I have never been a fan of Tom Cruise’s characters. Like many people, I found his steely reserve, self-satisfied smile, and arrogant bravado the epitome of 1980s hyperindividualism. Whether behind a bar, the wheel of a racecar, on a horse, in a jet, or just in his underpants, Cruise was the charming, smug complement to Sly Stallone’s brawny bully. Together they were the double-headed pop cultural eagle for Reagan-era egomania.
Nor have I been particularly fond of Scientology. While I find nothing especially odious about it (compared to its alternative religious counterparts, to say nothing about the bloody histories of mainstream monotheism), Scientology contains the common characteristics of a controlling organization which make it unappealing. To wit: the cult of Hubbard personality (just take the tour of HQ in Clearwater, FL), the hierarchical and conformist structure (while in downtown Clearwater, stand on the corner and observe the hive-like movements and fashion of adherents), and the extreme hostility towards critics (at one point even taking over one of its main watchdog adversaries, the Cult Awareness Network).
But now I feel compelled to put aside my judgments about each in order to become a Cruise supporter. The recent Cruise-bashing for his “excesses” (manic affection for Katie Holmes, exceeding his purview as star by giving public opinions, going too far in criticizing psychiatry) has become a national unifying campaign. Across the political spectrum, pundits and comedians have been raising patronizing eyebrows, making psychological diagnoses, and openly ridiculing Cruise for his public behavior. It is as though in this time of deep cultural divisions, we can all come together around a defense of Scientific Reason against the irrational Tomcat and the loony sect behind him. What a comforting salve in these tense times; what a timely ointment! What does this say about our current fascination with celebrityness, as well as contemporary dependence on experts and quick-fixes?
Soon after the exchange with Matt Lauer on the Today Show, MSNBC had a poll that asked, “Should Cruise criticize psychiatry?” Regardless of the poll results, the very fact that this question is seen as acceptable should raise our hackles. This question follows a common sense sentiment expressed by Peg Nichols, a spokesperson for a group called Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: “Since when would a celebrity have expertise in medicine? Would you go to your doctor and ask him about movie roles?”
First, to ask celebrities not to have opinions is to strip them of any agency as people. We are happy to turn them into curious objects, their private lives dissected to the minutest detail. Yet when they want to assert their private selves into the public sphere (e.g. having an opinion on political matters) we are quick to direct them back to their bit roles in our social dramaturgy. It’s akin to the shift from astrology to astronomy: stars lost their ability to have influence and became inert objects for the scientific gaze (and now engineered collisions). Our current celebrity-stars share a similar fate. As a side-note, much of the disciplining of these stars’ behavior comes from the right-wing, who prefer that celebs turn their star power into political careers rather than political opinions (roll call: Arnold Scwharzenegger, Sonny Bono, Fred “Gopher” Grandy, Clint Eastwood, and that reactionary deity Ronald Reagan). And somehow good debaters and interviewers (pseudo-journalists) have been afforded an expertise over social matters more than celebs, yet nothing in their skill-set naturally lends itself to this charge.
Second, and more important, is this question of expertise and journalistic media. How about asking this question: “Should mainstream society and its media be so univocally pro-psychiatry and pro-pharmaceuticals?” Returning it to the stars, how about “should the media only allow criticism of psychiatry by celebrities?” Peg Nichols’ challenge to Cruise’s expertise begs the question about who best speaks to the history and social effects of an institution. Why ask doctors about their profession as a whole? It’s like asking prison guards to comment on the social function of the prison system, or elected officials to speak authoritatively about the electoral college. Do I have to be a biblical scholar to analyze religion’s pernicious effects on humans? Let’s remember a little something called research, which does not require one to be embedded in an organization to have a valid perspective on it. It would be like asking all these pundits to refrain from evaluating Scientology because they haven’t gone up the e-metered ladder high enough!
Peg asserts her own expertise by encouraging people to be “smart consumers of medicine.” Do not question the institution: only make informed decisions among the products we provide (and the information/advertising we provide as well)! In other words, the stifling of Cruise has a number of effects: it tries to put him in a conceptual straightjacket, binding him back up in the “cool reserve” he’s known for. By putting him in his place, citizens are also disciplined: stay in your position as consumers, do not exceed your mandate! And we are supposed to do this in our own name, working not just as passive consumers but as psychopharmacology’s active PR agents.
Comfortably Numb: Ideal Scene for a Generation
In a remarkable case of national split personality, the US foments conflict globally while seeking to eliminate it domestically. From calls for post-election “unity” to the rise of “conflict-management” communication studies, from the clamor for consensus to the moral outrage directed at Reality TV (for being too conflict-oriented), US society seeks to become a salve-nation by forcing a veneer of formal politeness onto the empirical world. This may be some compensation-mechanism for its imperial war-mongering. Regardless, what we see is a society that seeks internal comfort and avoids dissonance and “incivility.” Cruise’s “breakdown” (or was it breakthrough?) was especially conspicuous on the Today Show. Mood-stabilizers are not just found in the pharmaceutical ads that support the show, but also in the program’s sedating yet mildly-uplifting tone and effects.
There are two levels of comfort in the pro-psychiatry positions: first, the effects of the chemicals themselves (stabilizing, balancing, being “better than well”). More importantly, there is the consolation of learning that all one’s complex difficulties are a result of a “chemical imbalance.” Brooke Shields states as much when she says, “in a strange way, it was comforting” to find out her extreme lows “were directly tied to a biochemical shift in my body.” Nothing strange about it-the chemical “problem” is as much of a relief as the chemical solution. And it is no wonder we crave this solace, given the permanent state of insecurity engendered by a Terror/War. Our own special double-bind: whether through incessant destabilization or through seeking a comforting end to it, we end up tied to experts for our salvation.
Let’s not forget that these pro-drug proclamations come on the heels of the recent Supreme Court decision that refused to protect medical use of marijuana. Keep our medicinal drugs nature-free! It’s as though by eliminating nature from the solution, we can retain its ideological function in the problem. The fundamental irony-highly synthesized chemical solutions to “natural” chemical problems! We are all familiar with the placebo effect, but what about the placebo cause? Cruise’s heresy is precisely in questioning this sacred cow by highlighting the synthetic nature of the problem itself.
Cruise makes a few missteps along the way: he claims that “chemical imbalances do not exist”. This assertion comes out of his strong desire to replace one truth with another. Chemical imbalances do indeed exist, much in the way that God exists for the nonbeliever. They have had real effects on the world: in the latter case, material organizations have been founded on it, millions have been exterminated or tortured in its name, entire lives are conducted around it. What could be more real? Similarly, chemical imbalances exist insofar as they have provided the basis for a sea-change in mental health treatment: a chemical lack requires a chemical solution, so entire industries are revitalized, government funding redirected, professional values revised, and everyday individual behavior reorganized. Cruise leaves himself open to ridicule here, as if his belief in the reality of thetans could somehow publicly trump the reality of “chemical imbalances.”
Cruise’s most scathing indictment of the social consequences of biochemical psychiatry wasn’t even shown in the 15 or so replays of the Today show clip I witnessed. I only discovered it by reading the transcript. When asked if he felt that problems aren’t real and that people don’t need help, Cruise responded by saying “there are ways of doing it without that so that we don’t end up in a brave new world.” Invoking Huxley takes the discussion of psychiatry out of the individual realm (where Lauer, Shields, and others want to keep it), and into a political sphere. In an age where George Orwell is invoked incessantly (almost to the point of rendering him harmless as metaphor), Huxley seems like a breath of fresh air. Counterposed to the Orwellian nightmare of coercion and totalitarianism, Huxley gives us a world where utter control is achieved through benevolence and pleasure. Most significantly, the citizens of BNW clamor for their Soma, demanding their own pacification in the name of “feeling better.” Cruise points out this grand public secret of our current era-many in the US are demanding self-subordination in the name of our own betterment. Whether via pharmaceuticals or easy and safe political solutions, the desire for our own subjugation is a primary political question today.
The old speculation about TC’s sexual orientation has heated up again with his exuberant displays of affection and commitment to Katie Holmes. For those most interested in what may be entering Cruise’s anus, there is no better time to abres los ojos. For this is the perspective we adopt with the scapegoat: forced to flee from society, we watch the ass in flight. When this kind of questioning of the social fabric occurs, someone must take the fall, and in this case Cruise offered himself to play the part. It’s as though the fake public assassination with a squirt-gun a few days earlier was a premonitory scapegoat ritual for Cruise’s subsequent character assassination. Let’s not forget that the original Greek term for scapegoat is pharmakos. The scapegoat heals society by allowing a comforting reintegration once a poison is expelled.
The treatment of Cruise mimics the psychiatric procedures that he deigned to challenge. Responses by journalistic sources were drawn directly from psychiatry’s black bag of pathology: manic, crazy, meltdown, in need of the very chemicals he criticizes, and even getting his own satirical “Tom Cruise Syndrome.” Placing Cruise into the role of public patient and pharmakon obviously reaffirms the power of the discourse under scrutiny. It is important to remember with whom we laugh when the scapegoat becomes the “butt of jokes.”
In his Washington Post article, Richard Leiby makes a brief but telling slip when says Cruise “looked like a man possessed, or at least in need of an Ativan.” While surely intending to heighten his statement’s humorous effect, Leiby also winds up juxtaposing two historical discourses of deviant behavior: christian (demon-possession) and modern psychiatry (illness). This inadvertent mix of the premodern and modern gets to the heart of Cruise’s “pseudo-science” claim. Faced with Cruise’s aberrant behavior, Leiby cannot decide between the two interpretive models. Maybe Leiby would, if faced with Shields’ “new mother” disorder, oscillate between prescribing Paxil and sending a priest! For those who would reply that I am reading far too much into Leiby’s off-handed joke, there are some Freudian texts on humor I can pass your way.
Finally, the panicked response to Cruise ends by affirming his criticism. Lauer turns to personal experience as conclusive evidence. Lauer knows people who are “better” because of drug-use. Shields confirms this with her own response to Cruise: it “may not be the history of psychiatry, but it is my history, personal and real.” Results are decidedly subjective: this only proves Cruise’s point about psychiatry as pseudo-science. If asked, I’m sure people diagnosed with “hysteria,” “exaltation,” and “melancholia” would have also felt their conditions as personal and real. Post-lobotomy zombies too can declare, “I’m better now, thank you.” This line, if delivered in a Brooke Shields film, would provoke snickers because it’s such a cliché. When uttered by the star herself, it is treated with a maudlin reverence.
The difference is that, in today’s world, individuals are encouraged to think their experiences are their own and to demand that others recognize and accept this “final arbiter.” This entitlement of course is only a recent ideological ruse. Its power resides in the fact that we stubbornly affirm our own subjection to others’ categories as if they were our own. Our desire to feel better at all costs leads to a willful subordination to a dependent relationship. Cruise merely points this out when he equates all these practices as “drug use.”
So let’s say subjective experience does become the arbiter of reality. Maybe we should take Lauer and Shields’ claims seriously and decide that “whatever works, works” and that our measurement of effectiveness will come through the subjective reports of success. If that’s the case, then Scientology indeed ends up being on par with psychiatry, as adherents to each would certainly claim effective results. With that equalized, we can then begin asking the more vexing and important question: which of them has wrought more ill-effects upon people?
In the 1960s the bold voices of anti-psychiatry became vital to a counterculture that recognized the institution’s power effects. Those were the days when psychiatry’s power still largely resided within enclosures (institutional spaces and their disciplined subjects). Now this power has seeped through those walls, becoming decentralized, out-patiented, and spread via pharmaceuticals throughout the social fabric. Where are the R.D. Laings and the Thomas Szaszs for these advanced mechanisms of control? Unless a multitude of voices breaks through the “good-feeling” haze of pharma-control, we’ll be left as spectators in a battle between controlling organizations, and we’ll have to rely on “shooting stars” to make the case.
*Thanks to Lisa Parks for her insightful comments on this essay, especially regarding the importance of pharmaceutical ads and the Today Show as context for the scandal.
JACK BRATICH teaches in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org