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Psychiatry and Society
by Keith Russell Ablow, M.D.
January 1996

Farrakhan and Freud

Recently, a young man l was treating for severe depression balked at blaming his parents for his suffering, despite the fact that they had beaten and demeaned him most of his life. "No use getting mad at anyone," he said in a monotone. "I'm sure they had their own problems."

"But they made them yours," I responded. "They had no right to do that." I wanted to help him unearth the anger he had buried, anger I believed had been turned, through psychological alchemy, into despondency. Until he could express both grief and rage at being robbed of his human potential, I worried whether he even recognized that potential. I hoped my sense of outrage at his parents' behavior would spark his own.

Many psychiatrists would agree that a patient's journey out of depression toward self-esteem and understanding often includes a sojourn in rage. Expressing indignation at injustices suffered at the hands of others may be a prerequisite to healing and well-being.

So, too, perhaps, for healing a people. This thought came to me again and again as I watched Louis Farrakhan during the Million Man March, then read quotations attributed to him in which he railed against whites, Jews, Koreans, Palestinians and others he believes have hurt his people. Was this pure prejudice on his part, I wondered? Or was Louis Farrakhan playing therapist to black America, ushering a despondent minority through an essential stage of anger on the road to spiritual and psychic renewal? Was his separatist posture reverse bigotry or a recognition that victims in a family often must leave it, in anger, in order to return to it, more whole and strong?

Once my patient did begin to express his anger, particularly at his sadistic father, I didn't feel he should temper his emotions and didn't urge him to feel empathy for the man who had harmed him. And I didn't want him to worry yet over his father's reaction to the obvious scorn he was coming to feel for him I wanted him to take care of himself and let the chips fall where they may.

"Your father, " I said, " can get his own psychiatrist."

Farrakhan may have staked out the same therapeutic position for his patient--his people. He has said more than once that it is not the black population's responsibility to worry over the reaction of white America to their journey. If the majority feels excluded, frightened, misunderstood, angry or demonized, we should work it out ourselves. The victims, Farrakhan would say, are not yet ready--or required--to reach out to the victimizers.

A sojourn in rage is, however, a tricky turn on the road to healing. I was careful that my patient's anger not erupt into violence. And I had it in mind that, with time and personal growth, he would, in fact, move beyond blaming others. After he came to believe in his value as a human being, he would need to see that his father was himself dehumanized by forces beyond his control. Then he would have to take responsibility to exorcise from his own character any hurtful elements of his father's that he had absorbed.

Whether Louis Farrakhan can guide those black Americans who follow him through rage to an understanding of self and others, to an appreciation of the universality of human suffering and the potential of human empathy, remains to be seen. Only by doing so could he lay claim to a place in history alongside other spiritual visionaries.

For now, what is clear is that Farrakhan is not about to play therapist to mainstream America. Nor could he, if he is to be an effective healer to those outside it.


Keith Russell Ablow, M.D., born in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1961, is a psychiatrist, author and journalist. Dr. Ablow graduated from Brown University, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Tufts/New England Medical Center with a Residency in Psychiatry.