Capitalism and Mental Illness: Back to the Future?

A 21st century psychotherapist steps into a time machine and comes out in Atlanta in 1855. Having no other marketable skills, he hangs out a shingle and promises new remedies for mental illness. A well-dressed gentleman knocks on the door and inquires if the psychotherapist might come to his plantation to examine the slaves.

“Most of them are well satisfied with their position and work hard within their natural limitations,” says the gentleman. “But a few appear to suffer most severely with drapetomania, dipsomania and dyaesthesia aethiopica. Even after whippings, they continue to defy my rules, either by subterfuge or outright defiance. I do not understand their affliction, which is cause for much suffering among them and financial losses for myself.”

After looking up drapetomania (compulsive running away), dipsomania (compulsive drinking) and dyaesthesia aethiopica (compulsive avoidance of work) in the latest journals of negro behavior, the psychotherapist goes to the plantation and convinces the psychotic slaves to talk with him for 50 minutes each week.

“I think I know what the problem is,” says the psychotherapist after a few months of research. “Your slaves had unhappy childhoods because they come from dysfunctional families. Their parents were often absent and even when they were around, they didn’t appreciate their children for their true selves. In some sense, your slaves are living in the past, acting out childhood fear and anger that is deeply buried in the unconscious.”

“And what do you recommend as a remedy?” says the gentleman.

“The best psychology has to offer right now is continued brutalization, on the theory that their race is incapable of deeper insight,” says the psychotherapist. “I think the evidence  indicates that re-traumatizing the already traumatized is ineffective for a small number of stubborn cases, as you have discovered. For the stubborn cases, I would suggest another form of therapy…”

If the 21st century psychotherapist was Freudian, he might now recommend years of talk therapy for the slaves until they had a clear understanding of their parents and siblings.

If the psychotherapist was Jungian, he might recommend dream journals and more creative outlets for the slaves so they could get insight from active imagination.


If the psychotherapist was also a psychiatrist, he might make a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder for those slaves who were disruptive in the cotton fields and prescribe Adderall. For slaves who lacked affect and couldn’t move even when whipped, he would prescribe anti-depressants.

If the psychotherapist was into cognitive behavioral therapy and/or Zen, he might recommend instruction for the slaves in disengaging negative thoughts and allowing them to drift off like the weather.

If the psychotherapist believed that trauma was locked in the body, he might recommend rolfing or other forms of massage.

If the psychotherapist was New Age, he might recommend yoga, meditation and angel affirmations, having the slaves write 100 times a day, “I prosper when my master prospers,” or “Every day in every way I get better and better.”

If the psychotherapist was 12-Step oriented, he might recommend a fearless moral inventory, followed by an amends to his master for stealing food and shirking his duties.

If the psychotherapist subscribed to the New Yorker, he might recommend making lists of tasks as a way of reducing errors, or listening more closely to to one’s intuition, or putting in 10,000 hours of practice to achieve genius level cotton picking.

After a few more months of therapy, most of the slaves say they feel better and return to their assigned tasks. One, however, just can’t get his act together.

“I wake up in the morning, I still don’t feel like picking cotton. I just want to drink,” says the slave. “We’ve got a moonshine still hidden out in the woods, and that’s the only thing that interests me.”

“You’re only hurting yourself with his behavior,” says the psychotherapist. “Maybe we should try another affirmation. ‘I clothe myself and the whole world when I fulfill my destiny in the cotton fields.’ How does that sound?”

“I’ve tried several affirmations, and the nightmares don’t stop. I had one again last night. I’m trapped in hell, and this demon threatens to cut off my toes with an ax if I try to leave. ”

“When did these nightmares start?”

“I’ve had them all my life. Maybe I have abandonment issues or something. I must have resented my parents for being out in the fields all day, because I became more identified with peer culture than with my parents and gave them attitude. I just couldn’t care about those standardized tests and getting a secure gig picking cotton. That wasn’t my parents fault. They tried. I was just lazy.”

“What are your earliest memories of cotton?”

“My parents picked it. I begged them to stay home at our shack, but every day they left to work in the fields. I was afraid all day, and I was afraid all night when I was little. I had night terrors, even though we were all in the same one-room shack. Then I was a juvenile delinquent, and my parents got really worried about me. They thought I’d never be able to pick a full bale of cotton in one day, with my attitude problems and stuff, and then I’d get whipped.”

“Your father was distant and critical, and your mother smothered you with her control issues. Is that correct?”

“I guess so. I didn’t see them much, and when I did see them, they were too tired to do anything, because they’d been picking cotton all day. My older sister, I liked her, but she got sold to another plantation when I was 8, and I never saw her again.”

“So you hated your family for being away from your shack so much?”

“At first, I wanted them to come back. Then I wanted everyone to stay away, so I could have my own life. I didn’t want to be around my own kind.”

And so the therapy goes goes for several more years until America stumbles into a spontaneous, though partial, cure for all the mental illnesses associated with slavery; namely, the Civil War.