Wednesday, June 17, 2009


The Cinematheque boys have scattered for the summer, some hiking the many walking paths of Europe and others doing special projects. Tim is posting short talks from the TED organization on the vlog to keep it alive. I told him TED folks are very much like Unitarians at their best.

One of the talks included a story that caught my attention. A girl was so impossibly hyper, constantly on the move, that her folks were going crazy and she was not doing well in school They were upscale so they made an appointment with a very good psychologist. He sat with the girl and the parents for a little while, listening and observing. Then he said he’d like to speak to the parents alone in the other room.

Before he left, he flipped on his little office radio. The “other room” was the observation post behind one-way glass. As soon as they were gone, the girl was up and bopping to the music. She was GOOD. The psychologist said, “There’s nothing wrong with this child. She’s just in the wrong place. Put her in a dancing school!” They did and it worked. She became a happy star.

I also liked Sir Ken’s remark that if this girl were doing exactly the same thing now, she’d have been diagnosed with ADD and smothered with drugs. He quipped, “Attention Deficit Disorder" hadn’t been 'discovered' yet in those days. It wasn’t available for use. They didn’t know they had that option.” When I briefly taught in Cut Bank, teachers were handed two typed pages of students being medicated for ADD.

If authorities define a syndrome, suddenly it crops up everywhere. Soon there’s a support group, a newsletter, an a lucrative practice for a specialist. The one that always rivets me when I see the ad in the Great Falls paper is “Oppositional Defiance Disorder.” This is the syndrome that justifies dads who beat their sons half to death. “Disrespect,” you know. It is also the syndrome that got me into trouble with school administrators, though the diagnosis wasn’t available at the time. The guy who vows to “cure” it in the ad, looks to me like someone who would beat a son half to death. Or me.

Burgwin used to tell us about his training as a rookie cop in California. His sergeant took him along on graveyard tours of the tough little port town and taught him a lot of valuable skills. Once they stopped a man for some small offense and the guy had this “oppositional defiance disorder.” He lipped off to the sergeant and resisted everything. The sarge told Burgwin to take the guy in for observation as a psychotic. (California law allows a limited arrest like that.) “But he’s not crazy, he’s just a jerk!” objected Burgwin.

“Anyone who opposes me is crazy,” said the Sarge and lit a cigar. At least he didn't beat the guy up. Authority affects a lot of people that way, though it’s supposed to be the other person who has the problem. Of course, at the time ODD was not an available syndrome in the formal sense.

There are a lot of odd people in the world, some of them valuable contributors to the world, some of them just quiet wallpaper people, and some of them big pains in the butt. Sometimes “oddness” becomes a punishable offense. Esp. in small rural communities around the planet, “oddness” is noted. (In Montana they say, “well, he’s just different.”) Conformity and group solidarity are the highest value. China comes to mind. Being “different” can be a free pass if the community likes you, or it can earn you ostracism at best and attack at worst. In high school did you read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson? Jackson was a writer, which made her different right off the bat. Or just being an outsider can make you "odd." Did you see "The Wicker Man?"

It’s not just in small rural communities that people are threatened by oddness. Manhattan publishing functions pretty much the same way. If the group sets out to stigmatize a specific writer, that person will have to find another context. It’s good in a way -- a lot of fine talent is always migrating out to other nations, other categories, maybe even other media -- like from print to video. But eventually Manhattan starves. One of the high values of reservations used to be that they tolerated difference, and now that's paying off.

Academics have a category they call “border studies,” for instance, studying the historical or sociological border between the US and Canada. So far as I know, no one has done many studies of borders around reservations, “Skins,Adrian Louis’ and Chris Ayres’ very fine but shocking novel and movie might be an example. It’s about the Sioux boundary that creates destructive difference based on alcohol: dry inside, wet outside.

The New York Times yesterday took on “Borderline Personality Disorder” or BPD, a kind of junk category that’s back in the news because a therapist claims she has an effective way to treat people who have it. Most therapists won’t have anything to do with BPD people because many of them have Oppositional Defiance characteristics and therapists consider themselves authorities.

Anyway, “experts” can’t decide whether the syndrome is about the borderline between being neurotic and psychotic, or the borderline between being compliant and “oppositional,” or the borderline around the identity of the person that keeps getting lost, or -- in the current formulation -- the borderline between being in control and out of control. This new therapist claims to be able to teach borderline people how to stay in control.

I’m always interested in this particular syndrome because it was pinned on me in seminary. I was not obedient, I did not tell the professors what they wanted to hear, and when I was elected as the student rep for the Board of Trustees, I was not positive. (I was also a forty-year old divorced female who had been doing law enforcement for years. They were used to nice boys.) When I was an intern minister in Connecticut, where they value oddballs so long as they’re male, my minister labeled me a “stormy petrel.” That’s a seabird that flies on high winds. He was one, too, which is probably why he was encouraged to go into the ministry. “Odd,” you know. But women aren't supposed to be "odd."

It used to be that we valued the oddballs, thought they might be geniuses or at least see into unknown country. Remember Szasz? I’ll quote Wikipedia : “He is a prominent figure in the antipsychiatry movement, a well-known social critic of the moral and scientific foundations of psychiatry, and of the social control aims of medicine in modern society, as well as of scientism. He is well known for his books, The Myth of Mental Illness (1960) and The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement (1970) which set out some of the arguments with which he is most associated.

“His views on special treatment follow from classical liberal roots which are based on the principles that each person has the right to bodily and mental self-ownership and the right to be free from violence from others, although he criticized the "Free World" as well as the Communist states for its use of psychiatry and "drogophobia". He believes that suicide, the practice of medicine, use and sale of drugs and sexual relations should be private, contractual, and outside of state jurisdiction.

“In 1973, the American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year.”

The whole movement lasted just long enough to justify turning true brain-damaged psychotics out into the street without any protective care on political grounds. Then law enforcement went back to arresting them for being crazy. And all those ODD people, too, of course.

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