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.