Pubdate: Wed,  3 Jul 2002
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Christopher Caldwell



America after World War II saw a psychological upheaval without precedent. 
By means of drugs , meditation and self-help schemes, millions of people 
sought to escape the values they had grown up with, the better to adapt to 
contemporary social relations.

In "The Road to Malpsychia," (Encounter, 326 pages, $26.95) Joyce Milton 
argues that such seekers for new wisdom were more than a bunch of 
eccentrics. They were at the center of "a vast experiment in applied 
psychology." Its premise was that human nature provides the beginnings of 
an ethical and behavioral compass -- which proved true. Its conclusion was 
that "traditional morality" could be painlessly replaced by psychotherapy 
- -- which proved disastrous.

The father of this "humanistic psychology" was Abraham Maslow. A protege of 
the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Maslow thought people could have better 
work habits and love lives, more spontaneity and less guilt, if they would 
only heed the promptings of their inmost character. Progress toward 
psychological health ("self-actualization") was to be charted through "peak 
experiences," moments of religious vision or amatory transport when people 
felt themselves to be "fully human."

Maslow's work found deserved success in the corporate world. His theories 
on reducing intracompany rivalry and retraining workers in midcareer are 
the bedrock of today's workplace. And Maslow was a scholar of considerable 
integrity. He used primate data to show that Freud's theorizing on female 
sexuality contained much baseless speculation. He demonstrated that Albert 
Kinsey's sex research rested on skewed samples. A ruthless critic of his 
own work, Maslow came to worry about the "impossibility of distinguishing 
between a healthy peak experience and a manic attack."

He was right to. Maslow's ideas, as Ms. Milton shows, wound up giving carte 
blanche to academic con men, like Timothy Leary, who used the lingo of peak 
experience to proselytize for LSD. Leary parlayed federal subsidies and 
endorsements from credulous clergymen into a Harvard professorship. Once 
ensconced, he gave up all pretense of scholarly work, focusing his 
attentions on commune living, booze, groupies and radical politics.

If Leary was the most fraudulent of the humanistic psychologists, the 
group-therapy guru Carl Rogers was the most damaging. Rogers's 
"human-potential movement" popularized such innovations as encounter 
groups, the inner child and the group hug. This was therapy for "normals," 
meant to offer perfectly happy people a fuller interior life.

A floundering Christianity abetted his excesses. After Pope Paul VI called 
in 1966 for "wide-ranging experimentation" in Catholicism, Rogers sent 60 
facilitators to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles. 
Rogers's "touching exercises" turned out to be inconsistent with chastity; 
within a year, more than half of the 560 nuns abandoned the order, most as 
lesbians. Rogers would later work his magic at a Franciscan seminary in 
Santa Barbara, Calif., leaving in his wake America's largest Catholic 
pedophilia scandal until the recent one.

Accused of brainwashing and cult practices, Rogers responded by attributing 
all such attacks to "the far right." (He was a pioneer in this regard, 
too.) But the "feelings revolution" that grew out of his ideas suggests 
that there was indeed something empty and opportunistic about them. The 
used-car salesman Werner Erhard was only the most renowned of the hucksters 
who seized on Rogers's strategies. Erhard's "est" movement, essentially 
sadism with a therapeutic gloss, attracted wayward celebrities throughout 
the 1970s before a series of financial exposes sent him into European 
exile. The ex-drunk Chuck Dederich founded Synanon, which preyed on 
vulnerable addicts before turning into a full-blown cult, complete with 

Having captured these often bogus and outsized personalities, Ms. Milton 
turns to the mainstream fallout of humanistic psychology, charting its 
legacy in the New Age, self-esteem and diversity movements. But at times 
she overreaches. Betty Friedan does not belong here, even if she once 
sought Maslow's research help. Nor does California's 1987 decision to stop 
teaching phonics in grade schools. Ms. Milton has set herself the difficult 
task of capturing a Zeitgeist. For the most part, she does so with common 
sense and acuity. But like Paul Johnson in "Intellectuals," she is better 
at using her subjects' personal lives to expose their hypocrisy and vested 
interests than at critiquing their ideas.

Ms. Milton tends to look at flaky pop-psych fads as cause, not effect. She 
is just not curious about the desperation that led so many saps to seek 
them out in the first place. So she sneers at Timothy Leary's tirades 
against "fake-television-set American society." But what halfway 
intelligent American hasn't occasionally felt a similar rage? Who can 
dismiss Carl Rogers's claim that affluence and "large impersonal 
institutions" made postwar Americans "probably more aware of their inner 
loneliness than has ever been true before in history"?

Ms. Milton has done a real service in tracing the catastrophic excesses of 
postwar psychology. But ensuring that those excesses are not repeated 
begins with explaining why postwar "normality" has been for many Americans 
a textureless and terribly disorienting state.

Mr. Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.
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