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From quacks to Freud to Quaaludes


Woody Allen in Annie Hall

Woody Allen in Annie Hall


Book cover

Book cover


Woody Allen in Annie Hall

I've often thought the history of psychiatry should be told. The history of the asylum and the bogus, cruel and frankly dangerous treatments that took place there. The way mental illness, once incurable, was feared and misunderstood, so patients were viewed as freaks, to be marvelled at and recoiled from. The stigma that arose around this, with families hiding the fact that they had a mentally ill relative, or equally using the asylum, to conveniently commit a wayward or truculent family member. But this book is not that story - although it touches upon it.

This book is the story of how the practice and profession of psychiatry emerged from its origins of little more than quackery, through various inceptions, reaching a certain respectability with Freud and the psychoanalysts. Only for that too, to be shown to be non-evidence based - with psychoanalysts unable to diagnose most psychiatric conditions, let alone treat them. And then continuing up through modern psychiatry - which the author practices, with the event of medications and effective treatment for depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

It's a subject I'm interested in and I think you'd have to be, as this is a lengthy book in its detail of one eminent psychiatrist meeting another eminent psychiatrist and their ensuing battles for supremacy. The other failing is that it's overly self-regarding, viewing the machinations of the psychiatrists as more interesting than they are.

There are interesting parts. The history of treatment for example. This lists the various highly dubious treatments such as infecting patients with malaria to induce fever. Or indeed pushing an ice pick through their eye socket straight into their brains, in an attempt to manage psychosis.

This, while unfortunate, is described as understandable and possibly preferable, to a lifetime of being institutionalised. However it fails to mention that it was often seen as legitimately acceptable to literally experiment on psychiatric patients, often with a view to furthering the psychiatrist's career rather than improving the patient's lot.

Ireland followed this path - Grangegorman hospital in Dublin had a greenhouse with malarial mosquitoes and a room with two baths, one with freezing, one with scalding water, to throw the patients between.

Shrinks would benefit from further editing but it has missed an opportunity in focusing on the shrinks to tell the story of the patients who suffered brutal, compassionless treatment at the hands of a sometimes incompetent and often cruel profession. There's food for thought in it, but I don't believe it is as rigorous in its analysis of its subject as it might have been.


Sunday Independent