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This manual of psychological disorders is actually a dystopian novel

Illustration for article titled This manual of psychological disorders is actually a dystopian novel

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the premiere reference book for psychiatrists and mental health workers. But critics have often called it monstrous, wrong-headed and unscientific. Now, at last, one writer has discovered that it's actually a dystopian scifi novel.


The latest edition of the manual, DSM-V, was published in May — and now that it's out, Sam Kriss gives it the book review it deserves. Over at The New Inquiry, he's penned a review called "Book of Lamentations" that explores the DSM-V as a dystopian story. Tongue in cheek, yes. But in some ways, Kriss isn't wrong:

[Some dystopian books are about how] something has gone terribly wrong in the world; we are living the wrong life, a life without any real fulfillment. The newly published DSM-5 is a classic dsytopian novel in this mold.

It’s also not exactly a conventional novel. Its full title is an unwieldy mouthful: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. The author (or authors) writes under the ungainly nom de plume of The American Psychiatric Association – although a list of enjoyably silly pseudonyms is provided inside (including Maritza Rubio-Stipec, Dan Blazer, and the superbly alliterative Susan Swedo). The thing itself is on the cumbersome side. Over two inches thick and with a thousand pages, it’s unlikely to find its way to many beaches. Not that this should deter anyone; within is a brilliantly realized satire, at turns luridly absurd, chillingly perceptive, and profoundly disturbing.

If the novel has an overbearing literary influence, it’s undoubtedly Jorge Luis Borges. The American Psychiatric Association takes his technique of lifting quotes from or writing faux-serious reviews for entirely imagined books and pushes it to the limit: Here, we have an entire book, something that purports to be a kind of encyclopedia of madness, a Library of Babel for the mind, containing everything that can possibly be wrong with a human being.

For the many, many activists and doctors who have fought bloody battles over the contents of the DSM, this bit of dark humor is very welcome indeed.

Read the whole essay at The New Inquiry

(h/t Steve Silberman)


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The whole essay is brilliant. Here's one of my favorite bits:

If there is a normality here, it’s a state of near-catatonia. DSM-5 seems to have no definition of happiness other than the absence of suffering. The normal individual in this book is tranquilized and bovine-eyed, mutely accepting everything in a sometimes painful world without ever feeling much in the way of anything about it.