Harrington is right to sigh over what has too often proved to be a yelling match between equally deaf opponents—members of an ambitious profession convinced that psychiatry is making strides toward understanding mental illness, and critics who believe it is at best a misguided attempt to help suffering people and at worst a pseudoscience enabling social control at the expense of human dignity ... Harrington’s dispassion as she chronicles the rise and fall of various biological theories of mental illness will make this book of value to historians of medicine. It may even allow critics and advocates of biological psychiatry alike to gain a deeper appreciation of the historical stream in which they are swimming, and to stop trying to drown one another. But her restraint carries a risk: that she will underplay the significance of the troubles she is reporting ... the fact that the brain is a chunk of meat bathing in a chemical broth does not yield the fact that conscious suffering is purely biological, or even that this is the best way to approach mental illness. Those unresolved, and perhaps unanswerable, moral questions loom over the history that Harrington traces here. The path she has chosen may require her to steer clear of such knotty concerns as the relationship of mind to brain or the relationship of political order to mental illness. But her account doesn’t just skirt the polemics she decries. It also overlooks the consequences of psychiatrists’ ignoring those questions, or using scientific rhetoric to conceal them.
A thorough and well-researched account ... Beneath the author’s firm, stately prose, which never becomes alarmist or provocative, lies a bleak assessment of the mental health profession. Its practitioners come across as hampered by the current, insufficient state of understanding of how the mind functions and malfunctions as well as prompted by jealousy, fear, greed, and a desire to one-up those they see as their competitors ... A measured, insightful survey of the limits of contemporary treatment for mental illness.