In Memoriam: Norman Lear Provided Cultural Therapy for Our Society

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A eulogy for an entertainer.

Norman Lear

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

“He would ask us to look into ourselves and what did we think, what were our feelings about this.” - Maya Salam

Recently, I went outside of our usual eulogies for psychiatrists to do one on Rosalynn Carter, who died at the age of 96. She was the beloved wife of President Jimmy Carter and was also a beloved activist for mental health.

Now we have another wise and inspiring elder who died at an even older age: Norman Lear at the age of 101. The similarity with Rosalynn Carter, in my opinion, is that he also tried to help our collective mental health, but more indirectly via entertainment. Right after the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, Lear developed some very popular television shows to counter the prior broadcast message that our society did not have such problems. We did.

First came “All in the Family,” premiering on CBS on January 12, 1971. In it, Archie Bunker spit out derogatory comments, not only about his family members, but also about all minorities, especially racial and sexual. He was also a gun advocate. To make it and most of his shows palatable, Lear laced them with humor and laughter. Sammy Davis, Jr. even kissed this white bigot on the cheek. For many liberals, he still had likable personal qualities.

“The Jeffersons” followed and focused on an economically successful Black man, who disdained White individuals, and his family. They lived in Archie’s neighborhood. “Maude” came in 1972 and dealt with alcoholism, marijuana, and abortion. Because there were so few television stations and no delayed taping, such popular shows were watched all together by millions and millions of Americans. They made people think and talk to one another.

His own production company in 1987 provided about my favorite movie of all time, “Princess Bride.”

He worked well into his 90s, including a successful revision of “One Day at a Time,” focusing on a Latino family. A show in the works at the time of his death dealt with gender transitioning.

Personally, he grew up in a Jewish home and had a Bar Mitzvah. He was married 3 times, last to a psychologist in 1987. Before he entered the entertainment business, he enlisted in the armed forces in 1942, flying over 50 combat bombing missions. He said that he felt “screw ‘em,” but also uneasy that a normal German family might be sitting at a table as the bomb dropped. When he turned 100, he said: “To be honest, I’m a bit worried I may be in better shape than our democracy is.”

However, if this eulogy seems too pollyannish, it is, as most eulogies are wont to be. We do have reruns of older shows, and Lear’s seem prominent. The humor may not seem the same and the prejudices taken differently. If someone tried to produce such cross-cultural shows today, they well might be accused of cultural appropriation, imperialism, or colonialism. Certainly, I have been so accused in recent years, even though I developed a model cultural psychiatry educational program in the late 1970s.1

Usually, cultural conflicts and values do not just go away, but ebb and flow, hopefully with more progress than regression. Lear made progress and we need to carry on his progress, not only in culturally competent and humble patient care, but in the larger society as well.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

Reference

1. Moffic HS, Kendrick EA, Reid K, Lomax J. Cultural psychiatry education during psychiatric residency. Acad Psychiatry. 1988;12:90-102.

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