peace." Quimby's emphasis on acquiring truth and banishing falsehoods links him to the Victorian culture from which he came. Victorians devoted considerable energy to the elimination of falsehoods, viewing their prevalence as one of the major problems of the age. But whereas most other Victorians mobilized for the purpose of enhancing the chances for salvation and improving character, Quimby did so to improve health and happiness in this world.     Quimby also put Victorian techniques of self-improvement to new uses. Victorians embraced self-consciousness as a technique for overcoming moral turpitude. Rejecting the corporal punishment of their forebears, they substituted the mind for the body as the site of social control. They advocated extreme self-consciousness as the way to guard against sinful or evil tendencies. Indeed, the Victorians made self-control and self-policing a favored pastime. Quimby drew upon this legacy to advance therapeutic goals. He advocated self-consciousness as the way to keep happy and achieve a state of perfect health. For Quimby, policing the mind for wrong ideas was a technique not of salvation but of self-fulfillment.     With such a vision, Quimby exceeded the bounds of mid-nineteenth-century American culture and laid the ground for modern therapeutic culture. Indeed, he put himself directly at odds with the "self-improvement" literature of his age. Whereas the didactic energies of the Victorians went into promoting diligence, perseverance, and self-denial, Quimby's went into promoting personal contentment. He repeatedly insisted that "happiness being man's aim, it is what we are all striving for" (90) and that "every idea going to destroy the progress of happiness must perish" (149). He defined his therapeutic mission in terms of eliminating unhappiness: "My method is based on a science ... which destroys opinions on all subjects which tend to disturb man's happiness" (5). Condemning his contemporaries for promoting a morality of grief and discouragement, Quimby proposed a morality of happiness.     It is perhaps Quimby's concern with unhappiness and personal troubles that marks him most conspicuously as an important precursor to the therapeutic gospel of modern America. In his practice Quimby saw patients who suffered from what he called false ideas, what today would be called emotional problems. Reviewing his years of medical service, Quimby described his patients as consumed with troubles stemming from incorrect beliefs and mental distortions: "I have sat with more than 300 individuals every year for 20 years, and for the last 5 years I have averaged 500 yearly, people with all sorts of diseases in every possible state of mind, and with hypochondriacs and insanity brought on by all kind of ideas that people believed in" (90). It was to these ideas and inner problems that Quimby directed his therapeutic attention. As Quimby himself continually put it, "My practice is unlike all medical practice. I give not medicine or outward applications. I tell the patient his troubles."     Like a modern-day therapist or counselor, Quimby addressed himself to the mind and its role in hindering happiness and development. He was committed to what today would be called emotional growth. As he explained this interest, "That which gives me the most satisfaction is to develop a mind capable of development." Quimby devoted himself to excavating those mental constructions that prevented self-development and distorted man's view of himself. He blamed feelings for skewing man's image of both himself and the world: "Your feelings as far as I have gone are witnesses that testify against you. You have none to appear on your behalf and you are cast into prison by these false witnesses" (56). Quimby imagined himself in the role of a lawyer, defending the patient against his own feelings and ideas, He sought to expose the mind's role in misrepresentation. Quimby was convinced that if man understood himself, he could correctly interpret himself: "If man knew what he was composed of, that is the identity called man, then his wisdom would put a different construction on his acts" (116). Doctors could help patients by getting at their true identity, by helping them correctly interpret their acts and feelings. Within a thoroughly Victorian vocabulary, Quimby, like a modern-day therapist, called upon his clients to obtain self-knowledge.     His actual medical practice also links him to modern-day therapy. While Quimby treated and analyzed a variety of cases, he was particularly excited about the role of spiritual science in what we today would call interpersonal relations. He was convinced, for example, that mental treatment could have a profound effect on troubled marriages, for he thought marital problems stemmed from "ignorance of ourselves." Quimby extolled the practical implications of spiritual science for marital troubles: "I have also found that I can change the mind so that a person that is hated can be loved ... and also that the person that is changed can respect what he never had any respect for" (149). Recognizing the power of the therapeutic gospel to shape personal relations, Quimby lamented its limited use.     Quimby describes one case, for example, that could have been solved if only it had been brought to him early enough. In the case of the "Divorced Lady" the husband and wife had loved each other when they married and continued to do so until the lady "took cold and was very sick." Once sick, "she lost all patience, had no confidence in her husband, forsook his bed, and would not have anything to do with him." The rejected husband got a divorce. Looking behind the behavior of the couple, Quimby finds a wealth of subtle psychological motivations that explain how their love turned into hatred.     According to Quimby, the lady's "sickness caused her husband to fear for her life." But she "put a false construction on his fears; for his love when she was well did not excite her fears." Apparently, she was unable to recognize her husband's love for her at least in part because when she was well he did not express his love through fear. In addition, her fear that her husband did not love her "attached to her trouble, made her worse so that the more he would try and please her, the more he tormented her till each one's love turned to hatred, and at last they were divorced." Quimby blames fear for distorting the true situation. He is certain that if she could have been made aware of the "insane idea" that was causing the "discord," she could have been cured. Generalizing, Quimby concludes that "insanity consists in some little discord that might be corrected, if the person knew it" (40-40. But most people, Quimby sadly reports, remain completely ignorant of the psychological method of treatment.     Quimby, of course, was right to view his therapeutics as marginal. Few of Quimby's contemporaries believed that most problems had psychological origins or that mental sources of illness and discontent were as important as physical sources. They did not agree with Quimby that if man was "as careful as to what he does believe as he will be about what he eats or drinks," travel could resume on the "true scientific highway" and happiness and health could be reestablished. They did not see consciousness as the key to health and happiness, even though they saw it as the key to salvation and virtue. During Quimby's lifetime, the therapeutic gospel he forged out of the religion and medicine of his day, a gospel that emphasized happiness and demanded faith in psychological cures, remained on the sidelines of American culture.     In the 1890s, however, approximately forty years after Quimby articulated his core therapeutic principles, mind cure, or mental therapeutics, became the rage. The movement that embraced mental healing became known as New Thought. Its devotees could be found in large urban areas as well as smaller cities and towns. For example, major centers of New Thought included Hartford, Connecticut, San Jose, California, Walla Walla, Washington, Pueblo, Colorado, Fort Worth, Texas, Eliot, Maine, Jackson, New Hampshire, and Oscawana, New York. There were local New Thought organizations, like the League for the Larger Life, whose mission was "to spread a knowledge of the fundamental principles that underlie healthy and harmonious living" and "to assist the individual in the solution of personal problems," and the Church of the Higher Life, "where words of cheer and friendly fellowship might be given and exchanged." It had a corps of fifty-two letter writers who wrote "cheerful words" to anyone who for any reason felt "shut in from fellowship with the outside world." In addition to local organizations, New Thought had a national organization, the National New Thought Alliance, and even an international organization, the International Divine Science Association.     Most New Thought activity, however, was not directed toward those who had personal contact with the movement's instructors, organizations, or healers. Rather, it was directed toward the anonymous readers of books and periodicals. In many ways New Thought was a movement of the printed word, promoting its ideas through a broad range of publications, including philosophical treatises, novels, and practical-advice literature. It was really New Thought's self-help books that captured the public imagination. Ralph Waldo Trine's In Tune with the Infinite , for example, sold more than 1.5 million copies. Elizabeth Towne's books, which included Practical Methods for Self-Development and How to Use New Thought in Home Life , sold more than 100,000 copies each. Henry Wood's Ideal Suggestions through Mental Photography , Helen Bigelow Miriam's What Shall Make Us Whole , and Annie Payson Call's The Power of Repose were also New Thought bestsellers.     New Thought reached its broadest audience through magazines. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries more than a hundred New Thought magazines reached a mass audience. Nautilus , for example, had an estimated 45,000 subscribers and a circulation of 150,000. Unity magazine achieved a similarly large circulation. Other important New Thought magazines include Fulfillment (later Aspire ), Wayside Lights , the Universal Truth Monthly, Success Magazine, Realization, Mind, Mental Science Magazine , the Journal of Practical Metaphysics, Immortality, The Higher Law, Harmony , and Now , "a monthly journal of positive affirmations devoted to mental science and the art of living." New Thoughters even boasted a magazine for German Americans, Das Wart , and one for children, Wee Wisdom . At the height of its popularity New Thought had an advice column published in the mainstream women's magazine Good Housekeeping . (Continues...) Copyright © 2001 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Illness
A New Cure, A New Faith, 1850-1900
Chapter 2 Poverty
Reformers Offer Treatment, 1890-1930
Chapter 3 Marriage
A Science of Personal Relationships, 1920-1940
Chapter 4 War
The Soldier's Psyche, 1941-1945
Chapter 7 Feelings
Expressing the Self, 1970-1980
Chapter 8 Personal Problems and Public Debate