Real lives or imaginary wounds? A review of Changing Our Minds: Lesbian Feminism and Psychology by Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins (New York, 1993) as published in Women’s Review of Books

By Foxx (nee Jeanette) Silveira

Three and a half years ago a lesbian I deeply loved put a loaded gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. She had finally turned to confront her memories of being raped as a very young girl and had found them unbearable. Her two therapists were not competent enough to prevent the completion of this decades-old murder, but then neither was I, nor were any of her many other loving, intelligent and politically astute lesbian friends. As I opened Changing Our Minds, described on the back cover as an "incisive critique" of therapy, I wondered what it would have to say, to her, to those of us who loved her.
We would like lesbians to believe that most of us, most of the time, are strong and capable human beings who do not need to be "cured" of imaginary addictions and internalized self-hatred. And that on those occasions when we are not strong and capable, we are--or should be, could be--able to take care of each other. To the extent that we are not, that is an indictment of our movement. (p. 104)
Changing Our Minds would have been a far better book if its authors had attempted to demonstrate that the various opinions which they "would like lesbians to believe" are in fact true. What I miss in its pages is an inquiry into the reality of lesbian lives. Another lesbian in my city killed herself in the same way in the same month as my lover. (I know of only one; there may of course have been others.)

Lesbians are strong and capable, but perhaps that is why the male-supremacist system, which has access to us from a very young age, is willing to torture us physically, sexually and emotionally in ways that debilitate or destroy very many of us. Lesbian communities have been trying to support lesbians in severe distress for many years now, without much success. Rather than being an "indictable" offense, this relative failure is a measure of the difficulty of the task and the poverty of our resources.

Celia Kitzinger, a social psychologist, and Rachel Perkins, a clinical psychologist, are English radical lesbian feminists who take a dim view of their profession. The basic argument of their book is that "psychological approaches teach us to privatize, individualize, and pathologize our problems as women and as lesbians, rather than to understand these difficulties as shared consequences of oppression ...lesbian/feminist psychology is dangerous to lesbians because it is anti-feminist." Their primary target is therapy, that is, clinical psychology in its applied form, and they intend their critique to apply not only to the most sexist, lesbian-hating psychologies but also to the psychologies of lesbian feminists like Laura Brown. The argument is advanced primarily by statements of Kitzinger and Perkins’ own beliefs and by critical analyses of the ideas of lesbian and/or feminist therapists, all liberally supported by anti-psychology quotes from such other feminist and lesbian writers as Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffreys, Phyllis Chesler, Louise Armstrong, Caryatis Cardea, Julia Penelope and many more.

Certainly there are points here that deserve endorsement. In what is essentially an update of the critique feminists made of psychology in the early seventies, Kitzinger and Perkins describe how therapy has coopted the feminist demand for political power into a search for “empowerment,” wherein “power” is reformulated as “a sense of personal agency quite unrelated to the objective and material facts of our lives.” There are similar discussions of “choice,” “freedom” and “homophobia.” The critique of “homophobia” in particular is long overdue. A term that was invented by psychologists in the late sixties and that later spawned “lesbophobia” and “heterophobia,” the word depoliticizes our understanding of our experience “by suggesting that the oppression of lesbians comes from…particular individuals suffering from a diagnosable phobia” rather than from a political system.

Unfortunately, Changing Our Minds attempts to buttress its conclusions that lesbians and feminists should not seek therapy by arguing that we have no real need to seek relief from our emotional pain, because that pain is minor. Kitzinger and Perkins are surprisingly ignorant about the nature of trauma and about its extent and severity in lesbian lives. For example, in order to support their claim that lesbians “in recovery” are making too much of their “currently fashionable wounds,” they quote with approval Wendy Kaminer’s description in I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional of the “laughter and lightness” expressed by groups of Cambodian women refugees who had survived “torture, starvation, multiple rapes…and had witnessed the slaughter of their families.”(1)
What is chilling here is that neither Kaminer nor Kitzinger and Perkins understand that the “laughter and lightness” is a survival mechanism, and that beneath it is the devastation which severe trauma always causes. What is also chilling is that they do not know that there are lesbians in their own communities, survivors of cult and other tortures, who have also been starved, gang-raped, physically abused and forced to watch the murders of people they love.

But Kitzinger and Perkins’ approach to the effects of trauma on lesbian lives is not only naïve, it is also sarcastic and mean-spirited. In addition to having “imaginary addictions” and “fashionable wounds,” lesbians “revel in their victimhood,” are “forever fussing” and “obsessed with protecting…their fragile selves.” Lesbians “simply sit and lament” while their “inner children” are “re-released…to whine and moan once more.”

My mind takes words like these and places them next to the image of my lover’s shattered skull. She said: If I kill myself, then my friends will know I wasn’t faking.

Remarkably, this insistence that we should “pull ourselves together and stop making such a fuss” is made in the name of radical feminist politics, as though we would somehow be better activists against our oppression if we did not remember that oppression causes us pain. “When our suffering is the focus,” the authors say, “the root cause of that suffering is ignored.” Really?

In rejecting “psychology,” Kitzinger and Perkins reject any attention paid to the psyche, because, they say, there is nothing there to be fixed. We do not internalize oppression; rather, our fears of being oppressed and attacked are entirely realistic. “Like our fear of being run over if we stand in the middle of a busy road, fear of a real threat cannot be phobic or irrational.” What they leave out here is childhood. Like many women, my lover was terrified, and in the end fatally controlled, by things that had happened many years ago and were never going to happen again.

Many lesbians in fact report that gaining control over the painful disruptions which girlhood abuse causes in their present lives—whether this resolution is achieved through therapy or by other means—greatly improves their political effectiveness. This kind of recovery does not privatize the painful effects of oppression—quite the reverse. But Kitzinger and Perkins dismiss this as a version of what they call the “vegetarian argument”: these lesbians, they say, are just like the vegetarian who claims that eating meat gives her the energy she needs to go to animal rights demonstrations. The false analogy hardly needs pointing out: while meat-eating is by definition anti-vegetarian, recovery is not by definition anti-feminist.

The “vegetarian argument” analogy is not an isolated case; Changing Our Minds is a poorly argued book. Non sequiturs are frequent. Assertions—for example, that there is no such thing as a “real self” or an “inner child”—are made with no attempt to back them up. Most damaging are the many contradictions. We are told that we “should” be “looking after each other, caring about each other,” but on the same page support groups are criticized because women “just” spend time in them nurturing each other. We should call ourselves “victims” rather than “survivors” because there is no shame in being oppressed, but we must not “identify” as victims. Political action should be “an option for all of us, whatever our state of psychological well-being,” but women with “problems” are criticized for having “burdened” the movement and impeded “political progress.” And it is astonishing to find radical feminists scoffing at the idea that just about everyone comes from a dysfunctional family. I thought we radical feminists thought “dysfunctional family” was a redundancy!

I do find one chapter in Changing Our Minds valuable.(2) In their discussion of “mad lesbians” Kitzinger and Perkins communicate a real understanding of and empathy for those experiences usually labelled “schizophrenia.” They are correct, I believe, that lesbian communities tend to believe there are no mad lesbians, because they assume that women afflicted with madness do not really have sexuality or feel affection. Lesbians who hallucinate or believe the TV is talking to them, for example, are likely to be laughed at, excluded and told they “should” get themselves together. Kitzinger and Perkins argue passionately for making lesbian communities “socially accessible” to the very disturbed, even when this causes some disruption and takes effort. They also present a cogent defense of the use of psychotropic drugs, in those cases where the benefits outweigh the negative effects.

Yet they do not seem troubled by the similarity between those oppressive attitudes toward madness which they criticize and their own attitudes toward lesbians struggling with abuse and trauma. Paradoxically, but in keeping with their earlier refusal to attend the pain caused by oppression, it seems to be because they find it “hard to see” how “schizophrenia” and “manic-depression” could be “products of oppression” and because they believe that “mad lesbians” are “worlds apart” from “us,” that they are willing to treat lesbians suffering from these afflictions by a different set of rules. But this is advocacy at too high a price; it freezes these lesbians in an unchangeable differentness. Severe forms of oppression, such as physical torture, can produce behaviors that look like “madness” (or perhaps are “madness”) and must always be considered as possible causes of such behavior. It is also clear from Kitzinger and Perkins’ own discussion and from the illuminating comments of the “mad” women themselves (“I can be fine for weeks, months sometimes, but…I never know when they’re going to come back—the voices, the ideas”) there is a continuum of “madness.”

Whether we are “mad” or “sane,” I am not suggesting that we go back to therapy as the only alternative to Kitzinger and Perkins. For one thing, therapy tends to reinforce the sense of shame and isolation on which the traumas of girlhood rape and other abuse feed. However, uninformed friendship does not work either. I and my lover’s many friends were well-meaning but ignorant (we didn’t write a book about it, though). We were ignorant about suicide and about the stages of recovery from girlhood abuse, especially from cult abuses; we were ignorant even about the existence of cult abuse (which also goes unmentioned in Changing Our Minds). And we were unorganized, we did not have systems in place to deal with her kind of crisis. What is needed is an informed, community-based response, one which develops a body of lesbian knowledge about how to deal with crisis and severe chronic distress and which listens to survivors with trust and respect.

Kitzinger and Perkins’s solution for the non-mad—a kind of generalized friendly support for lesbians who don’t “whine” too much about their pain—is a return, not as they claim to the radical feminism of the early seventies, but to the times before, when women suffered in silence and denial. This is how our mothers and grandmothers lived their lives, and we all know what fun girls they were.

Changing Our Minds sets itself against the flow of lesbian and feminist history. Many lesbians get their first memories of abuse at lesbian conferences and festivals. It is in fact the coming together of women and lesbians which has produced the outpouring of abuse memories now flooding all parts of society and happily threatening to change mass consciousness. Only the destruction of our communities could reverse this process. Let us trust in our collective creation.


1. Wendy Kaminer, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992).

2. For the record: I published a version of this chapter in Lesbian Ethics, Vol.5, No.1 (Summer 1993). Lesbian Ethics does not do reprints. When I asked Rachel Perkins what the relationship was between the manuscript they sent me and the book Changing Our Minds referenced in it as being “in press,” she told me the manuscript had been written especially for Lesbian Ethics.