Favazza attended St. Francis Xavier High School for Catholic boys in Manhattan, an institution run by members of the Jesuit order. Xavier cadets wore military garb and were known throughout the city as "subway commandos." Seniors were sometimes required to strap on long sabers for a marching ceremony. On those days, Favazza recalls riding the subway grasping a Latin book in one hand and hanging on with the other as his saber tripped unsuspecting commuters.
The train let him off in Union Square where, in the afternoons, orators set up soapboxes and held forth on the world's injustices. As he marched through that square every day, Favazza looked very much like a soldier on a mission. And, in fact, Favazza admits to a lifelong tendency toward cultural missions, some personal, and some professional. During his years as a subway commando, he translated Virgil's Aeneid from Latin and Homer's Odyssey from Greek. As a pre-med major at Columbia University he wrote an essay compelling enough to get himself into a graduate-level ethnography seminar taught by famed anthropologist Margaret Mead.
Favazza completed his psychiatric residency at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. While there he became intrigued by the rise of a new "community consciousness" in psychiatric practice and eventually took on community psychiatry as a focus. When that discipline became too fractious, he jumped ship to help found a new discipline called cultural psychiatry.
Cultural psychiatry blends psychiatry and cultural anthropology to create a point of view integrating three areas: a biological branch emphasizing medical therapy, a psychological branch emphasizing psychotherapy, and a community branch emphasizing social roles.
Favazza's 1978 article setting out the academic foundations of cultural psychiatry appeared as the cover article in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Then Margaret Mead reappeared in his life. "She did me a big favor," he says with characteristic humor. "She died." Mead passed away while drafting a chapter on anthropology and psychiatry for The Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. Favazza got the job in her stead, and its 1980 publication marked him as a leader in his field.
Among Favazza's most important claims is that the Bible's often-contradictory admonishments have real-world effects on believers' mental health. Take patriarchy: Interpretations vary when it comes to the Bible's pronouncements on male roles, specifically Paul's injunction that the man must be head of the household. Over the years Favazza has worked with several devoutly Christian patients whose husbands physically abused them. When he has opened the possibility of leaving the relationships, some cite the rule and stay. Others acknowledge it but claim an exception in the case of abuse and get out.
Another of Favazza's oft-cited examples involves so-called "snake handlers" -- tiny Christian sects, mostly in Appalachia, that prove their faith by releasing deadly snakes during services. These groups, Favazza says, are essentially using a selective reading of Biblical references to make a flashy statement. To make his point Favazza mentions an Old Testament story in which God pelts Israelites with fiery serpents and a New Testament reference saying great faith will protect believers from poison and vipers.
"I think some people from Appalachia read those two passages and say, 'Despite what everybody says about us, we've got some self worth, and we have this fantastic faith,'" Favazza says. "'God may have thrown down snakes to kill people, but we're going to beat God to the game. We're going to seek out snakes and handle them and kiss them. And we're going to live because we're so full of faith.'"