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David Smail is a psychotherapist and writer. Born in Putney, London, in 1938, he was head of clinical psychology services in Nottingham (UK) until his retirement in 1998, and held the honorary post of Special Professor in Clinical Psychology, University of Nottingham, from 1979 to 2000.
He has written several books on the subject of psychotherapy, in which he emphasises the extent to which society is often responsible for personal distress. He is critical of the claims made by psychotherapy, and suggests that it only works to the extent that the therapist becomes a friend of the patient, providing encouragement and support. Much distress, he says, results from current conflicts, not past ones, and in any case, damage done probably cannot be undone, though we may learn to live with it. He doubts whether 'catharsis', the process whereby it is supposed that understanding past events makes them less painful, really works. The assumption that depression, or any other form of mental distress, is caused by something within the person that can be fixed, is he says, without foundation. He could thus be regarded as part of the 'anti-psychiatry' movement, along with R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, but where Laing emphasises family nexus as making psychosis understandable, Smail emphasised 'Interest' and power in relation to more everyday distress. These are integral to Western society, and, he suggests, considered out of bounds by most psychotherapists, who are themselves both constrained and complicit in protecting their own interests.
Smail also attacks the common conceptions of 'happiness' and 'relationships', pointing out that these are by-products of real life, and should not be things to aim at in themselves. He suggests that taking part in real joint efforts is what seems to make people forget themselves and become truly happy, but he also takes a despairing view of how modern society makes it hard to see what the real point of these efforts might be for many people.
In Taking Care - An Alternative to Therapy (1987) Smail, after many years as an active psychotherapist, casts doubt on the supposed mechanisms by which therapy is claimed to be effective. While he does not condemn therapy as useless, he suspects that it is only effective to the extent that the therapist becomes a true friend to the client, involved in their world. Catharsis, the supposed process by which people are 'cured' of 'mental illness' once they gain 'insight' into their problems, is illusory, and therapists are to a large extent magicians involved in wishfull thinking. In this book he recommends that we 'take care' in our involvement in life, and of others we are involved with.
In later books, such as his Power, Interest, and Psychology he has much more to say of the embodied nature of individuals in society, and the extent to which they have any control at all over their lives. Interest and power, he says, are what determine events in our lives more than we are allowed to acknowledge, and 'willpower' is a fiction. This book began as Power Responsibility and Freedom, freely available on the internet, and Smail has some interesting comments on the relative merits of internet versus 'proper' publication. The former, he suspects, is not conducive to the study of a detailed work, and the temptation to constantly update can result in a work that quickly appears dated.
Books by David Smail
- Psychotherapy: a Personal Approach (1978)
- Illusion and Reality: the Meaning of Anxiety (1984)
- Taking Care - an Alternative to Therapy (1987)
- The Origins of Unhappiness (1993)
- How to Survive Without Psychotherapy (1996)
- Taking Care: an Alternative to Therapy (1987)
- The Nature of Unhappiness (2001)
- Why Therapy Doesn't Work (2001)
- Power Interest and Psychology (2005)
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