The Books: “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy–And the World’s Getting Worse”

Next book in my Daily Book Excerpt:

100YearsOfPsychotherapy.jpgWe’re moving on now to what I think of as my “therapeutic” section. The next book is We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy–And the World’s Getting Worse, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura. Given to me by my friend David – it is a fantastic read. Thought-provoking, fun, maddening, obnoxious … You don’t need to agree with everything, but you do need to be willing to think deeply, and ask some basic questions. It’s great fun. James Hillman (a highly unconventional psychologist and author) and Michael Ventura (a music columnist) sit around and tape record their conversations about therapy, the self-help-ization of our culture, and life in general. They write long letters to each other, discussing everything from art, to genius, to what is the meaning of “normal”, to Freud to Jung … Hillman, a psychologist, is part of the therapy culture – but he takes a radically different view towards the whole thing and if you’ve ever read any of his books you will know what I’m talking about. I find his stuff to be extremely exciting.

I love this book, and I was grateful to my friend David for giving it to me. It’s the kind of book I would never have bought myself … but he had been talking about it to me for quite some time, really revved up about it … and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.

The following is an excerpt from one of Hillman’s letters to Ventura. One of the problems that Hillman has with the therapy culture is that it strives to make us all the same, to smooth things out, to get rid of the “mess”. His point in the following excerpt is that “normalcy” is highly over-rated. Most people of genius are weirdos. The cult of therapy assumes that if someone is “different”, then there are deep-seated issues that need to be worked on, delved into. Hillman can’t stand that attitude. He loves people of genius, people who push the boundaries, people who achieve greatness. None of these people could have achieved what they did if the things in them that were different and unconventional had been snuffed out by therapy.

(When Hillman talks about “acorn” – he means possibility. The acorn of adulthood that resides in an infant child. The oak tree is the possibility (the entellechy – love that word) of the acorn.)

EXCERPT FROM We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy–And the World’s Getting Worse, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura.

Do you know how many extraordinary people were runaways, school dropouts, hated school, could not fit in? My source for this data [is] (Goertzel and Goertzel, Cradle of Eminence) … Cezanne was rejected from the Beaux Arts academy. Grieg at age thirteen was completing his opus one (“Variations on a German Melody”) in a school classroom; his teacher shook him to put a stop to it. Proust’s teachers thought his compositions disorganized. Zola got a zero in literature at his high school and also failed rhetoric. Eugene O’Neill, Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all had failures in college. Edison says, “I was always at the foot of the class.” And Einstein was considered dull by his teachers. As for Picasso, my data says he was taken out of school at age ten because “he stubbornly refused to do anything but paint.”

I’m saying, among twenty other things, that we have to take a new look not only at childhood, but at psychopathology too. Did you know that when Lindbergh was a boy he had tremendous nightmares about falling from a high place, and he even tried to meet this fear by jumping from a tree? Did his interior imagination already know that he had to fly over the Atlantic? The Mexican social revolutionary painter Diego Rivera, at the age of six, mounted the pulpit in his local church and gave such a violent anticlerical speech that the priest fled and the congregation was frightened. Salvador Dali was a real weirdo child: he stomped a classmate’s violin, kicked his sister’s head as if it were a football, and — get this — bit into a rotting bat. By adolescence he was considered so strange that he was pelted with stones going to the movies. (All this good stuff from the Goertzels.) Isn’t Dali’s behavior “surrealism” in acorn? For another sort of kinkiness, take Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. At his school he was overeager, “ready to assume a father-role, to keep his fellow students amused, to be useful to his teachers,” though his classmates thought him odd. He was in all the committees, too. Wasn’t he already a Boy Scout before there were Boy Scouts?

These exceptional people reveal the thesis of looking at life backwards because exceptional people can’t keep from letting it all show. I’ve picked peculiar behaviors rather than the usual examples of early talent — Mozart, Yehudi Menuhin, Marie Curie. Since the peculiar genius can appear in the guise of dysfunctional behavior, we have to pay attention and revise our thinking about children and their pathology in terms of the nascent possibilities exemplified in these biographies of eminence.

You see, we need biographies of the Great to understand the rest of us. Psychology starts the wrong way around. It plots statistical norms, and what deviates are deviants. I follow Corbin. I want to start from the top down, because to start the regular way, to extrapolate from the usual to the unusual, doesn’t account for the remarkable determining force of the acorn. We cannot grasp Leonardo da Vinci by examining his distorted relationship with his mother, as Freud tried. Thousands of us, millions and millions of us, have had every sort of mother trouble, but there is only one Leonardo. And Leonardo’s exceptionality may prove better images, a better, more interesting approach to my mother troubles than understanding mother troubles will help grasp Leonardo.

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12 Responses to The Books: “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy–And the World’s Getting Worse”

  1. Jayne says:

    How cool…I want to read that.

  2. red says:

    Jayne – it’s really really interesting. A lot of fun, too.

  3. Stevie says:

    Yes! Yes! That’s certainly been true to my experience with genius acquaintances and friends. Geeks, every last one of them, to put it simply. And love them just as they are.

  4. CW says:


    There’s psychotherapy for generally normal, OK people who find life to be stressful or difficult, then there are real disorders and mental illness that have to be medically treated for the person to function in society.

    It seems to me there’s a pretty big difference between the two, but then there’s people like Nikola Tesla and John Forbes Nash who were and are card-carrying historical genuises, and total loons.

  5. red says:

    Of course there’s a difference, CW, and the book makes that distinction. I have a lot of experience with mental illness as well as clinical depression, and there’s an enormous difference between clincial issues and a victimization mentality. These two authors are talking about the pathologization of anything that is not conventional. This is what therapy can do, and how it is often used. Books have been written about it. The swooping-down of therapists on people who witnessed and survived 9/11 … dredging up the memories … There is NO evidence that dredging up memories at ALL helps with the healing process – NO evidence. And yet this process is seen as gospel by the therapeutic community. In some cases, those who repress memories successfully have a far better chance at survival. Nobody studies these people. If “repression” came into vogue, the therapeutic culture would lose its reason to exist.

    It’s kind of like what Joseph Heller describes in Catch 22: If the whole WORLD is insane, then why adapt to the insanity of the world? Heller thinks that going crazy is an appropriate response to the world we live in.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting and inspiring premise, and also an interesting filter to use to look at therapy.

    Freud’s theories pretty much went unquestioned for a century – and to some degree they still are unquestioned. Hillman and Ventura go at all of these common assumptions, picking them apart, sometimes coming up with answers, sometimes not.

    I was in analysis for years – when I really needed it. It was a great help to me and I won’t knock it, but I do think it is good to question the institution – as it now exists. Not even an institution – that’s not the right word. The CULTURE of self-help. I think it is important to question it.

  6. CW says:

    I have also been sceptical that repression is necessarily bad. I have long believed in “compartmentation”, where adverse feelings, etc, are not repressed, just controlled. But I am sure that the therapy culture would equate compartmentation with harmful repression. They seem to think you need to wallow in your more lurid emotions, which has never seemed to make sense to me at all.

    How and why peoples’ minds work the way they do, however remains one of life’s great mysteries to me.

  7. red says:

    Yeah, me too. It’s probably why the study of cults and brainwashing (Under the Banner of Heaven being a perfect example) is so fascinating to me. And why I was obsessed (yes – OBSESSED) with Patty Hearst for a good couple of months when I was in high school. Is personality that fluid? Is the self malleable?

    Being in therapy saved my ass when I was in pretty dire straits. I stopped when I no longer needed it, but damn. I was a mess. Having that outside professional listen to me talk – and then respond – was so helpful and enlightening I don’t even know how to describe it.

  8. CW says:

    I think it’s always good to talk to someone who is thoughtful and a good listener. I got a lot out of Scott Peck’s books about therapy – he seemed to really understand what it is about, and did a very good job of explaining it. But I have some suspicion that a lot of therapists aren’t all that good – in fact may do more harm than good.

  9. red says:

    Member that AWFUL story a couple of years ago where the little girl died in a therapy session? I was haunted by it for quite some time. The therapist was making her re-create her own birth and had wrapped her up in a blanket and she suffocated? My God. It just gives me chills to think of that poor child … I mean, that’s an extreme example… but there are a lot of charlatans out there. You need to find someone who wants you to be WELL, not someone who is invested in keeping you sick because of the money you’re paying them.

  10. Dean Esmay says:

    “It used to take me all vacation to grow a new hide in place of the one they flogged off me during school term.” –Mark Twain

  11. Dean's World says:

    The Flaws of Psychiatric Care and Education

    In the past I’ve used the services of psychotherapists. As a rule I have found that they tend to be useful for very specific short-term uses (such as dealing with grief or stress) and occasionally for straightening out conflicts …

  12. beth says:

    i understand what you said about being open-minded, but what i know is that i’ve had 8 years of psychotherapy…and because of it, i am not only better, but i exist at all.

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