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Film Review: The Last Interview of Thomas Szasz: Page 2 of 2

Film Review: The Last Interview of Thomas Szasz: Page 2 of 2

Indeed, the perplexing power of Szasz’s epistemological problem with “mental illness” is obscured at times by its complex, often tenuous, connection to the libertarianism that motivates it. This is not to say that his libertarianism is not powerfully thought-provoking in its own right and must give any psychiatrist pause when pursuing involuntary commitment or treatment over objection. Even if one is ultimately to disagree with Szasz (as, in practice at least, almost all psychiatrists do), such pause is an invaluable burden.

Beyond these matters, which are readily available in Szasz’s writings, Singer’s film allows us to meet Szasz near the end of his life. I cannot help but feel that the hard edges of his arguments serve as guards against survivor guilt that could otherwise cripple a man of evidently deep, tender, and curious humanity. (Szasz emigrated to the US in 1938 to study medicine, wittingly escaping the storm of fascism already overtaking central Europe.)

Throughout the interview, we find Szasz demands that the discussion be on his terms. “I never saw anyone before talking to them myself,” he explains. “My secretary didn’t make any appointments.” To explore this, Singer plays a prospective patient: “Help me to want to live again,” to which Szasz replies, “That’s not the kind of thing I can do. I would not make an appointment.” A pause ensues and, slightly frustrated, Singer tries again: “Okay. I’ve heard, Dr Szasz, that you’re a very good psychiatrist and I just don’t feel I can live this way anymore; can you help me?” Szasz responds, “Perhaps. Okay. We can have a conversation; come and see me.” The transcript reads perhaps as harsh, but in Szasz’s voice there is something ameliorating. When he says, “Come and see me,” he does not sound clinical. Rather, one hears a genuine and fully willed invitation.

What is the difference between Singer’s first, rebuffed, approach and his second, accepted one, besides the compliment to Szasz? In the first, Singer lacks agency. He positions himself as seeking rescue. In the second, he seems similarly distressed but he takes ownership of his choice to seek Szasz’s help. Szasz demands ownership of his own choices; he decides whether he will see someone, but he demands that ownership of choice of others as well. “The goal,” he says, “is to assume more responsibility and therefore more liberty and more control over one’s own life.”

Szasz’s fierce independence and his symmetric insistence on the responsibility of others for their own fate read to me as a defense against the emotional burden of having escaped the Holocaust. Indeed, that fierce independence seems to be one that he held to the death. Singer asks, “If you were dependent on someone else, caretakers . . . would you think . . . of killing yourself?” Szasz pauses and smiles before replying, “Off the record.”

Should Szasz’s alleged suicide, then, be seen as a courageous adherence to the principles by which he lived or a symptom of a pathological avoidance of helplessness? Dr Szasz might reply that either way, it was his choice.

Pages

Disclosures

Dr Yaseen is Attending Psychiatrist at the Family Center for Bipolar Disorder, an affiliate of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. He reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.

References

1. Schaler J. Kaddish for Thomas Szasz. The Thomas S. Szasz, MD Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsibility. http://www.szasz.com/szaszdeath.htm. Accessed October 17, 2013.
2. Carey B. Dr. Thomas Szasz, Psychiatrist Who Led Movement Against His Field, Dies at 92. New York Times. September 11, 2012. www.nytimes.com/2012/09/12/health/dr-thomas-szasz-psychiatrist-who-led-movement-against-his-field-dies-at-92.html. Accessed October 17, 2013.
3. Szasz TS. The myth of mental illness. Am Psychol. 1960;15:113-118.

 

 
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