Friday, December 03, 2010

Review: Forbidden Narratives

[Kathryn Church. Forbidden Narratives: Critical Autobiography as Social Science. New York: Routledge, 1995.]

Earlier this year, I finished the manuscript for my book on Canadian history-from-below. This means that now, in contrast to a rather lengthy preceding period, the majority of my reading no longer revolves around that particular piece of writing. However, one of the first friends and allies to read the entire manuscript made a few suggestions about useful sources to add to the mix. I'm resolutely not working on the manuscript right now, and won't be until I have a go-ahead from a publisher, but I have obtained a few of those sources. This is the first, and it is relevant to my chapter on anti-psychiatry organizing in Toronto in the '70s and '80s.

The author had been a practicing psychologist in Saskatchewan, and after moving to Toronto in 1983 began to work as a contract researcher doing things around "consumer participation" for the Canadian Mental Health Association. In 1989, she left that work and began a PhD in sociology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education as a way to reflect on her work with consumer/survivors of mental health services. A combination of alliance with and confrontation from some key consumer/survivor activists pushed her to wrestle much more thoroughly with the experiences and standpoint with respect to consumer/survivors. Ultimately, this work contributed to Church experiencing a breakdown herself, which in turn informs her analysis in this book. The central piece of research she presents is around the process and impacts of a major consultation with consumer/survivors by the Ontario provincial government in the early '90s, and she embeds it in a powerful and effective way in the narrative of her own journey with theory, with her own health, and with her personal and political orientation to self-organization among consumer/survivors.

The book is certainly relevant to my chapter on anti-psychiatry. It happens a little later and is grounded in a somewhat different political stream of consumer/survivor organizing than Don Weitz, the interview participant whose story serves as the centre of my chpater, but it is definitely a valuable source for me to be familiar with. As well, a couple of the key figures who loom large in Church's experiences with consumer/survivors were also important names in my research -- Pat Capponi and David Reville (who has a piece in this book).

However, I'm glad that my friend recommended that I track this book down for many reasons beyond its direct relevance to that particular piece of work. Church's text documents her own struggles and very grounded reflections on numerous issues that are central ongoing concerns for me.

For instance, she is quite concerned with thinking through issues of knowledge production. I don't always manage to do these things, but her emphasis on experience is one I think is important -- she both emphasizes the importance of being transparent and reflexive about her own experience in relation to any piece of research or writing, and also argues that it is best to begin research not from theory or a model or speculation but from actual material practices. I also really like her decision to document her own processes of "coming into theory," of engaging with significant new ways of thinking about the world, herself, and her research as both intellectual processes and processes of personal transformation. I like, and share, her tendency to relate to theory in an ad hoc, shifting, pieced together, adaptation-focused way, and her section heading "Breaking Theoretical 'Monogamies'" delights me.

I also like her experimentation with different forms of text. Though I suspect this book was adapted from her dissertation, it doesn't read like a dissertation. I really liked the way that her inclusion of excerpts from her personal journal, extensive blocks of transcribed interview material, and imagined dialogue between different aspects of self not only served to make different voices and change over time more transparently visible in the text, but also made it all more readable.

As well, she is centrally concerned in a practical, personal way about questions of engaging in struggle and engaging in research/writing from a position of relative privilege. The particular specific privilege she is talking about is her position as a mental health professional and then as an academic, and certainly some of her questions resonated with my own experiences doing community-based research on homelessness in a social service agency as well as with more general questions about how to be a responsible and effective ally in a variety of areas. Of course, her perspective on these questions has a rare and interesting dimension, which is the evolution of her own personal standpoint because of her breakdown and its aftermath.

Her engagement with some of the emotional dimensions of organizing and researching/writing from a position of privilege are some of the most powerful and useful parts of the book. It initially comes up in her account of her decision to do graduate work centred around consumer/survivor struggles. She got in touch with Pat Capponi, who, as they gradually built a relationship of friendship and political alliance, consistently challenged her around her emotional capacity to do the work -- to actually relate to consumer/survivors entirely as human beings, rather than engage in the kind of self-protective emotional withdrawal, dismissal, and blanking that are standard, often invisible-to-self practices both of many professionals who deal with consumer/survivors (and, let's face it, also of many professionals who deal with people living in poverty and racialized people) and often people socialized into the white middle class more broadly. She also talks about how (middle-class) professionals, in the context of the large-scale consultation that was her main object of research, reacted to the presence and participation of (not always but often poor or working-class) consumer/survivors. She talks about how ostensibly neutral standards for how consultations should be carried out -- standards based in professional discourse and practice and comfort -- served to silence consumer/survivors or to allow professionals to construct their participation as attacks or worthy of dismissal. She also talks about the lack of space for professionals to engage with their own experience of the consultations, and how the emotional containment and repression that requires is a likely contributor to limiting the impact that consumer/survivors could have on the process -- the extent to which the "unsettling relation" that is their participation can unsettle things in systemic and lasting ways. Certainly questions of how to respond to anger (my own and other people's), of deep training in silence, in editing out the personal in public/activist contexts, are all things I wrestle with myself.

And I really identified with her admission that even after all of this, even after long years of relationship building, even after being trusted to take on the role she played by many consumer/survivors, even after her own breakdown, she still finds that without sustained contact with spaces constituted by consumer/survivors, her hold on essential elements of the consumer/survivor standpoint fades easily in the context of her own relatively privileged everyday life. I think that part of the political work for those of us with privilege of various sorts is to build in ourselves responsiveness to the world grounded in a critical awareness of the relations which privilege us, something that our everyday experience of those relations actively discourages. Living in the context of whole, mutual, non-utilitarian relationships with folks who experience the more oppressive aspects of those relations can help to ground us, to give that responsiveness some stability, but it is only and always partial and it can dissolve so, so quickly.

Anyway, this book is not easy to get your hands on, but it is worth reading for lots of reasons, from its critical analysis of the relationship between consumer/survivors and mental health services to its grounded, thoughtful take on knowledge production, social change, privilege, and emotion.

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

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