Being an Advocate and an Ally

This is a guest post by William. William is a psychodynamic psychotherapist currently working in an educational setting in Chicago, and a regular commenter at Feministe. The first post in his guest-posting series on madness is here. The second is here, and the third is here.

As my time here comes to a close I’d like to thank you all for putting up with me (assuming you did, I’m not writing these in real time) and again thank the Feministe crew for being so awesome as to give me a space to talk.

One of the discussions that I’ve seen pop up on Feministe a lot lately has been the question of how one can be an ally or an advocate without crossing the line into paternalism or playing savior. When it comes to madness or special education, I feel that the best way to be an ally is to be educated. The problems with how we see madness are so deeply rooted that, in my opinion, the only way to really start changing the way we think is by actively challenging the ways in which we experience madness as a concept and mad persons as individuals.

Some of that is easy enough. We can watch out mouthes and stop attributing evil to madness by calling bastards “crazy” or “insane.” We can think about the ways that negative views of madness intersect with areas we know better. We’ve all heard a woman called hysterical at some point and most of us can easily critique why thats bullshit, but thinking about how an accusation of hysteria is rooted in the ways we disregard people who have been identified as mad can give us a good intersectional understanding of why someone hurling “hysterical” as an insult should go to hell with gasoline drawers. We can speak up when we see mad people being oppressed.

After those kinds of easy (as if any of this could be easy) steps, however, there comes the complicated question of how to be an ally without being condescending or disempowering. When it comes to mad persons, and this is something I do in my practice, I’ve found that the absolute best way to be an ally is to listen to what someone says they need and ask what, if anything, you can do to help. Different people experience their madness in different ways and will need different kinds of support. Approaching us with with respect, and getting past the fear that the myth of the dangerous madman provokes, is vital to being a safe person. Sometimes being shelter from the storm is enough.

I can tell you from experience that this is hard. Sometimes someone will do something you think is wrong, sometimes they’ll frustrate you, sometimes they’ll enrage or disappoint you, sometimes they’ll make a choice that scares the hell out of you or makes you said, but this isn’t about you. One of the dangers of working with mad persons is that you do have a lot of power. You can call the cops, you can call a doctor, I can sign a petition and have someone held for 72 hours. You can do something so simple as making your support conditional or voicing a disappointment that implied judgment. It might not always seem like much but that power allows you, in very real ways, to oppress the mad people around you. It happens all the time, for a lot of mad persons (and for most students who aren’t normal) it can become a way of life. To my mind, the most important thing you can do is to not be another force that questions someone’s experience and reality.

Finally, as I take my leave, I’d like to leave you all with some sources if you want to learn more.

Mourning and Melancholia is, to my mind, the single greatest explanation of what makes depression different from sadness that I have ever read. Freud is not without his problems, but this is him at his paradigm shattering best.

While Foucault has a lot of great works I feel that Discipline and Punish would be the most useful place to start if you’re trying to understand the relationship between madness and power. Foucault was always careful to point out that mad persons have often been treated like criminals and that “treatment” is often indistinguishable from other forms of confinement. This book is also good for understanding how power works in structured settings like schools and the role that ideal norms play in subjecting people to power.

I’m generally suspicious of the anti-psychiatry movement but R. D. Laing’s “The Politics of Experience” (the first chapter of which you can find here) is an excellent take down of the ways in which we privilege certain kinds of experience and disregard others.

Please Select Your Gender (which, for some reason, is stupidly expensive on Amazon) is an incredible book which traces the history of hysteria and the ways in which tans* experiences have become pathologized. Patricia Gherovici, the author, is a psychoanalyst who has worked with a number of trans* patients. Its heavy on the clinical vignettes and also heavy on the Lacan, but if you’re looking for a challenge theres a lot of good stuff in there.

The Drama of the Gifted Child is an excellent book by Alice Miller examining how society treats children and how we replicate our own abuse histories upon them. While she tends to focus on the individual and family levels, her insights are dead on when applied to special education settings.

28 comments for “Being an Advocate and an Ally

  1. FashionablyEvil
    February 27, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Just a note to anyone considering picking up Discipline and Punish: the opening chapter is a graphic and very gory description of an execution.

  2. Di Latte
    February 27, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts this week, William. They’ve been extremely validating for me, both personally and in light of my current professional goals in the mental health field. Thanks so much.

  3. chava
    February 27, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    The links to the books don’t work, fyi. Nice post!

  4. Matt
    February 27, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Drama of the gifted child was pretty awesome.

  5. February 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Until William gets the chance to fix them, you can access the links by right-clicking on them instead and selecting “Copy Link” (or whatever version of that your browser says – it should be an option), then pasting that into the address bar and editing it manually to remove the junk at the beginning.



  6. Vee
    February 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Oh no, is the series over already? Could you do another post on oppression in the mental health field? Please?

  7. wl
    February 27, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    I was hoping for a post on Borderline Personality Disorder.

  8. Donna L
    February 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    The problem I have with books written like The Drama of the Gifted Child is that I have a visceral dislike for them that makes it impossible for me to read them. They’re just way too full of discussions about Oedipal complexes and orality and anality, and passages like this one:

    In many societies, little girls suffer additional discrimination because they are girls. Since women, however, have control of the new-born and the infants, these erstwhile little girls can pass on to their children at the most tender age the contempt from which they once had suffered. Later, the adult man will idealize his mother, since every human being needs the feeling that he was really loved; but he will despise other women, upon whom he thus revenges himself in place of his mother. And these humiliated adult women, in turn, if they have no other means of ridding themselves of their burden, will revenge themselves upon their own children. This indeed can be done secretly and without fear of reprisals, for the child has no way of telling anyone, except perhaps in the form of a perversion or obsessional neurosis, whose language is sufficiently veiled not to betray the mother.

    It all seems about as plausible to me, as some kind of generally-applicable rule, as attributing misogyny to memories of birth trauma. And as just another way of blaming mothers.

  9. Guest Blogger
    February 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    I’m…not good at html. I’ll take a look at the links and see if I can figure out whats wrong, but no guarantees. Maybe a friendly mod will wander by and fix it?
    Yeah, I went into the system and don’t appear to be able to alter the original post. Hopefully someone else will come along. Until then….CORRECT LINKS!!

    Please Select Your Gender:

    Drama of the Gifted Child:

    You’re right, I should have mentioned that. The opening of Discipline and Punish contrasts an extremely graphic description of a failed drawing and quartering with a sterile description of life under an early surveillance system. Its a difficult, but effective, rhetorical device.

    I’d love to, but these were organized in advance and its up to the Feministe crew to decide if they want me back at some point. I’d love to keep going on forever but this was something of an experiment for me and the thing I’ve most learned is that regular blogging is not something I’m built for. My admiration for those who manage to pull it off in addition to full time jobs has increased exponentially.

    The post on bullying was going to be that, but immediacy got in the way. Perhaps in the future.

    I get what you mean. I suppose that the Oedipal understandings don’t much bother me because I’m pretty comfortable with the psychoanalytic view and I buy into the (modern, feminist critiqued) framework. If you were so inclined, it might be worth your time to track down the different editions of Drama of the Gifted Child that were published in Miller’s lifetime. She had some of the same critiques as you did and the book changed enormously over time. I actually had the opportunity when I was doing research for my dissertation to comb through the various editions and see how her thought evolved from a traditional psychoanalytic view to a more feminist-humanistic view and back again. Definitely a fascinating journey.

    That said, the excerpt you put up made sense to me. I’ve watched the process play out and resolve in therapy. I’ve seen the ways in which mothers (and fathers! though their influence is a fairly new area of study in psychoanalysis) have poured their own pathology into their children. I think that early psychoanalysis burdened mothers with too much blame, but I think a big part of that came down to blaming only mothers but not fathers and societies. I still feel that mothers tend to bear an equal share of the blame in a person’s pathology, sometimes even a majority share because mothers still tend to be primary care takers. Thats the downside of being forced into the role of child rearer. I’ve an especially difficult case at the moment where a father was the primary care giver and his pathology has almost completely eclipsed what the mother or broader society brought to the table in terms of the problems their child has.

    Maybe I’m rambling? Did that make sense?

    Thank you so much fo having me and for your contributions. I’ll continue to be around with the guest blogger tag in these threads for as long as they’re still kicking.

  10. EG
    February 27, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    I think the problem with your assessment of the mommy-blaming tradition, William, is that it doesn’t address the vast span of what mothers have been taking the blame for over the past century. According to the research I’ve done on psychoanalytic–as well as other cultural traditions–history of mother blaming, mothers have shouldered the blame for: alcoholism, suicide, schizophrenia, neurosis, impotence, homosexuality, frigidity, promiscuity, ulcers, asthma, sleepwalking, colitis, hyperactivity, and inability to deal with color blindness (!).

    These speak to me of the fantasy of the omnipotent mother–after all, she seemed omnipotent when we were all infants, didn’t she? But she’s not. She’s human, and yes, that means she can fuck up and fuck up her kids, but it also means that her powers are deeply limited.

    This is the same fantasy that leads women to feel like defective failures if they end up using formula instead of breast-feeding, the idea that mothers can determine everything, so they need to do everything perfectly. This is the idea that made Winnicott’s “good-enough mother” seem liberating to my mother, because it meant that not being perfect wasn’t going to doom me to a life of neurotic misery! Fucked-up mothers can deeply damage their children, it’s true, but to generalized from that to say that damage most likely indicates a fucked-up mother is a logical fallacy, but it’s one that psychoanalysis, and other schools of thought, have fallen into for so long, that I’m just not willing to give the benefit of the doubt on mommy-blaming any longer.

  11. EG
    February 27, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    On a different topic altogether, I also admire Mourning and Melacholia. Although I think the division Freud makes between the two is a little too clean and compartmentalized, it has felt like a very good guide to me.

  12. February 27, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    This whole discussion on the role of the mother and her blame is really, really interesting. I’ve been thinking about conceptions of motherhood, and women as mothers, for my dissertation. Do you know any fascist or fascistic texts or theories which deal with (constructions of) motherhood, and madness and mental illness?

    Thanks for the post, too.

  13. Justamblingalong
    February 27, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    We can watch out mouthes and stop attributing evil to madness by calling bastards “crazy” or “insane.”

    While we’re at it, let’s stop attributing evil to illegitimate children by calling assholes, ‘bastards,’ k?

  14. Guest Blogger
    February 27, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    I absolutely don’t mean to suggest that psychoanalysis doesn’t (didn’t?) have a lot to answer for when it comes to blaming mothers. One of the more interesting things about psychoanalysis, to my mind, is that things actually changed when the feminists showed up and started tossing critique around. It probably didn’t hurt that a few feminists ended up going into institute training (the hardcore specialist training I wish I had the money to afford right now) and fighting from the inside. I can say from experience that feminist views, and more modern understandings of the roles of caregivers, have dominated discussions both in my training and when I have attended major American conventions. One of the two major psychoanalytic institutes in Chicago, the one with which I am currently affiliated, sponsored a talk from a feminist analyst as part of their lecture series last year.

    Still, things are far from perfect and theres more work to be done. I think that specific understandings of the intersection between caregiving and gender are important, but god knows no one ever learned anything by keeping their ears shut.

    My reading into fascism began and ended with an adolescent reading of Evola so, sadly, I can’t help you out much. I’d have no idea where to start, but you might have better luck if you could find your way onto am APA Division 24 (Psychology and Philosophy) listserv or find someone involved with them to send an email. In my experience, most psychologists love it if they get an e-mail on their pet issue out of the blue.

    Well…fuck. Mea Culpa, I can curse better than that and theres no excuse. Thanks for the check.

  15. miga
    February 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Here’s a site I find useful for both those with MI and those without.

  16. EG
    February 27, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Oh, absolutely. Half of my dissertation was on mother-daughter relationships in feminist psychoanalytic theory; I didn’t mean to imply that psychoanalysis had not moved on since the bad old days. There’s been a lot of amazing work done.

  17. EG
    February 27, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    illegitimate children

    I believe the term you want is “born out of wedlock.”

  18. Justamblingalong
    February 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    I believe the term you want is “born out of wedlock.”

    Better still.

  19. Justamblingalong
    February 27, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    I believe the term you want is “born out of wedlock.”

    Except, I’m not sure I really like making ‘wedlock’ normative. How about just ‘children who’s parents aren’t married,” or if that’s too wordy, ‘children?’

    Either way, bastard isn’t cool. Illegitimate probably isn’t great either, but at least it isn’t used as a catch-all pejorative.

  20. EG
    February 27, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    I dunno, I dislike “illegitimate” more. Because I haven’t heard the word “bastard” used to mean a child born out of wedlock since the last time I read Shakespeare, which, OK, was relatively recently, but it’s still not modern. But conservatives are always railing against “illegitimacy.” Children aren’t legitimate or illegitimate. They all have as much right to respect as each other. “Born out of wedlock” just describes the circumstances of their birth. I don’t think it normalizes marriage any more than “illegitimate” does, and it gets rid of the implication that somehow the kid’s identity is called into question by the marital status of its parents.

  21. Justamblingalong
    February 27, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    I dunno, I dislike “illegitimate” more.

    This is probably more about our respective experiences than any objective badness of the two words, but for me it sounds like it refers to a technicality- i.e. children used to be legally legitimate or illegitimate heirs- as opposed to bastard, which sounds intentionally insulting.

    Because I haven’t heard the word “bastard” used to mean a child born out of wedlock since the last time I read Shakespeare, which, OK, was relatively recently, but it’s still not modern.

    Really? I hear it used by religious leaders in my community all the time.

    Children aren’t legitimate or illegitimate. They all have as much right to respect as each other. “Born out of wedlock” just describes the circumstances of their birth.

    I agree, actually. Hm. Well, until a better term comes around (or, hopefully, the distinction becomes irrelevant), that’s the one I’ll use. Thanks! In any case, though, I do feel strongly that ‘bastard’ is a good one to retire.

  22. EG
    February 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    Really? I hear it used by religious leaders in my community all the time.

    I had no idea it was still in use that way. That’s horrible. Shows what difference a cultural context can make.

  23. February 28, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    I only see it when I drink ale, and then it’s Arrogant.

    Good series, William. I came late to the game and only began reading yesterday. I enjoyed your insights. I wonder if there is a feminist psychologist reading here that would like to contribute a guest post or two herself. Would be fitting to continue the exploration with that viewpoint.

  24. konkonsn
    February 29, 2012 at 2:48 am

    William, do you have any recommendations for books that share some of the viewpoints you’ve been discussing with regards to anxiety disorders (OCD specifically, but I’m up for all anxiety)?

  25. konkonsn
    February 29, 2012 at 2:50 am

    Bleh, I should extend that invitation to anyone, really.

  26. William
    February 29, 2012 at 2:00 pm


    Thats a good question. The unfortunate answer is…not really. One of the downsidees to an education which stresses holistic understanding and development of a coherent individual point of view is that I’ve got piles and piles of books on shelves but most of them end up being primary sources with distinctly clinical outlooks. It also a difficult question because anxiety tends to permeate madness and even people who aren’t diagnosed with a primary anxiety disorder are likely to display a lot of anxiety. Anxiety is to psychology what pain is to medicine: a good indicator that something is wrong but virtually universal in the work we do.

    I know that NYU’s “Essential Papers on…” series has a volume devoted to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (I tracked it down on Amazon and its still in print). I own two of the other volumes in the series (“Essential Papers on the Psychology of Women,” which is an incredible text for understanding the impact feminism has had on psychoanalysis, and “Essential Papers on Dreams”), have been extremely happy with both of them, and have heard good things about other volumes but I have no specific knowledge of their OCD collection beyond press releases. If it is at all like the rest of the books in the series it will emphasize a historical perspective and chart the evolution of how OCD has been understood, with a distinctly psychoanalytic bent, from Freud to today using well-respected and seminal papers from a broad range of authors.

    Hope that helps!

  27. konkonsn
    March 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    All of those sound amazing, so I’ll have to look them up. I like that they have psychoanalytic bents, too. I was a psych minor some four years ago, and until I started reading your series, I honestly thought of psychoanalysis/Freud as sort of the Thomas Jefferson of clinical psychology: an important founding father, and you can find threads of it throughout the discipline, but we don’t talk too much about it anymore because it’s outdated (and all kinds of problematic). So it’ll be interesting to see how it’s evolved. I’m still very green in the field, and I took a four year break while working on some other things, so it’ll be nice to jump back in.

  28. William
    March 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    So it’ll be interesting to see how it’s evolved. I’m still very green in the field, and I took a four year break while working on some other things, so it’ll be nice to jump back in.

    Well, if you’re jumping back in, let me also suggest Nancy McWilliams’ books (Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, and Psychoanalytic Case Formulation). She’s one of the biggest names in psychoanalysis today and those three books are modern, comprehensive, well written, and brilliant. I’ll also throw a shout out for Deborah Luepnitz’ book Schopenhauer’s Porcupines as an excellent peek into the way some modern, post-feminist-revolution analysts think. Finally, when it comes to clinical training and technique, Patrick Casement’s book Learning from the Patient is incredible.

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