• Real to Reel: Psychiatry at the cinema

Real to Reel: Psychiatry at the cinema

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ISBN 978 1 906254 42 1 (2011)
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The cinema has an important presence in modern life, not just for its contributions to entertainment and the economy but also because of what it tells us about ourselves and our societies. Psychiatry’s appearance on the big screen reflects psychiatric practice at the same time as shaping our understanding of it.

Real to Reel critically examines psychiatry’s relationship with those it manages by examining seven key films which use that relationship to raise important questions about the public understanding of psychiatric power, and the role of psychiatrists in the social construction and manipulation of both personality and social reality.

Ron Roberts analyses how real and cinematic psychiatry deal with the treatment of women, ethnic minorities, young people as well as the relationships between voluntary and involuntary psychiatry, psychoanalysis and biological psychiatry, and fiction and reality. His sometimes dramatic conclusions demonstrate just what is at stake for us all.


Introduction: Psychiatry, the director’s cut

1. Shutter Island: History, memory and torture

2. Changeling: Law, liberty and psychiatry

3. Donnie Darko: Something wicked this way comes

4. A Beautiful Mind: Pharmaceutical secrets and lies

5. An Angel at My Table: Madness, identity and fiction

6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Insanity, justice and control

7. Spellbound: Psychiatric power, surrealism and truth

8. Conclusion: Psychiatry, terrorism and reality

References Appendix: The Nuremberg Code

Index of Films Reviewed

Index of Names and Subjects

"It is exceptionally good" Thomas Szasz, November 2011

Your ideas are no longer normal, says Charles to Rupert outside the pub. Well, answers Rupert, you no longer wanted my normal ideas, did you? Ron Roberts’s ideas are far from usual, as he muses, in his fourth book, on the abnormality of psychiatry as presented in various films over the course of the last 65 years, seven of which he has chosen as representative. His aim in this singular study is to analyse how the practice of real psychiatry relates to its representational cousin on the screen. In this closely argued and complex survey of celluloid insanity, he uses the seven films as the corner stone of a textual analysis, which is far from a comfortable read. In his admirable presentation, psychiatry in its various guises on screen is reflected as real on the reel, showing explicitly its service to the body politic and to those in power who exude social authority and define social reality. As a professional psychotherapist, I feel shame in seeing the closed mindedness of these professional people, professing to be psychiatrists, to be specialists of the soul’s renderings on earth, especially those souls gone astray and desperate for further enlightenment.  The theatre of lost souls is far from funny, and more often than not is, as the history of this profession teaches us, a diatribe of hellish treatments, resembling penal re-education more than a humane healing environment. The madness of psychiatric theory, with its one-sided biological explanatory model, is that, instead of treating lost souls with kindness and courtesy, it trivializes the crises of life within a barrage of pseudo-scientific explanation … In the films under discussion, Roberts looks at the role of behavioral science in refashioning women and men, to make them fit the goals, and structures of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Is it a given, that these intellectual fashions of the day are allowed to get by with a lazy conformity to the wishes of the powerful? Should psychiatry, which after all has the task of explaining the ‘dis-ease’ of the psyche (experience), be the handmaiden for social control of the masses, censoring experience and behavior? Is psychiatry, not only as presented on screen, itself a work of fiction? Theodor Itten, Executive Editor, Internation Journal of Psychotherapy.

Ron Roberts

Ron Roberts is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. He has held posts at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of Westminster, King’s College Medical School, University College London, St Bartholomew’s Medical School, Kingston University and the Tavistock Institute. For several years he was a member of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) and edited and regularly contributed to their magazine 'Science for People'. He is recently (and happily) retired and freer to think outside the constraints of contemporary neoliberal academic life. His research interests include; the lure of the sex industry for students, social and collective memory and the politics of psychology. He is currently researching the concept of the off-modern and the possibilities this offers for a genuinely humane and multidisciplinary psychology. He has edited and written six books including for PCCS - Just War: Psychology and terrorism (2007), Real to Reel: Psychiatry at the cinema (2011) and with Theodor Itten, The New Politics of Experience and The Bitter Herbs (2014).   His most recent book Psychology and Capitalism (Zero Books) – though not published by PCCS is definitely worth a mention J  Besides these interests Ron has practised martial arts (kung fu) for many years.

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Ron Roberts