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The Michael Shermer Show

The Michael Shermer Show is a series of long-form conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 161

Roy Richard Grinker — Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness

The Solace: Finding Value in Death Through Gratitude for Life (book cover)

For centuries, scientists and society cast moral judgments on anyone deemed mentally ill, confining many to asylums. In Nobody’s Normal, anthropologist Dr. Roy Richard Grinker chronicles the progress and setbacks in the struggle against mental-illness stigma — from the 18th century, through America’s major wars, and into today’s high-tech economy. Grinker argues that stigma is a social process that can be explained through cultural history, a process that began the moment we defined mental illness. Though the legacies of shame and secrecy are still with us today, Grinker writes that we are at the cusp of ending the marginalization of the mentally ill. Grinker infuses the book with the personal history of his family’s four generations of involvement in psychiatry, including his grandfather’s analysis with Sigmund Freud, his own daughter’s experience with autism, and culminating in his research on neurodiversity. Drawing on cutting-edge science, historical archives, and cross-cultural research in Africa and Asia, Grinker takes readers on an international journey to discover the origins of, and variances in, our cultural response to neurodiversity.

Roy Richard Grinker is professor of anthropology and international affairs at the George Washington University. He is the author of several books, including Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism. He lives in Washington, DC.

Shermer and Grinker discuss:

  • Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason:

    “We have yet to write the history of that other form of madness, by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbors, and communicate and recognize each other through the merciless language of non-madness; We must try to return, in history, to that zero point in the course of madness at which madness is an undifferentiated experience, a not yet divided experience of division itself. We must describe, from the start of its trajectory, that ‘other form’ which relegates Reason and Madness to one side or the other of its action as things henceforth external, deaf to all exchange, and as though dead to one another.”

  • Grinker family connection of psychiatry and mental illness,
  • Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness, and The Manufacture of Madness,
  • Stigma: why wouldn’t a medical model of madness lessen stigma?
  • labeling problem. Robert Rosenhan’s experiment,
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD),
  • autism spectrum (Bill Gates? Temple Grandin?),
  • neuroses vs. psychoses,
  • schizophrenia,
  • mental vs. medical models,
  • brain and mind, Descartes’ dualism,
  • illness vs. disorder,
  • DSM: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,
  • The “heap problem”: how many characteristics of a disorder makes madness?
  • capitalism and madness,
  • women, “hysteria” and the “invention of the female,”
  • slaves and “drapetomania” (the disorder of wanting to escape to freedom),
  • war and the treatment of madness: hysteria, shell shock, PTSD,
  • Are we all on the spectrum between madness and normalcy (whatever that is)?
  • positive labels: “gay is good” “black is beautiful” … LGBTQ,
  • homelessness and mental illness, and
  • the future of madness and normalcy.

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