Break on Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture, by Lucas Richert

Steven Groarke is unconvinced by an overview of 1970s challenges to mainstream approaches to mental health

February 6, 2020
Timothy Leary at Lollapalooza 1993
Source: Getty

Wandering with my young son last summer through our favourite Ithacan village, we were delighted to come across a large sailing boat docked in the port with a crew of latter-day Merry Pranksters. Listening to the Clean Beach Pirates (a group of environmentally minded volunteers collecting plastic waste from beaches around the Greek islands) talking enthusiastically to my eight-year-old about the evils of pollution in the Ionian Sea, I marvelled at this Ship of Fools that seemed to have sailed in from another era. By which I don’t mean the Renaissance but rather the 1970s, an “era” whose radical spirit Lucas Richert attempts to capture through the story of antipsychiatry.

There is a history to “strange medicines”, and Richert’s conscientious account of mental health and the American counterculture effectively links the likes of the Beach Pirates to an earlier generation of intrepid travellers. The roll call of key players is familiar enough: Eric Berne, Claude Steiner, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, Werner Erhard, Paul Lowinger and so on, most of whom are summarily glossed in passing. Stringing the narrative together around the usual suspects, Richert sets to with a degree of diligence. But although his writing style is congenial enough, he seems not to know quite where to place the book, leaving it more or less adrift between two options: a journalistic essay on the vicissitudes of the American mind reflected through the prism of the antipsychiatry movement and a more serious-minded Foucauldian analysis of psychiatric knowledge in 1970s America.

The chapters tend to fall between these two stools, starting in essayistic mode with a blizzard of insubstantial references to Vietnam and war-induced mental disturbances, developments in industrial and organisational psychology, mechanisation, environmentalism, the women’s movement, patient activism, pornography and punk rock. The current academic fad for interdisciplinary research clearly has a lot to answer for, and one wonders how firm a grasp the author has on his cultural references when citing country singer Merle Haggard and the Sex Pistols in the same sentence, placing both under the improbable heading of “angst-ridden working-class sentiment”.

The allusions to Michel Foucault suggest a more ambitious genealogy of mental medicine. Instead, we are presented with a fast-paced montage of “radicalism in psychiatry” that fails to cohere. A chapter on the use of intoxicants, with an inexplicable amount of detail about cannabis, seems to have wandered in from another research project. Meanwhile, the perceived challenge to Freudianism and psychodynamic psychiatry is mapped along various axes: the third version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1980) and the biomedical turn; alternative therapies and “cults of unreason” (ranging from Esalen, Scientology and the human potential movement to clairvoyance and telepathy); the moral panic about psychoactive substances during the Nixon administration; and LSD-fuelled spiritual transcendence associated with the likes of Timothy Leary and R. D. Laing. There may well be a place for a cultural history of the internecine squabbles, sectarianism and fragmentation within radical psychiatry and the patients’ rights movement. But a series of descriptive “snapshots” organised around reform and revolt misses the intricacy that Richert means to convey. The Ship of Fools, finally, slips through the author’s hands and glides beyond the zeitgeist of the 1970s, a symbol of “great disquiet” in another age of anxiety.

Steven Groarke is professor of social thought at the University of Roehampton and a psychoanalyst.

Break on Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture
By Lucas Richert
MIT Press, 224pp, £22.00
ISBN 9780262042826
Published 8 October 2019


Print headline: When minds were all over the place

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Reader's comments (1)

I have not read the book so perhaps I shouldn't be commenting but I have had experience with several approaches to mental health in the seventies and I wonder how someone born in 1979 could be so knowledgeable. I was in private therapy with licensed psychiatric practitioners for several years in the sixties and participated in Gestalt Therapy and EST in the seventies. If my experience is any indicator, private therapy produced minimal results. I got more value in two weekends in the EST Training than I did in years of psychotherapy and I am a firm believer in large group therapy. Too bad the media turned snubbed their collective noses.