A Life Inside: A Memoir

I found out about the book, A Life Inside: A Memoir by Mindy Lewis, after reading a footnote about it by Thomas Szasz in his book, Words to the Wise. In Words to the Wise, Szasz says:

Upset by her teenage daughter’s rebelliousness, a New York mother commits her to Columbia University’s Psychiatric Institute (P.I.). In her memoir, the “patient” writes: “On my application for admission to P.I., asked to specify the reason for hospitalization, my mother had written: ‘Rebellious behavior.’ All my friends at P.I. were then diagnosed as schizophrenic…. I was never schizophrenic. Not then, not now. How could they possibly have interpreted my rage and confusion as schizophrenia?” The answer is called “standard of care.” Had one of the psychiatrists assigned to treat this young woman asserted that she did not “have schizophrenia” and set her free, and had she then killed herself (or injured her mother), the psychiatrist would have faced an unwinnable malpractice suit.1

In the memoir, Lewis’s mother commits her sixteen year old daughter to a psychiatric ward after some typical teenage rebelliousness, such as smoking marijuana. Her father does not protest. The commitment leaves Lewis confused, and searching for answers for a good portion of her life. Rather than help Lewis, the psychiatric hospital further obfuscates the young woman’s ability to create a meaningful life.

The memoir exemplifies the Szaszian view on mental illness – the idea that it is a guise for conflict in relationships. In Words to the Wise, he says:

Mental illness is a myth whose function is to disguise and thus render more palatable the bitter pill of moral conflicts in human relations. In asserting that there is no such thing as mental illness I do not deny that people have problems coping with life and each other.

As Lewis works through creating a meaningful life, she continually wrestles with her involuntary commitment and her subsequent psychiatric diagnosis. It reminds me of how Szasz describes the matter of psychiatry in his book, Heresies:

The subject matter of psychiatry is neither minds nor mental diseases, but lies-the “patient’s” and the “psy­chiatrist’s.” These lies begin with the names of the par­ticipants in the transaction-the designation of one party as “patient” even though he is not ill and of the other as “therapist” even though he is not treating any illness. They continue with the lies that comprise the subject matter proper of the discipline-the psychiatric “diag­noses,” “prognoses,” “treatments,” and “follow-ups.” And they end with the lies that, like shadows, follow ex-men­tal patients through the rest of their lives-the records of denigrations called “depression,” “schizophrenia,” or whatnot and of imprisonments called “hospitalization.” Accordingly, if we wished to give psychiatry an honest name, we could call it “mendacitology,” or the study of lies.

  1. Szasz, Thomas. Words to the Wise: A Medical-Philosophical Dictionary (p. 200). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

Thomas Szasz: Primary Values and Major Contentions

The above video is an interview with the author and editors of the book, Thomas Szasz: Primary Values and Major Contentions.

The book, Thomas Szasz: Primary Values and Major Contentions is a collection of Thomas Szasz’s best writing during the first three decades of his career as a psychiatrist. It is edited by two admirers of Szasz, Richard Vatz and Lee Weinberg. There is also a section of the book that includes questions from the editors and answers from Szasz. Even though I have read many of Szasz’s books, I found new insights from this one.

Download the first few pages of the book here as PDF.

The Last Interview of Thomas Szasz

The Last Interview of Thomas Szasz, is a simple, hourlong interview by Philip Singer, which he calls a “documentary”. In reality, it is a podcast-style interview interrupted by a few quotes overlaid on the screen. There isn’t much value here because Singer appears to not understand much of Szasz’s main arguments.

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Pharmacracy: Medicine and Politics in America

In his book, Pharmacracy: Medicine and Politics in America, Thomas Szasz argues that medicine has unwittingly become the new de facto religion in America. According to Szasz, health and medicine have superseded religion as a source of values. Medicine has bootlegged values into everyday life through the backdoor of politics.

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My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf

My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf, is a retrospective psychoanalysis of the life and death of Virginia Woolf by the iconoclastic psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Szasz presents his views on Virginia Woolf’s life and suicide as a counterbalance to the prevailing view that she was a genius writer tormented by mental illness. In contrast, Szasz maintains that: “Persons have reasons for their actions, regardless of whether they are said to have or not have mental diseases.”1 It is from this vantage point that Szasz analyses the life and death of Woolf.

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Recollections of a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: The Case of “Prisoner K”

In a rare psychoanalytic case history, Thomas Szasz presents Recollections of a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: The Case of “Prisoner ‘K'”. In it, Szasz gives us an opportunity to see how he actually practiced psychotherapy.

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Neurotic Symptoms: A Refusal to Accept Trade-Offs

Psychoanalysis teaches, correctly enough, that neurotic symptoms are due to unresolved, unconscious conflict. However, it would be more accurate to say that neurotic symptoms are due to the fact that the subject (the so­ called “neurotic”) chooses indecisiveness in the face of conflict: confronted with the necessity of having to choose between two things both of which he wants but only one of which he can have, he refuses to choose, as if hoping that by waiting only a little longer he would be able to have both. In this sense, the neurotic is simply greedy, preferring the pain of his “symptoms” to that of consciously relinquishing something he wants.

-Thomas Szasz, Heresies



The Economics of Szasz: Preferences, Constraints, and Mental Illness

In the paper, The Economics of Szasz: Preferences, Constraints, and Mental Illness, Bryan Caplan summarizes Thomas Szasz’s views on mental illness and translates them into the language of economics. Caplan is an economist with a wide variety of interests. He is an interesting writer, thinker, and regularly provokes conversation on Twitter and his blog. Caplan won the Thomas Szasz Award in 2005 for the above-mentioned article. Caplan mentions on his blog that having a conversation with Szasz was a “highlight of my intellectual life“.

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Plato, Not Prozac!: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems

The book, Plato, Not Prozac!: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems, by Lou Marinoff, is one part sales pitch, and one part advice about how to live a life in accordance with the author’s personal values. Marinoff begins the book by arguing that problems in living are better solved by thinking philosophically rather than thinking medically. Rather than numbing ourselves with medication, or diagnosing oneself as mentally ill, Marinoff says we would be better off engaging in philosophical dialogue with another person.

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Practicing Thomas Szasz: Continuing the Work of the Philosopher of Liberty

The book, Practicing Thomas Szasz: Continuing the Work of the Philosopher of Liberty, has little to do with practicing Thomas Szasz. Instead, the author John Breeding tries to fit Szasz into his own version of what he thinks Szasz represents – a raised fist to psychiatry.

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The Untamed Tongue: A Dissenting Dictionary | Thomas Szasz

Angel Michael Binding Satan

Thomas Szasz’s book of witty aphorisms, The Untamed Tongue: A Dissenting Dictionary, is both insightful and hilarious. If you are just starting out with Szasz, and want to understand his views, I suggest one of his books of aphorisms, such as The Untamed Tongue as a place to start.

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