Psychology and Mormon mages: this week’s reading

When I watched the special features for Hitchcock’s Spellbound earlier this year, they discussed how by 1945, psychoanalysis was familiar enough to the public that a psychiatric thriller would work.  THE ROMANCE OF AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGY: Political Culture in the Age of Experts by Ellen Herman does a good job explaining how that came about.

In the 1930s, almost nobody dealt with psychiatrists unless they were mentally ill or the kind of wealthy avant-garde people who could afford to indulge in psychoanalysis. WW II changed that. The military sucked up psychiatrists, sociologists, psychologists and related fields and put them to work: dealing with morale, figuring out what motivated soldiers, arranging psy-ops against the Axis. After the war things got even bigger: The VA was the largest employer of psychiatrists in the country and 60 percent of VA patients were dealing with mental illness or trauma.

On top of that, psychiatrists started to see themselves differently. Instead of dealing with mental illness they were out to develop mental health; even people who weren’t clinically ill could benefit from their care. The result was that millions of Americans were now familiar with various forms of counseling and therapy. I think the use of a psychiatrist as the voice of reason in Invasion of the Body Snatchers reflects this; twenty years earlier, the character would probably have been a relative, a priest or a homespun philosopher like RKO’s series character Scattergood Baines.

The military-psychiatry complex led to expanded professional employment and opportunities, and a much broader range of responsibilities. Could psychiatry predict which third-world independence movements were likely to erupt into revolution? How could they be discouraged? How could race relations in America be improved? How can the government improve mental health by fighting poverty?

While the professionals’ attempts were well-meaning, they were often blinded by prejudice or sexism. Mothers were “personality factories” who could scar kids for life (as Homeward Bound discussed); single black mothers explained the pathology of family life in the ghetto because having a mom as primary breadwinner was inherently traumatizing.  By the 1970s this led to the trend of “antipsychiatry,” arguing that paranoia, depression, anxiety, etc. were perfectly natural responses to modern living; by classifying them as mental illness, psychiatry was just a tool of The Man (a topic I may blog about at some point). Overall this is (obviously) a specialized topic but interesting if you’re into it.

THE CUNNING MAN by D.J. Butler and Aaron Michael Ritchey is precisely the kind of urban fantasy (technically it’s rural fantasy, but I think it qualifies) I’d expect to enjoy. It’s a 20th century-set historical story (Depression-era Utah), with the Mormon protagonist Hiram discreetly practicing folk magic (a “cunning man” being an old term for a wizard). When Hiram delivers some food to a starving mining camp he gets embroiled in their struggles — starvation, unionization, rumors of something monstrous at the bottom of the mine — and tries to find a solution.

But it just didn’t work for me. It may be the style but maybe not; I can’t really pin it down but I went DNF about 100 pages in. As so many of my rejection letters says, it did not suit my needs at this present time.

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