Whores of the Court
by Margaret Hagen
Reviewed by Mari Wener
argaret Hagen is a psychologist. Her book Whores of the Court is subtitled, "The Fraud of Psychiatric Testimony and the Rape of American Justice." How did a woman with a Ph.D. in psychology come to write such a harsh condemnation of her own colleagues?
In 1993, Hagen's brother was sued for $3.4 million based on alleged psychological damage. She writes in her introduction, "There was no evidence as such in this case. The trial consisted of a parade of half a dozen psychological experts of various types, all declaiming that the plaintiff suffered from one mental disorder or another and that the disorder -- with all the attendant negative effects in her life -- had been caused twenty years earlier by the accused, my brother -- a person whom none of them had ever met."
Her brother eventually won the case at a defense cost of $90,000, and Hagen began the research project which culminated in the publication of this book.
As an experimental psychologist, Hagen has specialized in researching perception. Apparently she has made objective, keen perception a personal habit. The book is scrupulously well-researched, and written with a clarity and wit that make it an engrossing, enjoyable read in spite of its subject matter.
That subject matter can be disturbing all by itself. Consider, for example, the story of former Stratford, Connecticut, police officer Matthew Quintiliano. In 1975, Officer Quintiliano shot and killed his first wife a few days after she filed for divorce. He was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity based on "amphetamine psychosis." In other words, though his wife was dead from the bullets he fired from his service revolver, Quintiliano was innocent of her murder because his reason for killing her was that he had been driven crazy by taking too many diet pills.
After spending three months in a state psychiatric unit, Quintiliano was released, a free man. Not long after that he remarried. In 1983 his second wife filed for divorce, and one week later Quintiliano shot and killed her.
But Hagen doesn't stop at telling horror stories. She examines the whole subject of the psychiatric role in the justice system carefully and logically. The horror stories are not just anomalies; statistics show they are the rule and not the exception. Several studies, including one published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, have shown that clinical predictions of violent behavior are wrong twice as often as they are correct. "Why not just flip pennies or draw cards?" writes Hagen. "Why not put on a blindfold and choose without being able to identify the patients? It could hardly hurt an accuracy rate that hovers at less than one out of three times correct."
The book goes further than the stories and statistics, looking at not just the blatant injustices, but at the subtle unexamined assumptions that have crept into our thinking, assumptions that many of us do not even connect with psychology or psychiatry.
The treatment of children in court is one example. This is an area that has been radically influenced by psychology over the last few decades. The practice of giving children special accommodation in court is now widely accepted. Children may be allowed to testify via video and never enter the courtroom, or they may have a parent or therapist seated next to them when they testify. Most people have come to consider this right and fair, since they are only children, after all, and need to be protected.
Hagen takes a very different view of this practice. "How do psychological experts know that testifying in court traumatizes children? They don't; they just think it does. Their clinical intuition tells them so. Is there good, solid research to support the belief that testifying in court damages children psychologically? No. Is there good, solid research to support the belief that testifying in court is worse for a ten-year-old than for a twenty-year-old? Is it worse for a child than for an elder? That a ten-year-old child recounting molestation will be more 'damaged' than a twenty-year-old woman recounting rape, more damaged than the frightened eighty-year-old terrorized and beaten in a home invasion? No, no, and no."
She goes on to examine the effect of this practice on the administration of justice: "Protecting a child from the supposed trauma of confronting and accusing an alleged perpetrator in court presupposes the guilt of the accused; protecting the child from the defendant presumes that the defendant is guilty of the crimes before the trial is heard. The whole trial is a sham.
"Are psychotherapists seated next to witnesses supposed to be invisible to juries? Are jurors supposed to be unaware of their supposedly protective role? Are they supposed to disregard as irrelevant to guilt or innocence the supportive behavior of parents and judge? Is there a standard bench instruction to that effect? 'The jury will disregard all of the extraordinary measures taken to protect this innocent child from that dangerous and guilty defendant'? Of course not."
This is but one small part of a large quantity of legal and social illogic that Hagen dissects and exposes before the eyes of the reader. If you are one of the many who have had the nagging feeling that something is wrong with what psychologists are doing in our courts, this book will show exactly what it is that's wrong, and what is so wrong about it. And still Hagen doesn't stop there. She goes on to look at the precedents and the legislation that have opened the way to the ever increasing influence of psychiatrists and psychologists in our courts.
The insanity defense has been with us for a long time. English courts in the 16th century maintained that criminal responsibility rested on a defendant's ability or inability to tell right from wrong. But how have we come from there to the point where Officer Quintiliano can walk away from murder charges by pleading diet pill overdose? Recent laws and precedents have thrown open the doors of the courtroom wider and wider to the manipulations of psychological and psychiatric practitioners. Legislation that many of us considered benign or beneficial has opened the way to a huge morass of illogic and injustice being perpetrated on our justice system.
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, for example, prohibits discrimination against the disabled. The law includes both physical and mental disability under the anti-discrimination coverage. Marry this with the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which lists hundreds of "mental disorders" and we now have a situation where an employer who fires an employee for screaming obscenities at clients or colleagues can be sued for failing to accommodate that employee's mental disability.
More recently the topic of "repressed memory" has been brought before the courts as a reason to set aside the statute of limitations. "Judges and legislators all over the country," Hagen writes, "are not going to rewrite the law on the statute of limitations for either criminal or civil actions based on the 'scientific discovery' that people sometimes avoid thinking about awful events in the past and sometimes they forget about them. They are rewriting the law because the APA has told them that what is responsible for the absence of conscious memory of terrible events is nothing ordinary but rather the mysterious mental process of repression, whose existence has been so clearly demonstrated by the clinical techniques of Sigmund Freud and his modern descendants. Shame on them.
"The American Psychiatric Association knows perfectly well that whatever the private ideological beliefs of its members about the unconscious repression of the memory of psychological trauma, there is no scientific evidence supporting the factual existence of this hypothetical mental phenomenon. It is grossly unethical for the APA or any of its members to mislead the legal community into thinking otherwise."
In keeping with its title, the book goes on to explore the economics of this expanding psychological influence. As the courts have opened their doors to psychological testimony, the ranks of psycho-experts have swelled enormously. Where a psychological defense is used in a criminal trial, the prosecution then must hire their own psychologist to try to refute the testimony of the defense psychologist. Similarly, in civil trials, if one side hires a psychologist, the other will need one as well; often each side will use several. Also, the desired, and often achieved, end result of the psychological testimony is that the criminal is sentenced to therapy or the civil defendant is required to pay for therapy. Hagen sums it up with the biting frankness characteristic of the volume:
"Thanks to the willingness of judges and juries to believe psychobabble with scientific foundations equal to horoscope charts, babble puffed about by psychological professionals with impressive credentials, what we've got now are thousands of self-styled soul doctors run amok in our courts, drunk with power, bedazzled by spectacular fees for the no-heavy-lifting job of shooting off their mouths about any psychological topic that sneaks a toe into a courtroom."
The book doesn't paint an appealing picture of the current state of our legal system, but the ray of hope offered is that we do still have a democratic process in this country. We can make our voices heard. Now that we know we can begin to say "No."