Anti-Psychiatry Exhibit Causes Stir

The Harvard Crimson/October 10, 2008

From "Free Tibet" to "Stop the Iraq War," hordes of protesters milling around Out of Town News is no longer a strange sight for students. But the recent exhibition "Psychiatry: Industry of Death" stopped students in their tracks and drew protests of its own to its 30 Brattle Street location.

The much-discussed exhibition, which closed last week, was organized by the Citizens Commission for Human Rights, a group that counts the Church of Scientology as one of its sponsors. According to the group's Web site, the "non-profit public benefit organization" hopes to "clean up the field of mental health."

To do so, the exhibition used its own form of shock therapy. Video screens looped graphic footage of lobotomies and electroshock treatment. A nearby board displayed photos of celebrities, such as Kurt Cobain and Elliot Smith, who, the exhibit claimed, had allegedly been killed by psychiatry. Outside on Brattle Street, the group's organizers handed out DVDs featuring the exhibition's footage to passers-by.

If CCHR doesn't sound familiar, "Anonymous" might. Anonymous, which has previously protested against the Church of Scientology, brought swarms of its members to Brattle Plaza several times during the exhibition's run, donning matching costumes each time to register their disapproval.

Kelly, a local shop clerk who withheld her surname to avoid conflict, said, "I saw [them on] three separate occasions. One time, Anonymous were in a combination of handkerchiefs and Guy Fawkes masks. One time, they were all in masks, and another other time there were bare faces."

Justin T. Keenan '10 said that he had seen a few protesters after returning to campus, but that they had not been particularly conspicuous.

"I saw there were people protesting, but I never saw more than two or three people there," he said. "They just looked like guys in coats with papers."

Aggressive tactics

CCHR's exhibition ran for several weeks longer than had been originally planned. But the tactics they employed to draw more visitors to the site were not always met with approval.

"They were persistent to the point of harassment," Kelly, the shop clerk, said. "Some were reasonable; others would follow you. Sometimes, they pulled aside women with children."

Zhen Gong '10 said he was accosted by one of the exhibition's representatives as he was about to eat at a local restaurant.

"I was waiting to meet a friend and his mom in b.good when someone came up to me," Gong said.

"He told me about the exhibition, gave me a flyer, then said "Don't believe psychiatry! It's an industry of death! ADHD doesn't exist!"

But not all students encountered such lavish attention. Linda Liu '10 said stumbled upon the show after a grocery run with a friend and did not experience any aggression.

"There wasn't anybody posted outside the door, or at least when I was walking past," Liu said. "There was just a guy inside trying to get you to sign up for their [the CCHR] email list."

Promotional tactics aside, some said they thought putting a temporary anti-psychiatry exhibition in the heart of an Ivy Legaue campus was a little unorthodox.

"It wasn't what I would expect to see in the square." Kelly said. "It was weird."

But a representative from the Harvard Square Business Association said that the exhibition brought a new topic of discussion to the area, even if it was a deviation from the norm.

"I think that the Square welcomes all kinds of opinions and public discourse, even though we may not always agree with what is being exhibited," said HSBA Executive Director Denise A. Jillson. "We welcome the discussion, and I certainly think that there was plenty of discussion around that exhibition."

A distorted mirror

Much of the discussion and controversy stemmed from the claims made by CCHR, not just from the way that organizers brought in business.

One particularly contentious claim in both the exhibit and the DVD was that "in the past four decades, nearly twice as many Americans have died in government psychiatric hospitals than in all US wars since 1776." Another alleged that psychiatrists are "treating people against their will."

The DVD also ran through a history of eugenics and highlighted purportedly "psychiatric" justifications of Nazi actions during the Holocaust.

But few visitors seemed convinced by this line of thought.

"Unless you are easily convinced by a crazy amount of very graphic imagery and very shady looking video production, it would not be convincing," Daniel Ashwood '10 said.

Professor Anne Harrington of the History of Science department said that she thought CCHR's argument had elements of "doublethink" to it, lessening its credibility.

"They emphasize the words of psychiatrists who say what the CCHR wants to hear, but they also talk about psychiatrists like a bunch of corrupt crooks," Harrington said.

"It's like holding up a distorted mirror to psychiatry," she added. "The distortions get in the way of our ability to see clearly what it is and what is worth responding to."

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