Thomas Szasz was an outstanding writer, thinker and lecturer. He expressed heretical views about psychiatry and also about suicide, sex therapy, psychoanalysis, addiction, and much else.
In 1961 he published The Myth of Mental Illness, which presents the thesis for which he is still best known. He argued that, whereas the heart, the liver, and the brain can be sick, in the sense of being biologically diseased or dysfunctional, the mind cannot be sick. The mind is not a bodily organ. The "mind" is only a name for a category of events that we call mental. A category or a name cannot be ill.
Among Szasz's many views are these: the psychiatrist who testifies that someone broke the law because of mental illness is confused, as mental illness is merely a metaphor, not a real illness, and cannot cause anything. The psychiatrist who commits people to mental hospitals against their will is acting as a jailer, not as a doctor.
Szasz thought the term "drug abuse" is merely a moral judgement. That in the United States one can choose to buy a shotgun, but cannot buy a bottle of opiates without a prescription, is absurd, argued Szasz. We should regard freedom of self-medication as a basic right. He argued that Freud's psychoanalysis was not a new science, nor a new method of treating illness. It was only a conversation between two people, which Freud fraudulently misrepresented as treatment.
In Szasz's version, in the early 20th century Freud abandoned the kind of leadership associated with scientific progress and adopted instead the kind typical of big business. In effect Freud founded a cartel that was to maintain a monopoly over psychoanalysis.
He formed a "company", in order to promote and distribute psychoanalysis. To create a winning corporate image he chose a front man to inspire confidence and respectability. Thus did the gentile Carl Jung become the first president of the International Psychoanalytical Association, camouflaging the Jewishness and socially subversive qualities of the organisation. Freud went on to treat psychoanalysis as if it were a patented invention, like the formula for Coca- Cola. He insisted that others could dispense it only in keeping with his specifications and that he and only he could change the original formula.
Szasz was born in Budapest in 1920 to a family that was "only nominally Jewish". The father's name was originally Schlesinger, but the father and his brother "Magyarised" their names while still at school; Szasz is a common Hungarian name.
Szasz once said that his parents "were probably as good parents as a child could have". His father was a successful agricultural businessman. Thomas and a brother, George, two years older, were educated in a state-run secular school.
In 1938, when Szasz was 18, the family emigrated to the United States, where Szasz lived the rest of his life. He had grown up speaking German and Hungarian as his native languages; he also became fluent in French, and told me that by the age of 17 he had achieved such proficiency that French people thought he was a native speaker from North Africa. However, his English he spoke with a strong accent.
At the University of Cincinnati he took many courses in physics, and graduated in 1941. He went on to study medicine at the College of Medicine of the University of Cincinnati, interned for a year at Boston City Hospital, and did a year of hospital training in internal medicine in Cincinnati. He realised that to continue in medicine would mean to veer away from his concerns with religion, politics, law and literature, so he sought to become a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.
He deliberately chose a psychiatry training programme that did not involve work with involuntary patients. When the head of the psychiatry department summoned him to work with psychotic patients in his third year of training, he chose to go elsewhere to finish his training.
He entered the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and became a psychoanalyst in only three years. For the next five years, including two years of active duty with the US Navy, he was a member of its staff.
In 1956 Szasz was appointed a professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York in Syracuse. He told me once that he had been ready to publish his ideas about mental illness years earlier than he did in The Myth of Mental Illness, but delayed doing so until he had achieved academic tenure. He had anticipated what a storm his ideas would create. He went on to testify on behalf of psychiatric patients who wished to be freed from involuntary hospitalisation, and he condemned their being deprived of freedom on the grounds of so-called mental illness.
The New York State Commissioner of Mental Hygiene was petitioned to bar Szasz from teaching "heresy" to state-paid psychiatry trainees and from being clinically responsible for mentally ill patients. Dr Marc Hollender, who was both the chairman of Szasz's department of psychiatry and director of the state mental hospital, reassigned Szasz to teach only in the medical school, not the hospital. Szasz took legal action against this move, and the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors eventually upheld Szasz's complaint. Many academics at the university had supported Szasz on the grounds of academic freedom, but those supporters who had not been tenured were now forced out of their positions. In 1966, after much controversy, Hollender left the department. Szasz stayed there and went on to become an Emeritus professor in 1990.
After retiring, Szasz spent much of his time writing. When he was 83, I once asked him if he was still writing. "I can't stop," he said, and went on to write more than half dozen further books.
At the age of 90 he presented an all-day seminar in London. He told me then that he felt like a "relic". He meant that he had made his major impact years earlier, and yet was still alive. He was in robust health and his mind was wonderfully agile and stimulating. Nevertheless he wanted me to hold his hand when crossing a busy London street.
He was still driving his car in the last months of his life, although a week before his death he fell and injured a vertebra. This was very painful, and he needed painkillers. He was found dead by a friend. He is survived by his older brother, two daughters and one grandchild.
Thomas Szasz, psychiatrist and author: born Budapest 15 April 1920; married (two daughters); died 8 September 2012Reuse content