Book Review: Friendship, Love, and Hip Hop: An Ethnography of African American Men in Psychiatric Custody

Friendship, Love, and Hip Hop: An Ethnography of African American Men in Psychiatric Custody. Katie Rose Hejtmanek, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 267 pp.

Katie Rose Hejtmanek’s Friendship, Love, and Hip Hop: An Ethnography of African American Men in Psychiatric Custody provides an intimate look into daily life inside a total institution after the process of deinstitutionalization in the United States. Havenwood (pseudonym) is a residential treatment center in the midwestern United States where youth—most of them African American—are confined by the legal system to live, study, and work through a therapeutic process that will ideally foster a transformation from troubled youth to productive citizen. Friendship, Love, and Hip Hop offers an important look inside this total institution, following the tradition of sociological and anthropological scholarship in psychiatric hospitals and contributing to the ethnographic literature on institutions (in the broader sense of the world) following deinstitutionalization.

Hejtmanek situations her work within the anthropological study of therapeutic intervention—mandated therapy with those may not want or agree with the need for such an intervention. The involuntary nature of these therapeutics provides a key difference from studies of community-based mental health care. Friendship, Love, and Hip Hop is a book about psychiatric custody, but perhaps above all it is about custody, abjection, confinement, and isolation. While “crazy shit”—as detailed in Chapter 4—certainly plays a daily role in life at Havenwood, Hejtmanek leaves open the root of the crazy. Although not explicitly rejecting the psychiatric definitions of her participants—many of whom are diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorder, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders—Hejtmanek consistently attends to the problematic treatments of blackness within psychiatric discourses.

Within the context of these problematic treatments, Hejtmanek explicates the agentive role of black men—both residents and staff—in the context of psychiatric custody. She explores the history of residential centers for children and the history of African American youth cultures. She uses the hip hop concept of “sampling,” or taking part of one song and reusing it in another, to describe the ways in which hip hop subjectivities (including key concepts such as “do you” and “mad love”) are sampled into the psychiatric subjectivities officially desired at Havenwood. These hip hop subjectivities act as “a framing of psychiatric healing” (p. 99), allowing residents to transform their selves. At times, these transformations coincide with hegemonic subjectivities of dominant psychiatric discourses, and at other times contrast with them. In the midst of crazy shit, Havenwood residents “kick it,” “keep it real,” and learn to become “good men.” They learn to best do you through the support of those who have mad love for them—peers and staff in Havenwood. Through analysis of the relationships between and among peers and staff, Hejtmanek unpacks the titular relationships of friendship and love.

Staff at Havenwood tell Hejtmanek that healing is “all about the relationship.” Residents tell her it is about “staff and peers.” Peers sometimes develop friendships and show each other mad love (per the hip hop usage of “mad” as a modifier, in this case, really strong love—though the potential for a double entendre in the context of psychiatric confinement is not lost on Hejtmanek). Staff also demonstrate mad love for residents through daily interactions, therapeutic group sessions, and physical restraints enacted with the philosophy “I care enough about you not to let you hurt yourself or others.”

The richness of Hejtmanek’s ethnography shows through in her descriptions and analyses of these relationships, including in times of crisis. She reveals not only the compassion staff and peers show for residents in crisis as well as the intimacy and intersubjective difficulty of restraints, but also provides apt and insightful reflection on her own place in the narrative as she negotiates her role as a white female ethnographer. Hejtmanek’s analysis reveals the ability of love and the therapeutic milieu to enact genuine change of the self. However, the love she describes and its role in psychiatric therapy heals perhaps not so much the psychiatrically ill self, but the racially oppressed self. “Love,” she writes, “is not as much an ethical demand as it is a balm and politicized force against racism, prejudice, and injustice” (p. 13). Love, like hip hop subjectivities more broadly, works to affect change and healing but both at times alongside and at times counter to the ethical subjectivity demanded by the institutional context.

Hejtmanek’s writing engages the reader with several key participants whose stories and trajectories link tightly—if at times repetitively—to her central arguments. Although the focus on these key actors is captivating and convincing, I found myself curious about other actors, particularly the staff she does not focus on. The staff she discusses most are in many ways exceptional, exceeding the 18 month average turnaround. I would like their exceptionality contextualized more, particularly with respect to hip hop subjectivities. Do these staff also employ hip hop discourses to discuss their decision to leave, or does internalizing hip hop subjectivities encourage staff to stay? Moreover, how do the youth feel about staff who have left? How is this turnover conceptualized in the milieu framework? Is a high turnover rate considered detrimental to the therapeutic context, or is it an opportunity to help youth deal with change and loss?

Friendship, Love, and Hip Hop provides an intimate ethnography of subjectivity within psychiatric custody, showing how both patients and staff mobilize hip hop discourses to describe and address their situations. This monograph is particularly useful for anyone with an interest in therapeutic institutions broadly conceived. The use of hip hop and love as analytical frames broadens the literature on such subjectivities by attending to agency and racial subjectivity in custodial contexts and focusing on the lived experiences of both residents and line staff who live or work day to day in the context of therapeutic intervention.

Hejtmanek’s clear explication of hip hop fosr non-experts and her rich storytelling make this book particularly suitable for teaching at both undergraduate and secondary school levels, and her reflection on her role as the ethnographer makes it a good introduction to ethnography for students. The book would be especially appropriate in courses on psychological anthropology, adolescence and youth, justice, and institutions.

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