Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: Shrink Resistant

[Bonnie Burstow and Don Weitz, editors. Shrink Resistant: The Struggle Against Psychiatry in Canada. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1988.]

This book was both easier to read than I had expected and much more difficult. Without really thinking about it too much, I had assumed that this book would have enough theory and history in the mix that it would be much like most of the books I read and review on this site -- a little on the heavy side, sometimes some work to take in and digest, but worth it for exactly those reasons. I especially expected to have to do that kind of work since it is a topic that is so new to me.

Except it isn't that kind of book. Yes, there are a couple of pieces that include some history of the movement, but it is as told via interviews. The vast majority of the content is first person accounts of experiences of psychiatric incarceration. Unchosen psychoactive drugs. Electric shocks. Insulin comas. Disorientation. Memory loss. Bars. Punishment loosely masquerading as treatment. All of that in art, poetry, excerpts from journals, interviews, and stories. Which makes for easier reading in a technical sense. But much more difficult in an emotional sense.

If you want to understand why there is a movement of people who are radically opposed to psychiatry, this book shows you. The experiences are heartwrenching. So many are accounts of people who felt a need for some kind of help, who tried to find help suited to their needs, and who got swept up into institutional processes that were never explained to them, that they had no control over, that they never really consented to in any meaningful way (or, often, at all), and that amounted to torture. Countless petty abuses from those holding absolute authority over them, from guards to nurses to psychiatrists. Yes, kind people, goodhearted people, generous people as well -- most often among the fellow inmates rather than the staff, but staff too -- but the character of individuals isn't the point. Anyone who has been in that kind of situation, where you are subject to the arbitrary authority of another, knows that abuse of that power will happen, that it is about the structure of the relationship not the heart of any particular individual. Even from my minimal and privilege-insulated experiences with police, for example, so many of these stories have the ring of absolute, painful truth in that regard.

I can only mention a few pieces individually. A number of them, plus the material from the editors, affirmed that psychiatric oppression intersects and interacts with other relations of oppression. Material from people of colour, indigenous people, and queer people was scarce but present and politically emphasized by the editors, including a short but powerful combination of art and text by a woman psychiatrized for being lesbian, and a couple of important testimonies by indigenous men. One of the longer pieces was an excerpt from the journal kept by David Reville when he was a psychiatric inmate. He went on to become a Member of Provincial Parliament in Ontario and the NDP health critic for a time in the mid-1980s. There are also a couple of pieces dealing with the CIA-funded brainwashing experiments conducted by the abominable Dr. Ewen Cameron at Allan Memorial Hospital in Montreal in the 1960s, which were performed on people who thought they were getting treatment. And there are pieces based on interviews with the two editors of the volume. One of them, Don Weitz, is the interview participant at the centre of the chapter of my book for which I am currently reading. It is these two pieces that provide a little bit more information not just on experiences of psychiatric oppression and individual resistance, but on collective forms of resistance.

It's a powerful book. Any politics, however it deals with people who identify as having experienced professional psychiatric interventions of various sorts in positive ways -- and I am just starting to wrap my head around such things -- must also deal with the vicious oppression catalogued here. I'm not aware of any similar volume having been published in the twenty years since this came out, but I'd be very interested to hear how things have changed over that period. And how they haven't.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Anonymous said...

Hi. I read your blog often but I don't think I've commented till now. This topic particularly gets to me. The "psychiatrized" population must surely be one of the most disempowered in our society, especially when the intersections of race, gender, and sexual orientation, as examples, are considered and for this reason, Don Weitz' work has been imporant for such a long time. One of the things that must be considered now is the fact that a substantial number of people actually don't get ENOUGH of any kind of care for emotional illnesses, never mind getting the wrong care. I'm not even sure we know how many people live lives of quiet desperation, extreme poverty, homelessness, addiction through "self-medication", abuse by the police, imprisonment and every other kind of discrimination we can think of. From quite a privileged position, I have almost a lifetime of experience with "the system" from a personal as well as academic and professional point of view. I don't think that any society has found a humane and fair way of treating emotional illness but at present, many people pretend that we have found good, if imperfect, and "enlightened" scientific methods. I think we have systematized new kinds of "snake pits" that sometimes exist in less visible ways than they have in the past. It's a tragedy for so many people.

Scott Neigh said...

Hi hysperia!

Yes, I think it's important to recognize both dynamics -- the awful, punitive, painful things done in the name of care, and the overwhelming lack of (and the barriers placed by poverty that keep many people from accessing) the kinds of care that people ask for/want/need.

The narrative of progress plays a big part, I think, in making people believe our current methods are enlightened...this Western need to believe that we are the pinnacle of humanity, compared to humanity past and the rest of humanity present, encourages us to willfully participate in a grand scale of self-deception on this issue that is also actively perpetuated in more local ways by the self-perpetuating and self-glorifying tendency found in any bureaucracy. And the thing is, maybe no society has found a way of dealing with what we currently understand as mental or emotional illness that is humane, fair, and complete, but if it was only a matter of know-how, we definitely know enough to do a lot better as a society than we do.

I agree it is definitely a tragedy. And it touches far more lives than public discourse generally credits, perhaps not as dramatically as in the stories included in this volume but in important ways nonetheless. If only it would not involve telling stories that are not mine to tell, I could write quite a few posts about how it has had an impact on my life in one way or another through the experiences of people close to me. And I'm sure pretty much everybody could.

Anyway, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting!