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Paula Joan Caplan's Authors Guild Blog

Points of View, Politics, and Ongoing Pain from the War in Vietnam

I hope that thoughtful people will read this essay and consider how different experiences and different perspectives bear on the sequence of events I shall describe.

 

I am not a military veteran, but my late father was, and I have spent more than a dozen years listening to veterans from all eras, advocating for them and their families, making films about them, and making a Public Service Announcement series called "Listen to a Veteran!" These experiences have taught me much about the too-frequent chasms between veterans and nonveterans, and it means a great deal to me to try to bridge those chasms. You can only begin to imagine, I suspect, how troubled -- no, devastated -- I was by a series of recent events involving veterans from America's war in Vietnam, a war whose legacy has been tremendous conflict among Americans, confusion, pain, and moral anguish. 

 

The events about which this essay is written began when I read an article in Smithsonian Magazine and wrote a letter to its editor in response. The article was called "The Ghosts of My Lai" and included the statement that Vietnam veterans were called baby killers. First I shall tell you the content of my letter to the editor as it was published in the March 2018 hard copy edition of the magazine. It was:

 

Contrary to your suggestion, Vietnam veterans returning from the war were not called "baby killers," according to scholars who have reviewed news media reports and other sources from that time. In fact, government officials, trying to garner support and shift the public focus away from the war's realities, promoted the myth that antiwar protestors aimed that epithet at veterans. It was LBJ who was called a baby killer.  The letter was signed Paula J. Caplan, founder, Listen to a Veteran, Rockville, Maryland.

 

After my letter was published, about a dozen veterans wrote to me, I replied to each one individually and privately, and then on March 13, 2018, I wrote this letter to them collectively:

 

Hello,

 

This letter is going (Bcc'd) to the veterans who contacted me to express concern about the extremely shortened version of my letter that Smithsonian Magazine's editors chose to publish.

 

I am grateful to each of you for taking the time and trouble to write to me and to describe what were painful experiences you had that contradicted what seemed to appear in my letter. Being an advocate for veterans from all eras for more than a decade, the last thing I ever want to do is cause further suffering to any veteran.

I am currently dealing with major medical problems in a close family member -- and am deeply touched by the very kind, compassionate responses that two of you sent to that statement -- so have limited time, but I have been in communication with the magazine's editor about how to rectify the consequences of their restricting my letter to 50 words while publishing three other letters, two of which were 2 1/2 times longer than that. Especially with regard to a matter as complex as what I was wanting to convey, this was unforgivable, and the combination of their singular restriction placed on me with the wording I ultimately chose has seemingly led to their Managing Editor's acknowledgement of their wrong.

 

The editor refuses to publish a longer letter from me in the hard copy of the magazine, which is what I requested, and only agreed to (1)remove the current letter from their online version and (2)publish a longer letter from ... but only online... once I have the time and space to write it. However, it is unfortunate that -- though the editor says she has no idea how many people read the magazine in hard copy vs. how many read the online version -- she admits that it is likely that far fewer people look at it online than in hard copy.

 

Nevertheless, I will be writing that longer letter for the online version.

 

In the meantime, I wanted to send you this link to an essay I wrote some time ago on the website I have for my work with veterans, in case you'd like to have a look at the alarm I have felt about the invisibility of veterans' suffering. I realize this may seem ironic to you, in light of the reason you contacted me, but I hope you might have a look at it.

 

https://whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com/blog [the link took them to my essay called "The Naked Emperor and the Vanishing Veteran," which is also published on this Authors Guild website on the blog page]

 

I will be in touch when I have written the longer letter for the magazine's website.

 

Warm wishes,

 

Paula
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.
Founder and Director, Listen to a Veteran! listentoaveteran.org
"Is Anybody Listening?" film isanybodylisteningmovie.org
"Is Anybody Listening?" song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztJ5c0URQ6E

 

Subsequently, I received a few letters from more veterans. I then wrote as follows on March 23 to all of the veterans who had contacted me:

 

Hello,

 

This message is going to you wonderful veterans who wrote to me about my extremely brief letter in the hard copy of Smithsonian Magazine.

 

It took me awhile to write a more extensive letter, because there was a lot I wanted to say, and I was so grateful for what each of you wrote to me and wanted time to mull over the various pieces of the matter, but the longer letter was published online today at
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/mar18_discussion-180968085/?no-cache

 

I hope you will see right away my report of your messages to me and my belief in what you told me, as well as my gratitude for how gracious you were.

 

I hope you will also understand more of why I wanted to respond to that initial statement in the My Lai article. And of course, if you would like to write anything to me about the new letter, I would be very interested to hear from you.

 

Warmest wishes,

 

Paula
Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.
Associate, Hutchins Center, Harvard University
paulajcaplan.net
&
Founder and Director, Listen to a Veteran! listentoaveteran.org
Producer, "Is Anybody Listening?" film isanybodylisteningmovie.org
"Is Anybody Listening?" song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztJ5c0URQ6E
Producer, "Isaac Pope: The Spirit of an American Century" (film scheduled for completion in the next couple of months) isaacpopefilm.com

 

I hope that readers of this essay will be sure to read my longer letter in Smithsonian Magazine online at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/magazine/mar18_discussion-180968085/?no-cache and send me your thoughts if you wish.

 

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The Truth About Trump and Psychiatric Diagnosis — The Lightbulb Has to Want to Change

Originally published 02/20/2017 10:34 pm ET @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58abb3b0e4b0417c4066c22b

Once you know a crucial fact about what gets called mental illness, the debate about whether or not President Donald J. Trump is mentally ill disappears, and what is left is what really matters. What really matters is that President Trump apparently has no desire to change behavior that has been described as totally self-absorbed, self-referential, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, and otherwise abusive.

It’s ironic that the arguments on both sides of the debate about whether or not Trump is mentally ill are based on the one “alternative fact”: that deciding who is mentally ill is a science. That could not be farther from the truth.

Those who are arguably the world’s most powerful psychiatrists — those who periodically create and publish a new edition of the psychiatric handbook called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — typically acknowledge that the foundational premise of the entire book, that it is possible to define “mental illness” in an adequate, appropriate, and useful way, is wrong. In each edition of the DSM, the new set of arbiters tries to create a definition of “mental illness,” since the book consists of hundreds of alleged categories and subcategories of mental illness and thus depends on their getting that primary definition right. Each time, they have acknowledged their failure to do so. Even Allen Frances, who oversaw creation of the DSM edition that held sway from 1994 to 2013, famously called psychiatric diagnosis “bullshit” (cited in Gary Greenberg’s excellent Book of Woe from his article in Wired based on his interview with the psychiatrist).

As far as I can tell, no one else weighing in on the debate about the President has served on a DSM Task Force...and then felt they had to withdraw because of what they had learned. I spent two years as an insider on Allen Frances’s Task Force, where I learned that — despite what is widely assumed to be true — psychiatric diagnostic categories are not scientifically derived but are constructed, made up by the handful of people with the most power in the DSM hierarchy. When Frances in various media currently gives the impression that he is uniquely qualified to judge President Trump because he wrote the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the label that many therapists have recently applied to him, Frances neglected to note that the criteria for NPD change with every edition. Frances changed them somewhat from the DSM edition that came before his, and the NPD criteria in the edition subsequent to his — the currently in use DSM-5 — differ from his. These changes reflect the moving-target nature of this label.

The changes over time in how NPD is defined are important, because to debate about whether or not the President has NPD is to reify misguidedly and harmfully the notion that there is a scientific way to find out. I resigned from the DSM-IV Task Force because I could not participate in the creation of a book that would be marketed as scientific when I knew that it was not — and that would garner more than $100 million for its publisher, the American Psychiatric Association, and help Big Pharma earn billions of dollars for psychiatric drugs marketed as curing the ever-growing number of manufactured categories.

Some people try to prove that Trump does not have NPD on the grounds that his self-centeredness and so on do not cause him to suffer; but even that argument is irrelevant, because no version of NPD has specified that in order to “qualify” for this label, one has to be suffering because of its features.

Do people suffer and deserve help to alleviate that suffering? Of course, they do, and that is the subject of many books and other articles. But the research about how that is best done — what behavior, feelings, and/or thoughts can be changed — and what cannot is a side issue for our purposes here, because there is not a shred of evidence that President Trump wants to change. Remember that old joke: “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” “One. But the lightbulb really has to want to change.”

There is great debate among therapists about whether or not any personality disorders belong in the manual of mental illnesses, since it is an arbitrary decision left to each individual therapist whether or not a particular patient’s personality is extreme enough to qualify as a disorder. To engage in the attempt to decide whether or not President Trump has NPD is to act as though that label is clearly a description of a mental illness, however one defines “mental illness.”

Some believe that if they were to prove that the President is mentally ill, it would be easier to turf him out of office. But it was morally wrong that Senator Thomas Eagleton was removed as George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate in 1972 when it became publicly known that he had suffered from bouts of depression and had been hospitalized for that reason, because what should have mattered for him and should matter for all elected officials is how well they can do their jobs. Eagleton had been a great Senator. Whether or not one believes that Trump is doing his current job well depends partly on whether or not you share his views of the world, partly on whether or not he is truthful with the people of this nation (many Presidents have not been), and partly on how he manages his various tasks.

At this crucial time in our nation’s history, the last thing we need is to let debates about whether or not the President is mentally ill divert us from deciding whether or not he is doing his job, whether or not we like what he is doing, and whether or not what he is doing is dangerous or evil.

———————————————
Author’s note: I am the author of They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal, which is my insider’s description of the process of creating the book that is called the psychiatrist’s “Bible” and is used to determine who is mentally ill. I am editor of Bias in Psychiatric Diagnosis and have written many articles and book chapters about psychiatric diagnosis, which I would be happy for people to read.
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