Freud and Nude Psychotherapy for Criminal Psychopaths

One more addendum to the question of Freud and science. The gravest deployment of psychoanalytic theory was in psychopathology, and it’s here that I have the greatest trouble with Freud’s influence. Now, the history of the treatment of the severely mentally ill, in asylums and otherwise, has been generally dismal, and so it is hard to credit Freud with making things any worse on that front. Perhaps he even made them better, and to be sure Freud avoided the area himself, probably figuring it (correctly) to be a minefield. But as psychoanalysis grew, some of his followers were not so hesitant, and the application of psychoanalysis in psychopathology yielded some disturbing results.

There are no shortage of examples, but Oak Ridge recently came to my attention. As Jon Ronson tells it in The Psychopath Test:

Dr. Elliott Barker successfully sought permission from the Canadian government to obtain a large batch of LSD from a government-sanctioned lab, Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto. He handpicked a group of psychopaths (“They have been selected on the basis of verbal ability and most are relatively young and intelligent offenders between seventeen and twenty-five,” he explained in the October 1968 issue of the Canadian Journal of Corrections ); led them into what he named the Total Encounter Capsule, a small room painted bright green; and asked them to remove their clothes. This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world’s first-ever marathon nude psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.

Elliott’s raw, naked, LSD-fueled sessions lasted for epic eleven-day stretches. The psychopaths spent every waking moment journeying to their darkest corners in an attempt to get better. There were no distractions—no television, no clothes, no clocks, no calendars, only a perpetual discussion (at least one hundred hours every week) of their feelings. When they got hungry, they sucked food through straws that protruded through the walls. The patients were encouraged to go to their rawest emotional places by screaming and clawing at the walls and confessing fantasies of forbidden sexual longing for one another even if they were, in the words of an internal Oak Ridge report of the time, “in a state of arousal while doing so.”

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test

Ronson’s book is unfortunately scattershot and unfocused, mostly good for anecdotal pointers. Richard Weisman wrote a far more detailed reflection on the Oak Ridge experiments. In either version, Barker  and Gary Maier and other empathetic psychiatrists display jawdropping irresponsibility..

Granted, this does not seem any worse than what one can read about in Foucault or, more vividly, in the horrific chronicles given by Erving Goffman in his amazing book Asylums and shown by Frederick Wiseman in Titticut Follies. (“Titicut Follies portrays the existence of occupants of Bridgewater, some of them catatonic, holed up in unlit cells, only periodically washed down with a hose and taken out in order to receive force feeding. It also portrays the indifference and bullying on the part of the institution’s staff.”) Humane treatment is a very recent invention and still practiced inconsistently.

If anything, Freud may have helped push forward increasingly humane treatment of the severely mentally ill, as manifested in Barker’s good intentions. But this does not excuse the rampant irresponsibility that was at hand at Oak Ridge, and Barker’s genial enthusiasm (he quotes Buber in “The Hundred-Day Hate-in”!) is in some ways even more frightening than the disdain, malice, and indifference that was historically the rule. The casual certainty that their mental model, derived primarily from psychoanalytic theory, would produce productive results is borne out of the same pool of certainty from which Freud drew capaciously.

Ronson gets one of his most disturbing quotes from one of the Capsule members named Steve Smith:

“I remember Elliott Barker coming into my cell,” Steve told me. “He was charming, soothing. He put his arm around my shoulder. He called me Steve. It was the first time anyone had used my first name in there. He asked me if I thought I was mentally ill. I said I thought I wasn’t. ‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘I think you are a very slick psychopath. I want you to know that there are people just like you in here who have been locked up more than twenty years. But we have a program here that can help you get over your illness.’ So there I was, only eighteen at the time, I’d stolen a car so I wasn’t exactly the criminal of the century, locked in a padded room for eleven days with a bunch of psychopaths, the lot of us high on scopolamine [a type of hallucinogenic] and they were all staring at me.”

I obviously cannot lay the full responsibility for Barker’s behavior or psychoanalysis’s influence on psychopathological treatment at Freud’s feet. Yet I cannot fully excuse it either. Freud’s model of the psyche became instrumentalized as an well-meaning institutional cudgel, and it could only have done so had it claimed such a scientific authority for itself.

Regarding that authority, George Makari (an avowed psychoanalyst himself) writes of the fight between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud’s psychoanalytic factions in England in 1942:

A talented member of Melanie Klein’s group named Donald Winnicott protested that Freud would never have wanted to “limit our search for truth.” He too asked the society to adopt language that put the aim of the group as the furthering of “the psychoanalytical branch of science founded by Freud.”

The Kleinians had taken the high ground of science, despite the fact that their leader had been accused of dramatically departing from basic scientific principles. Like the old Freudians, the Kleinians had become defenders of an empirically unknowable belief regarding unconscious mental life. Nonetheless, the Kleinians draped themselves in the principles of free inquiry. Like others before them, they seemed to want the freedom of scientific pursuit without accepting the responsibilities that came with it.

George Makari, Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis

It is a hubris seen very frequently.