Thursday, January 1, 2009

Review: Eric Caplan, Mind Games: American Culture and the Birth of Psychotherapy, [University of California Press, 1998]

The question of why Freudian ideas were so broadly and easily accepted in the United States during the twentieth century remains an important historical puzzle. Eric Caplan’s consice and lucid book Mind Games approaches this puzzle by by describing crucial features of the American cultural landscape in the thirty years leading up to Freud’s epochal visit to Clark University in 1909. Much of the territory he covers has been visited previously by Nathan Hale and John Burnham among others. What distinguishes Caplan’s book from others is detail with which he describes what he calls the 'discrete nodal points at which medicine and culture acutally intersect.'

Mind Games is in fact a series interconnected essays on railway accidents and the concept of psychological trauma, somatic treatments for neurasthenia and other functional nervous disorders, the Mind Cure Movement, medical controversies over psychotherapy, and the Emmanuel Movement. For someone relatively familiar with this terrain, the depth of Caplan’s research periodically provides rewarding nuggets of new information. Who was Thomas Jay Hudson, the author of that odd little book The Laws of Psychic Phenomena, that I picked up in a used book store years ago? Some of his chapters --particularly those on 'Railway Spine,' and the Emmanuel Movement--really do illuminate events that are usually glossed over. I hadn't appreciated, for example, just how vigorously the prestigious neurologist and influential Freudian, James Jackson Putnam, had opposed the Emmanuel Movement.
Caplan has an eye for irony. His chapter on Railway Spine, for example, demonstrates how 'conservative' railway surgeons, invested in decreasing railway liability for accidents, played an important role in developing the 'progressive' idea of psychological trauma. Occassionally he is also very insightful. The fact that 'mental medicine' emerged in reaction to the restrictions imposed by the 'somatic style' in neurology and psychiatry on the doctor patient relationship is perhaps well known. By drawing attention to the the somatic style itself as a product of late nineteenth century preoccupation with specific diseases, however, Caplan is able to suggest that the emergence of mental medicine represented a reemergence and transformation of early nineteenth century concerns with individualized treatments.
Caplan's book succeeds in providing a readable account of one piece of the puzzle of why the United States has been so receptive to psychotherapy. It is a book that psychiatrists and patients as well as historians should read.

Edward M. Brown

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