The Other Shoe

The Writer Is In

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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THE ONE yearbook you don’t want to find your children in is The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The APA has just brought out the 5th edition, which, in keeping with the insidious trendiness they have already established, should be subtitled “Who Knew?”

We never knew, for example, that the kid who was once said to have “ants in his pants” was really suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, yet as soon as the Shrink Manual got on the case, ADD became the bee in every bonnet and the fork in every tongue. Suddenly we were bombarded by ADD books, ADD cable news specials, ADD support groups, and discussions ad infinitum about a new drug called Ritalin that promised to bring calm to ADD sufferers. 

If you detect a pattern here, you are not alone. Sometimes it seems as if every human reaction once considered unfortunate but normal has now become a “disorder,” a “syndrome,” or an “addiction,” and acquired a new medication all its own. If you suffer from cynicism or realism—now known as “paranoia”—you might suspect that Big Shrink and Big Pharma are in cahoots to drum up more business. This is entirely possible, but I detect a much more significant reason for today’s race to the snake pit: The current power grab to define and rename mental illnesses is Big Shrink’s way of acquiring some much-needed class, because psychiatrists have always been quacks per se, and furthermore, they know it.

Writers, not psychiatrists, are the true interpreters of the human mind and heart, and we have been at it for a very long time. The classical playwrights of ancient Greece were putting people on the couch 2,500 years before Freud was born, a practice taken up by Shakespeare that led pioneer psychiatrist Ernest Jones to call his treatise on mother problems Hamlet and Oedipus. Look anywhere and you will find that writers got there first. Lady Macbeth’s “Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers!” tells the marriage counselor all he needs to know in one sentence. Do you wonder why the Pentagon’s sexual assault cops committed sexual assault themselves? Study the character of Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Are you suffering from depression? So was Emily Dickinson when she likened it to a certain slant of light on winter afternoons… “None may teach it anything, ‘tis the seal, despair/an imperial affliction sent us of the air.” Oh, and what did your psychiatrist call your terror when you told him about seeing a snake? Dickinson called it “zero at the bone,” which may be the best analogy in American literature. 

Welcome to Big Normal, where virtues like neatness are called “obsessions” and filed under Compulsive Re-Alignment Syndrome.

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About the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, The Florence King Reader, and, most recently, STET, Damnit!: The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002 (National Review Press).