Have you seen the movie Get Out? If you haven’t, what follows might spoil part of the movie for you. You might want to watch it before reading this.
If you have seen Get Out, this post ponders the role of psychiatry in the movie. (Full disclosure: I enjoyed and recommend the movie.)
We learn early on in the movie that Rose’s mother is a psychiatrist. Chris, Rose’s boyfriend, asks something like, “She’s a psychologist?”
The response Chris receives is something like, “No, she’s a psychiatrist.”
While I can’t know for sure, I believe that the writer of the film, Jordan Peele1, wanted to highlight the difference between the two. Psychiatrists are physicians. And some physicians, under the guise of expertise, have promoted racist ideas.
Dr. Samuel Cartwright was a physician who practiced in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana in the years leading up to the American Civil War. He defended slavery and wrote pieces that argued that blacks were inferior to whites.
One of his articles, “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race“, describes “drapetomania, or the disease causing Negroes to run away”. Because he describes drapetomania “is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation”, it is clear that this is a psychiatric condition, such as kleptomania (compulsive stealing), pyromania (compulsive fire-setting), and dipsomania (the old name for alcohol use disorders).
In this article Dr. Cartwright asserts that God has ordained blacks as “submissive knee-bender[s]” and are “intended to occupy… the position of submission”. To support that blacks were destined to be “submissive knee-benders”, he states that “in the anatomical conformation of his knees, we see [it] written in the physical structure of his knees, being more flexed or bent, than any other kind of a man.”
To prevent the development of drapetomania, he states:
if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.
In Get Out, Chris (plus Georgiana, Walter, and Andrew) becomes obviously “spell-bound” through the hypnotic powers of the porcelain cup and silver spoon. One could argue that Rose is demonstrating faith in this practice as she was initially “kind and gracious”, “without condescension”, “ministers to his physical wants”, and “protects him from abuses” (remember the police officer who pulled them over?).
Dr. Cartwright comments that, in the course of drapetomania, slaves become “sulky and dissatisfied” before they run away. He advises that “the cause of this sulkiness and dissatisfaction should be inquired into and removed, or they are apt to run away or fall into the negro consumption.” However, if slaves were “sulky and dissatisfied without cause,” he states that the treatment was “in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.”2
Chris becomes understandably “sulky and dissatisfied” with his time at the Armitage home and seeks to flee. Though he wasn’t whipped to treat his drapetomania, it’s not a hard stretch to argue that the plan to remove most of his brain (“coagula”) is essentially whipping the devil out of him so that only his body remains.
Dr. Cartwright apparently published these ideas in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal (as well as De Bow’s Review, a magazine of “agricultural, commercial, and industrial progress and resource” in the American South). This publication came from his work as the chairman Louisiana State Medical Convention committee. One of their tasks was to “examine the diseases peculiar to the Black slaves of the antebellum South”.3 This was a professional medical opinion!
To be clear, not all physicians agreed with Dr. Cartwright’s opinion. Dr. Hunt, a physician who practiced in Buffalo, New York—that is, North of the Mason-Dixon line—lampooned Dr. Cartwright’s concept of drapetomania. He rightly wondered why drapetomania seemed to only exist in the South. He made wry remarks that drapetomania seems to affect the neurons of slaves so that they only flee in a northerly direction. He also pointed out that drapetomania resembled the condition of schoolchildren who ran away from school to play.
In essence, Dr. Hunt shouted, “Context matters!”
Dr. Cartwright sincerely believed that drapetomania was an inherent quality of black people.4 As he was a fish in the sea of Southern slaveowning culture, he either could or would not believe that social and political context affects the definitions of psychiatric conditions. (He also could not believe that his ideas were wrong.) Maybe Jordan Peele was thinking about Dr. Cartwright and drapetomania when he created the characters in Get Out. Maybe he wasn’t; maybe he was pointing out the consequences and longevity of racism.
Psychiatry has been and can easily become an agent of social control. The moment we begin to think that we’re too good or too smart or too sophisticated to become agents of social control, we and the people under our care are doomed.
It is paramount that we remember this always in the current political climate. May we have the wisdom and courage of Dr. Hunt.
- If you are not familiar with Jordan Peele, please go watch some clips of Key and Peele. ↩
- Wikipedia also comments that another treatment for drapetomania included “removal of both big toes”, which makes running difficult. ↩
- From a Lancet article called “Drapetomania“. ↩
- Dr. Cartwright also described “dysaethesia aethiopica“, or “hebetude or mind and obtuse sensibility of body” that only occurred in blacks in the South. ↩