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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Jan 09, 2021 by Paula Caplan

Published by Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence

A Page-Turner with a Social Conscience: Requiem for a Serial Killer by Phyllis Chesler

WHEN DR. PHYLLIS CHESLER’S groundbreaking, courageous, profoundly insightful book, Women and Madness (1972), was published nearly 50 years ago, it changed the world for all of us who read it. It was a revelation about how women were treated in the mental health system, unjustifiably called “mad” for such things as re-fusing to do the housework, for loving women rather than men, for belonging to a racialized group. She had made it impossible for any reader to assume that therapists were scientists who made objective decisions about what “mental illness” was, who “had” mental illness, and what should be done to them—too often, what should be done to them, not for them. She had also raised other fundamental questions, such as who gets to define normality, who gets to decide who is and is not a “good woman,” and how the so-called “mental health system” had acquired so much dangerous control over women. She yanked us away from assuming that women classified as psychiatrically disordered had individual, intrapsychic problems and left us considering how society’s rigid prescriptions for women caused them to suffer, how that suffering was then treated as the women’s problems rather than society’s, and how the world needed to be changed for the better. The book established her as the pioneer feminist psychologist.

Since Women and Madness, Chesler has written many more books, each about a totally different subject. What all her books share is that all are groundbreaking, and all require the unique kind of mind and the courage either to tackle a subject no one has tackled before, such as her book about good mothers losing custody of their children in Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody (1986; Second Edition, 2011), or a new take on a subject such as Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002; Second Edition, 2009).

Furthermore, Chesler has never been an ivory tower academic. She walks the walk, with her generous spirit and seemingly boundless energy and brilliance leaping to the aid of the oppressed in a stunning variety of arenas. As just one example, when Mothers on Trial (1986/2011) was published, she did not produce the manuscript revealing the horrors of how and why good mothers were losing their children through decisions in family court—and the massive systemic faults sorely needing correction—and then sit back and have a cup of tea. Instead, she organized speakouts in New York City and Toronto, where she brought noncustodial mothers from all walks of life to testify, to make their stories known and hopefully impel change in family courts. So many such mothers were currently living in fear of the men who had worn them down, overspent them into poverty, and terrorized them in various ways, that they were frightened to speak publicly, so Chesler herself was personally warm and supportive and found ways to protect them yet make their experiences public, such as having some mothers appear in disguise while someone else read their story.

To continue reading, download the full review here.

Full review cross-posted at Ms. Magazine.

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