This is a history of psychiatry. It is also a bit of a family history as Grinker comes from a long line of psychiatrists (though he is not one himself). He takes a broad view, from pre-industrial societies up to the modern age and many of the steps in between. He picks a bone with capitalism, is ambivalent about war, and reframes the concept of disability.
This history includes many dark chapters as it revolves around how humans treat each other; specifically, how they treat others who are different, and in the modern world conformity rarely goes out of style. Grinker documents various injustices and cruelties, particularly those resulting from the prejudices of western medicine. It’s unpleasant, like much of history. However, Grinker does not set out to document only the darkest deeds of humanity. This is a story of progress as much as failure, and there are reasons to be optimistic. Psychiatry is not a “solved” problem. Grinker puts things in context and makes it clear that for the many steps backwards, we have also taken several forwards. He has, if nothing else, captured the complexity and shifting nature of mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it.
The tone is neutral but occasionally swings to judgmental. This affects general topics, but also many of the family episodes. The intimacy and frankness are welcome, but the tone shifts are a little jarring. The book is a little slow with unremarkable writing, but the subject matter is sufficiently rich to keep things moving.
This book is more about how society treats mental illness than about mental illness itself. This leaves some fascinating paths unexplored, but my own curiosity and ignorance are hardly grounds for criticism. If you find the title intriguing, the book delivers. I would recommended it if you can stomach human cruelty. And penis theft… who knew?