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The myth of the mentally ill witch in textbooks of abnormal psychology: a thread on history, ideology, the status of the occult within clinical psychology, and why I am skeptical of psychology’s claim to place a premium on multicultural diversity. 1/25
Open any abnormal psychology textbook and a dozen or so pages into Chapter 1 you’re likely to encounter a story about how in the Middle Ages in Europe, superstition and demonology flourished, exorcism equaled treatment, and mentally ill women were persecuted as witches. 2/25
This “just so” story about the history of errors in psychopathology isn’t true, however. In 1984, Thomas Schoeneman tore it apart in a paper titled “The mentally ill witch in textbooks of abnormal psychology: Current status and implications of a fallacy.” 3/25
Schoeneman cites four problems: first, psychiatric historians relied on very few sources to establish these claims. Some just cited the infamous “Malleus Maleficarum” and a few other witch hunting manuals, rather than citing a broader range of primary and secondary sources. 4/25
Second, although psychiatric historians derided beliefs in witchcraft as ignorant, they interpreted witch hunting manuals as if they were reliable case histories that could be taken at face value as descriptions of what we would call, e.g., delirium and schizophrenia. 5/25
Third, they ignored historical research that tended to show that “the typical accused witch was not a mentally ill person but an impoverished woman with a sharp tongue and a bad temper; in some areas the modal suspect was also old and unmarried.” 6/25
Indeed, very few historical sources proposed demonological causes for mental incompetency, which was typically viewed as deriving from natural causes and divine providence in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries. 7/25
Generally speaking, accusations of witchcraft were hardly psychiatrically diagnostic, but rather “were to a large extent dependent on social and political structures” and sometimes served as forms of economic retaliation or mechanisms of social control. 8/25
Fourth, psychiatric historians used an ethnocentric, “Whiggish” interpretive frame that privileged intrapsychic processes at the expense of attention to social, historical, political, and economic variables. Basically, they treated Middle Age folks as stupid moderns. 9/25
Rather than simply disprove the prevailing view, Schoeneman did one better and systematically collected all 20 abnormal psychology textbooks published from 1978-1981 to study trends in the representations of the mentally ill witch myth across the discipline. 10/25
Schoeneman coded each textbook as to whether it endorsed, refuted, or ignored three aspects of the psychopathological interpretation: “the triumph of demonology over psychiatry, possession as a manifestation of psychopathology, and the accused witch as mentally ill.” 11/25
What he found was that about 75% of textbooks endorsed at least one of the above three aspects of the psychopathological interpretation, few cited any primary sources, and most seemed to trace their presentation back to a single source. 12/25
A 1941 textbook “A History of Medical Psychology” by Zilboorg and Henry was cited by 15 abnormal textbooks, yet almost no scholarship from the disciplines of history, sociology, or cultural anthropology were cited by psychologists. 13/25
Although it is possible that clinical psychologists were simply using ready to hand sources and were skittish to go beyond their area of expertise, Schoeneman dismisses this as a complete explanation for various reasons. 14/25
Schoeneman notes that error's over time stability "suggests that it serves some function and indicates some current social process,” e.g., “the reinforcement of…elitist attitudes about the [status] of psychologists” & of the discipline as progressive and scientific. 15/25
That is, it is not simply that a mistake gets accidentally propagated. Rather, even in the face of contrary evidence that had existed for decades, a specific image of the enterprise of psychology and psychiatry was being put forward in place of the truth. 16/25
The mentally ill witch myth serves to view alternative, historically early, and culturally disparate understandings of psychopathology as benighted, and positions contemporary psychiatry as objective, correct, and the inevitable product of progressive understanding. 17/25
Now, I got interested in this paper when I encountered it in my dissertation research. Although it didn’t connect up directly to that project, it clicked in with my larger goal of helping to re-examine the biases against magical practitioners that persists to this day. 18/25
It occurred to me that Schoeneman’s data was from textbooks from 40 years ago, and if his conclusion was correct that the psychopathological view served an ideological function and was not merely an error, we ought to see little drift in the interpretive frame since then. 19/25
I’m still doing the legwork of making my data collection and analysis airtight, but my preliminary conclusion is that, indeed, there is no difference of substance with how historical views of witchcraft have been presented between 40 years ago and the present. 20/25
This fits in with my general understanding that psychology’s recent emphasis on multicultural diversity is incomplete and self-serving. Although it embodies some noble ideals, in reality, peoples, cultures, and practices that are more truly “other” still become othered. 21/25
Practices such as divination and witchcraft cannot be integrated into psychology’s narrow vision of cultural diversity, because there is, I believe, a central tendency to only tolerate worldviews that can be shoehorned under the umbrella of Western scientific rationalism. 22/25
Until psychology can make room for the idea that all psychologies are indigenous psychologies, the discipline will continue to coopt, control, and misinterpret other worldviews to force them into concordance with Psychology—which is to say, American psychology. 23/25
If psychiatric historians are willing to throw early Europeans under the bus to prop up a noble image of our own heroic march of clinical understanding, do you have any faith that they would really respect non-Western worldviews that clash with contemporary doctrine? 24/25
The perpetuation of the myth of the mentally ill witch in abnormal psychology textbooks nearly 40 years after Schnoeneman’s study is a sobering lesson in how science is not necessarily self-correcting, but rather is riven with subjectivity and ideology. 25/thread
For a different inroad into my thinking and research on related issues, check on this thread on how psychologists construe so-called magical thinking and fail to account for interdisciplinary research and more robustly cultural perspectives on the matter:
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Keep Current with Rain Mason, PhD, BLM, ACAB 🦊

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