Finding the positive in Oliver James (part II)

Oliver James (see the previous Blog piece, 4th February) is unpopular with many people and parents affected by ADD / ADHD. Not a big surprise, given his strong view that genes have been over-emphasised, and early parenting neglected, as causes of all the common mental and behavioural disorders. Also his rampant anti-Americanism (1) (it is probably significant that ADD / ADHD diagnosis and treatment, especially for adults, has largely developed in the US).

I think that he is largely wrong on those key issues, but also that his books still contain interesting and sometimes valid points. He is right, for example, to suggest that many people can gain as much “insight” from “work, sport or art”, as from psychotherapy (2).

There is no magic formula to reveal who will, or will not, be helped by psychotherapy. And James even implies that “therapy culture” could make you worse (3), although this is more of a comment on reality television than ordinary professional practice.

His linking of the Positive Psychology movement with materialism and consumerism is doubtful to say the least, because academics like Seligman have constantly stressed the primacy of interpersonal relationships for promoting happiness and preventing depression. I wonder if James was trying to make a somewhat different point about the limits of his own “Affluenza” argument: below a certain level of material provision family and social life become difficult, and psychotherapy of any kind should not collude in denying that.

As for ADD / ADHD, it is disappointing that books written in 2002 and 2007, while recognising that autism may be substantially genetic, do not accept the same might apply to other developmental conditions.

Where I agree with Oliver James most of all, in these books, is the sense that exploration of the past through psychotherapy is an uncertain process, and that objective sources such as accounts from others, or school records, should be sought wherever possible. His recommendation to “Interview your mother or father or a sibling or an adult who was close to the family when you were small” (4) sounds close to a description of the diagnostic history-taking approach used by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists.

Therefore I think it a bit of a regression when he appears to suggest, in Affluenza, that psychotherapy may reliably uncover buried memories from childhood (5). Despite a clear non-endorsement of transference-based reconstruction (6), he fails to offer any warning about the possibility of “false memories”, either overly negative or positive, being created in the psychotherapy process itself.

(1) They F*** you up (2002) paperback: p228     (2) p259     (3) p246     (4) p182

(5) Affluenza (2007) paperback: p442: “…help with directly recalling what went on in my childhood”

(6) p442: Avoid the therapist “…if they fob you off with ‘We will investigate how your past is affecting you through the way you relate to me’”

I only share James’ views about using transference as investigation: the therapeutic technique may be useful for some people, as long as the therapist does not make claims for reliable historical reconstruction.

Thanks to Andrew Lewis and Richard Sherry for comments on these two pieces.

Published at www.DrNM.org.uk on 18th February 2011; transferred to DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 9th October 2011

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About Dr Neil MacFarlane MRCPsych

Independent Psychiatrist providing culturally informed mental health opinion, advice, and a few new facts. Based near London, UK. Main qualifications: BA MBBS MA MRCPsych.

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  1. To be (Oliver James Part I) | DrNMblog - 8 May, 2018

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