American Therapy: The Rise of Psychotherapy in the United States
Like that laptop you purchased at that Sunday fire sale, Jonathan Engel's American Therapy reaches obsolescence before it can be christened with a coffee stain. Engel--fortified with a Ph.D. in the history of medicine from Yale--does a thorough job of synopsizing the history of psychology in general, and studiously relates how psychoanalysis--a European-born oddity--took the United States by storm a century ago. Unfortunately, the book does not meet the bold task set before it.
Engel commences his first foray into the history of American mental health without providing much more than a bland transmission of statistics woven through disproportionate amounts of narrative ink relating the field's developmental period. When Engel amalgamates psychiatrist-cum-political-commentator Charles Krauthammer's early '80s quip that due to the subjective nature of therapy trying to observe it scientifically creates a sort of "therapeutic Heisenberg uncertainty principle" where observation itself paradoxically precludes qualifiable findings, the tension of what Therapy's data might conclusively suggest is immediately robbed from us. At times, Engel anachronistically lauds antidepressants as a near-panacea, a platitude that was all but vaporized in this past January's New England Journal of Medicine metastudy of psychopharmaceuticals, which displayed that in many cases modern SSRI's are no more effective than placebos.
Therapy's tepid prose and non-stance cause it to be greatly overshadowed by comparable works released over the past generation that manipulate droves of statistics to try to prove provocative theses. On one end of the spectrum are the works of the early '90s that went ga-ga over the perceived superpowers of newly minted psychotropic drugs, such as Peter Kramer's bestseller Listening to Prozac. More recent and reticent literature skeptical of the societal contributions affected by the use of such medicines--such as Eric Wilson's Against Happiness and Charles Barber's Comfortably Numb--typify the opposing line of thought that is presently gaining traction.
An intriguing study that Engel relates--albeit twice--is the finding of the "famous Vanderbilt experiment in which distraught undergraduates improved after receiving therapy from untrained empathetic humanities professors," producing results that were on par with bona fide psycho-therapists. This analysis padded the notion that the locus of successful therapy lies in having intelligent and empathetic people to talk to and share one's troubles with--if a person finds this in a therapist, he or she is likely to be heading toward a healthy mental equilibrium. Studies like these are fascinating, but they--among a slew of other apparent redundancies--need be mentioned only once in a work as ostensibly wide-ranging as what American Therapy attempts to be.