In 2015, Jeffrey Lieberman—infamous psychiatrist who briefly headed up the American Psychiatric Association (APA) — memorably called Robert Whitaker (investigative journalist and founder of Mad in America) a “menace to society.” Whitaker apparently earned that title for essentially shedding light on so much corruption in the mental health system. One month later, psychologist and author, Bruce Levine, retorted by questioning whether it was Lieberman himself who was the actual menace.
In his retort (available here in its entirety: http://tiny.cc/BLlieberman), Levine spoke of experiments in which Lieberman was involved where research subjects were sometimes intentionally given drugs that would exacerbate their struggles and pain. But that’s just one concern, albeit a substantial one. As a prominent child psychiatrist and chair of psychiatry at Columbia University, there have been dozens of issues raised about how Lieberman has used his prestige to push harmful, coercive approaches, as well as drugs with questionable track records on adults and children alike.
In spite of all this, and numbers of well-informed people speaking out against his practices, Lieberman has seemed untouchable. Untouchable, that is, until February, 2022, when he made the infinitely poor decision to post a Tweet about model, Nyakim Gatwech, an American model of South Sudanese descent. In the Tweet, he said, “whether a work of art or a freak of nature, she’s a beautiful sight to behold.”
While some have argued that this was just a “simple misstep intended as a compliment,” it is a misstep nonetheless rooted deeply in both misogyny and racism. Worse, it reinforces a long and harmful history of fetishizing and dehumanizing black women that dates back to Colonial times (More on this concept here: http://tiny.cc/BFmedium). Even ‘simple missteps’ can leave giant footprints when connected to so many years of oppression, and spoken out of the mouths of people with so much power.
Following the Tweet, Columbia quickly suspended Lieberman and removed him from his most prestigious roles. His Twitter account is now gone. We’re hoping this might all lead to a permanent retirement. We’re also hoping that this can serve as another reminder of just how intertwined different forms of oppression can be. Psychiatry has served as a tool of control used in the oppression of so many different marginalized groups, and too many of its leaders have felt free to act with impunity because their authority is rarely, if ever, challenged .
It would seem that—all things considered— it is becoming clearer than ever who is the true menace.