Shrink Rapper

By Sharon Tregaskis / July / August 2005
April 28th, 2007

Sally Satel pulls no punches. In the last year, the conservative pundit and psychiatrist has criticized the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the juvenile death penalty, questioned the World Health Organization’s HIV policy, and argued against grief counseling for tsunami survivors in southern Asia. Her op-ed columns—bearing such provocative headlines as “I Am a Racially Profiling Doctor” and “Drugs: A Decision, Not a Disease”—appear in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

In April, St. Martin’s Press published Satel’s latest book, One Nation Under Therapy: The Rise of the Helping Culture and the Decline of Self-Reliance, coauthored with Christina Hoff Sommers, of Who Stole Feminism? fame. Satel and Sommers, both resident scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, argue that preoccupation with introspection is diluting such American virtues as stoicism, independence, and responsibility.

One Nation Under Therapy condemns the rise of “therapism,” a term Satel and Sommers coined to refer to the “valorization of openness, emotional self-absorption, and the sharing of feelings.” As evidence, they cite the banning of dodgeball and tag from elementary-school playgrounds, the self-esteem movement, and the boom in post-traumatic-stress diagnoses.

“In theory,” the authors write, “therapism offers a compassionate and caring philosophy of life; in practice it enfeebles those it seeks to help.” In the book’s final chapter, “September 11, 2001: The Mental Health Crisis That Wasn’t,” Satel and Sommers argue that few Americans suffered the distress journalists and psychologists predicted.

“Grief counselors and the trauma industry will be annoyed and defensive,” Satel predicted in an interview the week after her book’s release, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re accused of being insensitive.” And they were. In the New York Times Book Review, Alissa Quart ’94 called their tone frosty and “Grinch-like,” and dismissed their book as “culture wars kitsch.”

It’s not the first time Satel has raised hackles. In a review of her 2000 book P.C., M.D.—which condemned “indoctrinologists” for undermining everything from the delivery of services for the mentally ill to compulsory treatment programs for pregnant addicts—psychiatrist Ivan Oransky dubbed Satel “a conservative ideologue in a white doctor’s coat.” But the forty-nine-year-old says that if anything she’s apolitical: she didn’t even vote until 1992, when she cast a ballot for Bill Clinton. The common thread to her writing, she says, is not a political agenda but dismay at how others deploy their ideologies to distort scientific understanding of medical issues.

Although Satel treats heroin addicts at a D.C.-based methadone clinic twelve hours a week, she spends most of her time at AEI, where colleagues include Lynne Cheney and Newt Gingrich. “People say this is a right-wing think tank,” Satel says from behind a vast desk dwarfed by overstuffed bookcases. “It is right of center, there’s no question about that, but people here are serious scholars.”

At Brown, Satel studied under psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac and this year’s Against Depression, who has called her “the conservative I most like to debate.” In 1997, the online journal Slate posted an essay Satel and Kramer had written debating the pros and cons of applying the Americans with Disabilities Act to mental-health problems. “I don’t know that there’s another person with Sally’s views that I’m friends with,” says Kramer.

In person Satel is soft-spoken and reserved, a sharp contrast with the tough tone of her prose. “I’m not mean on the page,” she insists. “People in my profession, because they’re so afraid of conflict, tend to read strong opinion as somehow personal.” Granted, her work strays from standard academic discourse and bears little semblance to the conventional therapeutic script—but that’s not her job.

“I’m paid to have opinions,” she says. “The rank-and-file in almost any profession, people on the front line, are very practical and they know PC rhetoric when they read it. They’d like to roll their eyes or speak out, but they can’t because their chairman buys into it or he has to toe some party line, or they need grants.”

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July / August 2005