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.
Aware that this Blog has not covered psychotherapy as much as originally intended, I have spent the last ten days catching up with two best-selling books by the psychologist Oliver James: They F*** you up (2002), and Affluenza (2007).
My verdict? Very interesting, lively, recommended. But…
…perhaps the thing that struck me most were certain passages in Affluenza, which develop TFYU’s warning that the UK should not “follow in the footsteps of the most pathological developed nation on earth, the USA…[but should]…emulate the example set by so many of our European neighbours, like Denmark and France”(1).
By 2007, this trans-national analysis has focused on two particular evils: the “American way” of marketing, advertising and consumerism (2) and “the hollow ring of…American positive psychology”, with its “crude deletion of negative thoughts (3).
The basic idea is: “Studies from fourteen countries reveal that people who favour the key Virus values – money, possessions, physical and social appearances, and fame – are at greater risk of emotional distress”(2).
The author provides apparently clear answers: seek “authenticity” in activities and relationships; although beware that some apparently non-consumerist activities may be pursued for inauthentic “people-pleasing” reasons (4).
Conversely, if you “would like to be rich”, this may well be an authentic means to pursue such ends as “not to have to work all the time…[leaving] enough time to hang out with friends and family”(4). Presumably this applies to James himself, who happens to be in the “upper echelons” of society (5)
(although I doubt he would describe himself as “rich”).
To sort these pitfalls out is partly the task of psychotherapy, and I share the author’s approval of cognitive-analytic therapy (CAT), having myself had some experience of practising it in the early nineties, and knowing a senior CAT therapist for many years.
Few would argue that the US is not a world leader in marketing, advertising and consumerism, however I think there is a bit of grit in the oyster of James’ well-marketed argument. He relies on international data recording rates of distress and depression; but these are “soft”, difficult to make non-subjective, and depend on translation between languages and cultures.
The ultimate “hard” data relating to distress and depression are suicide rates, and the statistics have for decades indicated that Danish and French people deliberately end their lives much more often than Americans (6), despite living in cultures of “Being” rather than “Having”.
(1) They F*** you up (2002): paperback p300-301
(2) Affluenza (2007): paperback p12-14 (3) p142 (4) p180-2 (5) p97
(6) http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/country_reports/en/index.html The suicide rate of Denmark has come down markedly since 1990,
and in 2005 was the same as the USA, whose rate has been stable (and not high in international terms) since the mid-1950’s. Oliver James states that
Denmark’s suicide rate is lower than that of Edinburgh (p109), but he gives no reference for this. The French suicide rate has also fallen, however in 2005 it remained 50% higher than that of the USA. The 2005 USA suicide rate for 15-24 year olds is double that of Denmark and 150% that of France: Affluenza mainly discusses older age groups, but it could be predicting sustained shifts in psychology and behaviour.
(Oliver James Part II: Review of Affluenza)
‘(Oliver James Part I)’ added to title 29th March 2018