Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the tenth installment of Dialogues on Disability, a series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Andrea Nicki. Andrea specializes in feminist philosophy, philosophy of psychological disability, and mental health ethics. She has published two collections of her poetry with Toronto presses. Her poetry explores social issues, including philosophy of disability and her other research interests. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Andrea! You did your B.A. in philosophy with a minor in English literature at The University of New Brunswick, Canada. Then you did your graduate work in philosophy at Queen’s University. What brought you to philosophy and, in particular, feminist philosophy?
Early in my life, that is, as a child, I was preoccupied with the “big questions” and very interested in religion, spirituality, critical thinking, and moral justification. I was raised Catholic and asked my catechism teachers a lot questions that related to God and the world. But I didn’t find any of their answers satisfactory. I wanted to find other answers to these questions; and I wanted certainty. When I took my first courses in philosophy at The University of New Brunswick I felt right at home, felt a resonance with my philosophy professors.
The Department of Philosophy at Queen’s, where I did my graduate degrees, has a number of professors who specialize in feminist philosophy and applied ethics. I have always been concerned about social issues, especially the domination of women, children, and animals. I come from a conservative, patriarchal, and abusive home. The abuse extended to our pets.
How does your research in feminist philosophy relate to your queer identity?
My Ph.D. supervisor, Michael Fox, is a feminist philosopher and animal ethicist. He and another feminist philosopher at Queen’s, Christine Overall, also teach courses on feminist philosophical theories of sexuality. These courses made me feel that it was normal and positive to be pansexual and to feel that gender and sex are insignificant and irrelevant in the choice of a partner. This validation and support fueled my interest in feminist philosophy which, in challenging discrimination related to sex and gender, argues for the irrelevance of sex and gender in many contexts.
You maintain that you have experienced significant difficulties in securing a job in philosophy because of your work in feminist philosophy and your queer identity. Please explain these difficulties.
A decade ago, when I first went on the job market, I had many short job interviews at APA conferences for positions in ethics. In most cases, the interviewers were not very knowledgeable about feminist ethics or were not sympathetic to feminism. In a number of cases, they were overly hostile. It seemed that I was interviewed so that the departments could meet some kind of a quota—such as a gender quota—or, that the interview process was just a formality and that I had already been eliminated as a candidate before the interview. To my surprise, many of the on-campus interviews were just as unsupportive. Although it’s common for search committees to disagree about candidates, it seemed as if I had been eliminated from serious consideration for many of the jobs even before the campus interviews had taken place. The talks that I gave to these departments received no supportive questions or comments.
In one case, I accepted a one-year replacement position because two members of the department had made enthusiastic comments about feminist ethics and said that there was the possibility of a long-term position developing from the temporary position. When I arrived, however, these two professors were very cold and unfriendly and were in the process of interviewing candidates for a tenure-track position. When I asked one of them—the department chair—about the tenure-track search and why I wasn’t considered for that position, he told me explicitly that they didn’t want a feminist philosopher for the position and that my position would remain a limited-term appointment of one year. I found out later that a feminist philosopher had been forced out of the department because of harassment.
In another case, a philosophy chair wanted a course in applied health ethics to be designed and offered to nursing students. He approached me about the design of this course because he knew that I had held a postdoctoral fellowship in bioethics at the University of Minnesota. He also knew that I had been very successfully teaching such a course to students in health sciences at another university and had, in fact, been promoted from a part-time sessional position to a part-time faculty position on this basis. I corresponded with the nursing director at the university and she was very enthusiastic about my involvement. The philosophy chair wasn’t comfortable with my course design, however, because the course included units on feminist ethics and disability ethics. Even though I was the most qualified philosophy instructor to design and teach a course in applied ethics, he got other instructors, with no specialization in the area, to do so.
When there is a job search for someone with specialization in ethics or applied ethics, the department is usually looking for someone who is committed to teaching only mainstream ethical frameworks; in other words, Kantianism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. Typically, mainstream philosophers regard the application of feminist theory, post-colonial theory, and disability theory to ethical issues as “doing sociology.” Essentially, in the deeply conservative discipline of philosophy, the more that you challenge the status quo and dominant social values, the less that you are regarded as “doing philosophy.” Notably, philosophers doing other kinds of interdisciplinary work—such as philosophers of science and philosophers of psychiatry—are regarded as doing “real” philosophy, so long as their challenges to the status quo are minimal. So, for example, as long as they don’t call for a radical transformation of psychiatry.
In a tenure-track job search, committees are essentially looking for someone who will fit in well with the other permanent members of their department, someone whose perspectives, values, and lifestyle are harmonious with their own. If candidates do not have conventional lifestyles, for example, are not in heterosexual marriages raising children, hiring committees may not see them as good fits. As I am unmarried, queer, without children, and with painful memories of family life, I have found it hard to socialize and network with people who talk a lot about family and assume that this is a comfortable topic for everyone. In one work environment where I had a contract teaching position, an administrative manager would sometimes refer to my reproductive potential, telling me that my time was running out to have biological offspring, even though I had not indicated an interest in childbearing. In another workplace, whenever a parent of a faculty member died, or a child was born, there would be cards for everyone to sign. On the surface this practice seems like a positive, community-building practice; but, the absence of cards to mark other kinds of events valued by faculty, events not related to family life, make it an exclusionary practice. Singling out events related to family life reinforces the dominant cultural view that family life is of the utmost importance and serves to marginalize members of a workplace who do not share this view.
The controversial nature of your research has also posed difficulties in your job search. Please explain your research and how its controversial character has affected your job prospects.
My research focuses on the ethical treatment in health care and society in general of survivors of chronic childhood abuse. By “chronic childhood abuse,” I mean behaviour toward children, and treatment of them, which is criminal according to laws in North America and many other countries. In my articles, I have been particularly concerned with the psychiatric diagnosis of “borderline personality disorder”—BPD—as this diagnosis is most often applied to female survivors of chronic childhood trauma. For example, in my article “‘Borderline Personality Disorder,’ Discrimination, and Survivors of Chronic Childhood Trauma,” which is forthcoming in the International Journal of Feminist Bioethics, I argue, echoing feminist psychologists, that BPD pathologizes the life experiences, behaviour, and survival strategies of female survivors. My philosophical arguments incorporate autobiographical narratives, including my own. I claim that the diagnostic and clinical practices related to BPD are significantly informed by gender bias and a lack of understanding of the lived experiences, social situations, and moral virtues of survivors. Many survivors of chronic childhood trauma display traditional moral virtues such as empathy, compassion, courage, and truthfulness; often, however, their behaviour is misunderstood and interpreted as exhibiting moral vices. For example, a survivor might be heavily dependent on a therapist and may seem to want too much of the therapist’s attention. Such a survivor’s behaviour might be misunderstood and interpreted as selfishness. But, in fact, she may simply be expressing a deep need for connection. The reality is that a survivor may be experiencing a lot of psychological pain and the therapist may be the only one who gives her emotional support; she may lack family support and be very isolated in society. Survivors can be very socially isolated, in part, because of the cultural insistence on positive reference to family and family life. A survivor may avoid social contact because, in the past, others have invalidated and rejected her when she disclosed the truth about her family situation and her severe emotional pain. A survivor may be very dependent on the therapist in other important ways. For example, in order to collect disability insurance because she is unable to work, she may depend on the therapist to report that she is suffering from a major mental illness.
It is generally considered unscholarly to include life narratives in academic philosophical writing. However, writings in the area of philosophy of psychiatry and psychology can lack analytical rigour and depth when they simply assume the scientific validity and objectivity of psychiatric diagnoses, ignoring autobiographical writings about social sources of distress. Autobiographical writings often get dismissed as purely anecdotal, while social scientists who want to conduct studies on the negative effects of psychiatry at the levels of population health and individual health may not be able to obtain grant money.
Because of the dominant cultural view that mental health problems are primarily neurological or biomedical problems, as well as the cultural denial of the pervasiveness of crimes against children, many people find it difficult to appreciate and value my research. Once when I gave a talk on the ethical treatment of survivors of child sexual abuse as part of an on-campus interview, a member of the search committee raised the topic of “false memory syndrome” and questioned the validity of survivors’ claims about sexual abuse. Other people in the audience supported her view, promoting doubt about the value of my research. In another instance, I tried to network with a health scientist who does research in the area of mental health. Multi-disciplinary health sciences departments post jobs for bioethicists. For these jobs, it is important to show that you can collaborate with health scientists and apply for research grants with them. The health scientist with whom I tried to work wasn’t interested in my research and said that she placed greater value on research that was less critical of biopsychiatry. Health scientists are trained to generally value psychiatry.
Sharing the nature of my research with health scientists focussed on mental health can be awkward and uncomfortable. Even though they are well informed about the social reality of domestic abuse, their training has directed them to focus on the psychological effects of trauma and perceive survivors through a lens of psychopathology and as psychologically damaged. As I argue in my forthcoming article on BPD, survivors of chronic childhood trauma can feel exhausted by the effort that it takes to constantly hide their respective histories of chronic childhood trauma and pass as people who come from relatively functional families in order to avoid medicalization, rejection, and exclusion from important networks. These survivors can have a lot of daily emotional distress because they live with horrible memories and are without the crucial emotional support that relatively functional families provide for their members throughout their childhood and adult lives. Nevertheless, a large burden of emotional pain does not make people more psychologically or morally deficient than others. The perception that survivors are more deficient than non-survivors promotes mistreatment and discrimination against survivors. Although discrimination based on family of origin—that is, on one’s experience in one’s family of origin—is not listed in or prohibited by human rights legislation, it should be. Neither the category of “family status” nor the category of “disability” that currently exists in the legislation captures this form of discrimination.
The interview process can be especially treacherous for disabled job candidates, given the uncertainty about the amount of information that it is prudent to convey to potential employers who may harbor ableist biases. Andrea, how have biases and prejudices against psychological disability disadvantaged you in the interview process?
I appreciate that you have asked me this question because even among disability studies scholars there can be the assumption that a psychologically disabled job candidate would not need any interview adjustment or accommodation. Often this assumption follows from a biopsychiatric view according to which the person’s disability is primarily a biochemical or neurological problem, not related to their life experiences and social exclusion. As I mentioned earlier, during my time on the job market, I encountered hostile comments related to my research on chronic childhood trauma and psychological disability. One interviewer, in commenting on my research, said that she thought that people exaggerate the harms that they suffered in childhood and, essentially, that they aren’t “survivors.” She referred to Susan Brison’s book, Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of Self, which is about a woman surviving stranger rape, and said that this experience was a real horror, not an imagined one. Other philosophers at the interview did not challenge this philosopher’s comment. Although in my job application and related materials, I had not revealed myself as a survivor of chronic childhood trauma or as psychologically challenged, given the nature of my research, she should have at least considered the possibility that I am a survivor. Her comment was very hostile and unaccommodating toward survivors of chronic childhood trauma in general and toward me as a survivor in particular. I felt demoralized and unwelcomed. Imagine if I had told her that I did research on homophobia and hate crimes against queer people and she had said in response that she thought queer people make up or exaggerate their experiences of hate crimes. I think that most people would agree that such a comment reflected a hostile and unwelcoming attitude toward queer people.
During one on-campus interview, I gave a talk on the ethical treatment of survivors of chronic childhood rape that incorporated narratives of survivors on the subject of coming to terms with the crimes. A friend of mine had warned me against giving this talk, saying that it was too controversial, that it wouldn’t be well received. However, I wanted to give this presentation because I had put a lot time and energy into researching and thinking about the topic; furthermore, no other topics interested me as much. My friend was right. As I advanced further into the talk, most of the audience looked stunned and increasingly ill at ease. My delivery of this talk and the question and answer period stimulated me a lot emotionally, prompting flashbacks and uncomfortable feelings. It was hard for me to be at my best in the interview that immediately followed the talk. I didn’t feel that it would be prudent to say in advance of the campus visit that I was a survivor of chronic childhood rape and that I would need to take a break for a couple of hours after my presentation in order to refresh. I had worried that, if I did, I would be psychiatrized, judged mentally incompetent, and that my talk would be taken to indicate that I was “not over” my childhood trauma. At dinner that evening, a member of the interview committee loudly commented to a person sitting nearby that my topic was not a good one for a job talk, though she then proceeded to share with the table details of severe harms that she had experienced in her own childhood. On a later date, a member of the interview committee told me that he had really appreciated my talk and had wanted me to be hired for the position, but that the committee had chosen to give the job to someone who was more enthusiastic about getting it. It was true that I hadn’t demonstrated that I really wanted the job. I was ambivalent about getting the job, which was in a very unfamiliar and intimidating city, given that only this person had been friendly and supportive toward me.
The recent discussions about so-called “trigger warnings” in philosophy and academia more generally have revolved almost exclusively around the creation of accessible environments for students. There has been very little attention given to the needs of faculty and other staff who have experienced trauma. Have you experienced disadvantage in your workplaces due to lack of accessibility for psychological disability?
The psychological challenges that I have include anxiety, troubled sleep and nightmares, and fear of authority figures. Although my fear of authority figures has greatly decreased, when I first started looking for academic jobs, it was a significant barrier to socializing and networking; I would be tense and anxious when I tried to do so, making my speech very dysfluent. I have less troubled sleep now, but I still have nightmares and sometimes feel a bit distraught and preoccupied for a few hours after waking from a nightmare. So, when I teach, I request that I not be assigned early morning classes, though I have indicated only that my requests were due to a health challenge. In a few cases, my requests were not granted, in which cases I didn’t think it was prudent to push for them, at the risk of seeming incompetent, difficult, or ungrateful for my job.
Disclosure of psychological disability related to chronic childhood trauma can be very difficult: it might not be given any uptake or it might be treated with disbelief and derision, especially by people who assume that serious family problems do not occur in certain families. Many people hold racist and classist stereotypes about childhood abuse according to which survivors of chronic childhood abuse do not come from white, middle-class families. According to dominant ideology, white, middle-class life is comfortable, orderly, and protective of children. It can be hard for some people to imagine a white, middle-class family in which comfort is greatly lacking. This idealized picture of the white middle-class family assumes that, for example, all parents have good parenting skills, that they are able to manage and balance different responsibilities and seek support when needed, and that they use their economic resources in a way that serves their children’s best interests. Several times when I have revealed that I come from a white, middle-class family with serious problems, people have expressed disbelief. One person said, “But it couldn’t have been that bad, you got your Ph.D., right?” Any home in which chronic trauma of children occurs is far from comfortable for the children in it.
Other difficulties that I have experienced in the workplace relate to my poetic thought and speech patterns. When I taught bioethics to students in health sciences courses, my teaching evaluations were quite good overall. I even won a departmental award for undergraduate teaching. But, every term, some students in these courses complained that I talked too fast, that my train of thought was hard to follow, and that I often went off topic. I talk quickly when I feel energized by a topic or a discussion. I tend to experience a rapid flight of ideas; however, these ideas do relate to the topic. Importantly, the students’ complaints could be taken as revealing unconscious ableism or sanism. Given that speech with a rapid flight of ideas and associations is a criterion of the psychiatric diagnosis “manic-depression,” such speech could be interpreted as “manic” or as a symptom of “manic-depression” and thus viewed negatively.
Disability theorists on speech argue, however, that notions of good and bad speech are socially constructed. According to dominant speech norms, there are several different kinds of negative speech, including dysfluent speech, slow speech, fast speech, speech on seemingly random topics and unconnected thoughts—that is, creative speech—speech with grammatical errors, and speech with an unfamiliar, “foreign” accent. Dominant speech norms privilege literal, sequential, predictable thought, and the organization of information in a linear, step-by-step progression. For people with this dominant thinking style, or people who are accustomed to this thinking style—such as students in health sciences—creative connections can seem illogical and meaningless. Some students are harsh critics of instructors who deviate from dominant speech norms and the disrespectful behaviour of such students can cause problems in the classroom. For this reason, instructors whose linguistic practices deviate from dominant speech norms ought to have the option to teach their courses online.
What resources—books, articles, videos, and so on—would you recommend to readers and listeners who want to learn more about psychological disability and the biases that psychologically disabled people confront?
Typically, psychologically disabled people are reductively interpreted as having “a mental illness.” I believe that the concept of “mental illness” harms individuals and society, more than it benefits. Many psychologically disabled people believe that framing their problems as “mental illness” stigmatizes them. These people also believe that the aspects of them that psychiatry medicalizes and pathologizes are not in fact inherently undesirable—for example, “autism” and “mania.” Many people who embrace psychiatry and present their problems in social living as “battling with,” “living with,” or “overcoming” mental illness have written memoirs about their experiences. I do not recommend these books. Typically, these books do not explore in any depth the social-political causes of severe chronic emotional suffering. Rather, these books direct readers to think that “psychiatric conditions” are serious medical conditions and that the people “afflicted” with these so-called “conditions” deserve empathy and support. The advice that these books offer has a very different aim than the aim of books that both help readers understand the complex causes of severe chronic distress and move them toward greater concern about social problems, such as domestic violence, sexism, queerphobia, racism, and classism, all of which contribute to considerable emotional suffering and psychological disability.
I recommend autobiographical works that are critical of psychiatry and present alternative approaches to mental health, such as: Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen; The Last Time I Wore A Dress by Daphne Scholinski; and She Who is Lost Is Remembered: Healing from Incest Through Creativity edited by Louise Wisechild. Life writings that explore trauma, abuse, and social discrimination can help readers better understand the kinds of severe chronic stress that psychologically disabled people have typically experienced more than the books influenced by psychiatry can.
To further help readers unlearn a tendency to psychiatrize and stigmatize psychologically disabled people, I recommend works that challenge the psychiatrization of distress and the huge social investment in professional mental health services. The othering and relegation of distressed individuals to the private offices of mental health professionals has not lessened the presence of psychological disability, but rather, it has increased psychological distress by deflecting attention away from social problems. In the past—that is, when I first started writing about psychological disability—I thought that some diagnostic categories of mental illness could be helpful for people who experience chronic emotional suffering. After reading books by authors such as Robert Whitaker, Paula Caplan, Bonnie Burstow, and Joanna Moncrief, however, I changed my mind. These writers document the dangers of psychiatric diagnoses, associated drug treatment, and the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the creation and promotion of psychiatric diagnoses. Thus, I recommend: Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker; When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans and They Say You're Crazy: How the World's Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who's Normal by Paula Caplan; Psychiatry and the Business of Madness: An Ethical and Epistemological Accounting by Bonnie Burstow; Psychiatry Disrupted: Theorizing Resistance and Crafting the (R)evolution edited by Bonnie Burstow, Brenda LeFrançois, and Shaindl Diamond; and De-Medicalizing Misery: Psychiatry, Psychology and the Human Condition, edited by Joanna Moncrieff, Mark Rapley, and Jacqui Dillon.
I also think that people can better appreciate the problem of psychiatrizing psychologically disabled people by reading authors who criticize the exportation of Western psychiatry to developing nations. I really like China Mills’ book Decolonizing Global Mental Health and a special issue of the journal Disability and the Global South on the theme Globalising Mental Health and Pathologising the Global South? Mapping the Ethics, Theory and Practice of Global Mental Health, edited by China Mills and Suman Fernando. As authors in this research area argue, the claim that people in developing countries need Western psychiatric treatment is ethnocentric and assumes that Western biomedical conceptions of distress and related practices are universally shared. Many cultures value treatment for distress that involves community engagement and focuses on the prevention of harms that promote distress. The imposition of Western psychiatry on new immigrants from nations that do not value psychiatry is a form of cultural imperialism.
Community engagement can enable the development of appropriate support structures. An example of such a structure is the Hearing Voices Network. This network promotes alternative, non-medical explanations of hearing voices, visions, tactile sensations, and other pathologized sensory experiences, conceiving these experiences as normal responses to chronic stress or trauma. Contrary to popular belief, hearing voices is not an uncommon experience. I recommend the website Madness Radio: Voices and Visions From Outside of Mental Health. The host, Will Hall, a voice hearer, was diagnosed with "schizophrenia" when he was young and was subsequently institutionalized. I recommend his interview with Jacqui Dillon, the director of the Hearing Voices Movement in the U.K. So-called “schizophrenia” is assumed to be a severe, chronic, untreatable, and life-destroying illness. However, people who have atypical sensory experiences and are diagnosed as “schizophrenic” because of these experiences can have enjoyable lives just like people with other types of differences associated with psychological disability. I know several disability studies scholars who have atypical sensory experiences and have been diagnosed with “schizophrenia.” A few of these scholars are in good academic positions; some of them have had trouble retaining academic employment, however, because they’ve been discriminated against and because their research is anti-psychiatry. To learn more about the new field of mad studies, I direct readers to the collection Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies, edited by Brenda A. LeFrancois, Robert Menzies, and Geoffrey Reaume.
Andrea, thank you very much for this extensive list of resources. Thank you also for your powerful and provocative remarks in this interview. Many of your remarks implicitly challenge a number of the claims that philosophers make in various areas of the discipline.
Readers and listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Andrea Nicki’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted. Enthusiastic thanks to Bryce Huebner who, once again, generously provided me with technical support as I prepared this interview.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, February 17th at 8 a.m. EST for the eleventh installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.