It was interesting and valuable to look at some of the life histories of individual women from previous eras, and to speculate about what helped them and what did not. Some of the biographical sketches are about famous women such as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Marilyn Monroe.
The author approaches the subject matter with a broad vision to include social and cultural context, and particularly feminist issues such as the role constraints and expectations imposed upon women by the prevailing culture, in communities, in families, and also in the therapeutic relationships (which often had a paternalistic quality, or one which reinforced restrictive cultural stereotypes about women).
Many of the stories are strong critiques against various elements of therapeutic philosophy and practice, especially biological psychiatry.
An important thesis is of the limitations of "therapy": her closing statement is
...the mind doctors--whether they're GPs on the front line, therapists of an increasing number of varieties, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists or psychopharmacologists -- trudge along, doing what they can, which is sometimes all that can be done. The danger, perhaps, comes when we ask them to do too much. (p. 484)Certainly, through all the stories mentioned, the benefits of therapy were often tangible but limited--some compelling "success stories," others particularly tragic in their ending (e.g. Plath, Woolf, or Monroe).
An underlying thesis seems to be very supportive of psychoanalysis as an important form of therapy, which may nurture a sort of freedom in self-development and personal growth.
I find that she is excessively dismissive of cognitive-behavioural therapy. While I agree that such "shorter term" therapy styles may well be designed to improve symptom scores, such that an insurance company would be more willing to fund this therapy for a short time, then cut people off--I also think that many psychological ailments can be products of simple symptoms which can be treated in a very direct, matter-of-fact way, rather than through years of philosophical rumination on a psychoanalyst's couch. Panic attacks, OCD, social anxiety, etc. can be approached as symptoms which can be mastered through behavioural practice. It could be a tremendous disservice to individuals seeking "freedom" or "liberation" to neglect these practical and philosophically simple techniques.
I do agree that complex existential and relational issues can usually not be addressed in a shorter course of therapy, especially if the therapist is dogmatically attached to a particular style (e.g. in formal CBT, there may be no time to talk about any transferential issue or existential problem). Yet, many people may feel empowered to develop their existential and relational life on their own, provided that symptoms are not obstructing their efforts.
Some of her comments can be quite dismissive, for example:
But what young person doesn't feel depressed?--particularly perhaps after a week of student exams, or a split with a boyfriend, even after a little use of recreational drugs and forgetting to eat...A sense of hopelessness, a teenage irritability, may be a phase, even if one that lasts several years...One of the effects of such tools as the Beck's [sic] Depression Inventory and the DSM's chartable diagnoses is that they can produce the very results they are looking for. (pp. 468-9)In response to this quote, I would say that we are dealing with semantics to some degree. Actually, most young people do not feel depressed after their exams. They do not have a sustained change in behaviour after relationship disappointments, do not have a prolonged sense of hopelessness, irritability, insomnia, weight loss, suicidality, etc. These feelings may well be "phases," but the question is, should we simply treat these as "normal," (which is a semantic construct itself), and therefore not "do" anything (i.e. not offer companionship, support, advice, mentorship, etc.)? I agree that labeling and medicalization may unreasonably guide people into reflexive and sometimes unhelpful or inappropriate treatments (e.g. if a certain Beck score or life disappointment would automatically necessitate antidepressant drug therapy without any opportunity for dialog).
The author appears to have a particularly narrow view of some psychiatric treatments, such as ECT, which she describes as "barbarism." (p. 480) Perhaps thoracic surgery could be judged barbaric as well--most types of medical treatment were truly barbaric in many previous points of history, and only became less so through understanding and careful research as to how to perform the treatments more safely. Undoubtedly, even today, many people have negative experiences with thoracic surgery--or ECT--but in order to evaluate the humane usefulness of such invasive procedures, we need to do careful research trials. In order to assess whether something is "barbaric" or not, perhaps it is important to examine the stories of those who have had a profound, life-saving experience of something, alongside the stories of those who have had ambivalent or negative experiences.
She attempts to be fair in her analysis of medication treatments, but I think most readers unfamiliar with the issue would read her analysis, and conclude that medications to treat depression are a dangerous sham perpetrated by drug companies, with the collusion of paternalistic and impatient physicians.
There is little discussion of vast areas of research about the human mind: the entire field of academic & research psychology is barely mentioned. This research is so very important in challenging the dogmas associated with various therapeutic theories. Psychoanalytic theorists may have been, and still are, very wise and very talented listeners or shamanic figures, but the theories themselves were, and are, often very weak if taken too literally, and sometimes cultishly dogmatic, with therapeutic gains or inferences being illusions caused by the primitive logic of association leading to an assumption of causation. Also, the field of neuroscience is barely mentioned. The author uses the term "Big Science" as a kind of pejorative epithet, alongside "Big Pharma", a kind of ad hominem style of argument which seems to suggest that research findings from "Big Science" must be biased, and that the lack of research findings which support her position must have to do with the scientists being inadequate, rather than her position in fact being weak. One piece of "Big Science"-style research she does cite, in support of psychoanalysis, is upon closer observation a single study, with no adequate control group, little critical review. Yet she seems to aggrandize these findings in a way similar to how I have seen "Big Pharma" reps market medications based on a single, fairly weak research study.
The strength of this book lies in the biographical stories of suffering individuals, and of the descriptions of how people attempted to help them. Some of the most effective strategies are clearly based on common sense: humane social and community support, minimizing iatrogenic harm, promotion of the greatest degree of freedom possible. She argues effectively that Freudian ideas were quite liberating, permitting discussion of subjects previously held under a veil of taboo in the Victorian era, such as the nature of sexual drives. Also, these Freudian notions tended not to pathologize the drives themselves, but rather considered the drives to be innately normal, hence inviting frank, uncensored dialog as a pathway to greater freedom. The book highlights, importantly, some of harms done to people by misguided therapists and theories. And the book highlights the fact that symptoms generated by the mind can present in different ways, according to cultural influences. She argues that classification schemes can follow a fashion, and that ailments may present to follow the classification scheme, rather than the other way around.
So, in conclusion, a book with some interesting biographical sketches of patients and therapists. And some good discussion about the dangers of over-medicalizing human nature. But she does not convey a good understanding of psychological or neuroscience research, and certainly does not lay out evidence in a balanced or comprehensive way.