I worked as a paralegal at the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld from 1988 to 1991. I never quite fit in. I've always been an independent-minded person, and I suspect that my independence of thought threatened the prevailing authority, namely, conventionalized group mores and groupthink.
A brief time after I lodged a harassment complaint against my supervisor and others in late October 1991, the firm's senior management terminated my employment and later claimed that it had learned, via a consultation with a psychiatrist who never examined me personally, that I was severely disturbed and potentially violent. That depiction of me -- that I suffered from mental illness and that I might become violent -- was offered up to a state human rights agency as an objective and rational basis for my termination. The firm's description of me as mentally ill and potentially violent, which was really a kind of rumor or piece of malicious gossip, became encoded as factual gospel by credulous and intellectually lazy state officials who affirmed that my employer's evidentiary proffer was genuine and credible.
In fact, apparently unbeknown to the employer and the state authorities who evaluated my unlawful job termination complaint, the depiction of an individual as mentally unbalanced and violent -- homicidal, even -- may be a typical defensive and irrational reaction by any authority that feels its conventionalized norms have been questioned.
Jeffrey Masson was a psychoanalyst and Freud scholar whose views about Freud and psychoanalysis contradicted the prevailing thinking of mainstream analysis. Masson writes about the reaction of fellow analysts to his contrarian opinions in his book Final Analysis: The Making and Unmaking of a Psychoanalyst. Like the law firm where I used to work, the psychoanalytic profession -- mainstream analysis -- is cult-like in its rigid adherence to accepted norms and conventional wisdom. Woe betide the independent-minded outsider who questions the thinking of cult-like organizations!
Soon after I arrived [in Germany], I talked to a number of German analysts about my interest in the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi, and the Munich Psychoanalytic Society asked me to address them on the subject of Ferenczi's last days. Ferenczi was Freud's favorite disciple and a man of exceptional clinical skills and great human warmth. I was, like many analysts, drawn to him. The more I looked into his life and career, the more reasons I found to admire him. Toward the end of his life he had come to believe that Freud was wrong to discount his patients' accounts of sexual assault in childhood. He was hearing the same accounts from his patients, but even more important, from a purely evidentiary point of view, they were confirmed by other patients who confessed to having perpetrated such assaults. Ferenczi was considered paranoid for believing his women patients; the men's confessions were not even discussed. Ernest Jones, the powerful English analyst who had been Ferenczi's analysand, now took up the cudgel against him in dead seriousness. Jones let it be known after Ferenczi's death in 1933 (he died a few months after the quarrel with Freud) that he was really a homicidal maniac. While I was in London working in the Jones archives I discovered what this really meant: Jones believed that to disagree with Freud (the father) was tantamount to patricide (father murder). And so, because Ferenczi believed that children were sexually abused and Freud did not, Ferenczi was branded by Jones as a homicidal maniac, and this piece of scurrilous interpretation stuck. The burden of my paper was to show how these kinds of rumors, these pieces of malicious gossip, became encoded as scientific gospel by credulous and intellectually lazy analysts. It was not a bad paper.
I had made friends with a child psychiatrist who was head of a university clinic. He was urbane, a gourmet and a bon vivant. He was also in analytic training. I went skiing with his family in the Italian alps, and we got on fine as long as we did not talk about psychiatry. By the time I had finished addressing the Munich Psychoanalytic Society, we were no longer on speaking terms. He got up at the end of my paper and said in a voice filled with emotion, "Your paper shows that you are as paranoid as Ferenczi. I am, as you know, a child psychiatrist and I know that children do, in fact, invent tales of sexual abuse. Freud was right. Ferenczi was wrong. So Jones was correct too, even if for the wrong reasons. The fact that you, Jeff, can take up Ferenczi's views after all these years of clinical wisdom has demonstrated there was no truth in them shows--well, I don't know how to say this, but I feel forced to say that you are dangerously mentally ill. In fact, Jeff, I believe you should spend some time in a psychiatric hospital. I have to go even further: I am prepared to commit you tonight if one of the gentlemen in the room will second my opinion." I laughed appreciatively. It was a good performance. Quite convincing. He made a point far more dramatically than I could have with my sober words. When I finished laughing I noticed he was not smiling. "Jeff. I'm serious."
So here it was. Fifty years after Ferenczi, to go against conventional "wisdom" was still dangerous. I was told that a man could get himself locked up that way (emphasis mine).
So writes Jeffrey Masson. Masson's observations highlight the fact that powerful psychological forces will militate against anyone coming to the defense of the independent-minded individual who questions the authority of the group or its leaders, whether it be in the psychoanalytic profession, a law firm, or any organization that hews with cult-like rigidity to a set of values and beliefs.
Related posts can be found at the following sites:
Akin Gump: A Culture of Narcissism?
Did Akin Gump Operate Like a Cult?
Akin Gump: The Mystery of the Harassment Ringleader