Still Crazy After All These Years

Wall Street Journal/July 3, 2002
By Christopher Caldwell

America after World War II saw a psychological upheaval without precedent. By means of drugs, meditation and self-help schemes, millions of people sought to escape the values they had grown up with, the better to adapt to contemporary social relations.

In "The Road to Malpsychia," (Encounter, 326 pages, $26.95) Joyce Milton argues that such seekers for new wisdom were more than a bunch of eccentrics.

They were at the center of "a vast experiment in applied psychology." Its premise was that human nature provides the beginnings of an ethical and behavioral compass -- which proved true. Its conclusion was that "traditional morality" could be painlessly replaced by psychotherapy -- which proved disastrous.

The father of this "humanistic psychology" was Abraham Maslow. A protégé of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Maslow thought people could have better work habits and love lives, more spontaneity and less guilt, if they would only heed the promptings of their inmost character. Progress toward psychological health ("self-actualization") was to be charted through "peak experiences," moments of religious vision or amatory transport when people felt themselves to be "fully human."

Maslow's work found deserved success in the corporate world. His theories on reducing intracompany rivalry and retraining workers in midcareer are the bedrock of today's workplace. And Maslow was a scholar of considerable integrity. He used primate data to show that Freud's theorizing on female sexuality contained much baseless speculation. He demonstrated that Albert Kinsey's sex research rested on skewed samples. A ruthless critic of his own work, Maslow came to worry about the "impossibility of distinguishing between a healthy peak experience and a manic attack."

He was right to. Maslow's ideas, as Ms. Milton shows, wound up giving carte blanche to academic con men, like Timothy Leary, who used the lingo of peak experience to proselytize for LSD. Leary parlayed federal subsidies and endorsements from credulous clergymen into a Harvard professorship. Once ensconced, he gave up all pretense of scholarly work, focusing his attentions on commune living, booze, groupies and radical politics.

If Leary was the most fraudulent of the humanistic psychologists, the group-therapy guru Carl Rogers was the most damaging. Rogers's "human-potential movement" popularized such innovations as encounter groups, the inner child and the group hug. This was therapy for "normals," meant to offer perfectly happy people a fuller interior life.

A floundering Christianity abetted his excesses. After Pope Paul VI called in 1966 for "wide-ranging experimentation" in Catholicism, Rogers sent 60 facilitators to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles. Rogers's "touching exercises" turned out to be inconsistent with chastity; within a year, more than half of the 560 nuns abandoned the order, most as lesbians. Rogers would later work his magic at a Franciscan seminary in Santa Barbara, Calif., leaving in his wake America's largest Catholic pedophilia scandal until the recent one.

Accused of brainwashing and cult practices, Rogers responded by attributing all such attacks to "the far right." (He was a pioneer in this regard, too.) But the "feelings revolution" that grew out of his ideas suggests that there was indeed something empty and opportunistic about them. The used-car salesman Werner Erhard was only the most renowned of the hucksters who seized on Rogers's strategies. Erhard's "est" movement, essentially sadism with a therapeutic gloss, attracted wayward celebrities throughout the 1970s before a series of financial exposés sent him into European exile. The ex-drunk Chuck Dederich founded Synanon, which preyed on vulnerable addicts before turning into a full-blown cult, complete with militia.

Having captured these often bogus and outsized personalities, Ms. Milton turns to the mainstream fallout of humanistic psychology, charting its legacy in the New Age, self-esteem and diversity movements. But at times she overreaches. Betty Friedan does not belong here, even if she once sought Maslow's research help. Nor does California's 1987 decision to stop teaching phonics in grade schools. Ms. Milton has set herself the difficult task of capturing a Zeitgeist. For the most part, she does so with common sense and acuity. But like Paul Johnson in "Intellectuals," she is better at using her subjects' personal lives to expose their hypocrisy and vested interests than at critiquing their ideas.

Ms. Milton tends to look at flaky pop-psych fads as cause, not effect. She is just not curious about the desperation that led so many saps to seek them out in the first place. So she sneers at Timothy Leary's tirades against "fake-television-set American society." But what halfway intelligent American hasn't occasionally felt a similar rage? Who can dismiss Carl Rogers's claim that affluence and "large impersonal institutions" made postwar Americans "probably more aware of their inner loneliness than has ever been true before in history"?

Ms. Milton has done a real service in tracing the catastrophic excesses of postwar psychology. But ensuring that those excesses are not repeated begins with explaining why postwar "normality" has been for many Americans a textureless and terribly disorienting state.

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