Psychology as the Genetics of the 1950s
Louis Menand, on Timothy Leary, in the New Yorker:
[Leary] received a Ph.D. in psychology, in 1950. There was no more opportune moment to become a psychologist. Psychology in the nineteen-fifties played the role for many people that genetics does today. “It’s all in your head” has the same appeal as “It’s all in the genes”: an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are. Why should someone feel unhappy or engage in antisocial behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth? It can’t be the system! There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere. So the postwar years were a slack time for political activism and a boom time for psychiatry. The National Institute of Mental Health, founded in 1946, became the fastest-growing of the seven divisions of the National Institutes of Health, awarding psychologists grants to study problems like alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, and television violence. Ego psychology, a therapy aimed at helping people adapt and adjust, was the dominant school in American psychoanalysis. By 1955, half of the hospital beds in the United States were occupied by patients diagnosed as mentally ill.
The belief that deviance and dissent could be “cured” by a little psychiatric social work (“This boy don’t need a judge—he needs an analyst’s care!”) is consistent with our retrospective sense of the nineteen-fifties as an age of conformity. The darker version—argued, for example, by Eli Zaretsky in his valuable cultural history of psychoanalysis, “Secrets of the Soul”—is that psychiatry became one of the instruments of soft coercion which liberal societies use to keep their citizens in line. But, as Zaretsky also points out, leading critics of conformity and normalcy—Herbert Marcuse, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Norman O. Brown, Paul Goodman, Wilhelm Reich—thought that it was all in the head, too. For them, normalcy was the neurosis, for which they prescribed various means of personal liberation, from better drugs to better orgasms. In the early years of the Cold War, personal radicalism, revolution in the head and in the bed, was the safer radicalism. The political kind could get you blacklisted.