Sam McManis

Discoveries: It’s tempting to shrink from this museum

You never know what you’ll stumble upon walking down Sunset Boulevard. No, not Hugh Grant’s prostitute or those annoying dudes dressed like Elmo or Michael Jackson and begging for change. That’s on Hollywood Boulevard, two blocks over.

This is what I’m talking about: “PSYCHIATRY An Industry of Death Museum.”

It made me stop in my tracks – and not just because the title was poorly punctuated, sans colon.

Here I was, strolling along on my way to lunch at Subway, distracted by promiscuous American Apparel billboards hulking overhead and checking out the new e-cig business, Puff In Vaporium, across the street from the Blessed Sacrament School. Suddenly, my eye was diverted to a large poster showing a bed with ominous leather foot and arm restraints and the word “psychiatry” in blood red letters. Underneath was written something I can never resist: “Free Admission.”

Now, I’ve been to my share of strange museums on this beat – Bola Ties, in Wickenburg, Ariz.; Bigfoot, in Willow Creek; the International Banana Museum near the Salton Sea – but a museum dedicated to maligning, possibly slandering, an entire healing profession? That broke new ground.

I craned my neck to get a look at the building, white-and-blue stucco with an official seal and an important-sounding name: “Citizens Commission of Human Rights International.” Its facade gave off the feel of high seriousness, as if you were about to enter the U.N. building. I looked in one of the windows and saw a giant photograph of a baby bottle filled with pink pills, the caption reading, “Every year, 2,000 prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs are written for children under 1 year old.”

I could’ve just walked on by. Maybe I should have. It was obvious this was a “museum” with an agenda, a not-so-hidden one. Let me say I have no issues with psychiatrists, psychologists, anyone in the mental-health field. I know many people who swear by them, and only a few who swear at them.

But I walked in anyway.

Almost immediately, I was pounced on by a volunteer, a middle-aged librarian type whose perkiness was surpassed only by her zealotry. She didn’t give me her name, but sure gave me an earful about the CCHR, how it was co-founded in the 1960s by Dr. Thomas Szasz, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Syracuse University, and the Church of Scientology and how –

Whoa. Stop right there. It’s all making sense now. I recalled the Tom Cruise-vs.-Matt Lauer “psychiatry is pseudo-science” showdown on “The Today Show” in 2005, and how other stars/Scientology adherents like Anne Archer and Priscilla Presley have spoken about the issue.

“So, this is part of Scientology?” I asked.

“No,” she said, smiling. “The Scientology (building) is down the road. It just helped Dr. Szasz co-found (the organization) because no other people would fund it back then. What we do is survey and track everything that goes on in mental health. We’re trying to reform it.”

I asked her about the museum, and she said it opened in 2005 to give an overview of the history of psychiatry, its supposed dubious practices and the role it plays in modern society. (I later contacted the American Psychiatric Association for comment about the museum; it declined.)

“You’ve come on a busy day,” she said. “We have medical students here touring and doing workshops. How much time do you have? It’ll take about seven hours to really study what the museum’s about. If you don’t have that long, I’d suggest you go right to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) Room and the School Classroom (exhibits). We have millions of kids on drugs. They’re turning them into zombies.”

Seven hours? Really? Spending that long in any museum would drive me crazy – perhaps not the wisest choice of words in a place like this.

I told her I had an hour, adding that my ADHD prevented me from spending any more time. To her credit, she got my lame joke and laughed, told me I couldn’t take photos inside but didn’t flinch when I whipped out my notebook. Then she pointed to a purposely rusted wrought-iron arch and doorway graced with a quote from the third canto of Dante’s “Inferno”: “Through me the way into the suffering city/Through me the way to the eternal pain/Through me the way that runs among the lost ”

Well, that certainly gives you pause before opening the door. And when I entered, I found myself in a padded room, and then an entryway where I was assaulted by the first of an onslaught of statistics and pronouncements, such as, “Every 75 seconds, somebody gets committed in this country against their will.”

I took the volunteer’s advice and breezed by exhibits about how psychiatry can be blamed for the eugenics movement, for the Holocaust, power-walked past slogans such as “Torture and Death Sold as Miracle Cure,” past renderings of people in strait jackets, in stocks, in cages, but I stopped at the “Mind Control” room, where footage of electroshock therapy was played. I had to stop because a gaggle of students from Everest Pharmacy Tech adorned in blue scrubs were staring slack-jawed at the hideous sight and blocked the path. I stopped again a few rooms down at a macabre walk-of-fame type of display of stars – from Kurt Cobain to Sylvia Plath to Spalding Gray to Elliott Smith – who committed suicide. But far from suggesting these troubled souls needed help from mental-health practitioners, the museum seems to blame psychiatry for the deaths.

Moving on, I finally did make it to the DSM and school classroom exhibits.

I watched a video with cleverly spliced sound bites, including this from Dr. Darrel Regier, vice chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 task force: “We don’t know the ideology of really any mental disorders at the present time.” That was followed by heavy, two-beat base notes, Duh-DUM, like on “Law & Order.” Then the narrator, sounding like the voice-over people who do movie trailers, intoned as if hawking a horror movie and speaking of a clinical manual: “It’s grown to 10 times its original size, and it labels everybody.”

The schoolroom display featured desks and chalkboards and runs a video in a loop, insinuating that psychiatrists, in league with pharmaceutical companies, want to drug our youth, and show stats listing the growth of ADHD diagnoses in children, while running clips from Fox News about notorious school shooters, before lamenting that the United States “has fallen from ninth to 26th in worldwide academic standards.”

My hour was up. I felt I’d “learned” enough at the museum. I went to lunch.

Although the American Psychiatric Association declined comment, I needed something to counterbalance the museum, because hundreds of people have visited this Sunset Boulevard curiosity – judging by the guest book. I dug and found a statement the APA released in 2005, defending its treatments after Cruise’s comments. It read: “Mental health is a critical ingredient of overall health. It is unfortunate that in the face of this remarkable scientific and clinical progress that a small number of individuals and groups persist in questioning its legitimacy.”