Sacred Cows and Straw Men

(A response to "The private practice of subversion: Psychology as tikkun olam." by Laura Brown)

by Tana Dineen

American Psychologist, April, 1998

In recent years, there has been a shift occurring in which psychology is coming to be seen less and less as a science and to be presented as a religion replete with dogma and liturgical hierarchy. The principles of objectivity, rationality, reliability and validity are being replaced with the values of subjectivity, emotionality, peer consensus, and client satisfaction.

Whatever the reasons, and there may be several, it is undeniable that psychology is acquiring more and more of the characteristics of a religion. This transition is evidenced in the adoption of Eastern mystical and Native American approaches as healing techniques in psychotherapy, in the increasing number of books and workshops which meld religion and psychology, and in the acceptance of spiritual, transcendent and supernatural concepts into the language of psychotherapy.

Some will argue that with this trend comes a healthy expansion of the scope and effectiveness of psychological practice (not to mention its market) as it moves to include issues of meaning, value, justice, and soulfulness. Although this debatably may be true, it is undeniably true that with this shift come all the bad things about a religion; its imposed morality, its bigotry, and its demand for conformity within the garb of justice and salvation. It creates its "sacred cows" immune from criticism, and its "straw men" set up only to be easily confuted.

Nowhere is this religious righteousness more evident than in Laura Brown’s (April 1997) award address: "The Private Practice of Subversion: Psychology as Tikkun Olan," and nowhere is there a more disturbing example in that this address serves as part of her platform in her campaign for election as the American Psychological Association president and leader of the flock. In Brown's address, she argued implicitly for a secular religion of psychology in which psychological practice and psychotherapy would serve as a means to enact judgement ("undermine the oppressive cultural status quo"; p.453) and bring about salvation ("the act of saving another human life"; p. 453).

To Brown's (1997) credit, she does not hide her religious and revolutionary intentions as she refers to "the underlying sacred and revolutionary goals" (p. 452) of psychologists. She was quick to identify two of her arch enemies in this crusade; "managed care" and "false memories." However, in doing so, she was equally quick to create her sacred cows and straw men from both issues.

With regard to Managed Care, the former are the "needs" and wishes of the client as perceived by the therapist and the unquestionable value of long-term therapy; while the latter are the cruel procedures that "strip away power from clients at the very onset of therapy" (Brown, 1997, p. 455). In Brown’s view, "the narrative of managed care thus begins with the assumption that clients must be protected from their own decisions about who is the best therapist for them" (p. 454).

As for the topic of False Memory, it is the story "authored" by the client which must never be questioned. It is not that it must be heard along with the response of the accused, but that it must be heard over and above the other, for as a "victim," the client must be given unequal status. To complement this position is her construction of straw men out of those who seek to defend the accused and those who strive to make therapists responsible for their work. The first group is portrayed as "privileging the voices of those who claim to be falsely accused over all else and declaring them to be always per se true and thus the voices of accusers as per se false" (Brown, 1997, p. 456), a clear misrepresentation of the views of such people as Loftus and Ketcham (1994). The second group, who seek responsibility through such means as The Truth and Responsibility in Mental Health Practices Act (Dineen, 1996), are cast as villains who "strip [ clients] of their authority [and] define... the voices of the people whom they have accused of sexually assaulting them... as more expert and in charge of the therapy process" Brown, 1997, p. 459).

In Brown’s cosmology (1997), the mythical forces of good, the gallant psychologists who strive to create a socially just world and defend the innocent, are pitted against the villainous profit-mongering HMO’s and against those who seek to defend themselves by declaring their own innocence. It is not based on science or research which, as part of the old order, must be overthrown. Rather, it is based, as all true religions are, on faith, or what Brown calls " a better subjectivity" (p.450).

Brown’s (1997) address is a call to arms, a beacon to rally the faithful in defense of this new religion of psychology, a Lazarian invitation for psychologists to come forth from the dead. But what does this new religion offer? It argues that insured clients (or "covered lives") should have unlimited access to the therapy of their choice, and that those claiming recovered memories should be protected from questions that might cause them to stop and think. Brown preaches that "for those who practice therapy as tikkum olan, their relationships with their clients are, at their very heart, predicated on the development of the clients as the authorities about their own lives and the placement in the clients’ hands of the right and privilege to determine what the goals of the therapy should be" (p. 459) and consequently how long it should continue. Brown holds "sacred the worth of the client’s voice and experience of reality in helping to make sense of what might be real or true" (p.460). What Brown’s religion fails to do, however, is to respect those outside the fold. It ignores the unbelieving and the uninsured. It fails to acknowledge the cold reality that there is not enough money available to pay for everybody’s unlimited psychotherapy. In addition, it disregards a basic human fault - that people lie - and a basic human right - that all people deserve the right to defend themselves. Many such essential aspects of social justice are overlooked in Brown's creed.

Brown’s (1997) award address is titled "The Private Practice of Subversion" and likely she had in mind the definition of subversion: "to overthrow or overturn from the foundation" Webster's, 1976). An equally plausible effect may be found in the other meanings of subversion: "to be the ruin of " or "to pervert or corrupt by undermining principles and morals" (Webster's, 1976).



Brown, L.S. (1997). The private practice of subversion: Psychology as tikkun olam. American Psychologist, 52, 449-462.

Dineen, T. (1996). Manufacturing victims: What the psychology industry is doing to people. Montreal: Robert Davies.

Loftus, E. F. & Ketcham, K. (1994). The myth of repressed memories and allegations of sexual abuse. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Webster's Dictionary. (1976). Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam

Copyrigh t© 1998-2007 Tana Dineen,