When I began reading her article I found myself nodding sympathetically. Her initial observations are credible: "Up to eighty percent of therapists practice couples therapy. Today, something like forty percent of husbands and wives receive premarital counseling, often pastoral, and millions of married couples seek therapy. Doubtless, many receive a great deal of help, expert and caring. Nevertheless, a 1995 Consumer Reports survey ranked marriage counselors last, among providers of mental health services, in achieving results."
While there is surely some truth here, it is also true that there are many different kinds of couples counselors-- pastoral counseling is not the same as conflict resolution, therapy is not the same as coaching, and sex therapy has no connection to Salvador Mnuchin's family therapy-- and that it is too facile to dismiss it all.
In much therapy the quality of results depends very much on the quality of the relationship established between patient and therapist, or client and coach. Human connections are helpful, even if the therapist's ability to establish them has little or nothing to do with science.
For some of my own past views of couples counseling, see this post.
Lepore, however, considers marriage therapy as a single thing, because she sees it as the outgrowth of the theory and practice of one man. And she is going to blame its failings uniformly on the residual influence of the man who seems to have begun it. That man is Paul Popenoe.
Lepore does not spend very much time considering the theory and practice of Popenoe; he is not another Freud or Jung. She prefers to argue his influence from his prominence and celebrity. Which is dubious in and of itself.
You may not have heard of Paul Popenoe. Before reading Lepore's article I had only been vaguely familiar with the name. According to Lepore, Popenoe originated marriage therapy. He wrote the famed Ladies Home Journal column, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?", founded the now defunct American Institute of Family Relations, authored marriage manuals, books and a syndicated newspaper column, had his own radio and television shows, and so on. In his day Paul Popenoe was "Mr. Marriage."
Born in 1888 Popenoe was also a stone cold racist and eugenicist. He wanted to save the marriages of those who were biologically superior because he wanted to purify the race. He favored sterilizing the infirm and the feeble-minded. He thought that lighter-skinned blond people were genetically superior to their darker-skinned brethren, and he sympathized with Hitler.
There is little doubt that Popenoe was a racist. But is his racism the reason that so much couples counseling is less than effective? Is his racism the reason that so many people seek out couples counselors in order to achieve what Lepore calls personal fulfillment through self-expression?
I have certainly expressed my own considerable doubts about the therapy culture's promotion of personal fulfillment through self-expression. To see its origin in racism is an absurdity. To say that because racists want to improve the purity of the race, anyone who seeks out self-improvement or marital improvement, is, by extension, a racist is, dare I say, idiotic. It simply shows that the author does not understand syllogisms.
Lepore's notion that Popenoe's racism is the root concept in marriage therapy is a slanderous oversimplification. Do you believe that all those who currently practice couples counseling are, unbeknownst to themselves, part and parcel of a eugenics program whose purpose is to cleanse the race? Since Lepore makes no distinctions between the different kinds of marriage and couples counseling, her article lends itself to such a conclusion.
Unfortunately, Lepore also neglects to explain the basic tenets of Popenoe's theories or practice. Once she can establish, correctly, that he is a racist, she concludes, incorrectly, that all of his work must promote racism.
You may believe that I am exaggerating. Unfortunately I am not. In the course of her essay Lepore takes a look at Lori Gottlieb's recent, and much discussed, book where she encouraged women to settle for a man who was good enough. The book elicited much commentary and debate.
In her book Gottlieb recounted her work with someone named Evan Marc Katz, a man who was "a personal trainer for love." Gottlieb wanted Katz to help her find true love and a husband. The training did not work. As Lepore describes it: "At the end of the book, still single, [Gottlieb] takes the list [of all she wants in a man], stuffs it into a helium balloon and lets go. I think it was Popenoe who fucked up her love life."
Say what? Whatever does Popenoe's racism have to do with making lists of the qualities she is looking for in a husband?
If you are looking for a master of the art of the non-sequitor, of the ad hominen argument, and of syllogistic error, you have come to the right place. Jill Lepore has not learned the lessons that college undergraduates are supposed to have absorbed in Philosophy 101.
Now you can see why I was curious to know who Jill Lepore was. Who would dare to paint an entire profession with the stain of racism because one of its earliest practitioners was a racist? And how does such nonsense make its way into the New Yorker. Maybe the famed New Yorker fact checkers do not extend their considerable expertise to the world of rational thought.
What did I find out about Jill Lepore? I discovered that she is an award-winning writer, and that she possesses a chair in American History at Harvard University. Well, gag me with a spoon. Link here.
If this is the kind of thinking you can find at the summit of the American academic establishment, and if this is being taught to the best and brightest college students as the ultimate in human wisdom, then, surely, we, as a nation, have a problem.
Of course, we do not want tot fall into the same trap that claimed the mind of Jill Lepore. They are not all intellectual deficient. There are many brilliant and accomplished professors at Harvard. And yet, if Harvard has conferred the laurel of academic distinction on a Jill Lepore, then, clearly there is something seriously wrong on the banks of the Charles.