ven before I start writing this column, and pretty much regardless of what I say, I know I am going to tick off the Scientologists. I know this because I have ticked them off already.
A few days ago, I visited their new anti-psychiatry museum in Hollywood, thinking, correctly, that it would offer an intriguing window into the thinking of a notoriously secretive organization. With a name like “Psychiatry: Industry of Death,” the exhibit was not exactly going to be coy about its point of view.
About halfway through the lengthy parade of videos and visual displays – after I had been informed of psychiatry’s long-standing “master plan” for world domination, after the lecture about Adolf Hitler’s central role in making this plan a reality, but just before the display holding psychiatry to blame for the deaths of Ernest Hemingway, Del Shannon, Billie Holiday, Kurt Cobain, Spalding Gray, and just about every other entertainment celebrity who did not happen to die of strictly natural causes – a man in a gray shirt and matching tie approached me in the semi-darkness and asked me to step aside.
I recognized him from the reception desk on my way into the building. He’d welcomed the half-dozen or so people who started the tour with me and handed out our audio headsets. He had also given a slightly peculiar answer to a passerby who asked what the museum charged for admission. “It doesn’t cost anything to get in,” he had said with rather deliberate emphasis. To which I couldn’t resist responding: “But getting out again is a whole different matter.” I soon regretted making that crack.
“I saw you were taking notes,” he said sternly. “Are you a reporter?” I told him I was, and gave him the name of the publication. That was fine, he said, but he would appreciate it if I had a word with the museum’s publicist on my way out. The publicist, a thin, wiry woman called Marla Filidei, made a couple of subsequent sweeps through the exhibit herself. When my companion and I finally sat down with her in a conference room, she asked us what we had made of our experience.
Within a minute or two, it was clear she was not nearly as interested in our opinion of the way the exhibit was put together – which was how I chose to interpret her question – as she was in bombarding us with more talking points about the evils of psychiatry. I told her I wasn’t a scientist and had no interest in getting into a detailed argument about the benefits or dangers of mood-altering drugs; on the other hand, she wasn’t a scientist either, and the Church of Scientology had absolutely no standing to pronounce on medical issues. That clearly riled her, because by the time I got home there was an e-mail waiting in which she called our meeting “the most bizarre encounter I have had with a reporter in 10 years” and essentially berated me for refusing to engage in an argument she was clearly itching to have.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the recent outbursts of über-Scientologist Tom Cruise – his trashing of Brooke Shields after she went public about her post-partum depression, or his set-to with Matt Lauer about Ritalin, in which he proclaimed himself an expert on the history of psychiatry and made almost as big a fool of himself as he had by jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. The crudeness of the anti-psychiatric argument is tinged with a distinct patina of paranoia. It’s not enough for Scientologists to express their near-pathological hatred of psychiatry in all its forms; they also have to feel they are being persecuted for their beliefs.
The premise of the museum is a little like the plot of the old Ingrid Bergman movie Gaslight: Psychiatrists are the real-life incarnation of the Charles Boyer character, who, for his own nefarious purposes, does everything he can to make his wife believe she is crazy when in fact she is perfectly sane. Constant reference is made to “psychiatric victims,” the profession’s “unsuspecting human guinea pigs,” its unscrupulous resort to “the mass drugging of millions.” And what is the motivation behind all this? A couple of things: control, of course – that desire for world domination dictated by psychiatry’s “master plan” – and money, the opportunity to make pots and pots of money by creating and perpetuating the misery of others.
In some ways, psychiatry is an easy target: everything from the appalling cruelty of Victorian mental institutions, which charged admission so the public could have a good laugh at the idiots, to the eugenics movement, which was indeed an influence on Nazism (and the segregationists of the Jim Crow South), to the whole contentious history of electroshock therapy and lobotomy. In the contemporary world, there are plenty of just criticisms to be leveled at the overweening power of the pharmaceutical industry and its lobbyists, the over-prescription of tranquillizers and mood modifiers from Prozac to Ritalin, the documented history of worrisome, sometimes fatal, side-effects that emerge long after drugs have been given FDA approval, and on and on.
But it is one thing to assert that psychiatry has had its abuses, quite another to say the profession in and of itself is evil. The “Industry of Death” museum goes one step further even than that, all but asserting that psychiatry is responsible for everything evil in the world. Psychiatry is the key to understanding Hitler, not extreme nationalism (“no man in history has been more prominent in the psychiatric dream of world domination …”). Psychiatry is responsible for plummeting educational standards in the United States, not chronic underfunding, and it is to blame, too, for rising health insurance premiums. Psychiatry lies behind the recent rash of school shootings. It is even responsible for 9/11. “Suicide bombers are … assassins manufactured through drugs and psycho-political methods,” one of the displays asserts. “Careful psychiatric indoctrination and treatment can make the most barbaric act rational.”
It’s hard to talk about errors of fact in such assertions (although, note to Ms. Filidei: Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a pediatric surgeon, not a psychiatrist) when the assertions themselves are characterized by a glaring failure to provide even the most basic factual corroboration. This is the classic stuff of paranoid conspiracy theory: grab every negative tidbit you can, disregard anything that even smacks of the positive, throw it all together and conflate it into something bigger than the sum of its parts. Suddenly, psychiatrists are all evil, their diagnostic manual a colossal hoax from start to finish; there is no justification for the theory that chemical imbalances cause mental health problems; Ritalin is never appropriate, for children or adults; in fact, there may be no such thing as mental illness in the first place.
This nonsense might be funny if it weren’t also so perniciously influential. The gala opening of the museum, just before Christmas, was a star-studded affair headlined by Anne Archer, Jenna Elfman, and much of the rest of Hollywood’s Scientologist elite. The museum is a no-expense-spared, slick exercise in propaganda aimed at the widest possible audience. As the distinctly creepy recruitment slogan illuminated above the final video display had it: “You are safe as long as we are here.”
In our increasingly anti-rational age, the Scientologists’ assault on psychiatry takes its place alongside the anti-Darwin movement, the anti-global warming movement, and, indeed, the Bush White House’s general disregard of established scientific fact. It needs to be denounced every bit as vigorously as the rest. My companion probably had it right when, as we left the museum, she paced up and down the street shouting: “I’m on Ritalin, and it changed my life!” The passers-by on Sunset were soon howling with laughter, the best possible corrective.