Review of Examining Our Times, by Tony Humphreys

First published in Medicine Weekly, early 2003:The story goes that many of us experience “personal vulnerability and emergency feelings of anger, depression, despair, anxiety and jealousy,” and (rather suddenly) that “the primary source of depression is oppression” which “explains why women tended to exhibit more depression than men”. No source given. In fact, there are no references whatsoever in this book leading to an eerie feeling of dislocation and a disastrous lack of precision throughout. Sweeping and inadequate statements abound: “In many ways, women are still only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of exploring the depths of the emotional, social, sexual, occupational, religious and political oppression they have endured.”

Tony Humphreys is a psychologist and the Irish Times’ and the Irish Examiner’s psycholumnist (to coin a phrase) but, I’m afraid, can’t write for nuts. I blame the author and publishers equally for expecting us to put up with germs such as the last line in the book: “It also means, whenever possible, inputting into these cultures that subconsciously darkened the presence of the person seeking help.” And this is meant for the general public! How about some lucid thinking and straightforward writing then?

Doctors may be puzzled, as well as syntactically and aesthetically challenged, to read that, “Historically, it was never a good development that people in emotional and social distress came under the umbrella of general medicine. Whilst I have no difficulty with short-term psychotropic medication it needs to be seen that medication is not a therapy but only a symptom reducer.” “Only”? Tell that to a manic-depressive. He goes on: “The underlying conflicts continue to lurk below the ‘tranquility surface’ that medication creates, and will resurface as clients become tolerant to the toxic cocktail.” Well, there you go then: how many toxic cocktails have you prescribed today?

Some statements might pass for controversial if they weren’t just nonsensical: “Emotional distress usually precedes physical distress. However, some people appear to need the presence of physical disease as a passport to revealing their inner and outer disharmony… For example, asthma may represent the constrictions of the expression of thoughts and feelings, and the belief that, even if expressed, they will not be accepted.”

Most worrying of all is that according to Humphreys, in order to be effective, professional helpers should have “the ability to love the client unconditionally” and “the openness to self-disclosure on one’s own life journey”. My own mother doesn’t have the ability to love me unconditionally and I find it hard to handle self disclosure from my closest friends. I don’t expect either from my therapist.

What about his grand project to examine our times? In the introduction Humphries tries, by way of unifying the collection of articles, to put a contemporary spin on what we are about the read, using the idea of cultural change bringing “confusion, doubt and insecurity” with it. (Humphreys optimistically hopes that these pieces will contribute to the development of a vibrant, productive, creative, caring and spiritual New Ireland.) My own understanding of cultural change and the challenges it brings with it is that it has little to do with psychology and everything to do with politics and education. Humphreys, despite himself, proceeds to confirm this in that the book is largely another run through the clichés of what is disparagingly but sometimes deservedly called psychobabble, and makes only passing references to social change.


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