In his riveting tale of how psychiatrists "medicalize" human suffering, Gary Greenberg recounts that, in 1850, a physician called Samuel Cartwright reported a new disease in the highly respected New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal
. Cartwright named it drapetomania, from the ancient Greek drapetes for a runaway slave; in other words, here was a disease that "caused Negroes to run away." It had one primary diagnostic symptom - "absconding from service" - and a few secondary ones, including "sulkiness and dissatisfaction just prior to flight."
Drapetomania was, of course, consigned to the dustbin of medical history. It never made it into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(DSM), the leading authority on mental health diagnosis and research. But, Greenberg suggests in his scathing critique of the DSM, it might well have done - had the manual existed at the time.
After all, he notes, homosexuality was listed as a "sociopathic personality disorder" when the DSM was first published in 1952, and remained so until 1973.
"Doctors were paid to treat it, scientists to search for its causes and cures," he writes in The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry
. "Gay people themselves underwent countless therapies including electric shocks, years on the couch, behaviour modification and surrogate sex."
Greenberg, 56, is a U.S. psychotherapist of 30 years' experience and a prolific writer on mental illness (including his own depression after the collapse of his first marriage). But the target of his latest book is the DSM itself, the so-called "psychiatrist's bible," which aims to provide a definitive list of all mental health conditions, along with their diagnostic criteria.