On the Mad in America podcast this week, we hear from the co-authors of a paper published in the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry which documents the mass murder of a quarter of a million people, mostly diagnosed as “schizophrenic” in Europe during the Second World War.
Later, we hear from Dr. Jeffrey Masson, who is an author and a scholar of Sanskrit and psychoanalysis. But first, we talk with professor of psychology John Read. Regular visitors to Mad in America will know of John’s work. For those that don’t know, John worked for nearly 20 years as a clinical psychologist and manager of mental health services in the UK and the USA, before joining the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in 1994, where he worked until 2013. He has served as director of the clinical psychology professional graduate programmes at both Auckland and, more recently, the University of Liverpool. He currently works in the School of Psychology at the University of East London.
John has many research interests, including critical appraisals of the use of psychiatric drugs and electroconvulsive therapy.
We discussed how John and Jeffrey came to write a paper which examines a grim period in psychiatric history.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
James Moore: We are here to discuss your paper, published in the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry. The paper is entitled “Biological Psychiatry and the Mass Murder of ‘Schizophrenics’: from Denial to Inspirational Alternative.” You wrote this paper with a co-author, Jeffrey Masson, who we will also hear from.
The paper documents the murder by psychiatrists of a quarter of a million patients mostly diagnosed as “schizophrenic” in Europe during the Second World War and the sterilization of hundreds of thousands more internationally, including in the USA and Scandinavia. How did this paper come to be written and how did you and Jeffrey contribute to it?
John Read: The first thing to acknowledge is that I would describe Jeffrey Masson as a Holocaust scholar. He knows far more about the Holocaust, including this particular part of it, than I do. He happened to be living in New Zealand and we became good friends.
The current article is an update of a book chapter we wrote together back in 2013. I’m reasonably well read about the history of psychiatry but I didn’t know half of what Jeff was telling me and I thought “this has to get out there somehow.” So we did a book chapter about it, but, as you know, book chapters are not particularly well read. So I wanted to try and get it out in a more accessible and up-to-date form, hence this article.
I think it’s timely, inasmuch as it is beginning to feel like the monolithic medical model promoted by the drug companies and biological psychiatry is now finally beginning to crumble. We’ve got the World Health Organization writing long reports about it, we’ve got the United Nations Special Rapporteur completely condemning the overemphasis on biology and compulsion and so forth. And just this week, an astonishing and historic paper by Joanna Moncrief, Mark Horowitz, and others, documenting that there is no evidence for a “chemical imbalance” behind depression, a theory which provided the basis on which millions of antidepressants have been prescribed for the last 20 or 30 years.
So things are changing and the task for us all is to accelerate that change. I think it’s useful to remind people of the extremes, and it is an extreme, to which a biological explanation for human distress can take us if we’re not careful. I will talk later about some of the ways in which there are parallels between what happened all those years ago and what’s happening today, including the continuing use of force and compulsion and just how strong the genetic theories are today, still dominating our thinking and our mental health services.
That’s the motivation for it. But it was also important to put in an alternative rather than to leave everybody just with doom and gloom. An alternative also run by psychiatrists. The alternative, as we’ll see, is about how people returning to Israel were treated by the Israeli psychiatric system.
Moore: Before we talk about the content of the paper, I just wondered what your thoughts were on why we need to know about the history of psychiatry. Is it relevant today?
Read: Well, it’s a cliché isn’t it, that we should learn from history and not make the same mistakes. However, I’m not for a second saying that psychiatrists are killing people today in the same way that they were. I think murder is the right word, they used the word euthanasia and getting rid of life “devoid of value” and so forth, but it was murder. I’m not saying people are doing that today, but people are still dying in the psychiatric system.
There are parallels: an unevidenced genetic ideology is still dominant and the effects of that are manifold. Apart from anything else, it creates this pessimism that there is something wrong with your genes. What is the point of trying to improve your life or do anything differently if the message is that you are flawed? Just as with the chemical imbalance theory, which fortunately now is disproved, there isn’t any evidence for a genetic basis for “schizophrenia” or for that matter depression or anything else in the psychiatric repertoire.
It’s important to link these things up and to show that there’s a long tradition that goes back hundreds of years of harming people who are different in the name of helping them or in the name of doing something good for them. Even those horrific murders were framed as helping people rid themselves of life devoid of value. It was framed as it’s good for them and society because they were a drain on society. Just as it was considered valuable for witches to be burnt because that redeems their souls and they could go to heaven.
Within attempts to help people who are different there’s always been, historically, a streak of harm and violence and undervaluing of those people’s lives which somehow then allows or justifies the harm. I think some of that is still going on today.
Moore: Turning to the paper, could tell us a little bit about the content, perhaps what you found and some of the things that surprised you when you were working on this with Jeff?
Read: I guess what surprised me was the sheer number of deaths. A quarter million people were killed in Europe by psychiatrists and their assistants in psychiatric hospitals. It started with children, I didn’t know that. There were relatively small numbers but that’s where it started, with starving and other methods to kill initially about 10,000 children. Then in 1938, they moved on to adults.
In part it was the size, but also the rationale for it that was important because eugenics was a wide movement way beyond psychiatry. Some very famous psychologists were involved in the eugenics movement, including Burt and Spearman and Cattell and other huge names. So it’s not unique to psychiatry but psychiatry had the means or the power to act on it.
And the rationale started, in some ways, in a 1920 book written by Ernst Rudin, professor of psychiatry, about life devoid of value and introducing legislation into Germany that made it possible to sterilize people. This was a precursor to the killings. And again, that was not unique to Germany. The first sterilization law was passed in Indiana and by the time of the Second World War, there were 20 states in the United States with sterilization laws. Scandinavia was also quite a leading area in terms of compulsory sterilization, often but not always for insanity and often targeted more at women than men.
Eugenics was a wide movement and sterilization was the first example of it targeted not just at so-called mentally ill people but people with any sort of deformity or disability. The linking rationale was that these people had genetic problems and so it was an attempt, as we all know what eugenics means, to purify the race. With good intent, we have to assume most of the time until we get to Nazi Germany.
So it was an attempt to get rid of these disabilities and illnesses. Alcoholism was in there as well, that was considered to be genetic and we can get rid of it and we can sterilize alcoholics and so forth. Moving on to the murders from 1938 onwards, they started at six psychiatric hospitals throughout Germany and, by the end of the war, about a quarter of a million people had been killed. Most of the people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia had been killed by the end of the war.
One of the lessons, and this is never spoken about, is that this is perhaps the largest experiment that tests whether or not schizophrenia is a genetically-based phenomenon because they killed the vast majority. So if it was a genetically-based phenomenon then in the next generation there would be very low numbers, if any. But the numbers didn’t change at all, which shows that schizophrenia, like all other mental health problems, is almost entirely psycho-socially based and nothing to do with genetics. Nobody talks about that, this genetic theory just carries on regardless.
There are many details in the paper and I don’t think it’s worth going through all of them, but the extent to which the psychiatrists were involved is important. The chairs of 10 psychiatry departments were in charge of selecting who died. So it wasn’t some sort of peripheral involvement, they were central to it. They planned it, they decided who died, and, in many cases, they carried out the killings themselves, but obviously with those numbers they had assistance.
One of the many things I didn’t know was that when it came time to start the killing of six million Jews, the instruments that had been used in the psychiatric hospitals and the psychiatrists themselves were then shipped to Treblinka and other places. One of them became a commandant of one of the Holocaust camps. So, the rationale and tools and the personnel for the Holocaust came from psychiatry.
Obviously psychiatrists today are not responsible for any of that. But they ought to talk about it now and again. They ought to acknowledge it, they ought to realize that there are risks involved in having simplistic unsubstantiated views of where human distress and differences come from and learn from that, and they haven’t.
Moore: In the paper, it says that about half of German physicians belonged to the Nazi Party, with psychiatrists being the most heavily involved, but amazingly, only a handful of psychiatrists refused to participate in the killings.
Read: If we go back to that time, we can’t really grasp the extent of the social and peer pressure and maybe even threats if they didn’t comply. But the history books tell us that only one psychiatrist was ever executed for refusing. Some did refuse and we name a very small number of people who refused to cooperate to note their bravery and it probably was a brave thing to do. It’s easy to condemn from this point in history looking back but when all your other fellow doctors are doing the same thing, the pressure to comply is huge. That’s not an excuse, it’s a possible partial explanation, I suppose.
Moore: How has psychiatry responded since? These things are obviously a matter of public record and you were able to find the details along with Jeff of what had happened. So what has psychiatry’s reaction been since those awful occurrences?
Read: For many years there was almost total denial. That’s exemplified by history books throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s saying nothing about it. We found one, The World History of Psychiatry, edited by Howells. It had a chapter on each of 30 countries and every chapter went up to 1980 or so but the history of Germany stopped in 1939—it just stopped as if nothing happened.
In the modern history books of psychiatry, there’s either no mention of it at all or, even worse, there’s mention of some of the professors involved and their research as the forefathers of psychiatric genetics (which they were) but with no mention of their involvement in these killings, which is bizarre. In Germany, of the first 12 presidents of the German Psychiatric Association after the war, three of them were centrally involved in the killings. Many of the psychiatrists just carried on working with very little censure—one of the leading architects was fined 500 marks.
One of the leading people, Franz Kallman, went over to America and wrote for two decades about the genetic basis to schizophrenia and homosexuality. He advocated that not only schizophrenics should be compulsively sterilized, but all their relatives should be too and this was readily published in scientific journals in America and around the world.
There’s just massive denial which has, to some extent, gone on to this day. You can still read psychiatric history books that either have nothing about this or cite the architects as important contributors to our understanding of schizophrenia. We have a journal called the History of Psychiatry which hardly publishes anything on this topic. It declined our paper because it doesn’t fit with the remit of the journal. It was explained to me when the paper was rejected that “biological psychiatry didn’t start until the 1980s.”
It’s fairly universal denial and possibly understandable. I don’t know what the right word is, embarrassing, shameful. None of us like to talk about shameful things in our past. I must stress that this is not about holding current psychiatrists to account, it’s not their fault. But the leaders of psychiatry should be teaching their students about how things can go wrong if you place too much emphasis on wrong theories.
Moore: The paper is both fascinating and challenging to read but perhaps the most important part is you talking about what you call an inspirational alternative. So I wondered if you could share with us what that inspirational alternative was?
Read: I found this fascinating and I stumbled onto it completely by chance. There was a film made about what happened to a certain group of Holocaust survivors when they got back to Israel. Obviously, they were in a terrible state. Many of them were wrongly diagnosed as having schizophrenia and locked up and medicated heavily with antipsychotics for 40 or 50 years. That isn’t the alternative, what comes next is the inspirational alternative, a wonderful event which you couldn’t make up.
One of these women is about to be visited by her son but she’s terrified because she’s convinced herself in her delusional state that her son is an SS officer and she hides. It turns out that the son is Israel’s chief psychiatrist visiting his mum. And he finally understands and then starts talking to the other women and finds out there are hundreds of people whose pain, confusion, and silence—many of them hadn’t spoken for years—were explicable by their experience in the camps and in the ghettos, not by some mythical biological illness called schizophrenia.
What he did was, with fellow psychiatrists—and it’s very important to stress this was led by psychiatrists—it took them two or three years but they closed down several institutions holding hundreds of these women, mostly women because a lot of the men had died. They opened trauma-based treatment centers and tried 40-50 years later to reach these people, many of whom hadn’t spoken for decades. It was quite beautiful, they started by getting them animals that reminded them of pets that they had when they were children. It’s a very moving story and they write about how moving it was for the staff and how much they learned, as you can imagine.
There are extreme examples on either end of the spectrum but it seemed important to highlight some of them. There are other ways for psychiatrists and others in the mental health system to try to assist even the most distressed and damaged people, and it starts by understanding what they’ve been through in their lives rather than blaming a non-existent genetic factor or some sort of imagined biochemical imbalance. So we were quite moved by that, and I was lucky enough to have some interactions with those psychiatrists, one of whom has since died. I was just very moved by that and it just seemed fair and appropriate to include that in the story.
Moore: It describes in the paper that they videotaped testimonials from some of the people involved and when those people watched the testimonials back, they didn’t recognize themselves. They had isolated themselves from their experiences to such an extent that they almost thought it was a different person speaking.
Read: That’s right. Can you imagine sitting there with somebody watching that? They did it partly to archive and record but also they thought it would be therapeutic. Eventually, they did start recognizing themselves and they did do some traditional type research where they measured posttraumatic stress symptoms and they decreased gradually over time. It’s all very moving, some of it desperately sad and some of it very inspiring.
Moore: I think that comes back to what you were talking about earlier in terms of why this is so important to research, to record and to understand in terms of its impact on what we do to people today.
Read: Yes, obviously, we’re not doing anything like that. Except, in America in particular, I don’t know about other countries, they are still practicing what they call genetic counseling. You get in people of childbearing age or a couple, one of whom might have a diagnosis of schizophrenia and you explain to them the chances of their children inheriting the supposed illness that they’ve got. Presumably in the hope that some will choose not to go ahead, which I think is scurrilous, unethical, and certainly unscientific.
If there is a genetic basis to any of this, and I don’t think there’s a genetic basis to schizophrenia, I think we are born with different degrees of sensitivity to stress. I think at the end of the day when all this genetic research settles down, that’s what we will find. So this was still in that sense narrowing the gene pool and I think that’s a very dangerous thing to do.
Beyond that, what are the other parallels? Well, we still have compulsion and it’s the only branch of medicine where you can force people to either take medication or have electroshock therapy against their will. So that’s a continuity. Of course, it’s not the same as killing people. But again, in terms of narrowing the gene pool or whatever, some of the drugs, both antidepressants and antipsychotics, clearly affect sexual function. Antipsychotics, if you take them long enough will shorten your lifespan and ECT causes brain damage in some people, we don’t know exactly how many but somewhere between 10% and 50% of people.
So we are still doing things that are harmful and doing it very often with compulsion. That’s different from actively killing people or forcibly sterilizing them, but there is a link there and I firmly believe that we will never have therapeutic mental health systems until we remove the right of any of us to forcibly treat anybody else. While that threat is there, it’s very hard for people to trust the system and you can be given shock therapy or medication that shortens your lifespan and reduces your brain volume against your will.
So I know this will be offensive to some psychiatrists or other people and I’m sorry for that, but I think there will be a time in 50 years when someone will write a paper describing “they used to put electricity through people’s brains and they used to do it against their will, can you imagine? And they used to give them pills and if they didn’t take the pills, they’d hold them down and inject it into them—can you imagine?” I hope there’ll be a James interviewing a John about that in 50 years because it’s got to stop.
Moore: You said that there was little or no recognition at the time of what had happened. So, in modern times, has psychiatry officially responded to and apologized for the horrors vested on people in the name of treatment in those very dark times?
Read: The answer is, yes but only in Germany. Obviously, that’s the first and most appropriate place it should happen. In 2011, the German Association of Neurology and Psychiatry, which I referred to before as having been led on numerous occasions by the people directly responsible, had a full investigation and we end our paper with a quote from Professor Schneider, who was at that point the president of the association.
It’s a superb document, it’s very detailed and it pulls no punches. It ends with Professor Schneider saying “in the name of the German Association for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, I ask you, the victims and relatives of the victims, for forgiveness for the pain and injustice you suffered in the name of German psychiatry and at the hands of German psychiatrists under national socialism.” And this was particularly important: “And for the silence, trivialization and denial that for far too long characterized psychiatry in post-war Germany.”
The rest of the world hasn’t got there yet in acknowledging this, and I hope our paper plays some small part in moving us towards proper acknowledgement and learning from those horrible events and accelerating the move towards an evidence-based psychosocial, humane approach to human distress that is long overdue.
Moore: In the paper it was really difficult to read mass murder described as “pioneering work.” That’s very hard to take.
Read: Yes, I guess that’s how they saw it at the time. Looking back, did they really think they were doing it for them? We will never be able to get inside the heads of those people but their writing suggests that they thought these people’s lives were so miserable, that they were better off dead. What they really thought we’ll never know.
Moore: Thank you for your time today and thank you for your work with Jeffrey on writing the paper. It’s incredibly important that we don’t lose sight of the consequences of harm in treatment and how we have to be ultra-cautious with anything to do with mental health and its impact on people’s lives.
Read: Thanks, James.
Next, we hear from Jeffrey Masson. Dr. Masson has had a fascinating career in which he studied Sanskrit and psychoanalysis and became director of the Sigmund Freud archives. A prolific author, he has written more than 30 books and has become an advocate for animal rights. He is currently an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
Moore: Dr. Masson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Jeffrey Masson: A pleasure to be here, James.
Moore: We’re here to talk about a paper that you authored together with professor of psychology Dr. John Read, and this paper appears in the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry. The title is “Biological Psychiatry and the Mass Murderer of ‘Schizophrenics’: from Denial to Inspirational Alternative,” and we’ll come on in a minute to talk about the paper.
But first, I wanted to ask a little bit about you. You’re an author, you have at least 20 books, probably many more to your name. You’re a Sanskrit scholar, a scholar of psychotherapy, and you have an interest in the philosophy of animal rights. But I read that you said you’d written a series of books about psychiatry and you felt that nobody liked them. So, I’d like to ask about that and why you decided to move away from that area of work and then what led to your other many interests?
Masson: Well, it’s a complicated story and I won’t go into detail because it’s far from our topic. I was trained as a classical Freudian psychoanalyst in Toronto for 10 years, which means that I had my own analysis and then I had supervision, then I saw patients and finally, I was admitted as a fully trained clinical psychoanalyst.
I had doubts about it right from day one, mostly having to do with trauma. I expected that psychoanalysis was about how do we explain trauma, how do we help people who have been traumatized, what are our theories about how that works and so on. That turned out not to be the case at all. I realize now in retrospect it was all about this notion that patients don’t know what’s happened to them, only the psychiatrists does. That today, then and forever will seem to me absurd. The only person who knows is the person.
So in my opinion, the job of the analyst is to say “Well, it sounds to me like you’ve had a rough childhood or things have happened to you, can we talk about that?” But that’s not what they were doing. So they were not respecting the patient even though these were people who were either psychoanalysts already or becoming psychoanalysts. They still really identified with psychiatry, which meant they thought of people having brain disorders or genetic malfunctions, needing medication or needing ECT.
I can still remember when they sent me to a psychiatric hospital to observe the results of ECT and there was a poor Uruguayan and I happen to have lived in Uruguay and I spoke perfect Spanish. I started talking to him and he said, “Please, please tell them not to do this. I’m terrified.” I said, “I will do my best” and I went to them and I said, “You can’t do this. This guy doesn’t want it. How can you do something he doesn’t want?” They said, “He needs this for his own good.” I said, “Oh, come on, if you have a man saying don’t do this to me, don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.” And they said, “You’re only here to observe, why don’t you just shut up?”
I never went back, and I thought this is not for me. I started questioning within the first year of what was a 10-year training. I have to say it was a waste of 10 years in one sense. On the other hand, I learned what I don’t like and I got some books out of it. I’ve written about 31 books altogether but about 10 of them had to do with what’s wrong with psychiatry, psychoanalysis, psychology, and Jung.
I learned to hate it, I mean, that’s the truth. I’m not indifferent about psychiatry. I’m not willing to hear the other side. I’ve already heard the other side and I don’t like it. I got very radicalized in my own mind. First of all, I had quite a bit to do after I became an analyst with the anti-psychiatry movement, what they would call the patients’ rights movement. I was very impressed and I still am. It’s not as much of a force in America as it used to be. I think simply because psychiatry now has so much money and they’re so obnoxious, they just won’t listen. In all my 10 years of training, not once did we bring in a real person who had undergone any of this to hear their criticism, which made me very unhappy and very nervous. I mean, wait a minute, you’ve got these thousands, literally thousands of people who say “this harmed me,” why aren’t you willing to listen to them?
So I carry this further, I guess, than my wonderful friend—I would call him in many ways my best friend—John Read, because we were together for many years in New Zealand. The only thing we disagree about is therapy. I came away very skeptical of all therapy and I guess that made me a real outlier, even within the patients’ rights movement. I wrote a book called Against Therapy. Therapy, it seemed to me, was just too close to psychiatry, even feminist therapy, even so-called Radical Therapy like R.D. Laing. I mean, Laing remained a psychiatrist his whole life.
On the one hand, I think it’s perfectly legitimate for anybody who suffered from depression—though I’d rather call it sadness or serious sadness. People who have serious sadness have every right to seek whatever help they can get. So if they want to go to see a therapist, I’m not going to tell them not to, but I would tell them to be careful because many therapists are going to say, “Well, this is just a brain disease” and they are going to put you on medication and things will get worse.
Or now behavioral therapy is going to tell them, “You’re just looking at the world in the wrong way. If only you looked at it the way I look at it, you wouldn’t be depressed.” They don’t know what they’re talking about and they have no right to say that to anybody. So, I guess somebody like John Read, who is a humane and decent human being, if he were your therapist, he would not do any harm. I am sure of that.
I’m sure there are others but how do you identify them? You go and see somebody because they’re listed in a phone book or a friend tells you, they don’t say much and slowly you learn that they’re into Brexit or they’re into some sort of denial of child abuse. God knows what their problems are and it only means it can be very hard for them to understand you. So, I wouldn’t trust just anybody.
Now, where does that leave people who need help? I don’t know. I’m not claiming that I have a solution. I’m just saying that what we’re offered is not great and it’s not reliable and it’s not entirely human, it’s not like a friend talking.
Moore: You obviously have a connection with John Read but how was it that the two of you came to decide to write this paper on some of the historic horrors perpetrated on the so-called mentally ill in the Second World War years?
Masson: I first became interested in the Holocaust as a teenager. I’m Jewish and it was one of the few topics that fascinated me, I just couldn’t read enough. I remember seeing the famous French film The Sorrow and the Pity and then I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which I hated.
I was married to a woman who was a survivor of the Holocaust, she was born in 1937 in Warsaw, she was Jewish and she was in the Warsaw Ghetto. So of course, we talked a lot about trauma and what it does to you. She and I together went to visit Anna Freud long before I had anything to do with the Freud archive, that was just the beginning my analytic training and she reluctantly agreed to see me and my wife.
I know that Anna Freud had been hauled in by the Gestapo in 1938 and it was one of the reasons that Freud agreed to leave Vienna. Nobody knows what happened to her that afternoon but it must have been ghastly. My wife at the time also had ghastly experiences, of course, with Germans, and I thought the two would bond but they did not.
We quite openly said, “We’re here because of my wife’s past and my interest in the Holocaust and our question to you is, why is it that psychoanalysts have not paid more attention to the Second World War and to the trauma that people went through?” I can’t remember reading anything profound about that at that time, this is 1974 or so and there was nothing. I expected her to say “Yes, that’s terrible. I agree with you” but she did not. She said, “Well, that’s reality and analysts are interested in fantasy.” I said, “Well, you know, nobody went through the Holocaust with fantasies, they went through it in reality.” She just tossed it aside, and that bothered me. I thought, oh, maybe I’m in the wrong profession.
I did believe for a long time that the purpose of analysis was to uncover buried memories and to make those memories tolerable, to bring them to consciousness to think about them and then to think about what could result. Now, if that were all the therapists did, I would have no problem with it. But of course, they don’t.
My wife at the time was in analysis with a man whose name to me sounded very German, she assumed he was Jewish. It turned out he was of German ancestry. In fact, he had something to do with the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). He was not at all sympathetic to what she was telling him and she just had no clue. When I became a candidate, I, of course, began to know him and I told her and she quit. But for me was kind of the model of how any patient or any client, whatever you want to call them, anybody who’s in some sort of therapy or analysis or psychiatric treatment just has no clue who they’re dealing with.
So it’s very dangerous, in my opinion, and I think people do get hurt. Of course, some people say “I was helped”, and who am I to say they weren’t? But I do know many people have been harmed by psychiatry. I think there are a lot of people who’ve been harmed by analysis and there are many people harmed by therapy. That is my interest, those who are harmed.
Moore: Your paper is a challenging read. It’s fascinating as a historical document, but it’s challenging in terms of knowing that humans can do that to each other. I wondered what you felt as you were doing the research and writing it?
Masson: That’s a good question, James. I felt very bad. John and I were originally going to write a book on psychiatry in the Holocaust and I did a lot of research, which meant spending time in Germany, spending time in concentration camps, archives, and libraries. There are probably 100,000 books written now about the Holocaust, it’s a huge field. Psychiatry and the Holocaust much less but there’s a lot written, especially in German.
As I read it, I just got very depressed, it was such awful stuff. As you say, how can humans do this to other humans, it often made me cry. Then I married a German woman, much younger than myself. She hadn’t been through any of this and she was very sympathetic but I could see that it was having a bad impact on her. I’d come home having read these horrible stories about children. She didn’t want to hear about children being starved to death or killed. As a German, it was very hard for her to hear that.
I thought, if I write this book and spend the next four to five years researching this and come home every day with horror stories, it’s going to affect my marriage and her mental health and my mental health. So in the end, I feel that I’ve said the main things that needed to be said in that paper and I also feel that John was able to take out something positive from it where I could not.
When I was in Israel, I met several Jewish psychiatrists and I assumed they would be on my side but they were not. This was in the 1980s, and they had been trained in Germany, and remained German psychiatrists, so they had no critique. I did not find that they had any greater sympathy or any greater understanding of trauma than anyone else. So that was very disappointing to me.
But things are starting to change, as John found out. The story he tells in the paper, which is his story, about the woman who was a Holocaust survivor, whose son was chief of psychiatry and finally realized that all her problems stemmed from not talking about what had happened to her. I believe that for every major so-called mental illness, I think that people who are deeply depressed have things they either can’t remember or can’t talk about or do not have somebody sympathetic enough to listen.
Any child who has been beaten or abused is a survivor and very similar to Holocaust survivors. So, that her son was able to shift his whole thinking and then to shift the hospital into recognizing her problems, that is a real achievement. I agree with John, it does give you hope. I would want to follow up and see how many other hospitals in Israel are doing that. Can a whole culture change itself? Well, maybe, but that was not my focus. My focus was on what happened and that’s not a pretty topic.
Moore: It was so difficult to read not only that these things happened, but also how many psychiatrists in Germany were members of the Nazi Party and then how few doctors or psychiatrists spoke out about the horrors. I think it said in the paper that one was executed but very few spoke out at all about these horrors, did they?
Masson: No, or faced any consequences. There is a book that’s received a lot of good press by Robert Jay Lifton, called The Nazi Doctors and I just abhor that book, I cannot bear to read it. I did read it carefully but it’s so wrong.
I can tell you one quick anecdote that will illustrate what’s wrong with that kind of book. He’s a psychiatrist, Robert Lifton, he’s still around and he did some very good work on Hiroshima. But he has this, I think, quite idiotic explanation for why German psychiatrists did what they did. He calls it “doubling.” So, they would have a double personality, they’d go in and kill patients and then they’d come home and they’d be great fathers. I don’t believe that, I really don’t believe it.
To illustrate this, he talks about a Jewish psychiatrist in Auschwitz, who became friends with a doctor in Auschwitz because they both wanted to experiment with ECT on patients. And Robert Lifton said, “this is wonderful, it just shows you that we can cross the barrier.” This is so wrong on so many levels that they would bond over torturing patients.
So as you can see, it was a hard article for me to write but because I was doing it with John Read, who is the picture of absolute integrity, kindness, empathy, and super smart, I was glad to do it. And I know German, he doesn’t, so I was able to bring some things to it that he couldn’t. He has a more cheerful view of humanity than I do and was able to find the bright side of the change that’s happening. So, I’m proud of that article and I’m so glad that it’s out there in the public domain and that it seems to be getting attention.
Moore: It’s incredibly important to recount these past horrors, but I wondered if you felt that this history has a bearing on how we treat people diagnosed as mentally ill in modern times?
Masson: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been away from the field of psychiatry and psychoanalysis and psychology for so long that whenever I do talk to professionals, they say, “Well, you know, was very bad in your days, but it’s changed.” I don’t think it has. I read everything that John Read writes and I can see from his writings that things have not changed at all. ECT is still being used in America and drugs are more popular than ever. I don’t have the expertise to pronounce on it but I don’t like psychiatric drugs at all. I think they do a huge amount of harm.
By and large, I don’t think psychiatry has changed very much. What surprises me, and I guess it surprises John, too, is how many psychiatrists around the world are interested in the history of psychiatry in The Third Reich. And not only in The Third Reich, as John pointed out, but America was also doing horrible things and even in Sweden.
I was very pleased to see that head of the German psychiatric society, Schneider, apologized. I don’t know if he was speaking for himself or the whole society but I thought that was wonderful. Right now I’m talking to you from Berlin and it is very definitely a different place than it was many years ago. It is nice to see that in some respects people are moving in the right direction. I think the very fact that people feel so strongly about Ukraine is a good sign. I remember that it was considered a miracle that Angela Merkel allowed 1 million Syrian refugees to come into Germany. But it turns out that it was a very good thing for everybody, it helped the economy.
Poland has allowed in 3.5 million Ukrainians, and that’s extraordinary and wonderful and does give you hope. I don’t see a big movement to get psychiatrists in there to deal with them, it’s a human problem and to some extent, psychiatry, in my opinion, is not entirely human. I know, that’s a big statement and any psychiatrist listening to this is going to stop listening at this point. I guess you can go into psychiatry because you want to help, I understand that. But I think once you see what they’re doing, you have to quit. I do get mail from time to time, from therapists, analysts, and psychiatrists who have thought about it deeply, read my books, read other things and decided “this is not for me.” So it does happen, but it’s rare.
Moore: You said there hasn’t been that much change in terms of a humane response to distress. So, I wondered if you had any thoughts about why that change hasn’t happened. What’s preventing psychiatry from being more humane do you think?
Masson: That’s a very good question and I have thought about this a lot. I’m 81 years old, so, having written 31 books, I think that’s enough, but I would like one last book and it would be called What’s Wrong With Our Species? I’ve written a lot of books about animal emotions because that fascinates me. No animal has ever done anything remotely resembling what humans do to one another, they just don’t do it. That gives me a clue that something has gone wrong with us. I think that any psychiatrist who is willing to listen to the movement of patients who’ve been harmed and really take it in, would have to ask himself or herself, what have we done wrong? Very few have done this.
So I think what’s stopping it is partly greed. Psychiatrists do make a lot of money and when they prescribe drugs they do even better because you can do that in a few minutes. I’ve met psychiatrists who told me, “I just give them a new prescription, it takes me two or three minutes and I can see 20 patients in one hour.” At $200 a pop, that’s a lot of money. When you’re making half a million or a million dollars a year from what you do, it’s very hard to convince someone that this isn’t the right thing to do or to find another profession.
What I found difficult is that you can’t even convince them to read about something. The most profound book I ever read against psychiatry is called Too Much Anger, Too Many Tears by Janet Gotkin. At 17, she was put in a psychiatric hospital in New York, and given 120 shock treatments without any kind of anesthesia or painkillers. That she came out of it able to write this book is to me a miracle. She’s now almost 80 and I correspond with her regularly and she just wants nothing to do with psychiatry anymore after having written that book, but her book is profound.
I once gave it to a psychiatrist who I thought of as a friend. I said, “Please read this” and she gave it back to me and said, “It’s not worth it, there’s nothing new in it.” I just lost my temper; we never talked again. So, they’re not willing to take in criticism of their field and that bothers me a lot. In other medical fields, I can’t imagine that if you told the surgeon “Look, what you’re doing is now been superseded by a better method, do you want to learn about it?” They’d say, “Sure.” But something about psychiatry makes the people who practice it tend towards arrogance, to think “I know how the mind works.” No, you don’t, nobody knows how the mind works.
Moore: I’m very interested to know what it was that interested you in the philosophy of how we treat animals. You said that animals don’t treat each other the way that we humans treat each other as a species. But, of course, we treat animals very badly and so I wondered if you thought there were parallels between how we treat each other, the mass slaughter of animals and how we take advantage of the creatures of this planet?
Masson: Oh, absolutely, you just put it in a nutshell. There have been a number of Holocaust survivors who have compared the Holocaust experience to the way we treat animals today, and people get crazed about this. They hate to see that. But the truth is, it is similar. I’ve often asked myself, how could these people have done that to innocent children? How do you take a little five-year-old or six-year-old and send them to a gas chamber? How is it possible? You know, you drive yourself crazy, as Primo Levi stated, you just can’t think about it. If you think about it too long you go partly insane. It’s just unbearable. And yet, we do very similar things to animals.
I was reading something yesterday, a very interesting book that the author sent me. It’s by a psychoanalyst who was the victim of incest. He writes about it very honestly and he writes against his profession of psychoanalysis. He talks about how he was very badly sexually abused as a very young boy and he heard screaming, which was his own screaming. He said, “only later in life that I heard the same scream, it came from a pig who was being slaughtered.” I thought, wow, I know, not from direct experience but I’ve read that many times that when pigs are slaughtered, they sound like children being hurt, they scream and it’s just like a human.
I thought, how do people do this? How does somebody cut the throat of a pig and listen to this? Of course, we do it 6 billion times a year to animals. That too is changing. I went for a long bike ride with my son through Berlin last night and we came to one street where there were five vegan restaurants on one street. It must be the only place in the world.
I do believe that if you look at what happens to animals, they get taken in these trains, they are staring out and as soon as they reach the destination, their throats are cut, and all this for what? To ruin the planet to make ourselves physically sick. So I’m a vegan and I’ve been vegan for 18 years now. For me, it definitely was having to do with my understanding of the Holocaust and that I saw the parallels there and I thought “I just don’t want anything to do with this.”
Moore: You’ve written so many books, is there one that you’d recommend that people could read that’s a good general introduction to you and your ideas?
Masson: I think my best book, apart from The Assault on Truth, is called Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil. Because there I address this question that you asked me about—animals not being vicious in the way that humans are. I go into great detail about this, even sharks and killer whales and crocodiles. They don’t do what we do, they don’t hunt for pleasure the way humans do. So, I wanted to understand that, and it will be the beginning of the book What’s Wrong With Our Species—which I’m not able to write because they don’t have an answer yet.
There is something wrong, but I haven’t found it. As you can see, it hasn’t gotten me down. I’m a very happy person and I’m very lucky, being married to this extraordinary woman. I am writing for her children a book called The World According to Lila. That’s her name, Leila, and she is the most unusual person I’ve ever met, in the best sense of the word.
Moore: Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been fascinating to hear about what led to your work with John to write this paper. I recommend that listeners read it. It is a challenging read, but it’s so important to understand what happened at that particular time, how psychiatry did or didn’t react to it and how people then went on to find a way out of the trauma that they’d experienced while they were involved in some horrific things.
Thank you so much for your work and for spending some time with me to just touch on a tiny part of your fascinating life.
Masson: Thank you, James. I can’t remember having somebody ask such interesting questions as you did.