Amen: Choosing the Culturally Different


Are you ready to choose something new?




When we choose cultural artistic events, or anything for that matter—people, internet content, patients—we usually choose what we know or like. Of course, why not?

Instead, someone who was a regular at the Shaw Festival in the lovely, British-like town Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, recommended in the playbill that if one comes to the festival and only had time for one play, it “has to be the play and author that no one has ever heard of.”

Well, my wife and I were coming to this festival celebrating the Irish playwright and satirist George Bernard Shaw for a few days, so we could both pick the plays and playwrights that we knew, but also something new.

Really, though, the matter of difference in choosing the old or new is one of degree and comfort in certainty. Every day is new, and every cultural event is new when performed live. Actually, playing the same recordings is new even if they are not, because we feel different each time we listen.

The something most new turned out to be “The Amen Corner” by James Baldwin. Though we were not familiar with this play, I was quite familiar with this author and read some of his books in the 1960s. James Baldwin was a famous Black American writer, focusing on civil and gay rights starting in the 1950s, and an inspiration for my work with the underserved and mis-served when I stated my psychiatric work in the 1970s.

Much seemed to resonate with psychiatry and even our own clinical work. The characters are not who they seem. One could easily interpret the centrality of Freud’s Oedipal conflict, so popular in the 1950s in American psychiatry. The crux of the drama is a teenage musical pianist prodigy who must choose between his mother, a pastor and choir leader of a small Church, and his wandering father with whom he shares a love of jazz (as do I). Perhaps that left me with sympathy and more empathy for the father. There is a live Gospel choir that helps comment on the church and characters like a Greek chorus often did historically when theatre began. The mother losses her church due to hypocrisy and the father dies, but the son is ready to go out on his own to encounter the world. Baldwin himself had to get away from the racism in America by going to Paris for a decade when he wrote this.

Though we have made progress in homophobia and racism, and how to help our conflicted patients, there is much more to be done for social justice and patient outcomes.


Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

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