Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review: Upstairs in the Crazy House

[Pat Capponi. Upstairs in the Crazy House: The Life of a Psychiatric Survivor. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, Ltd., 1992.]

The cover of this memoir by Toronto activist Pat Capponi contains well-deserved gushing praise from a number of sources, including the late feminist activist and writer June Callwood -- things like "An extraordinary writer with a glittering eye and a compassionate heart" and "Powerful and lyrical, drenched in observation and perfect pitch dialogue." This was Capponi's first book, but it is clear why she has gone to on to write several more, including at least one other memoir, an important book about poverty, and a couple of novels.

I first heard Capponi's name in the context of anti-poverty work, both grassroots and agency-based, that I was doing in Hamilton, Ontario. By that point she was a well-known pillar of struggles around poverty, housing, and the welfare of psychiatric survivors in Toronto, and hers was one of those names that percolated out to the surrounding cities as we engaged with similar issues. This book tells the story of how she started on that path.

Her story began in an extremely abusive family in Montreal. She had a father who kept his wife, his five daughters, and his son in terror all of the time. In high school, in the politicized atmosphere of Montreal during the heydey of the New Left social movements, she was already an activist. Her family and most of the authority figures she encountered in school conveyed the idea that she was worthless. But the occasional person -- a teacher, later an employer or two, a mentor -- treated her like she was worth something. More activism, some college, a marriage, and a job running a group home. And then extreme distress and it all fell apart, and Capponi ended up in a psychiatric institution.

All of that is told in episodic flashbacks, but the here-and-now of the book is about her time as a resident in a boarding house for psychiatric survivors in Toronto. With very simple storytelling, her pen skillfully captures her fellow residents, and shows the absurdity, the utter cruelty, the life-being-livedness, the small acts of compassion, the flashes of humour, of their lives. The strength of the book is that, for the most part, it does not tell about politics, but shows the fibre of her life and those that touched it -- shows the workings of power in the context of the complexities of everyday life, as seen through eyes that know what to look for and with a heart that cares about the pain they cause and that holds in utmost respect the everyday struggles of people to survive.

I read this because the interview participant in my current chapter was active in organizing psychiatric survivors in Toronto at about the same time. There were at least a few mentions in the anti-psychiatry magazine that my participant participated in producing in those years of the work of Capponi and her allies. I suspect there were political differences between the two, and I have no idea what they thought of each other's work. But, really, it doesn't matter. What matters is how vividly this book illustrates the awful, oppressive truth that if you experience certain kinds of distress, the institutions and professionals that claim to exist to help you are likely to organize your life into some pretty awful sorts of situations -- drugged into passivity; forced into crushing poverty; exposed to many forms of violence; shackled by stigma and abandonment; tutored in passivity; barred from many resources that might actually help; stored in awful, hierarchical institutions; or thrown into different sorts of institutions -- boarding homes -- which often enough are also about little more than policing you, managing you, keeping you contained and powerless and harmless and out of the way, and are often just plain unpleasant to live in. Yet people live. People form relationships, they support each other, they find ways to survive, they find corners of joy. And, sometimes, they find the capacity to collectively resist.

Just as important is the book's stirring, shown-not-told defense of the idea that, regardless of what biological psychiatrists might claim, the social world is absolutely relevant to the sorts of distress that get labelled "madness." It is Capponi's own journey that shows this -- it would feel ridiculous to insist that the distress which ultimately brought her into the orbit of the psychiatric system was somehow unrelated to the relentless, vicious, patriarchal violence and abuse that permeated her early life.

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

No comments: