Ben Shephard (1948-2017)

I am sorry to hear of the death of Ben Shephard, author of A War of Nerves. He died in October, but for some reason his obituary only appeared in the Guardian newspaper this morning.
A War of Nerves cuts through many of the pieties about shell-shock and PSTD, and looks at the conditions, and their treatment through the years, objectively.
Simon Wessely is quoted in the obituary as saying:

He loved nothing better than finding a conventional windmill, and then ensuring that he didn’t just tilt it, but knocked it off its perch and into the sand.

That’s a good epitaph for a scholar.
I remember especially Ben Shephard’s caustic response when Andrew Motion, then laureate and feeling obliged to turn out something anti-war and obvious every November, mined A War of Nerves for quotations, took them out of context and strung them together as that dubious thing, a ‘found poem’. In Shephard’s book these quotations had been part of a rigorous argument. For the lugubrious laureate, they were just misery-fodder.
Shephard commented:

“There is a word for this. It begins with ‘p’ and it isn’t poetry.”

I wrote about the matter here:


  1. Anonymous
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Something he wrote in his essay “’Pitiless psychology’: the role of prevention in British military psychiatry in the Second World War” (History of Psychiatry 1999; 10; 491) has stayed with me for a long time.

    “Social attitudes have changed dramatically. In Britain in 1939, doctors retained a hieratic authority, while mental disorder was still, for most people, a source of shame and horror; psychiatry thought of as ’a queer activity carried out by queer people’. Today, ’the authority of the mass media has started to take precedence over what was once called medical authority’; and the emotions provoked by fear and stress have long since ceased to be private and shameful and become commodities to be traded in the marketplace of deregulated television and tabloid journalism. ’Trauma’ is the staple fare of the afternoon talk shows, the cheapest form of entertainment.

    Whether this new climate of ’consciousness of trauma’; – in which traumatic neurosis is encouraged where once it was inhibited – has made us healthier or more neurotic is for others to judge.’ Certainly, the modem situation is full of paradoxes. The media’s approach to medical issues – ’the babble of media interviews of physician-enthusiasts and wrenching accounts of patients’ suffering’ – is rooted in the individual case and inimical to the kind of social overview which doctors took in 1939. Its constant need is to find more trauma, not less. At the same time, many of the assumptions doctors made in 1939 – that the public are very suggestible, and incapable of handling complex medical issues – have become anathema, not because experience has shown otherwise, but because they do not fit in with modem orthodoxy.”

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