Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Cobweb

William Gibson, who was married to the psychoanalyst Margaret Brenman-Gibson, spent some time in Topeka, Kansas, while she was associated with the Menninger Clinic in the early 1950s. The Cobweb, published in 1954, is a novel set at a psychiatric hospital located in a mid-western town. In this novel Gibson, who won fame for writing plays such as The Miracle Worker, tells a tale of institutional politics and infidelity that reads somewhat like the script for a 1950s B movie. His descriptions of clothing and cars as well as drinking and smoking habits create a vivid sense of the period. Attitudes towards race and gender are painfully, but not judgmentally, presented. What I enjoyed most, however, is the snapshot that Gibson takes of hospital based psychiatry at that moment when psychoanalytic treatment and milieu therapy were on the cutting edge. Seen from the 21st century optimism about the therapeutic value of patient government seems quaint. I think it is important, however, to revisit all those moments of false optimism that litter the history of psychiatry. Gibson's book provides an enjoyable way to visit at least one of them.

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