Book Review - The Road to Malpsychia

Cultic Studies Review, 1(3), 2002

The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and Our Discontents

J. Milton. 

San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2002, 326 pages.

Reviewed by Frank MacHvec, PhD

This book details the dark side of humanistic psychology and raises questions about the interacting roles in society of psychology and cultural and moral relativism. Those familiar with these subjects may have difficulty recognizing them. Those unfamiliar may be misled by quotes out of context, selected references, and unreferenced conclusions. But a free society requires and protects a flow of ideas of varying opinions. The writing is in the style of popular media, based largely on negative details of the personal lives of key leaders in the human potential movement. In the foreword, the author describes how her disillusionment arose from the “private tragedy” of a “boyfriend and life partner” contracting Parkinsonism. That, and exposure to the stressful 1950s and 1960s — from civil rights to the Vietnam War, and, at Swarthmore, to “child anarchists,” the SDS’ “elfin naivete,” and the “free floating ideals” of baby boomers — led her to “a jaundiced view of the constant drumbeat about the importance of self-esteem coming from educators, pop psychologists, and the advice mavens.” She sees Christian fundamentalism as “remarkably successful at overcoming depression, alcoholism, and addiction.”

Chapter 1 (The Rise of Relativism) begins with a discussion of “Abe” Maslow, who was influenced by the cultural relativism of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. Included are biographical details about Benedict’s insecurity and depression, Mead’s eccentric attire and histrionic traits, and the changing sexual preferences of both. According to the author, Benedict was “attracted to students who were in some sense spiritual ‘deviants’ like herself.” Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa was “her own personal Fantasy Island” of “glistening generalizations” based on “sketchy data.” Benedict is credited with writing “the most widely read anthropology book of all time” but criticized for the book’s racism, homosexual sexism, and questionable generalizations.

Chapter 2 (Fully Human) describes Maslow as a “hypersensitive lonely child” of first cousins whose “driving theme” was hostility toward a mother he called “schizophrenogenic.” Despite an IQ of 192 (tested later), his high school grades were “mediocre,” and he was on academic probation at City College. Maslow married his first love, a cousin, and then went on to college. His major interest was “psychological health” and “utopian alternatives.” He explored anthropology, and Ruth Benedict “became almost a surrogate parent.” He formulated his concept of self-actualization while teaching at Brooklyn College. He used historical figures to identify core traits, but he leaned “to the left side of the political spectrum” by listing Adlai Stevenson and not Eisenhower or Truman.

The author judges Maslow’s “worst faults” to be “egotism born of ambition,” impatience, and an “enduring grudge against his mother.” Milton charges that he was a poor mentor of graduate students, “poking holes” in their research without suggesting solutions, which caused some to drop out. The assertion that “Maslow’s essays were never easy reading” differs from published reviews of his works. His professorship at Brandeis provided a more influential platform where he helped found humanistic psychology. Although the author claims humanistic psychology “grew out of Nietzsche’s proclamation God is dead,” it was actually more a reaction against the determinism of behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and the reductionism of the medical model. The behavioristic model sees behavior as environmentally conditioned; the psychoanalytic model views it as instinct-driven, and the medical model considers it to be biochemically influenced and best treated with medication. All three perspectives ignore the potential for positive change via individual free will and initiative and the capacity of persons to cope with and even transcend environmental stress, hereditary predisposition, or biochemical factors.

Chapter 3 (Mushroom People) describes Timothy Leary as “the consummate con man,” focusing on his womanizing, his wife’s suicide, drug abuse, and his descent from university professor to what Leary himself called “recurring science fiction paranoia.” Continuing to expound upon her perspective of Maslow, Milton attributes his popularity to an inadvertent “endorsement of self-realization through drugs,” which he in fact opposed. She criticizes him for the inability to describe peak experiences objectively, instead using “vague quasi-mystical terms” and ignoring the difficulty involved with researching any newly theorized mental process. She judges those studying “religions of the Far East” as “spiritual tourists” choosing what they like “without bothering about inconvenient moral duties imposed by their own culture.” She criticizes humanistic psychologists for studying non-Western religions, but the book implies they are anti-religious. She judges work in mental hospitals “mostly unrewarding” despite thousands who choose it and find it rewarding. The author alleges that “recent studies” question the effectiveness of “talk therapy,” even though the General Accounting Office (GAO) and hundreds of studies confirm its effectiveness. She considers humanistic psychology a power play, but it has in fact always been a minority in psychology.

Chapter 4 (Miracles) begins with a 7-page description of the Marsh Chapel experiment, in which psychedelics were given to volunteers while they listened to a sermon. Milton describes the Institute for Intellectual Freedom as “ultimate identity politics, the right to choose one’s own level of reality” through the use of LSD. She details Leary’s trials and his run-ins with the law, his search for refuge overseas, and his turning federal witness. The chapter ends with a discussion about the failure of LSD to effectively expand consciousness. LSD is still readily available without Leary or a successor, evidence that the causes of its use and abuse are not humanistic psychology, as the author implies, but deeper and more complex factors.

Chapter 5 (Good Boy No More) focuses on Carl Rogers, whose “cardinal sin” was opposing “the imposition of authority.” One could argue, however, that he was not so much anti-authority as pro-individual, the humanistic ideal. Milton says Rogers was “starved of joy” by his “devout Congregationalist mother,” yet he sought to be a minister and attended “liberal” Union Theological Seminary. It seems contradictory that Rogers, “exposed to social gospel clergymen” who saw Christianity as a mission of service to humanity, was “emancipated . . . from what remained of his faith.” He transferred to Columbia, discovered that therapists were poor listeners, and that patients “understood their problems better” and were “uniquely capable of solving them.” He saw the therapist’s role as a “sensitive facilitator” helping people “grow.” The author omits that these events occurred decades before therapists were licensed and no standard diagnostic manual (DSM) existed. He stressed that therapists be “real,” avoiding power relationships and the stigma of labeling (good advice even today). A University of Wisconsin dual psychology-psychiatry professorship enabled him to begin a “talk therapy” program for schizophrenics. The text implies that this approach was foolish, but at the time there were no antipsychotic medications and little or no other psychotherapy for schizophrenia. The author claims “search for the ‘true self’ gives rise to an unconquerable rage against any and all who continue to be guided by the old value system.” Most if not all therapies help clients vent and process such feelings, and a person’s belief system is always an individual decision.

Chapter 6 (Revolutionary Science) continues to attack Maslow and ends charging that psychology can be “mind control.” Maslow is credited for seeing that affluence and nurturing do not ensure higher values, and that Rogers’ unconditional positive regard might lead to dependency and encounter groups to “smug anti-intellectualism.” Ironically, the book’s attack on psychology could be considered anti-intellectual. The author suggests that Maslow’s “eupsychian dream” became a “malpsychian nightmare” in Synanon, primal scream, feeling therapy, rebirthing, and EST (none created or led by him). She credits Rogers with deploring EST’s methods but criticizes him for approving its goals. The book views his unconditional acceptance concept as an unrealistic goal, in contradiction to most religions and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Psychologists (apparently all) are presented as seeking to be authoritative experts but free to “practice revolutionary science” on more and more treatable conditions in a larger range of activities. The author assures us that “every revolution runs out of steam and the age of accountability sets in.” She cites HMOs as part of that accountability because they limit coverage and the number of therapy sessions, despite widespread concerns of many patients, therapists, and consumer groups.

Chapter 7 (The Man Question) focuses on feminism and the family. Milton describes Betty Friedan as “a committed leftist and radical journalist” with “an explosive personality.” She charges Maslow with taking women for granted and putting self-actualization “ahead of family.” Actually, in all current textbooks, his needs hierarchy lists the need for safety, support, and self-esteem early in life. The book presumes to analyze Gloria Steinem’s thinking as “tag lines” from therapy, “warmed over Rogers,” and “snippets from experts who were in fact critics of Rogers.” Without substantiating data, the book claims that “the fundamental fallacy of self-esteem psychology” is that “there is simply no necessary connection between psychological health and success.” Maslow disagreed, with data. Claiming the Clinton-Lewinsky incident was a “3rd force ethos” dilemma of Clinton’s right to define truth and Lewinsky’s right to “expose her true self in public” seems to be over-reaching. The chapter ends urging us to “think carefully before further weakening family ties in the name of a utopian faith in humankind’s ‘animal nature.’” That’s Freud, not Maslow!

Chapter 8 (The Malpsychian Classroom) sees the dark shadow of Rogers and Maslow in education, from open classrooms and values clarification to sex education with free condoms. The author blames low test scores on humanistic psychology, even though scores were low long before these educational changes occurred. The reality is that neither traditional nor progressive education has solved this problem. Another stretch is the author’s alleging that Rogers urged “less learning” and “more personal growth” based on a quote 40 years ago when there was little or nothing in curricula conducive to student mental health. She suggests that schools allowing students “to do whatever they feel” contributed to the Columbine High shootout, but in fact this was a tragic incident in only one of 3000 high schools. The “only way” to achieve a “homogenized society” is “to give up “being Christian or Muslim” (no substantiating date). “Humanistic values tend to be wispy abstractions in the absence of specific ideals” such as religion, family, patriotism, and “belief in the sacredness of human life or faith in reason and scientific progress.” Ironically, most of these are actually Maslow’s B values. The claim that school desegregation “expected children to bear the onus of social change” ignores the fact that there are PTA and school system efforts, and local interracial meetings, to facilitate desegregation in most if not all school systems. Milton claims that Maslow considered self-esteem “a synonym for dominance-feeling” and that “increasing self-esteem would make the world more violent.” What Maslow really wrote was “The most stable and healthy self-esteem is based on deserved respect from others” (1970, p. 45). She presents Kohlberg, listed in all the developmental psychology books for his theory of moral development, as believing “children could be liberated from deadening moral preaching.” His data-based theory describes developmental stages, not how or why to achieve them. The chapter ends prescribing the remedy to education’s ills: “The humanities curriculum, which has been systematically devalued,” but which the author doesn’t describe or reference.

Chapter 9 (The Deconstructed Self) describes Leary’s last years, his home “a 24-hour party scene” with “groupies who couldn’t take care of themselves, much less function as a team to care for en elderly cancer patient.” Maslow’s self-actualization takes another hit as “ready-made justification for looking out for Number One,” leading to “Learyland where life is a series of games played for personal amusement.” Maslow himself contradicts this view: “The fact is self-actualizing people are simultaneously the most individualistic and the most altruistic, social, and loving of all human beings” (1970, p. 199). Milton says, “the actualized self tends to be vain and radically deconstructed, bereft of connections to a large sense of purpose or ideals”; but Maslow wrote, “The human being needs a framework of values, a philosophy of life, a religion or religion surrogate to live by” (1968, p. 206). And she criticizes grief work and “death education,” despite the growing success of the hospice movement.

The last pages describe the author watching the collapse of the World Trade Center from the roof of her apartment building. She feels the lesson to be learned is “to be skeptical of attempts to deconstruct Western values in the name of abstractions based on utopian fantasies of what human nature might be like in an ideal world.” It can be argued that the Golden Rule, ideals of most religions, the U.S., and the UN — and humanistic psychology — seem utopian fantasies confronted with centuries of wars, some involving religious differences. Terrorists who flew airliners into buildings on 9/11 were religious extremists far removed from humanistic psychology, so perhaps a lesson to be learned is the danger in extremes. Leary was an extremist, Muslim extremists flew airliners into crowded buildings, and extremist Christians have killed abortion clinic physicians. The humanistic movement is neither as perfect as this review might imply nor as imperfect as the book claims. Thousands within it do not abuse drugs or join or lead extremist groups. Maslow continues to be listed in current textbooks and regarded as a major personality theorist. Rogers is remembered for his emphasis on empathy and authenticity. Leary is appropriately absent. Readers should know that a major contribution of American education and psychology to the world is the humanistic focus on individual differences.

Despite its bias, this book can be useful to both critics and advocates of humanistic psychology. Critics should read Rogers, Maslow, and others before they form an opinion. Humanistic advocates should be aware of and reflect on the criticisms and opinions expressed, and avoid the extremes described.


Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being. 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality. 2nd edition. New York: Harper and Row.