You thought ADHD awareness in France was bad. Well, it is. But the autism situation might be worse—or at least better documented.
Two documentaries and a former French-trained psychoanalyst call out the hidebound thinking that, among other things, blames autism on the mother. Even though their focus is autism, not ADHD, the indictment of the predominating French psychoanalytic theory cuts across all psychiatric conditions.
We know that ADHD largely goes unrecognized in France (see my recent post French Kids Don’t Have ADHD? Bien Sûr, Ils Le Font); we know little about its treatment. We know much more about how autism is “treated” in France. In fact, we should say “maltreated.”
The French establishment’s substandard treatment of autism is condemnably bad, according to the Council of Europe (Autisme france et europe) in 2004.
In this post, you’ll learn about this shocking situation from several angles—and draw your own conclusions about what might be happening with ADHD:
- Film snippets from and commentary about two films documenting the deplorable situation for people with autism living in France
- A transcript in English of one of the documentaries: Le Mur (be sure to check out the comments from the lady holding the toy crocodile)
- An insightful guest essay from a French Psychoanalytic School “defector,” Stuart Schneiderman, author of several books, including The Last Psychoanalyst
- A archival video of the massively influential figure behind much of the “philosophy” permeating French culture, including psychiatry: Jacques Lacan. He has been called both “The Shrink from Hell” and “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan.”
My goal with this post: To impress upon anyone you might share it with:
There is nothing to the claims by a rogue therapist in Los Angeles that “French Kids Don’t Have ADHD.”
We should support the ADHD community in France—and counter at every opportunity ignorant, sensationalizing Psychology Today articles about it.
I hope France can keep its centuries-old prized traditions around food production and cultivation, its castles and villages.
But the 21st Century must come to French psychiatry. Human decency demands it.
Autism in France: A Bit of Background and Two Documentaries
Decades ago in the U.S., the mothers of children with autism were commonly blamed for their child’s condition. They were called “refrigerator mothers,” whose lack of nurture and love toward the child resulted in autism. Fortunately, U.S. medical science has stepped into the 21st Century and recognized autism as a complex and variable neurobiological condition.
In France, though, children and adults with autism are viewed through a shockingly archaic psychoanalytic lens, and as a result are essentially neglected. It is as if the entire country had not received the memo: “The brain is an organ, not a philosophical abstract construct to be debated over Gauloises in smoky coffee houses.”
Kicking off the international exposure to France’s shockingly backward psychiatric system: A film called Le Mur—in English, The Wall, Psychoanalysis put to the test of autism.
Through interviews with French experts explaining their approach to children with autism, the documentary showed very clearly, in the minds of many, the disgraceful state in which these children languished. How could they not, when viewing autism as a psychosis resulting from a bad maternal relationship (among other fantastical factors). It all harkens back to the dark days of psychiatrists blaming “refrigerator mothers” for a child’s autism.
Here is trailer for Le Mur; to watch with subtitles in your preferred language, select from the icons that appear at the top of the video when you start watching. You can also rent for 48 hours or purchase a full copy of the documentary at the site. (No doubt Ms. Robert still has legal bills to pay; it would be nice gesture to support her work.)
Sophie Robert, the documentary’s creator, was actually sued by some of the film’s interview subjects. They claimed she took their words out of context. But you can read a fairly accurate transcript of the film’s subtitles at Psychoanalytic treatment for autism: Interviews with French analysts.
Though Robert lost the first lawsuit, she won on appeal, and the film has been newly made available in its full form after being partially censored while the lawsuits were pending.
Here is a trailer for another documentary about autism in France: Shameful.
Consider this excerpt from an interview with the film’s makers at Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism:
How is psychoanalysis being used in treatment?
“Treatment” is not the right term, because it makes it sound like it is something legitimate. These people don’t seem to see a difference between autism and psychosis; they believe that Autism is a psychosis. You don’t have to have any license or degree, you just need to get into a group [of thought, e.g. Freud, Lacan] with other psychoanalysts and you can have an operating practice and say you are a psychoanalyst. It is completely unregulated.
They are telling mothers and fathers that it is their fault, and parents are clearly not happy. These psychoanalysts have many competing theories which include absurd things, like the positions, about the way the parents had sex (during conception). And almost anything they say will contradict the next thing they say. [the version of psychoanalysis that is most prevalent in France is the post-Freudian school associated with Jacques Lacan. The underlying notions are that autism and other mental health problems are caused by a disturbance in the child’s relationship with their mothers, or by “maternal madness.” These theories have been rejected the world over in the last twenty years.]
Autism and French Psychoanalysis
First posted Saturday, January 21, 2012
at the author’s blog, Had Enough Therapy?
By Stuart Schneiderman
In France psychoanalysis is alive and well. Thanks to Jacques Lacan, nearly all French psychiatrists have suffered the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis.
While France has never stinted on psychiatric medication, the dominant modes of psychological treatment for mental illness all involve some version of Freudian psychoanalysis.
French psychoanalysis is a hermeneutically sealed world where presumably intelligent people spin out narratives that pretend to tell you all you ever wanted to know about human behavior.
Most of the time the analysts do not pretend that their theoretical fabulations produce good clinical results. The more sophisticated among them do not even believe in clinical results.
Some of you may know that I have more than a passing familiarity with the French psychoanalytic scene. I was a part of it for many years. Two decades ago I departed from it. I have been warning people away from it ever since. I make no claim to objectivity here.
Most of the time the analysts do not
pretend that their theoretical fabulations
produce good clinical results. The
more sophisticated among them
do not even believe in
I mention this to preface an amazing story, one that shows the dark side of French psychoanalysis. It has caused considerable chagrin in the French psychoanalytic community.
Two days ago The New York Times (“A French Film Takes Issue With the Psychoanalytic Approach to Autism”, 1/19/12) reported on the controversy that has erupted around a documentary film produced by one Sophie Robert.
Robert decided to examine the way autistic children are treated by the psychiatric establishment in France. She compared the clinical results achieved by one child whose parents chose an American behavioral technique called PECS and another child who had been treated with psychoanalytically-inspired methods as a day patient in a psychiatric clinic.
For the record: PECS stands for Picture Exchange Communication System. It works to help autistic children learn to use language.
The film notes at the beginning that autism is generally considered a neurological condition. In the distant American past Bruno Bettleheim attempted to treat autistic children with a variant of psychoanalysis, to little avail. His work has long since been discredited on this side of the Atlantic.
He still has a following in France, and his work, coupled with Freudian theory, has caused French psychoanalysts to believe that, even if autism is a neurological condition, its root cause is psychogenic.
In everyday language, this means that mothers are to blame. If you watch Robert’s film and listen to the various French psychoanalysts proudly offer up their theoretical narratives about autism we discover that they believe it is either caused in utero by a mother’s depression, or by bad mothering.
The psychoanalysts indict mothers for being too close or too distant, too warm or too cold. In any case a mother’s bad parenting skills or psychological defects are the root cause of her child’s autism.
In everyday language, this
mothers are to blame.
For the record, some of the psychoanalysts belong to the Lacanian School where I trained. Others belong to French psychoanalytic groups that are part of the International Psychoanalytic Association, the IPA. Most of the important psychoanalytic societies in America belong to the IPA.
When it comes to treating autism, the psychoanalysts do not seem to have very much to offer. It is difficult to conduct a talking cure with a child who cannot talk.
But they do not seem to be especially bothered by the inconvenience. A couple of them seem to think that a silent patient constitutes a special challenge to their fortitude as psychoanalysts. They see themselves being challenged to listen attentively to a patient who is incapable of talking.
When the interviewer asks these psychoanalysts what they would consider to be a good treatment result, they themselves are rendered speechless. They act as though the question has never crossed their minds.
French psychoanalysts have been cured of any obligation to provide treatment for their patients.
The film has caused more than a scandal in France. It has provoked a lawsuit.
The French psychoanalysts come across in the film as blithering fools and they are none too happy about. Most of them speak at length about their theories of autism. They offer what I consider to be a fair rendering of their bizarre belief system.
And yet, three of them, the more Lacanian analysts, are suing the filmmaker for making them look like fools. They want their interviews removed from the film. They also want monetary damages. [Note: As mentioned above, the plaintiffs won the first round but the director won on appeal.]
I am not surprised. Free and open debate and discussion has never been permitted in the world of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Take my word for it.
I will tell you that Robert did not select a bunch of psychoanalytic cranks. Many of those she interviewed are pillars of the French psychoanalytic community, both from the Lacanian School and the IPA.
One might surmise that they were unaware of how foolish they looked until they saw themselves on film. Once they saw what they looked like they ran screaming into the night and decided to blame to the filmmaker.
In reality, they had agreed to be interviewed; they all signed releases. Most of them seemed to thrill to the opportunity to present their grand ideas to a larger public.
It’s one thing to sound like a fool. It’s quite another to be actively militating against effective treatment for autistic children. That is the charge that Sophie Robert levels against the psychoanalytic establishment.
In her film Robert shows that the French approach to psychotherapy is actively preventing autistic French children from receiving the most advanced and most effective current forms of treatment.
That, dare I say, is the rub. And it is not a theoretical rub.
Here is the way The New York Times presents the case:
Le Mur, or The Wall, a small documentary film about autism released online last year, might normally not have attracted much attention.
But an effort by French psychoanalysts to keep it from public eyes has helped to make it into a minor cause and shone a spotlight on the way children in France are treated for mental health problems.
The documentary, the first film by Sophie Robert, follows two autistic boys: Guillaume, who has been treated with the behavioral, or “American,” approach; and Julien, who has been kept in an asylum for six years and treated with psychoanalysis. Guillaume, though challenged, is functioning at a high level in school. Julien is essentially silent, locked out of society.
Since Sept. 8, when the film first became available on the Web, it and Ms. Robert, 44, have been the targets of criticism from both the analysts who appear in the film and from within the country’s psychoanalytic establishment. Three of the psychoanalysts whom Ms. Robert interviewed for the film have sued her, claiming she misrepresented them in the 52-minute documentary, which has not yet been screened in cinemas or on television.
I will mention that the boy named Julien was not kept in an asylum. As I understood it, he was treated in a psychiatric clinic in a program where he spent his days in the clinic and his evenings at home.
If you watch the film you will see that Guillaume, while still autistic, is functioning reasonably well. He goes to school, gets fairly good grades, and requires only a minimum of extra consideration.
Thanks to the American “behavioral” approach, which his mother discovered on the Internet, he will have a good chance to lead a productive life.
If you watch the film you should also pay close attention to Guillaume’s mother. If you keep in mind the psychoanalytic mania about blaming mothers you will be surprised to see how good a mother Guillaume has.
But, if it is so well established that the American approach provides better treatment why don’t all French children undergo it?
That is the real story here. And that is why Robert’s film has been so viciously attacked.
The film claims that the behavioral approach is simply not available to most autistic French children.
It is not available because it bears what French intellectuals consider to be a stigma: it comes from America. Therefore, it offends the cultural sensibilities of French psychoanalysts.
Since upwards of 80% of French psychiatrists learn psychoanalytic therapy, their influence is considerable.
Given the stigma attached to behavioral approaches to therapy, very, very few therapists are willing to risk their careers by learning it.
For French psychoanalysts it is not about effective treatment. It is about cultural purity. Lacanian psychoanalysis is a purely French production. Thus it must be preferred over the American behavioral approach that does not blame mothers and that actually works.
One French analyst even mentions with considerable pride that he and his cohorts have saved France from an “invasion” of alien American cultural influences.
It is a truly amazing statement, one made all the more amazing by the fact that the man who speaks it is oblivious to what he seems to be saying.
A psychoanalyst trained in a school that places special value on speech and language ought to weigh the implications of his words. He ought to know that when you say that you are actively fighting off an American invasion, you are evoking an historical antecedent.
As everyone knows in 1944 allied armies did invade France. On D Day they invaded occupied France in order to liberate the nation from its Nazi occupiers.
Why Frenchmen would fear an American “invasion” is almost beyond comprehension. One day I will explain it, but not today.
Now, faced with the threat of an alien American invasion, French psychoanalysts are fighting to prevent autistic children from receiving the best treatment available.
That they are doing it in the name of French honor and integrity renders us speechless.
Worse yet, Sophie Robert’s film has exposed them as fabulators, as perpetrating an intellectual con. In good French one might say that they come across in the moving looking like cons. (The word has an altogether different meaning and implication in French.)
Stuart Schneiderman, today a New York-based Executive Coach and Life Coach, is the author of several books, including The Last Psychoanalyst, which garnered this review from the documentary Le Mur‘s creator, Sophie Robert (translated from the French):
…I recommend that you read Stuart Schneiderman’s “The Last Psychoanalyst.”
It is a caustic, drole, brilliant essay on the psychoanalytic church. In his book the author recounts how psychoanalysis, having failed to become a therapy transformed itself into a fundamentalist pseudo-religion. I myself agree wholeheartedly.
This is even more interesting coming from someone who has been on the inside. Stuart Schneiderman was a Lacanian psychoanalyst in the 70s in the heart of the School of the Freudian Cause (which he deliciously rebaptizes the Holly (Wholly) Freudian Church. He hung out with some of the people who were suing me and who were trying to censure the truth about autism in France.
During the affair around [my film] Le Mur, or The Wall, Stuart Schneiderman openly sided with the parents of autistic children, in several blog posts, especially his post on “an army of mothers.” The last chapter of his book is dedicated to the trial around my film, The Wall and the situation surrounding the treatment of autism in France. A sane reading that will soothe the troubled hearts of parents and will comfort the good professionals. We look forward to the French translation.
Additional Material On Lacan
Video below: Jacques Lacan Parle (speaks), with English subtitles.
Gina notes: I watched the entire video of this “father of modern psychoanalysis.” My impressions are described in this article in Vice: “Jacques Lacan Was Sort of a D***”:
The fact that some love to hate the father of modern psychoanalysis is nothing new. Way back in 1995, Noam Chomsky, who had met Lacan several times, described him as an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan”.
Three years later, the physicist and strident critic of postmodernism Alan Sokal referred to Lacan’s work as “gibberish”, a viewpoint Richard Dawkins backed up, deriding the Frenchman as a “fake” for “equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one”. But for others – perhaps those impressed by someone with the temerity to find the penis’s mathematical twin – Lacan is an endless source of inspiration.
Your comments welcome! — Gina Pera