The Points Interview — Michael E. Staub

Editor’s Note:  Michael E. Staub’s  Madness is Civilization: When the Diagnosis Was Social, 1948-1980 (University of Chicago Press, 2011) is bedecked with a number of favorable comments at its Amazon storewindow site.  Staub’s previously authored books include an oral history, titled Love My Rifle More than You, about a woman soldier who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.   The author suggested this work might also interest drug and alcohol historians. 

  1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

It would depend on how old this hypothetical bartender was. Is she old enough to remember the 1960s? Let’s assume that she is. Then I’d ask her to remember her reading of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Verge of Time or seeing Alan Bates in King of Hearts or listening to Arlo Guthrie’s riff in “Alice’s Restaurant,” where he discusses how he evaded the draft not because he yelled at the military psychiatrist that he wanted to “kill, kill, kill” but because he’d been arrested for littering. (Admittedly, this is a pretty cultured bartender I am concocting, but it’s my bartender and I’ll imagine who I want to.) So I’d tell the bartender how the 1960s are routinely remembered today for all kinds of things like hippies, Che Guervara, Tricky Dick, Neil Armstrong, Ho Chi Minh, Black Power, and SDS, among others. But what almost always gets left out of the history books is how much critical and popular attention in the 1960s and 1970s was lavished on issues relating to madness and the asylum. And I’d say that explorations into madness often became a means to address a host of other political and social concerns, ranging from the dysfunction of the nuclear family to the devastations of militarism to the problems of gender and race relations to the failures of the educational system. As one social psychologist put it in the early 1970s, and I am paraphrasing here, this was an era in US history when many Americans felt that the entire country had gone crazy, and the question for many was how to maintain their sanity in an increasingly insane society. That’s what my book is about.  

  1. What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find      particularly interesting about your book?

I have at least two chapters on aspects of postwar US history that might be interesting to these folks. One addresses the fascination in the 1960s with hallucinogenic drugs – peyote, psilocybin, and especially lysergic acid diethylamide (better known as LSD). Poet Allen Ginsberg and ex-Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary considered LSD in particular to be a means to help persons “decontrol” themselves. As influential members of the counterculture, they identified hallucinogens as a radicalizing and politicizing force. I also discuss how LSD was believed (and is still believed by many medical experts) to be an effective treatment for alcoholism. The other chapter discusses the explosion at that time of prescriptions by psychiatrists of tranquilizers and antidepressants to legions of unhappily married women, and the furious reaction of feminists against the psychiatric community for doing so.

  1. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I still find myself drawn back especially to the aspect of this story that first caught my attention. This has a lot to do with the rise of family therapies across the US in the 1950s, along with the so-called “double bind” theory. My hypothetical bartender would not be old enough to remember the double bind theory. But she might remember the general concept as expressed so memorably by poet Philip Larkin in 1971: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.” Back then it was almost commonsense wisdom to believe that bad parenting – and especially bad mothering – could potentially lead a child to develop a mental illness. Kids today generally cannot identify with the concept that families can be emotionally suffocating or can literally drive a child insane. But the 1950s and 1960s were such a moment. And the student protests oftentimes were additionally a rebellion against the very idea of the nuclear family. This still fascinates me – the fact of how palpably real those feelings of revulsion were for an entire generation of young people and the degree to which these feelings fueled many of the social movements that we now remember as “the 1960s.”

  1. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon? 

The story I tell really ends in 1980 with the publication of DSM-III. That moment marked the official endorsement by psychiatry of a biological (as opposed to social) understanding of mental illness. I do devote a short epilogue to the story as it has unfolded in the generation since 1980, but the history of this near-present and present still remains to be done. For instance, I devote only a handful of pages to the epigenetics revolution, a fascinating recent development within psychiatry. But what I have begun to work on are the intersections and intermingling of neuroscience with psychology and psychiatry because this piece of the story represents a rather large stone that I do believe very much deserves to be turned over soon.  

  1. BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

My top choice would be Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I’d think he’d bring an excellent mix of ironic wit and earnest intensity that reflects this book’s intentions. He’d also be great for reaching that all-important under-40 demographic. If Gordon-Levitt was busy, I’d definitely go for the incomparable Michael Shannon, who does schizophrenic better than any actor working today.