Dr. Paula Joan Caplan

Don’t Ever Be Afraid To Be Wrong.

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Board

PJC:  My name is Paula Joan Caplan, and I am a feminist. I was born and raised in Springfield, Missouri. I was born on 7-7- ‘47 at seven minutes after 1:00 to my parents, Jerome A. Caplan and Tac Karchmer Caplan. I was their first child, and there was a second one, Bruce, my brother who was born nearly three years later. My family on both sides are Jewish, and growing up in Springfield as a member of one of about 40 Jewish families in a city of about 80,000 people, many of whom were members of fundamentalist Christian churches, was very interesting.

There was much less trouble then than I think there might have been now, given the religious differences. I was not very aware of antisemitism until the end of high school. People started saying things that I realized they had been holding back from saying to me because I’m Jewish. I’d always thought we were really close, and we could say anything to each other. It was quite something when I started learning that they had made certain assumptions about me because I was Jewish. I hadn’t even known that was going on.

Mostly I had a very good childhood growing up. I went to a small school, so I was able to do a lot of different things that I might not have had the chance to do if there had been a bigger student body, and that was a great experience for me. I edited the school paper, I was a cheerleader, and I was in various clubs. I did a lot of debate and public speaking – extemporaneous speaking, and theater – I loved that always. When I was ready to leave for college, I felt like I had a lot of good experiences that could carry over. And then I went off to college.

I was at Radcliffe, which at the time still had a separate admissions office, separate dorms, and separate commencement ceremonies from Harvard, although we had all of our classes together. That was a wonderful experience, because I loved being in the all-women dorms. That was great, and I learned a lot.

I Felt Like I Was the Least Intelligent Person on the Whole Campus. 

I found out at reunions later on that we each felt that way about ourselves. I didn’t mind being the least intelligent person, because I was learning a lot and meeting varied and interesting people. That was a very good experience for me, and I loved being in and near big cities. I loved all of the cultural life and the intellectual life. That was a great series of experiences.  I went to college thinking I was going to be a journalist. I had edited my school newspaper, and I had worked as a reporter for my hometown newspaper. I thought I’ll go compete for the Harvard Crimson.

This is how utterly naive was. I walked in the first day, and I said that I wanted to be on the Crimson. Somebody looked at me and said, “What experience have you had?” I said, “I edited my high school paper,” and he said, “We all did. What was the name of yours?” I said, “The Cub Standard at Greenwood High School in Springfield, Missouri.”

It turned out that in order to get on the Crimson, you had to compete for weeks and weeks and go out for the mostly male staff members and get roast beef sandwiches from Elsie’s at 11:00 o’clock at night. There had been very few women on the staff. I wasn’t aware of sexism at that time. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than it seemed hard for women to get to be on the staff, and indeed I was harassed. I was treated in the most demeaning and humiliating ways.

The Term Sexual Harassment Wasn’t in Use at the Time. 

Because I started in 1965, and I was the class of ‘69, I think I was competing for the Crimson in 1966, so I didn’t even know what to call the sexual harassment. It just made me uncomfortable. In fact, I did not make the Crimson staff. I think it was at our tenth reunion that I was on a panel of career paths, and I said, “I came to Harvard wanting to be a journalist, and I felt I learned here that I couldn’t write.”

It was decades before I started trying to do anything more than the academic writing I had done after going to graduate school in psychology and writing academic papers and that sort of thing. When I finally got back to writing in an accessible way and not in this academic, distant way, I felt like I had come home. But it took me a lot of years to get there.

MJC:  So you were coming of age as the modern women’s movement was coming of age. Could you talk about how you think the women’s movement affected the trajectory and the reality of your life?

PJC:  The women’s movement profoundly affected the trajectory of my life, as it did for so many of us. After I graduated from Radcliffe, I went to Duke for Graduate School in clinical psychology. I was going to get a Ph.D. in clinical psych. There were two women and six men in our first- year class in the clinical Ph.D. program. I had gotten married two days before I graduated from Radcliffe. He was in an M.D. PhD. program there. I didn’t like the South, but I was there because you went where your husband was, and he was already there.

I Enjoyed the First Year of My Program, But at the End of the First Year I Was Kicked Out. 

When I went to see [John Coie] the young faculty member who had been my adviser, I said, “What is this about?” And he said, “We faculty in the clinical psychology program are eleven sensitive clinicians, and we feel you have weak ego boundaries.” I said, “What do you mean?”  By the way, those eleven sensitive clinicians were eleven white men. It didn’t even register at the time how that might be playing a role. I said, “What do you mean weak ego boundaries?” I’ve written a paper about this, by the way.[1]

He said, “We thought if you were seeing a woman patient, and she was depressed, you’d probably say, ‘Oh, you poor thing’ and just leave it at that.” I said, “What makes you think that?” John Coie was teaching two of the core courses in that program. I said, “John, I’ve been getting straight As in all my courses, and in the most clinically related work that I’ve done, you were one of the two team teachers, and I got As. When I did interviews, you said I did great work.” He said, “That was because we sensed you couldn’t take criticism.”

I said, “John, I remember being embarrassed, because after other people’s interviews, you would give them suggestions for how they could improve. And after mine, you and the other faculty member, Phil Costanzo, would say, ‘Well, that was just great!’ It was kind of embarrassing. I remember saying, ‘Thank you, but you know there’s always room for improvement, so what suggestions do you have for me?’ and you said nothing.”

I didn’t know what was going on. I went around, and I spoke one at a time to many of these “eleven sensitive clinicians,” some of whom I’d never met. And they all had very strange things to say to me. Phil Costanzo said, “Because you had been at Harvard as an undergraduate, we knew you thought you were better than the rest of us.”

I Thought There Was Something Wrong with Me.  

I remember whatever anyone would say anything in class, [like] a well-socialized woman, I remember thinking to myself, “Do I have no backbone? Why am I always agreeing with everybody?” And then later one of the things that the women’s movement did for me was help me to understand: I was trying to find what was good and what was positive and what to build on in what everybody said. But I certainly didn’t think I was better than anyone else.

I think that part of what happened was that during that time – this was ‘69 – ’70 – my then-husband and I would go to D.C. for the antiwar marches. A lot of the faculty in the clinical program were opposed to the war, but they didn’t go.

I Think They Had Sort of Liberal Guilt. 

We made them look bad, because we were going. I think the fact that I was one of only two women and the other one was Black, and they weren’t going to criticize her, because they were going to be really careful about anybody that was Black – but me, they felt free to criticize and to kick out of the program. There were a lot of other things. In the introductory clinical course about psychological assessment, when we were supposed to learn how to give IQ tests, I remember asking John and Phil, I said, “My understanding is that these tests are very racist in what is on them and what the scores mean.”

They were threatened by that. All they had to say was, “You’re right, and that’s exactly why you need to know these tests inside out so you know what to do with them and what not to do.” Instead they were threatened, because heaven forbid I was asking questions! And I didn’t ask them in an angry way as one of the other men in the program and as the other woman did. I was being nice, and I think they didn’t know what to do with that.

Here Is This Woman – She’s Causing Us Trouble, and She’s Nice. 

What do we do with that? They didn’t come up with, “She’s an angry bitch. We need to get rid of her.” But they came up with “She has weak ego boundaries.”  I went to Duke Hospital right next door, to the walk-in psychiatric clinic, and I asked to see a therapist. He said, “What brings you here?” I said, “Apparently I have weak ego boundaries, and I’d like you to help me strengthen them.” I believed what they were saying! I assumed something was wrong with me.

Again, I was a well-socialized woman. And God bless him – his name was Dan Pauk, and I want to give him credit because he said to me, “No, you don’t have weak ego boundaries. Tell me what’s going on.” He was very nice and supportive. Now years later, again thanks to the feminist movement, I came to understand that they didn’t know what to do with me.  The men who were asking questions, they experienced that very differently. I was being nice but asking crucial questions, and it made them extremely uncomfortable.

It Was Plain Old Sexism that Led to the Problems that I Had There. 

I left the clinical program. I had no choice – I was kicked out, but I managed to get a PhD. in general psychology and to do a clinical internship and then to go on from there. It was many decades later that Phyllis Chesler and a couple of other people were asked to edit a special issue of the journal Women in Therapy. It was to be published as a book called Feminist Foremothers, and so they asked a bunch of us from the Second Wave if we would each do an article. They said, “Write about your greatest achievements.”

I’m thinking, “I’m supposed to write about that? That’s embarrassing!” But I said, “I know what I’m going to write about.” So I wrote an article called “Weak Ego Boundaries: One Developing Feminist’s Story.”[2] It was about what I just told you and also how that led me as I came to understand more of what had really happened. It led me to look at the myths that are harmful to women and the catch-22s. And then every book after that, or every arena I went into to work in, I was always becoming aware.

I didn’t go into each one thinking, “Oh this must be full of myths and lies and oppression.” I would start to see – it would jump out at me. I want to tell you one example of something that happened. When I went to talk to one of those eleven sensitive clinicians, Marty Lakin was a psychologist, and I had taken a course with him that first year on either theories of therapy or theories of personality.

I Didn’t Even Know the Word “Feminist.”

I wasn’t thinking in terms of sexism, but we had read Freud, we read Young, we read Adler, and I thought, “For my term paper, Freud says this about women, and Jung says this etc.” I decided I want to see what happens if we put together what all of these great authorities have said about women. What do we learn about women? As a result of reading and thinking about this, I thought this doesn’t ring true – penis envy?  I don’t remember having penis envy. I started raising questions. I did it in the spirit of inquiry. I was so interested in this. That was the mood in which I wrote the paper.

Well the paper was typed on corrasable bond paper, which when you would hit the keys on the typewriter it would leave an indentation. When I got the paper back Professor Lakin had written on the front – and he must have been pressing so hard with his pen you could see the indentations many pages after that — and what he wrote was, “How many times in this century is Freud to be attacked on his views on women?!” I didn’t know he’d ever been attacked, and I didn’t feel I was attacking. I called it raising questions, trying to learn something, and when I went to him after I was kicked out of the program. I said, “I’ve been kicked out of the clinical psych program but I still want to get my PhD. in general psychology, and I’d like to sign up for your course on group process for the fall semester. And it says I need your signature. Could I please have it?”

And he asked, “Why would you want to take that course?” I said, “Because I know other students have taken it, and they said you learn to see yourself as others see you. It has become obvious through my experiences in this program that I don’t see myself as others see me. Other people seem to see me as much more arrogant and threatening and angry.”  He said, “I’m not going to let you take the course.” I said,“Why not”? He said, “Because you would destroy the group.” This was horrifying to me. If somebody criticizes you for something that there’s at least a grain of truth to, you could say, “I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better, I’ll change.” But when it couldn’t be farther from the truth, there I was, always trying to bring people together and find places of agreement. Anyway, after I graduated, I did a clinical internship, so I got my license in clinical psychology.

I Was Starting to Read a Lot of Feminist Work in 1970, and It Was a Revelation. 

I thought that explains so much of what I’ve been through in various ways and the fact that I had gone to Duke because my husband was there. When I got kicked out of the program, I remember writing a letter to my parents saying, “I don’t like Durham, I don’t like being in the deep South because it’s so racist,” and I said, “I’m going to leave. I want to go back to Cambridge, because I was happy there. It was interesting to be there. I know I’m not supposed to leave my husband, and he’s still in his program.”  I didn’t know that other women had been through that struggle. Connecting with feminist work helped me see that so many women were going through this too.

That marriage ended after just a year and a half, and I married somebody else. We had a couple of kids, and I went on to write. I started writing books and the first book I wrote was called Between Women: Lowering the Barriers.[3] That was because I was going through my second divorce around that time, and I was getting more and more involved in the women’s movement, and I thought there are these myths about women and cat fights and that they can’t get along with each other. I’m sure women can have problems between them, but more than between men and women? I started thinking about how if we want to build a movement, what we need to do is identify what things can come between us and set us up against each other.

I started thinking about that when I was in Toronto, Canada. My friend Kathryn Morgan, a brilliant feminist philosophy professor, was organizing one of the first pre-conference Women’s Institute kinds of things for the philosophers that were coming to town. I was telling her about this idea I had, and I remember I first mentioned it to my mother, and my mother had not been an academic — I said, “I’m writing a paper about this,” and she said, “Sounds to me like a book.” I remember saying, “Me, a book, are you kidding? Who am I to write a book?” I mentioned it to Kathryn Morgan and she said, “Come to our philosophy meetings, and present these ideas, and get some input.”  I did, and the input was so positive, and I wrote my first book, Between Women: Lowering the Barriers. What it was about was that there are ways that our society sets women are up against each other, and we need to be aware of them and not let it work.  And what grew from that book, part of what was between women was about mother-daughter relationships and the way mothers and daughters can be each other’s greatest allies. But then there are things that set us up against each other.

From That Grew a Book Called Don’t Blame Mother: Mending the Mother Daughter Relationship. [4]

I had a research degree, and I was working at the Toronto family court clinic, and I started noticing that somebody would see a family that was referred from the clinic because the kid was having a problem with the law, and the rest of our interdisciplinary team would be meeting afterward. And having watched the interview through a one-way mirror, then we’d talk about what happened. By that time I was a mother, I had two children. I was helping to raise two stepchildren as well. I started noticing that sometimes the team members, women and men, would say, “Did you see in that interview the mother sat right next to the kid? You see, she’s intrusive and controlling and overwhelming, and they have a symbiotic relationship they’re enmeshed!” – really pathologizing the mother. And other times they would ask, “Did you see? That mother didn’t even sit next to the kid? She’s cold and rejecting.” If the kid were a boy they would say she’s castrating. And I remember thinking, “Where does a good mother sit? On the ceiling?”

And that was what led to my doing research with a young male student of mine, Ian Hall-McCorquodale. We read scholarly journal articles written by therapists of all kinds, women and men, behaviorists, psychoanalysts, everything, and we looked at more than 60 different categories of mother- blame. We found overwhelmingly that mothers were blamed for absolutely every kind of problem you can conceive of. I had said to Ian before we started, “I have a feeling that we’re going to get very different kinds of information about mothers as compared to fathers.” And there it was. I started rating one of the articles according to the 60 categories. One article said, “The boy’s father is 36. he is a bricklayer. The boy’s mother is 34. She is nervous.” There it was. I had been sort of joking that we’re going to get totally different kinds of information.

There was an article about children of men who had been prisoners of war. And the question the therapist was asking was, “Do these kids have more emotional problems than kids whose fathers were not prisoners of war?” And he concluded yes they do. Now when it comes to explaining why – here is what he actually wrote – he said when a father has been a prisoner of war, and he comes home, he’s often withdrawn and distant from the family emotionally. You’re sitting there and thinking, “That would explain why the kid has more trouble.” Then he said, “This behavior by the father upsets the mother, and it interferes with her being a good mother, and that’s what messes up the kids.”

We published these two articles[5] just documenting it by the numbers. We looked at how many words were used to describe the mother compared to the father – just sheer volume. Of course, it was usually the mother who brought the person to be seen by the therapist. They were there to be pathologized and to be studied.

There was another book I wrote, and then I started hearing that when there was so much disclosure, it usually started with consciousness raising groups, thanks to the feminists, and about women who were being battered by their husbands or their male partners or about child sexual abuse. You start hearing people say things like, “Well she stayed with him even though he was abusive, so she must have enjoyed it.” I’m a psychologist, and hearing my colleagues say, “If she says she doesn’t enjoy it, that means consciously she doesn’t, but no doubt unconsciously she does, or she would have left.” I was so horrified by that. Or, “Do you see that woman? She’s overweight. She enjoys being mocked.”

Or That Woman Didn’t Get a Promotion at Work; She Has a Need to Fail. 

I thought, “I’ve got to write a book about this.” My next book was called The Myth of Women’s Masochism.[6] So we’re back to myths. The first ones were myths about women, myths about mothers, and now myths about masochism. I talked about the real reasons that women stay in difficult situations and don’t get promotions and so on. I got a call from Jean Baker Miller, a wonderful, brilliant, feminist psychiatrist, the week that The Myth of Women’s Masochism was going to be published. It was 1985, and I was going on a book tour, and my first interview was going to be on Donahue in New York. Jean called and asked, “Did you hear what the people who write the psychiatric diagnostic manual are doing? They’re revising it, and they’re going to do another edition. They have proposed two categories that are so dangerous to women.” One was that two of the guys had invented “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder”:  Women go crazy once a month; and the other was they were going to put “Masochistic Personality Disorder in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]. I had this book coming out, and she said there are a number of women – she and Lenore Walker, Teresa Bernardez, Judy Herman, I think, and there’s one other I’m forgetting, had come together as a committee, and they were voicing objections.

The DSM Task Force

The DSM Task Force had appointed a committee to deal with the women, and would I come to this meeting? It so happened I was going to be in D.C. anyway the next day, because I was on my book tour, and I could come. Having grown up in Springfield, Missouri, and being very obedient and having learned that authorities are our friends, I still always start out that way — far too often, probably. And what I thought was, “Oh, look at the guys on this committee who are going to be meeting with us! These are people whose work I read in graduate school. They say that they’re ‘greats’ in my field – the authorities.” I thought, “OK. I learned from my family don’t ever be afraid to be wrong.” So I decided to go. “And as Jean Baker Miller asked me to do, I’ll make a brief presentation, and then no doubt these guys will tell me what I’m missing and where I’m wrong.” And that was the attitude I went in with. So I walked in, and I made my little presentation, and I said the idea of masochism makes no sense anyway. It’s defined as pleasure in pain. That’s like saying this is about the goodness of evil or the blackness of whiteness. It doesn’t make sense.

And when people, especially women, are called masochists, it’s usually because they’re suffering, and there’s some reason that they haven’t been able to get out or that it’s taken them a while to get out. But that’s very different from enjoying the suffering. So I’m waiting to be corrected. And Robert Spitzer, who was head of the task force that was doing all of this work, instead of responding to what I said, went like this. “I saw you yesterday on Donahue!” I was sort of embarrassed for him. And then he said, “I agreed with just about everything you said.” And I said, “Well it was like what I just now said, so if you agree with that, I don’t understand why would you be planning to put this in the manual.” And their committee said, “Because we see women like this all the time.” I said, “No! You’re not seeing women who enjoy suffering.” And then I went through the argument again. That was how I got involved with the what’s called the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

It’s Called the Psychiatrist’s Bible. 

If they’re going to diagnose you as mentally ill, it comes out of that book. And there are many hundreds of categories and subcategories. Nobody fails to fit one or many more of those labels, and there’s no science behind them. I ended up serving on two committees for the next edition. I should say with that [Robert Spitzer] edition I organized a petition campaign. And people weren’t using computers all that much at that time. We ended up with people writing things on napkins and sending them in and writing letters. We got letters from massive organizations. The National Organization of Women wrote to support us in objecting to them, including both Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder and Masochistic Personality, [the Task Force] changed the title of Masochistic to Self-Defeating Personality Disorder – which makes no difference. We ended up with letters and petitions representing more than six million people. As a result of that, Robert Spitzer announced that for the first time the DSM was going to have a provisional appendix for categories requiring further study. And those two categories were going to go in there instead of in the main text, which was supposedly just for solidly scientific categories.

When that edition came out, and the DSM-IV was starting to be prepared, I called the person in charge of that, a man named Allen Frances, a psychiatrist, and I said, “I assume that with these categories in the provisional appendix, you and your colleagues will be looking at the new research as it comes out and evaluating it, and my graduate students and I will be doing the same. I thought maybe we could work together.” See there I am again, wanting to work together and save each other from duplicating work. And he said, “I have a better idea, why don’t you be an advisor or a consultant to the two committees working on those categories?” I said, “That’s an interesting idea but I think I should tell you where I stand on these.”

I remember he said – [being] an old journalist, I wrote down what he said at the time. He said, “I know who you are, but this time we want to have an open and honest debate. And this time we’re going to make decisions based on the science.” Well now neither of those had applied to the previous editions, and I thought, “That would be great!”  I said, “I accept your invitation, but I think I should tell you that if I’m not comfortable with what I see happening, I’ll resign, and I will feel free to speak publicly about it.” I remember he said, “I’m sure you will.” And that’s exactly what happened. I was on those two committees for two years.

I Was Horrified to See How They Ignored the Science or Distorted or Lied About It.  

They’ll use junk science if they can use it to support what they want to do anyway. And then if it’s good science that doesn’t support what they want, that’s when they ignore, distort, or lie about it. They claim that getting a psychiatric label will help reduce suffering. It doesn’t. And they claim that it won’t cause any harm. Well getting these labels, even what seem like the mildest [ones], has devastated untold millions of people, and this is global, because this book’s used all over the world. I resigned on moral, ethical, and professional grounds after trying to get them to be honest about the science and to acknowledge the harm and to try to take steps to prevent it. It became clear they had no interest in doing that. Allen Frances to this day says that his edition, the DSM-IV, was “scrupulously scientific.”

One of my books is a textbook about research methodology that I wrote with my son Jeremy, and I know good science when I see it, and it doesn’t apply to what they do. I wrote a book about this, and I wrote a play called, Call Me Crazy.[7] It was a comedy drama with music and it was done in New York. And then I wrote a book called They Say You’re Crazy: How The World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal.[8]

Feminism Has Shaped My Work 

After that book came out – and you could have called it “My Time With the DSM People and What I Learned  – I am still the only person who was ever on a DSM Task Force who resigned and wrote about what happens…the inside story. And then I was thinking about this, and I thought they would have us believe that psychiatric diagnosis, if you imagine it as a sphere, is filled with solid science. Well, we know it’s not. So if you reach in and you take out all of the junk science and all of the distorted science, it creates a vacuum, and when you don’t have science, when you don’t have the objectivity, what goes in to fill that vacuum? Every conceivable kind of bias. So my next book was a book I edited called Bias In Psychiatric Diagnosis.[9] Many of the chapters were about how sexism comes into play in psych diagnosis.

There were a couple [of chapters] about racism and one about classism and about ageism and about homophobia and heterosexism. After that, I wrote some other books, edited some books. The textbook we [my son Jeremy and I] wrote is called Thinking Critically About Research on Sex and Gender.[10] It’s about research methods, but it’s using examples of research on sex and gender and across the whole spectrum: We have chapters ranging from research on sex differences in the brain and cognition, math, spatial abilities, verbal abilities and then looking at emotional and interpersonal stuff like “Are women more dependent than men? Are women really masochists? Are women less assertive than men? Are men really innately more aggressive than women?” And that book that we’re about to do a fourth edition of it actually.

My most recent book was about veterans called, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans. [11] Every time I’ve written a book — or I started writing plays some years ago, I realize how much feminism has shaped my work — the plays for sure, which kind of surprised me more than the nonfiction books.

Women in the Military 

I remember when MIT Press – when we were talking about doing the book about veterans and were talking about titles and somehow the idea When Johnny Comes Marching Home came up – I said, “And Jane.” There’s a lot in that book about women veterans and in what ways are the experiences of women veterans like those of men and – when they’re in the military, too –  in what ways are they very different. So that’s been another arena of my interest. And then a couple a couple of ways that other work I did came to bear on that. One was that a former student of mine from the University of Toronto, Andrea O’Reilly created the Journal of Research on Mothering. They do scholarly things. They do the arts. She’s an amazing woman, and she organized a conference at which I presented a paper called “Mothers in the Military.”[12] It was about mothers who are in the military or have been; it was about mothers who have a partner who is or has been in the military or who have offspring who are or have been in the military.

In all of those realms the woman is supposed to take care of everybody’s emotional needs. But in the military she’s supposed to be tough. And then if her partner or her offspring have emotional problems after having been in the military — whether because of war or because they were sexually assaulted – a woman is supposed to be able to fix everything. But then the shrinks are diagnosing all of these people as mentally ill, and there is the woman thinking, “I’m not a therapist – they’re mentally ill – but I’m supposed to fix everything.” It’s putting intolerable burdens on these women. And mothers who are in the military can feel guilty and ashamed from being away from their children. I know women who, when they were in the military and they’re deployed, and they feel so horrible, and they miss the kids terribly, so they go to see a therapist – a reasonable thing, you might think – they get diagnosed as mentally ill for having these very human understandable feelings. And they often get put on medication for that, and then they get discharged from the military with a “mental illness.” They often then go on to lose custody of their children because they have a diagnosis of mental illness. And the same thing happens with women who are sexually assaulted in the military who are understandably upset. They go to see a therapist. They all [are labeled with] “Borderline Personality Disorder” or “Bipolar Disorder.” They are discharged, and then they lose custody of their children because they are “mentally ill”. So I’ve written a paper about that as well.[13]

MJC:  Amazing. Well, you are a critical thinker of the feminist movement.

Were There Other Organizations that You Were Active in? 

PJC:  Oh, that’s interesting. I joined the National Organization for Women, and I’ve supported the Feminist Majority and have been a subscriber to Ms. Magazine. I’ve done things locally as well. I did get support from NOW for sending a letter when I did the petition campaign. And there was an equivalent letter when I was living in Toronto. There was an equivalent organization in Canada that no longer exists, and they wrote a letter of support. I have been somewhat disappointed in efforts that are unsuccessful; in efforts to get these major organizations involved in things like – I’ve done a lot of work on child custody in the courts, and I’ve been an expert witness in a lot of these cases, especially where the kids were abused. But then the mother gets pathologized for saying he abused the children, and the children get taken away from her because she’s [allegedly] trying to turn them against the father.[14]

That’s the argument: By virtue of saying, “I think he’s abusing the children” or “Here’s documentation of it,” she is treated as mentally ill and as a bad mother. And he gets the kids. And that’s been proven to happen in two different studies – one in Canada and one in the U.S. Phyllis Chesler of course did groundbreaking work about that. I tried to get support from national organizations to combat this and got nothing. They would say, “I think we have somebody working on this but then there was no follow through whatsoever.”

I’ve Worked with Eileen King Who Started Child Justice, Inc. in D.C. 

She’s a feminist, and she often gets involved in these kinds of cases, and years and years ago when Senator Leahy was head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, we went to see a man named Noah Bookbinder, who was his legislative aide. And we said when children are abused and it’s usually the mother who’s the protective parent, [who] goes to the law enforcement authorities, they won’t do anything. They say, “Oh you’re going through a divorce. This is a family court matter.” It’s of course a criminal matter. Then it goes into family court, and family court judges can do anything they please, and very often they bring in a psychiatrist or psychologist to do an evaluation. They mistakenly treat those evaluations like science and objectivity, when they’re often riddled with sexism and classism and racism. But the judges hate these cases, so they lift the responsibility for making custody decisions from their shoulders, and they say, “Psych eval! [evaluation]” and then they rubberstamp them. One of my students, Patricia Tobin, proved that in research she did [for] her thesis.

Eileen and I were trying to say these children are living with their abusers, and by a conservative estimate there are 58,000 of these kids. We even gave Noah Bookbinder a recording of one such case in which the child was being forced to see the father. And you hear her screaming and saying, “Please don’t! Please don’t make me see him!” Noah was very kind, and he said he would listen to this. He would read the material we gave him. And we had a description of the ways [in which] this is a federal issue, because that’s what they always want to know in Congress and what kinds of concrete steps can be taken to try to prevent this from happening.

Well we didn’t hear from him. And when I followed up, he said, “This is heartbreaking, but we are dealing with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” And I said, “I know, and that’s awful too. But that affects several hundred adults, and it’s horrible. This is affecting tens of thousands of children.” And he said, “You know what you should do? Contact Senator Kennedy, because he’s on a committee that includes health.” And I wrote back to Noah and said, “I did what you suggested and we got nowhere.” But I said, “Do you see what happened? We came to you saying that these cases when the mother goes to law enforcement, law enforcement sends it into the family court psychiatric psychological realm where usually no good is done, and harm is done to the kids. And we came to you because you’re judiciary, and you said take it into that realm of health psychological health and family.”

So I think that’s tragic, and I wish some of the women’s organizations would get behind it. But you know, people in those organizations like most people in this country believe that these psychiatric diagnoses are science, and they’re not. And they don’t know what to do. You know – “They told me my kid is bipolar. What am I supposed to do if they’re not?

MJC:  That’s very complex, and you have taken on a very challenging question. I’m glad you’re still working on it.  What are you most proud of in your work, or do you not want to pick out one of your books that are like your children?

PJC:  I don’t think in terms of being proud of my work.

What I’m Grateful for Is the People I Have Met Over the Decades.  

And the women who shared their stories and then would want to work with me. They were always people who had no money and no power. But they would help get the petitions out. I tell you something else. This was really interesting, and it’s a very feminist thing. A guy who’s a lawyer friend of mine said, “I know you’ve been trying to educate people about psychiatric diagnosis, and you’ve been trying to find a lawyer who would sue the American Psychiatric Association that made over a hundred million dollars in profits from the past edition of the DSM which has been used to destroy people’s lives. And there’s no recourse.” And I’ve been saying for a long time there is no oversight. There is no regulation of psychiatric diagnosis. None whatsoever. The APA publishes the book, and then they profit from it. And they never spend a cent of their profits to help redress any of the harm they’ve done. So this colleague of mine, Jim Gottstein, who is a brilliant lawyer, said, “I think the way to go is to file complaints with the APA ethics committee.” So I sent out a call – just a general call for people who would be willing to do that.

Only Women Responded. 

And I think [there are] probably a lot of reasons for that, one of which is they were brave. And so I organized the filing of nine complaints to the ethics department of the APA in which we were saying, “Here’s how it all started with getting a diagnosis, and then all sorts of awful things were done to me in the name of my diagnosis. And here’s how it ruined my life. Here’s how it damaged me.” And in each one they were asking for two kinds of things. One was, “Here’s what it will take to help me get back to where I was before this” (I lost a scholarship or whatever), and then the other set of things they were asking for – everybody [asked] for the same things, and they were things like on every copy of the DSM there should be a black box warning saying the labels in here have no science behind them, that getting one does not reduce the person’s suffering, and getting any one exposes the person to a wide array of risks of harm. And we ask that the APA keep records of people’s reports of harm done to them, like what the drug companies are supposed to do. You know – this drug may be harmful.

This Should Be Public; the APA Should Have to Do that. 

They dismissed the complaints with no attention to the merits and giving two reasons that held no water. So I wrote to say, “Well, how do we appeal?” There is no appeal. So then four of us went to APA headquarters to try to see the head of the ethics department. And we were kicked out of the building. They had security guards take us out. We weren’t making noise or making trouble. But they got rid of us. And so then another brilliant, feminist lawyer named Wendy Murphy said, “I think you should file complaints with the Office of Civil Rights of Health and Human Services.” So five of the complaints were filed with the OCR of Health and Human Services. And again they dismissed the complaints with no attention to the merits, giving two reasons that held no water. I wrote to say, “How do we appeal?” There is no appeal.

Now, the importance of that is that we now have a paper trail proving that not only is there no oversight and no regulation but also that the two entities – one non-governmental, a lobby group [the APA] and one governmental — who ought to be providing that have absolutely no intention of doing it. And that’s a thing that I’ve done that hasn’t gotten us anywhere, but somebody might come along and figure out how to use it.[15]

You know I’ve tried to get congressional hearings about psychiatric diagnosis[16] – no traction at all. And when I wrote the first book – Between Women – Lowering The Barriers, it was about women’s friendships and culture and about how we ought to be each other’s allies. And the image that came to mind decades ago that I think of frequently is that often, because women are in positions where they have little or no power or authority or resources, they’re like two mice in a cage that’s too small for them. And you know if you do that to mice, they can start nipping at each other and fighting, and so on. But what we should be doing is saying, “Who put us in this cage, what does it consist of and how can we help each other out of it?” 

One of the Things that Has Been Really Wonderful Is the Friendships that I’ve Made Through the Women’s Movement. 

Kathryn Morgan has been really important. June Larkin, who started out as a student of mine, then became a colleague. Nikki Gerrard, absolutely wonderful. And I know I’m going to leave a lot of people out. They have been some of the most crucial early friends and colleagues and supporters.

I should mention one other book that actually happened through Kathryn Morgan. It’s the only book I’ve ever been asked to write, and that was a book that I ended up calling Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman’s Guide to Surviving in the Academic World.[17]. It was about what it’s like to be a woman in academia. An organization in the province of Ontario, of faculty associations, there was a women’s section of it, and they hired me to write the book. The publisher wanted me to explain how to survive and thrive. And I thought, “I don’t know. I’ve been a woman in academia. I know it’s really hard for women still. I wish I had 10 easy steps.” But they said, “What we’re going to do for you to kick off your work is we’re going to arrange an evening in which we’re going to bring in a lot of senior women in academia, and you can ask them any questions you want.” It was so fascinating, because we were going to have several hours. We made a big circle. I said we could start by just each person introducing herself and saying how did she get into academia. It took up the whole time. And what was really interesting was these were very senior women.

Some of Them Quite Intimidating and With Remarkable Records of Achievement. 

Well, we went around the room, and what every woman wanted to talk about was how it had been difficult for her. And it wasn’t self-pitying. Some of them were just perplexed, and I think they were very interested to hear how many other women had had similar experiences – each one had thought it was just her.  [For instance,] “I didn’t think of going to graduate school until somebody happened to say that was a good term paper! I’ll write you a letter of recommendation.” or “I was getting my graduate degree, but I didn’t think I could teach at a university.” Some talked about a lot of the sexism they had been exposed to. And I thought, “You know, I think the best thing I can do with this book is to make it clear to women in academia that it’s not you.”

And so the whole book ended up being about the systemic kinds of problems. Again, the myths, the catch-22s and then I invented catch-33s: Sometimes there are three or four options, and you’re damned no matter which one you follow. And then the title – Lifting A Ton Of Feathers – I had a graduate student whose name I can’t remember now – she said, “Being a woman in academia, sometimes somebody will make a little sexist joke, or the guys won’t invite you to go out and have a beer with them, or whatever. You take them one at a time. It really shouldn’t bother me, but there are so many that it’s like lifting a ton of feathers.”  I just thought that was brilliant. I know I give her credit in the book, I’m sorry I can’t remember the name.

MJC:  But it’s a beautiful image.

Women’s Work Is Disappearing 

PJC:  I remember when I became a Full Professor – I was teaching at the University of Toronto, and I was in a faculty meeting with just the people in our program. There was one other woman, a feminist, and the rest were guys, and I was sitting there. I was a single parent by then and I was writing down like “pick up milk” for on the way home. And before the meeting started, one of the guys looked at me and said, “I can just imagine what she’s writing!” What in the world was he thinking? I experienced a lot of this myself. and writing the book and listening to those women talk was a real revelation. And one of the things that’s been the most gratifying has been when people have said to me – because I feel like women’s work gets disappeared – and I figure mine will be, too. It already is on its way to being disappeared. But sometimes I’ll hear from somebody who says – I get your women in academia book, and I give it to every one of my women graduate students. Or somebody will say, “I read it when I was studying for my orals, and it helped.” Or a woman who has been in a psychiatric system will say, “I thought it was just me.”

What I’ve always been looking at are the systemic kinds of oppression. And so it really means a lot when somebody says, “Gee – I read it – and you know the Ms. Magazine thing Click?”

MJC:  Yes, exactly.

PJC:  I’ll say one other thing. Frances Newman is a woman who was doing a clinical psych internship when I was working in the Family Court Clinic in Toronto as a psychologist, and I was supervising her. And it was when I was writing my first book, and she said to me, “Oh gee, Paula, it’s so exciting you’re going to be writing a book and then you’ll go out in public and people will go, “Oh there’s Paula Caplan! She wrote that.”  I said, “I never thought of that.” She said, “You didn’t? What do you think about when you’re writing a book?” I said, “In my head I’m talking to women who might read it and I’m wanting [them] to know that you don’t have to agree with what I’m saying, but I’d be interested to know what you think about it – have a discussion about it.”

MJC:  Any final thoughts?

A Special Writing Partner 

PJC:  When I was teaching a course called scientific perspectives on sex and gender my friend and colleague Ronnie DeSousa was heading Women’s Studies at the University of Toronto for a year, so that the women who didn’t have tenure could have time freed up to publish, so they could get tenure. And it was his idea to have this course for all Women’s Studies majors. And it was a year-long course – it was one-third psychology, a third biology, and a third anthropology. And I was to give the psych lectures and coordinate the whole thing. I thought, “Let’s do it as a critical thinking class.” And so we taught the students how to think about research on sex and gender in each of these fields and how to critique it and all of the sexist things about it, and we had a great time teaching it. Then I got a little grant to write a book about this; and to shorten the story, a lot [of] it was to pay somebody who was supposed to help me write it, but then she became ill, and so I had a tiny bit of money left. I thought, “I’ve got to get this book written, but I don’t have time to do it all myself.” My son Jeremy was 16 at the time, and I was thinking, “Whom do I know who can do critical thinking and will get what I want to say? I want it to be very simple and say, “Here’s the research on sex differences in math, here are the things that are wrong with it – what do we learn if we do away with the flawed studies?— you know, do that with each of the topics.

So I asked my son if he would like to do it with me. And he did, and it was wonderful. We each wrote chapters, and then we critiqued each other’s. He really got what I wanted, and he’s a very clear writer. And then a couple of years later, a publisher was interested in it but wanted some changes. By then my daughter Emily was 16, and for years I’d look at her writing, and I would say “An example here would be helpful” or “Meaning unclear” or “What follows from this?”  I said, “Emily would you be willing to look over this manuscript? I’m so close to it.” And she did, and I got it back with “Meaning unclear”, etc. So when the book came out, the one called Thinking Critically About Research On Sex And Gender, I think Jeremy was in his first or second year of university, and I was still living in Toronto, and a guy named Ian Brown did a wonderful noontime radio show, and he called and he said, “I see that you and your son wrote this book together. Would you come and be on the show?”

I said, “I will, I’ve done a lot of media stuff, but I’ll have to ask my son.”  Jeremy said, “Mom! Me on radio – are you kidding me? I can’t do that.” I said, “Well you don’t have to do it.” Then he decided to do it. Ian Brown asked us some stuff about the book, and then you could tell he had a great question he wanted to ask. And he turns to Jeremy, and he says, “Jeremy what was it like writing a book with your mother?” And Jeremy just looked at him and said very evenly, “It was really great. It was interesting.” Ian was very upset because he didn’t get some really shocking answer and then he had one other question. He said, “Jeremy what was it like being raised by a feminist?” And Jeremy said, “I’ve never understood why everybody’s not a feminist.” It was wonderful.  I think that’s the only time he’s ever been on the radio.

MJC:  Well, good for him. Thank you very much.  We appreciate it. This was a wonderful interview.

PJC:  Thank you for doing this. It’s such an important project.


[1] Caplan, Paula J. (1995). “Weak ego boundaries”: One developing feminist’s story. Women and Therapy special issue on Feminist Foremothers, 17, 113-23. *add link

[2] Caplan, Paula J. (1995). “Weak ego boundaries”: One developing feminist’s story. Women and Therapy special issue on Feminist Foremothers, 17, 113-23. (Invited paper)

[3] Caplan, Paula J. Between Women:  Lowering the Barriers.  Toronto: Personal Library, 1981

[4] Caplan, Paula J. THE NEW Don’t Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship. New York: Routledge, 2000. (originally published as Don’t Blame Mother:  Mending the Mother-Daughter RelationshipNew York:  Harper and Row, 1989.)

[5] Caplan, Paula J., & Hall-McCorquodale, Ian.  Mother-blaming in major clinical journals. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55, 1985, 345‑353.

Caplan, Paula J. & Hall-McCorquodale, Ian.  The scapegoating of mothers:  A call for change. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55, 1985, 610‑613.

[6] Caplan, Paula J. The Myth of Women’s Masochism.  New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985.

–2005 edition with new preface published by iUniverse.

[7] Script available on request.

[8] Caplan, Paula J. They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995.

[9] Caplan, Paula J., & Cosgrove, Lisa (Eds.). Bias in Psychiatric Diagnosis. Jason Aronson/Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

[10] Caplan, Paula J.; & Caplan, Jeremy B. Thinking Critically About Research on Sex and Gender.  New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

–Second edition. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.

–Third edition. Allyn & Bacon, 2009.

[11] Caplan, Paula J. (2011). When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

–Substantially revised/updated paperback edition, 2016. Open Road.

[12] Caplan, Paula J. (2012). Mothers and the military: What it’s like and how it needs to be. What do mothers need? Motherhood activists and scholars speak out on maternal empowerment for the 21st century. Andrea O’Reilly (Ed.). Bradford, Ontario: Demeter Press, pp. 97-106.

[13] Caplan, Paula J. (2013). Sexual trauma in the military workplace: Needed changes in policies and procedures. Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard 10, 10-21.

[14] Caplan, Paula J. (2005) Sex bias in psychiatric diagnosis and the courts. In Wendy Chan, Dorothy Chunn, & Robert Menzies (Eds.), Women, mental disorder, and the law. London: Cavendish, pp. 115-26.

[15] Caplan, Paula J. (2012). Will the APA listen to the voices of those harmed by psychiatric diagnosis? Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry, and Community. October 1.

Caplan, Paula J. (2012). The APA refuses to listen to the voices of those harmed by diagnosis…and refuses and refuses. Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry, and Community. November 19.

[16] Caplan, Paula J. (2002). You, Too, Can Hold a Congressional Briefing: The SMCR Goes to Washington About “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder” and Sarafem. The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Newsletter, Summer, 1-5.

[17] Caplan, Paula J. Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman’s Guide to Surviving in the Academic World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.