On Szasz, Breggin and Oaks

Jun 19, 2009

Thomas Szasz’s Anti-Freud, where he views Freud as a quack, is a treat. But like other critics of psychiatry Szasz simply cannot break away from society’s most potent taboo: the devastating effects of parental abuse on children, as I argue below:

Critics of psychiatry:
blindness in their midst of vision

Thomas Szasz: The meaning of mind (Praeger, 1996)

Tom Szasz has been an intellectual guide for a long time. His analysis of the psychiatric Newspeak; his stance against both psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and especially his moral caliber and love for liberty have had tremendous impact on my thought and worldview. Anyone willing to know a dissident of our system should read Szasz’s classics. Pharmacracy: Medicine and Politics in America is a good starting point.

But Szasz went astray in some passages of The Meaning of Mind. He just doesn’t understand what is going on inside the heads of those who have been through psychotic crises. Szasz commits the same psychiatric mistake of his colleagues: “Don’t listen to them!”

John Modrow’s How to Become a Schizophrenic is a window into the mind of the author and the family abuse dynamics that drove him temporarily mad. Since Modrow sent the manuscript of his book to Szasz there is no excuse for those passages in The Meaning of Mind where Szasz blames the victims for their hallucinations, delusions of grandeur and hearing voices. Szasz does not even mention Modrow’s seminal work, which was published since 1992; and he blames poor Virginia Woolf for the voices she heard.

Szasz is not concerned about what it feels, from the insider’s subjective self, to have the severest form of panic attack that drives people to lose their mind. He approaches the subject of going mad objectively as if it was a normal, everyday experience that can be understood with plain common sense. But Szasz has never had a psychotic breakdown. Modrow has. Modrow has the key to understand the mad world. Szasz doesn’t.

Anyone who really wants to know something about the subject is advised to read not only Modrow’s autobiographical account, but also Silvano Arieti’s classic Interpretation of Schizophrenia or, more recently, Schizophrenia by Colin Ross. The trauma model is the only rational alternative to the psychiatrist’s medical model.

Parental abuse is the cause of most mental disorders even in the grown up neurotic adult (see e.g., Susan Forward’s bestseller Toxic Parents). Szasz makes the incredible statement that “child abuse, sex abuse” is no causative factor (page 37). Even worse, Szasz states that “autism is a poorly understood, perhaps genetically caused, condition” (page 56). This is an incredible statement from the one who has been psychiatry’s main foe (autism might be a psychogenic condition caused by non-loving mothers who treat their babies like objects—see Peter Breggin’s Toxic Psychiatry, pages 287ff).

Here there is another Szasz statement that I find incredible: “If, on balance, the voices would perturb him [the so-called schizophrenic] more than they please him, he would stop producing them” (pages 130f). This is a rather silly remark. Obsessive thoughts, in the sense of involuntary mentation, exist. Everybody knows it. I for one know what an obsessive thought is (no less than falling in love!), and I know that I never had the slightest chance to kick the damned thought out of my head. Szasz continues: “However, hallucinating persons refuse to take antipsychotic drugs voluntarily, preferring the company of their voices.”

Oops! Has the great Tom Szasz written this statement, or is it a slogan of that Orwellian association, NAMI?

“As I already suggested, the schizophrenic patient who hallucinates or has delusions is profoundly dishonest with himself” (page 130).

It is unnecessary continuing to quote these silly blame-the-victim pronunciations. It is enough to say that Szasz is absolutely ignorant of what mental hell is. I insist that since the process of going mad is a thoroughly subjective experience both Szasz and his foe, the orthodox psychiatrist, have no right to interpret what is going on inside the minds of these people.

Let’s give the true insiders a chance to speak out the tragedies that drove them mad by ending this review with words not from Szasz’s book, but a quotation in Modrow’s, whose abusive parents were internalized in the poor boy he was:

“After each assault by these internal persecutors, the individual’s ego retreats more and more behind a fortress that becomes increasingly empty, until at last, in words of Peter Rosenbaum, the moat is empty; the bridge is down; the sentinels fail to stand guard. The unconscious storms into consciousness, and the walking dreamer of Jung is to be seen.”

Peter Breggin

Toxic Psychiatry is one of the best books that debunk biological psychiatry. I recommend Peter Breggin’s manifesto to anyone interested in mental health.

Breggin valiantly opposed lobotomy and electroshock in the 1970s. He also opposed the psychiatric drugging of children in the 1980s, 90s and in this century. But I am perplexed about his policy as founder and editor of the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry (EHPP).

Breggin’s journal, which I subscribe, didn’t publish a tribute or even an obituary to Theodore Lidz, one of the foremost specialists of the trauma model of “schizophrenia” in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s who died at ninety in 2001. In those now bygone decades Lidz and his colleagues blamed parents for the psychoses of their offspring: one of the greatest heresies in today’s culture. The second chapter of Toxic Psychiatry valiantly endorses Lidz and his colleague’s view about psychologically abusive parents that destroy their children’s mind.

Alas, due to cowardice before the massive anti-blaming culture of today, Breggin betrayed what he wrote in his book. See my letter that Breggin didn’t respond.

His silence is no mystery. Alice Miller’s work focuses on abusive parents: what Simon et al fear the most. Miller’s Breaking Down the Wall of Silence is a good introduction to her ideas. I quote from the dust jacket: “Dr. Miller convincingly demonstrates how psychoanalysts from Freud onward, as well as teachers, clergy, politicians, and members of the media, have shrunk from recognizing the enormous extent and devastating effects of child abuse.”

I am afraid to say that, like his shrink colleagues, since Breggin wrote the second chapter of Toxic Psychiatry he has miserably shrunk from recognizing the psychotic effects of child abuse.

E-mail exchange with David Oaks of MindFreedom:

Dear David:

We are on the same front combating psychiatry: you in the States and I in Mexico. So don’t misunderstand me! One thing that bothers me of your webpage, as well as Szasz’s and Breggin’s, is that none of you talk about what causes neuroses and even psychoses: parental abuse. (Curiously, the antipsychiatrists of the 1960s had more guts than today’s critics: all of them blamed parents.)



David Oaks responds:

A lot of groups work on the issue of trauma and how trauma leads to mental and emotional problems. A lot of groups have material on that, and our Mad Market of books has information about that too. However, as a human rights group, we are focusing on human rights issues.
Best wishes,


12 December 2005

Dear David:

Yes: I remember that issue of MindFreedom magazine with a big picture of Peter Breggin on the cover. The issue lists lots of books, some dealing with trauma as the causative factor. However, even that issue’s abstract of John Modrow’s How to Become a Schizophrenic doesn’t mention a single word about schizophrenogenic parents: the main subject of Modrow’s book!

If I am wrong about your organization, please indicate me a single page within your large website that specifically deals with the subject that some parents drive their children mad.



*   *   *

David Oaks did not respond to this e-mail and his former response misses the point. If his organization focuses on human rights issues, why aren’t they saying anything about the most heinous violation of such rights: schizophrenogenic child abuse?

The cause of this taboo among psychiatrists, anti-psychiatrists and the society in general can be glimpsed in the following quote from Alice Miller’s Breaking Down the Wall of Silence:

If one day the secret of childhood were to become no longer a secret, the state would be able to save immense sums that it spends on hospitals, psychiatric clinics, and prisons maintaining our blindness. That this might deliberately happen is almost too incredible a thought.

Thanks Mrs. Miller! You have seen what Freud, Szasz, Breggin’s epigones and even psychiatric survivors didn’t want to see. When you say “psychiatric clinics and prisons maintaining our blindness” I can only think of their blindness in their midst of vision.


23 Responses to “On Szasz, Breggin and Oaks”

  1. Gaston Says:

    “autism might be a psychogenic condition caused by non-loving mothers who treat their babies like objects”
    That is the incredible statement, even more considering it was posted in 2009.
    Autism is an extremely complex issue, but from what we know these days it’s a genetic disorder.
    It’s a shame these refrigerator mother ideas are still spreading.

    • Chechar Says:

      What is pathetic is that you believe in the pseudoscience called “psychiatry”. Do yourself a favor. Read Jay Joseph’s recent books refuting the genetic hypothesis on mental disorders.

      • omalone1 Says:

        G Wiz…having delightfully been diagnosed with a type autism last year, I can say, with assurance, that these symptoms were the result of coming from a violent background of sick people that attempted to usurp my reality. It is not enough to look at mothers, but at the whole institution of family, vis-a-vis, the household.
        That is brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, etc. It is all people that endorse a model that is alien and abstract, and which undermines the sensibilitis of the young one.

  2. Nicolas Says:

    Where precisely did Szasz make the “incredible statement that “child abuse, sex abuse” is no causative factor” in creating later life emotional problems?

    • César Tort Says:

      In several places (see e.g., The Meaning of Mind).

      • Nicolas Says:

        When you get a chance, please direct me to a specific passage of his.

      • César Tort Says:

        The above-cited book, Praeger 1996 hardcover edition, pages 5-8. 31, 35, 37, 56 (bottom)-57 (top), 118, 141f.

        There are similar Szasz pronouncements against the trauma model in his book Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry and in several other books.

    • Nicolas Says:

      I would appreciate a specific statement cite because in rereading those pages I find nothing that would qualify as such an “incredible statement.”

      • César Tort Says:

        Szasz, in that book, blames Virginia Woolf for her auditory hallucinations (cf also the book he wrote about Woolf), and is dismayed that people accuse parents of autistic children of abuse.

        Elsewhere, e.g., on page 37 Szasz says: “Attributing the misbehaving person’s conduct to child abuse, sex abuse…” is, among other things, “scapegoating”.

      • Nicolas Says:

        Sorry, on page 37 of which book? I’m really asking for a full Szasz quote supporting what you attributing to him, not a partial sentence that you complete. Where is this statement?

      • César Tort Says:

        Read the full sentence in The Meaning of Mind. There are lots of similar sentences there and in other of his books.

      • Nicolas Says:

        Szasz is certainly not saying that child abuse isn’t traumatic, or even devastating. He is saying that it does not excuse misbehavior.

        “Some human passions may have become domesticated with the advance of civilization, but the passion for scapegoating is not among them. On the contrary. Mistaking it as a combination of morality and science, we practice a virtually limitless existential-legal excusing-plus-scapegoating — attributing the misbehaving person’s conduct to child abuse, sex abuse, ignorance, poverty, racism, sexism, bad genes, dangerous drugs, malfunctioning neurotransmitters, and mental illness, that is, to anyone or anything but the agent himself.”

        You may as well be contending that Szasz denied that poverty or ignorance have adverse effects, which is equally absurd.

        If someone is arrested for child molestation, would you say he shouldn’t be prosecuted because he had also been molested as a child, or is he still legally culpable for his misdeed?

      • César Tort Says:

        OK: I didn’t pick up the right Szasz quote. But if you read The Meaning of the Mind or still better Szasz’ book on Virginia Woolf, one of his last books before he died, you will see that Szasz blames Woolf for her auditory hallucinations (Modrow would blame Woolf’s abusive family).

        Szasz dismissed the trauma model. On page 104 of my Spanish translation of Schizophrenia: The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry Szasz says that the etiology of schizophrenia lies completely in darkness, that’s to say, he repeats the lie of psychiatry’s medical model (Modrow et al know that the etiology is very well understood under the trauma model).

        In Schizophrenia Szasz has a rather harsh, critical chapter of Ronald Laing, the British anti-psychiatrist who pioneered the trauma model in the 1960s. As in his texts about Woolf, on page 75 of the translated book Szasz doesn’t seem to have any consciousness that parents like those of Modrow (or my own parents!) truly exist; that, to use his own metaphor, those kind of parents destroy the marble of a sculpture.

        This is a fatal flaw in his approach to psychoses—as it is a fatal flaw blinding himself to see that there are indeed pretty disturbed people. Mental illness does not exist as a biomedical entity; but there are indeed insane persons (I for one have met catatonics). On page 76 you can see that Szasz hasn’t the faintest idea of what psychological trauma can provoke.

        Get the English copy of Schizophrenia, published I believe by Oxford University Press, and you will see that in chapter 2, where he criticizes anti-psychiatrists, Szasz doesn’t understood trauma.

  3. Nicolas Says:

    The Szasz blurb on the front of Modrow’s book calls it “an impressive piece of work.” Seems odd, then, that Szasz, having written that, would reject Modrow’s ideas. Modrow has three Szasz books in his bibliography.

    • César Tort Says:

      In his personal communications (by pencil handwriting by the way), Modrow told me that Szasz indeed read the MS of Modrow’s book. But if you pay attention to what Modrow advertises on the cover of his book, a Szasz quote—“An impressive piece or work”—in no way is Szasz validating Modrow’s POV.

      We need the whole Szasz letter (please ask Modrow and, if possible, publish it here or elsewhere).

      • Nicolas Says:

        Why would Szasz endorse a book with whose major premise he disagreed? Wasn’t like him at all.

      • César Tort Says:

        “An impressive piece…” – Is that endorsing? There are books you disagree with and are still pieces of work.

  4. Nicolas Says:

    You have attacked Szasz for years, but you misrepresent his work because he doesn’t focus on your special concern and you misapprehend his emphasis on personal responsibility.

    You didn’t answer me, so I’ll ask again:

    If someone is arrested for child molestation, would you say he shouldn’t be prosecuted because he had also been molested as a child, or is he still legally culpable for his misdeed?

    • César Tort Says:

      You question is beside the point. You simply cannot refute the fact that Szasz did not subscribe the trauma model advanced by Laing, Lidz, Arieti and more recently by Ross, Miller and deMause. Period.

      • Nicolas Says:

        Odd that you should declare it beside the point since you have spent years attacking Szasz on precisely the point of responsibility. Why should I want to refute Szasz’s subscription to the “trauma model”?

        I have communicated with Mr. Modrow, who was kind enough to volunteer the following:

        “Szasz is only interested in debunking psychiatry. He is not interested in explaining the causes of various psychiatric disorders. Apparently that is not good enough for Mr. Tort.”

      • César Tort Says:

        But there’s something that both you and Modrow ignore for the simple reason that the bulk of my writing about Szasz is… positive! (in Spanish):


        If I criticized him in English is because… well it’s a rather complex story that started when an idiot editor then in charge of Breggin’s journal got mad at me for trying to write about the trauma model in his journal. As I tried to ponder why on earth such a thing could happen in the only professional journal that debunks psychiatry I discovered that the trauma model is rejected in quite a few quarters of those who oppose psychiatry, as in psychiatry itself.

        If you want to go to the root of all this mess you got to read my book in Spanish, Hojas Susurrantes. Since most of it is not translated to English, you might try reading Alice Miller’s chapter on psychiatry and mental health professions in Breaking Down the Wall of Silence.

  5. Is autism neurological or psychiatric? I can’t answer that question, but maybe science will answer it eventually. I’m not faulting Thomas Szasz for taking a stab at it.

    Although it may be true that some parents drive some children mad. I don’t think it would, therefore, be correct to say that madness is caused by parents. I imagine there could be many causes. I once had a teacher, for instance, of whom it was said that she was driven mad by her students.

    • César Tort Says:

      What a silly joke. We are obviously talking about psychoses. Where there are no biomarkers the most parsimonious hypothesis is that parents murdered their child’s soul, especially if the victim complains a lot about about hellish abuse at home.

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