August 29, 2011
I’m on a working vacation at the beautiful ocean community of Montauk, at the very tip of Long Island. Today, after the preparations for and actuality of Hurrican Irene (which was not too bad out here), I got to some reading. One book is Rom Harre’s Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrodinger’s Cat: Scenes from the Living Laboratory, an unusual but very accessible book about how living things have contributed to a scientific understanding of the world. It got me thinking about my friend and mentor, the late Fred Newman. How much he would have enjoyed Harre’s book (Fred was enamored of the creativity, rigor and improvisational nature of science). And how much Fred contributed to a new understanding of understanding the world (not scientific, but not unscientific either).
What do I mean by that? Here’s the brief introduction I wrote to the revised (2010) edition of Fred Newman’s book, Let’s Develop! (It’s a great book!)
1994, the year that Let’s Develop! A Guide to Continuous Personal Growth was first published, was also the year that the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) came out. The contrast couldn’t be starker. Let’s Develop!, written by philosopher and lay therapist Fred Newman with the assistance of his friend, sociologist Phyllis Goldberg, is informed by hundreds of ordinary people, the clients he saw in his social therapy practice. Its subject matter is people and their emotions, their pain, their dreams, their relationships, their therapeutic conversations, and their activity of growing. DSM-IV, written under the auspices of the American Psychiatric Association, is informed by over 200 psychiatrists and psychologists (nearly half of whom had financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry). Its subject matter is 297 classified mental disorders, which serve as prototypes for judging patients’ symptoms and behaviors. When the DSM-IV came out there was minor protest, most of it around the pharmaceutical connections of the writers. In contrast, work on new edition due out in 2013 (referred to as DSM-5) is being carried out in a flurry of controversy over the even greater proliferation of mental disorders than with prior revisions.
Fred Newman thinks the DSM (all editions) is silly. Scientifically silly. Since he loves science and is quite knowledgable, his opinion on this carries some weight. If diagnose we must (and it’s not at all clear that we must), Newman says, then we should diagnose ourselves and each other, rather than take up the diagnoses of the so-called experts, people who don’t know us. Newman is one of many, many therapists, social scientists and philosophers who have written thoughtful and often scathing critiques of the medical model and pseudoscientific diagnostic approach to mental health and illness for academic books and journals. However, Newman is not primarily interested in critiquing; he’s interested in helping. Let’s Develop! is a self-help book, written for ordinary people. It’s an exceedingly practical book, which attempts to give the everyday usefulness of Newman’s social therapy to the average Joe and Jane. And precisely because it is so practical, I think it’s perhaps Newman’s most thoughtful and scathing critique. It is, to use a term Newman and I like very much, practical-critical.
In 1994 there was not all that much receptivity for the practical-critical from scholars. The divide between theoretical critique and alternative practice was great. Newman and I were emerging voices in the intellectual dialogues taking place on the unresolvable problems that arise from forcing human life into a natural science framework, and advocating for the creating of new psychologies. With Newman’s philosophical sophistication and my grounding in human development across the life span, we more than held our own. But it was our practice, in particular Newman’s social therapy practice, that set us apart as the most practically oriented of theoretical critiques. To make that statement loud and clear, we decided that Newman should write the practical guide that is Let’s Develop!
During the sixteen years since the book first appeared, the sharp distinction between critical intellectual debate and alternative practices in psychology and psychotherapy has begun to blur. New critical practices have developed and, like Newman’s social therapy, others have grown, and this has significantly advanced the overall substance and quality of the intellectual conversation. The debate continues, but critique and practice are now closer together.
If you’re not involved in these intellectual conversations, you might be wondering why you should care about this history and debate. Well, think about where your therapist, your child’s school counselor, your uncle’s addiction counselor or your mother’s social worker got her or his training. What were these professionals taught? How many different approaches were they exposed to? What understandings of how human beings grow and learn and feel and think do they work with? Do they think you and your family can grow emotionally, or do they think that all that can be done is modifying the most dysfunctional ways you all relate? Can they help you create your life (including your emotional life) or are they only concerned to treat the symptoms of your so-called mental disorder? The more that critical practice and theoretical critique intermingle, the more likely it is that the training future counselors and therapists receive will be broad and inclusive, and the answers to these questions will be thoughtful and rich with possibility.
Newman sees and does therapy as a creative activity, not as a medical procedure. Together, therapists and clients create the therapy—that’s how it works. He relates to people as creators of their development, no matter how severe their pain, “presenting problem” or psychiatric diagnosis. He never tries to fix a problem. Rather, he supports people to grow, to create their lives. There’s always a choice. Not as a denial of how one is, but as a loving act. Ask for help. Be giving. Share the shame. When a conversation is heading toward a screaming match, start it over again. Do something completely unlike you. You’ll still be “you” but it’ll be a you who’s actively becoming. Becoming what? Becoming you.
Newman’s social therapy is unique in its focus on people’s development, but it’s not alone in being humanistic and creative. This is good news for the growing masses of adults, children and families in need of help for whom the choices have been to “tough it out” without therapy or to be pathologized. Those who engage in social therapy or another of the dozens of alternative therapies that now exist are, by their very activity, critical psychologists as much, if not more, than their academic counterparts. Their voices, and those of their therapists, are slowly being heard in the seminar rooms and clinics that train tomorrow’s therapists and counselors.
It is in this revived playing field that we reissue Let’s Develop! Some slight changes have been made throughout the text to reflect life style changes that have occurred over the years but, overall, the content remains not only intact, but equally—if not more—relevant.
As a new reader of Let’s Develop!, you’ll be joining a global grouping of tens of thousands. Unlike most books, its following wasn’t built with advertising dollars or critical reviews, but by a community that it helped to grow through viral marketing. Across the US, social therapists gave it to clients, psychology professors to students, youth workers to urban teens, teacher trainers to school personnel, business coaches and consultants to executives. Colleagues of ours in other countries xeroxed chapters from their copies and handed them out to friends and family. Chapters were translated into different languages (the ones I know about are Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian and Spanish) and used in university courses. Zdravo da Ste, a community of hundreds devoted to human development in Serbia, translated the book in its entirety, found a publisher and promotes it throughout the country to both the public and professionals.
I’ve worked with Fred Newman for most of my adult life on many social change projects. But none has been as difficult or rewarding as working to liberate psychology from its own pathology. “You don’t have to be sick to get help,” Newman insists. That’s the practical-critical message of Let’s Develop! It’s critical psychology at its best. Welcome to the “grassroots” critical psychology movement!