Author Archive

APA condemns psychologist implicated in torture

In an unprecedented move, the American Psychological Association is taking steps to sanction one of its members, psychologist James Mitchell, in response to his role as a consultant to the CIA on its techniques of “enhanced interrogation” and a participant in the 2002 CIA interrogation of detainee Abu Zubaydah. The APA has been deeply divided over the ethical issues surrounding the participation of psychologists in interrogation for several years.

Here is the story:

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, Associated Press Writer – Sat Jul 10, 2010

Psychologists in the United States have been warned by their professional group not to take part in torturing detainees in U.S. custody.

Now the American Psychological Association has taken the unprecedented step of supporting an attempt to strip the license of a psychologist accused of overseeing the torture of a CIA detainee.

The APA has told a Texas licensing board in a letter mailed July 1 that the allegations against Dr. James Mitchell represent “patently unethical” actions inconsistent with the organization’s ethics guidelines.

If any psychologist who was a member of the APA were found to have committed the acts alleged against Mitchell, “he or she would be expelled from the APA membership,” according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. APA spokeswoman Rhea Farberman confirmed its contents.

The letter is the first of its kind in the board’s history, Farberman said.

“The allegations put forward in the complaint and those that are on the public record about Dr. Mitchell are simply so serious, and if true, such a gross violation of his professional ethics, that we felt it necessary to act,” Farberman said.

Mitchell is a retired Air Force psychologist who participated in the 2002 CIA interrogation of detainee Abu Zubaydah, according to a 2008 Senate armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Mitchell is not a member of the American Psychological Association.

Interrogators in Thailand subjected Zubaydah to severe cold, food and sleep deprivation, confinement in a narrow box and, with Mitchell participating, a simulated form of drowning known as waterboarding, according to the complaint filed with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists.

“Regardless of what legal categories these techniques fall within, one conclusion is clear: a psychologist who helps inflict such cruel and shocking abuse on a defenseless human being would appear to have violated basic standards of conduct of the profession,” according to the complaint by Northwestern University law professor Joseph Margulies and filed on behalf of a Texas psychologist.

“Obviously, I’m not free to discuss any work I may have done for the CIA,” Mitchell told the AP. He called the complaint libelous and said it is “riddled throughout with fabricated details, lies, distortions and inaccuracies.”

Sherry Lee, the Texas board director, said complaints are shielded under Texas law and she could not comment.

The APA is monitoring similar filings in Ohio and New York made Wednesday against psychologists who oversaw detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, but has no plans to back those efforts.

The accusations against Mitchell are “at a level of seriousness and credibility that we think is different than any other allegations against other psychologists that we know of,” Farberman said.

The San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability filed a complaint against Dr. John Leso with the New York Office of the Professions, alleging professional misconduct. Leso led a behavioral science consultation team at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003.

The complaint said Leso developed abusive interrogation techniques based on Army survival methods. Those methods, “Survive Evade Rescue and Escape” or SERE, teach soldiers how to withstand physical and psychological abuse they might face if captured by the enemy, according to the complaint against Leso.

In a second complaint, Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic alleges that retired Army Col. Larry James observed abusive interrogations and didn’t do anything to stop them.

The complaint says James, dean of professional psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, oversaw abuse at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in 2003, 2007 and 2008 when he served with the base’s Behavioral Science Consultation Team.

The complaint against Leso says he is stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala. He could not be immediately reached. Messages were left Wednesday and Friday with the fort’s public affairs office. James has declined to comment. The Ohio board declined to pursue a similar complaint filed against James in 2008.

Boards in California, Louisiana and New York have rejected similar complaints in the past. But new sources of information, such as the 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report, provide details that make the new complaints stronger, said Kathy Roberts, staff attorney with the Center for Justice & Accountability.

In 2008 the APA voted to ban its members from taking part in interrogations at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other military detention sites where it believes international law is being violated.

The APA has also condemned the use of sexual humiliation, allegations of which are included in both the James and Leso complaints.

As a result, the Harvard clinic expects the APA to follow suit with those complaints, said Deborah Popowski, of the clinic.

Steven Reisner, a New York psychologist who brought the complaint against Leso, urged the APA to support an investigation, saying the case was similar to the Mitchell complaint.

Zubaydah was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 on suspicion of being a top al-Qaida official. He was the first detainee subjected to Bush administration-approved harsh interrogation techniques, which included waterboarding, slamming the suspect into walls and prolonged period of nudity.

Zubaydah later told a military tribunal he suffered physical and mental torture and nearly died four times. Zubaydah claimed that after many months of such treatment, authorities concluded he was not the No. 3 person in al-Qaida as they had long believed.

Conference on Body Image and Contemporary Society

Announcement and Call for Papers

International Conference on Body Image and Contemporary Society

April 8-9, 2011

Through a variety of disciplinary lenses, the conference will explore the inter-connections between body image and contemporary identity.  Presentations will address some of the following overarching themes:

  • How does body image affect the construction of contemporary identity?  What practices, behaviors and medical interventions influence this process?
  • What role do the social constructs of the norm, pathology and disability play in modern society?
  • How does the “imaginary,” metaphorical body as the subject of art correlate with the actual physical body as the subject of medicine science?

The above questions represent broad line of inquiry than specific paper topics.  Participants from all relevant academic disciplines are invited to submit proposals for either individual papers or entire panels (minimum of 3 and maximum of 4 participants per panel).

Intercultural approaches are strongly encouraged!

The working language of the conference will be English.  Selected sessions may be conducted in French with simultaneous translations.

Proposals are accepted until September 30, 2010.

Please send your 250-Word abstracts with your name and affiliation to:

The CUNY Graduate Center jointly organized by the office of the University Dean for Health and Human Services & the Office of the University Dean for Health and Human Services, City University of New York, USA and Pandora research group of the Centre de Recherches Psychanalyse, Médecine et Société, Université Paris-Diderot, France

Co-Sponsored by the World Psychiatric Association (Section on Art and Psychiatry)

Congress Presidents: Prof. William Ebestein (CUNY) and Dr. Céline Masson (Université de Pariss VII)

Chair of the Supervisory Committee: Dr. Ekaterina Sukhanova (CUNY)

Review – Anton Kaes, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (Princeton 2009)

What part do movies play in making psychological trauma visible? This is the question Tony Kaes poses at the outset of his new book on the cinema of Weimar Germany. While this cinema has generated enormous scholarly interest ever since Siegfried Kracauer’s landmark From Caligari to Hitler (1947), Kaes’ study represents a major departure from earlier approaches. Drawing on a growing body of work on trauma, the history of psychiatry, and World War I, he places this crucial chapter of modern cultural history within an entirely new analytic framework.

For historians of medicine and psychiatry, the central interest here will lie in Kaes’ claim that shell-shock holds the key to unlocking Weimar cinema’s complex narratives, images, and themes. The experience of trauma, he argues, was Weimar’s “historical unconscious”, and its films re-enacted the effects this experience had both on individual combatants and on German society as a whole. Just as traumatic events are repressed and yet return involuntarily in the form of flashbacks and other symptoms, so too Weimar cinema returned obsessively to the invisible wounds of the war. In making this claim, Kaes argues against the grain of Kracauer’s book, which treats Weimar films as a series of ominous variations on the rise of Nazism. Shifting the focus to the Great War and its aftermath, Kaes pulls together a wide variety of sources in weaving his account of how the cinema of the Weimar period worked through the shocks and aftershocks, both psychic and social, of this conflict.

A key moment in Kaes’ exposition concerns the encounter between one of the foremost representatives of wartime psychiatry – the Viennese physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg (later awarded a Nobel prize for his discovery of the malaria cure for progressive paralysis) — and the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Serving as expert witness at Wagner-Jauregg’s postwar trial, on charges that he had overseen the use of a punitive form of electrotherapy against soldiers suspected of malingering, Freud criticized the manner in which wartime practitioners had become entangled in an irresolvable conflict between their duties to the state and to their patients.

In an ingenious reading, Kaes traces the way that this encounter and the issues it raised are re-enacted in the narrative and structure of one of the most celebrated films of the Weimar era, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).  The story concerns a fairground hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, whose medium, Cesare, murders several inhabitants of a provincial town. Through its use of expressionistic sets and its themes of crime, somnambulism, and hypnosis (which, like electrotherapy, had been widely used to treat war neurotics) the film creates a fractured, hallucinatory landscape of terror and madness. This is further accentuated by its use of a frame-device: the story is narrated as a series of flashbacks by a young man, Francis, who relates his discovery that Caligari is actually the director of the local insane asylum, who has fallen under the spell of a manuscript written by an 18th century experimenter with hypnosis. In a final twist, the unreliability of the narrative is exposed at the film’s end by the revelation that Francis is himself a patient in the insane asylum. The film concludes with the asylum’s director promising to cure Francis.

If on a thematic level, the Caligari figure stands in for the Wagner-Jaureggs of the wartime psychiatric establishment, Kaes suggests that on another level the film itself doubles as a psychoanalytic session. Freud’s disciple Ernst Simmel, who by the war’s end was treating soldiers with a combination of psychotherapeutic methods, likened the recovery of traumatic memory through hypnosis to the “unrolling” of a filmic narrative. Francis’ narrative is in this sense a form of talking-cure: as if under hypnosis, the film of his traumatic memory “rolls again.” Kaes thus situates The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in a context shaped by debates about military psychiatry, shell-shock, and malingering, as well as by questions about the perception and representation of a world in which traditional norms and values have been radically overturned.

In subsequent chapters he follows a related set of concerns through his analyses of several other major films of the era — Nosferatu, The Nibelungen, and Metropolis — many of them populated by psychologically disturbed, amnesiac, or violence-prone characters, and marked by a paralyzing concern with death. Though he sticks for the most part to canonical films, Kaes also devotes space to a handful of lesser-known movies, most of them now lost or surviving only in fragmentary form, including Towards the Light (1918), an account of hysterical blindness and its cure; and Nerves (1919), a drama depicting the people of Munich in the grip of a postwar epidemic of nervous panic. Kaes’ analysis works best when he is dealing with these early films; at times in his discussion of other films the connection to the war becomes too indirect. Yet he is persuasive in showing how the “unabated presence of trauma in German society” shaped not simply the content of the era’s films but their formal repertoire as well. In its search for a new means of expression capable of capturing the “post-traumatic” world of Weimar Germany, the cinema of the period, he argues, contributed decisively to the birth of modern film language.

Andreas Killen, City College of New York and the Graduate Center


Two items of interest appeared in the news today, concerning two very different approaches to mental illness and its treatment. First, the musical “Next to Normal”, about a woman suffering from manic depression who undergoes electro-convulsive therapy, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. Here is a review:

Second, reporting on a gathering being held this week in San Jose, CA that is described as the “largest conference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades,” the New York Times ran an article about the growing interest in using hallucinogens to treat depression:

Introducing new Resources page

H-Madness has added a new page on “Resources” (located in the toolbar at the top of the blog page). This page, which will be updated on a regular basis, includes links to syllabus archives, bibliographies,  key texts in the history of psychiatry, and case histories, as well as other materials or links of interest to teachers, students, and independent researchers. The editors welcome submissions or suggestions about new resources.

New York Times on DSM

Yesterday the New York Times ran a front-page article on the proposed revisions to the DSM. To read the entire article click on the link here.

Workshop on “Brainwashing”

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