Paula Caplan, a prolific writer, playwright, and social activist, who for decades was one of the most prominent critics of psychiatry and its diagnoses, died on Wednesday from cancer. She was 74.
In 1996, Paula Caplan published a withering critique of the creation of DSM IV, They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal. She had been a consultant to the DSM IV task force in the earlier stages of its work, and with this insider’s experience informing the book, she described a process for defining “normalcy” by the American Psychiatric Association that lacked scientific grounding and was, in many ways, an arbitrary drawing of boundary lines between the normal and abnormal. Her book, together with Making Us Crazy, by Herbert Kutchins and Stuart Kirk, made a powerful case that the DSM lacked both reliability and validity, the twin requirements of any useful diagnostic manual. From that time forward, she regularly wrote of the harm that came from applying such diagnostic labels to people.
Caplan earned her PhD in psychology from Duke University, and before she made her public splash with They Say You’re Crazy, she wrote two books that gave her stature as a prominent “second wave” feminist: The Myth of Women’s Masochism (1985) and Don’t Blame Mother (1989). Her writings on these issues led the American Psychological Association to publicly declare her an “eminent woman psychologist.”
She maintained her own blog, wrote for a time on Psychology Today, and was a prolific writer for Mad in America (and also a presenter for Mad in America Continuing Education). She wrote and spoke on themes such as the damage caused by the “PTSD” label, how to prevent suicide without resorting to harmful labeling, and the issues with pathologizing eating disorders rather than understanding the social pressures on young girls that cause them.
Over the course of her professional career, she was a lecturer in Harvard’s program on women, gender and sexuality, and in the psychology department. For a time, she was head of the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Her most recent academic appointment was as an associate at the Du Bois Institute, Hutchins Center for African American Research, at Harvard University.
While perhaps best known for her non-fiction writings, Paula Caplan was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter/filmmaker. Her plays, such as Call Me Crazy and The Test, were lauded as poignant and funny pieces that illuminated the complexities of human relationships, while bringing awareness to the problematic aspects of psychiatric diagnosis.
In her last book, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans, she told the stories of veterans returning from war, and made a passionate case that in lieu of diagnosing those who were suffering from the trauma of war with PTSD, that we—the public—should instead listen to their stories. She founded the Listen to a Veteran project to promote this effort, and also produced a short documentary on the subject titled Is Anybody Listening.
Her second film project, as both an executive producer and writer, was Isaac Pope: The Spirit of an American Century. The son of sharecroppers (and grandson of people held in slavery), Isaac Pope fought in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge, and the film tells of how, among other accomplishments, he was an unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement. Most recently, she was completing a documentary titled Execution by the Numbers, which tells of the continuing execution of people with intellectual disabilities, even though a 2002 Supreme Court ruling declared such executions unconstitutional.
Her critiques of psychiatry and her other writings led to her being invited to appear on many national media programs, including “Donahue,” “Oprah,” “Geraldo,” “The Today Show,” “Hour Magazine,” and “CBS Sunday Morning,” evidence of the national impact of her life’s work.
Below are a few short remembrances and tributes to Paula Caplan. Readers wishing to contribute should send their tributes to [email protected], or post a tribute as a comment beneath this story.
Jo Watson, founder of A Disorder for Everyone
Many years before the day I met Paula in a Downtown Manhattan cafe I loved her through her courageous change-making work that had so massively influenced my life. But meeting her, feeling her support, encouragement and love every day since then and having the honour of becoming such close friends was just a pure blessing.
Paula’s legacy and the impact she’s had on the challenge to western psychiatry is immense and it’s impossible to adequately capture it in the short paragraph I’ve been asked to write.
The publication of They Say You’re Crazy – How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide who’s Normal is a truth-telling game-changer in the thinking around how we understand psychiatry that came directly from her experience as a consultant to DSM committees and her bravery in speaking out about what she discovered. No one else has exposed the deceit and corruption in quite the same way. And her masterpiece of the play Call Me Crazy brought these ideas to new audiences again and again.
Her work–in terms of publications, contribution to academia and her tireless activism–is nothing short of extraordinary and I know it will all be fully acknowledged and appropriately celebrated in due course.
It is indisputable that because of Paula’s ruthless tenacity and total refusal to accept the unacceptable she leaves behind a very different world to that which she entered.
We’ve lost a true warrior but we will always have the wisdom, knowledge and example that she’s left us. Let us all use it with as much “Paula gusto” as we are capable of.
Attorney Jim Gottstein, founder of PsychRights
Paula Caplan left us too soon. She was a scholar, a teacher, an actor, a playwright, an author, an advocate, and a friend. She was extraordinary in all these things, but what stood out to me the most was her absolute integrity. She simply would not let anything that was wrong pass without challenge. It made some people uncomfortable. Good. I knew she was sick, but it is still hard to conceive of a world without her. I will miss Paula greatly.
Lucy Johnstone, UK clinical psychologist
Paula was a leader and an inspiration for so many of us. I have been quoting her work – especially the classic article on Delusional Dominating Personality Disorder – for nearly 30 years now. She never let all those delusional dominating men of the DSM silence her. Many people are dissatisfied with the psychiatric system but few saw its core faults as clearly as she did and even fewer have been able to translate that into so many forms of activism. I am hugely grateful for Paula’s support of me, Jo Watson and AD4E. She will be so much missed.
James Davies, author of Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm than Good
Paula J. Caplan has been one of the most vital critical thinkers in the last 40 years. Her analyses, works of scholarship, films and plays together constitute one of the most important canons in mental health history. This truth will become ever more apparent as the years roll on. She perturbed and irritated powerful vested interests, but always for the right reasons. While her deep humanity, courage, warmth and love did immeasurable good for those harmed and oppressed by the psychiatric system. She gave voice to the disenfranchised and inspiration to change-makers far and wide. Her exacting standards made us all better writers, thinkers and people. She demanded courage we never knew we had. My love and respect for her will only grow – I will miss her deeply.
Peter Kinderman, UK psychologist
This is terrible news. Paula was such a force for good, such a wise scholar, such a valuable friend and ally that the world seems colder and poorer without her. I guess it’s cold comfort for her friends and family to know that she leaves behind a legacy of outstanding work, aimed squarely at improving the quality of life of our communities, and was much loved and admired by all who had the privilege to have known her.
Miranda Spencer, MIA Editor
I was stunned to learn of Paula Caplan’s passing. It is difficult to process the loss of such a “life force.”
Paula was a friend as well as a colleague, and was indirectly responsible for my joining the Mad in America team. I edited several of her articles for MIA in recent years, including this one on one of her most passionate causes: the lack of empirical validity of, and potential harm caused by, psychiatric labels.
It is no exaggeration to say that her book, They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal, along with Dr Peter Breggin’s Toxic Psychiatry, helped save my life during a very dark period. They validated my sense that labels and drugs were hindering, rather than helping, my recovery from a midlife mental health crisis. Through these books, I discovered the critical psychiatry movement, which in turn led me to Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic and this website.
Paula recruited me to my first activism in that movement, a campaign to hold organized psychiatry accountable for the consequences of receiving a psychiatric diagnosis. With eight others, we filed grievances with the American Psychiatric Association on the harm we had personally experienced due to such labels, and asked for redress. With typical persistence and determination, after the APA unceremoniously refused to consider our cases (physically evicting her when she visited their Washington, DC offices in person to discuss the matter), Paula had us file cases with the US Department of Health and Human Services, asking for an investigation. H&HS also demurred, but you can watch YouTube videos of Paula’s description of the “DSM 9” campaign, and some of us reading our stories, here.
In recent years, she added award-winning documentary filmmaker to the many hats she wore, and I was honored to have her pick my brain for fundraising and publicity ideas, particularly for a documentary she’d long wanted to produce about psychiatric diagnoses. In turn, she acted as my honorary “Jewish Mother,” often calling to urge me to take better care of myself and offering advice whenever I’d mention a health issues or other problems on social media. She was fierce, but I saw a softer side—to me, she radiated nurturance and a desire to heal the world of all pain and injustice. She will be terribly missed.
Robert Nikkel, former director of Mad in America Continuing Education:
Paula Caplan never expected to be taken without comment, preferably with agreement. She got reactions, deservedly so, for her outright advocacy not only of women’s rights but for the position that psychiatric disorders are without meaning and wreak considerable harm.
For this, she was one of my North Stars. That didn’t always mean agreement but I took her reckoning seriously and there were times when I needed to back off a position or two.
I also had to hold my ground when her total objection to one of the Mad in American Continuing Education webinars didn’t meet her North Star standard. She expressed her view in typical Paula Caplan style, telling me she “was floored” that I would allow the use of the term “disorders” in the title.
That didn’t stop our connection because Paula didn’t cut me off and besides, most of the time I’ve been in complete agreement that this term ‘disorder” means almost nothing from a scientific or even ethical perspective. I have come to believe largely through her influence that it does more harm than good. I’ve found myself quoting her on more than one occasion and will continue to do that.
Marnie Wedlake, Co-Editor for Mad in Canada:
I’ve been using Paula’s work in my courses for several years. Her straight-talking delivery is meaningful and impactful, and using it has always made it easier for my students to become actively engaged in our critical examinations of mainstream narratives in mental health.
In December 2020, I had the great pleasure of watching Paula’s play, CALL ME CRAZY. Jo Watson and Lucy Johnstone made this possible by creating a virtual event through A Disorder for Everyone.
To be so brilliant and so creative while being so accessible is a rare gift. She was truly extraordinary!
The global change movement in mental health has lost a giant, but I will be ever grateful for all that Paula has done and the tremendous legacy of work she leaves behind.
David Edward Walker, writer/contributor to Mad in America and Indian Country Today, author of Tessa’s Dance and Signal Peak:
I was shocked to learn my good friend and ally, Paula Caplan, has walked on.
Paula and I began corresponding in 2007 after I’d read her fabulous expose, They Say You’re Crazy. I required her text Bias in Psychiatric Diagnosis (edited with Lisa Cosgrove), in my graduate psychology classes. We first met in person at the 2011 annual conference for the International Society for Ethical Psychiatry and Psychology (ISEPP) in Los Angeles.
Paula volunteered served as a first reader for my manuscript, Tessa’s Dance, promoted it to her own literary agent, and then provided blurbs for both this novel and its sequel, Signal Peak. She was a true friend, always happy to help and sponsor others, and a pioneering leader not always sufficiently appreciated for her relentless focus upon the corruption and biases of the mental health system. In 2014, we presented workshops together at the National Association for Rights Protection & Advocacy Annual Conference in Seattle.
We had many long conversations over phone and email between meeting up. I felt honored to be included in the audience for the LA premiere of her play, Call Me Crazy, in 2011.
We were out of touch during pandemic years, and I had no idea about her illness. I will always be inspired by her unstoppable activism and creative spirit.
I’m very saddened to learn we won’t see one another again on this plane of existence and send my sympathies and condolences to her family.
Robert Whitaker, Mad in America publisher:
I went to school on Paula’s book They Say You’re Crazy when I was writing my first book on psychiatry, Mad in America, and revisited her book—and her work—when I was writing Anatomy of an Epidemic. I was seeking to understand the history of the DSM and how psychiatry adopted its “medical model” for diagnosing mental “disorders,” and her writings helped reveal the non-scientific nature of that manual.
Paula was indeed a warrior, who wrote with great passion and skill about the harm that comes from labeling people with psychiatric disorders. Her passion on this point, if truth be told, often made her a critic of Mad in America, at least in her private emails.
While she appreciated much of the content that appeared on our website, she was also quite critical of our science coverage for not putting terms like “schizophrenia” or “bipolar” in quotes. She felt that we were contributing to societal acceptance of these terms by not doing so. Many of our readers were in agreement with her on this point. We went back and forth on this issue many times.
I mention this because it tells of Paula Caplan’s commitment to fight against societal harms and injustices. It was that inner fire that animated her feminist writings, her critiques of psychiatry, and her later works on veterans, Isaac Pope, and Execution by the Numbers. I admired her greatly for her warrior spirit.
There will be a livestream of a memorial service for Paula Caplan on Tuesday, July 27, at 2 p.m. EDT. Click on www.snowdencares.com at that time.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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