U.S. Renegade History, Psychiatric Survivors, & the Price of Acceptance

Bruce Levine, PhD
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The historic divide between the “respectable” vs. the “renegades” is the subject of historian Thaddeus Russell’s 2011 book A Renegade History of the United States, which argues that when renegade groups gain civil rights and social acceptability, they lose their renegade culture. At least one group of American outsiders, not discussed by Russell, continues to be socially unacceptable, making it easier for them to retain a renegade culture.

Normies is a term you might hear at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) twelve-step meeting to describe the non-addict world. The non-normie tent also includes others who may not be substance abusers but who are behaviorally noncompliant, do not take most authorities seriously, and have been labeled as “mental ill.”

Twelve-steppers routinely poke fun at their experiences in non-normie culture, and for many of them, “recovery” means trying to fit into the normie world. However, many ex-mental patients who have become “psychiatric survivors” and “mad priders” question the value of normie culture and see value in their own—this an outlook which puts them in the tradition of Russell’s historic renegades.

A Renegade History of the United States

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States championed the idea that American history is not just the story of rich people, presidents, and generals but also includes class conflict and ordinary Americans trying to gain economic and social justice. For Thaddeus Russell—“Bad Thad” to his students—American history also includes the conflict between those who seek power to either maintain or reform society vs. freedom-loving, pleasure seekers.

The American mainstream has long been an oppressive culture, valuing alienating work and conformity over pleasure and freedom. For Russell, prohibitions against entry into the American mainstream have historically allowed outsider groups to develop and maintain cultures that had far more pleasure and freedom. So, for example, racism and bigotry toward African-Americans’ and their exclusion from the mainstream resulted in a renegade culture that could celebrate pleasure and freedom, and that could create the blues and jazz.

A Renegade History of the United States has two narratives, one uplifting and one depressing.

Russell’s uplifting narrative is advertised on the book jacket: “Russell demonstrates that it was those on the fringes of society whose subversive ways of life helped legitimize the taboo and made America the land of the free.” These renegades include drunken workers who helped create the weekend, African-American slaves who saved America from Puritanism, financially astute prostitutes and madams who set the precedent for women’s liberation, unassimilated immigrants who ushered in birth control, and a bold gay culture that helped break open sexuality.

The depressing narrative of A Renegade History of the United States is how America has become less of a renegade nation since the American Revolution, which ushered in increasingly more moral and legal proscriptions against alcohol use, sexual pleasures, and other personal freedoms that had been far more tolerated in colonial America.

Perhaps even more depressing is Russell’s description of how once renegade groups have become less so with social acceptance, which resulted in them buying into the work ethic, sexual restraint and repression, and less interesting lives. Specifically, in chapters on African-Americans, Jews, Irish, Italian, and gay American, Russell describes their great cultural contributions to pleasure and freedom when prohibited from entry into mainstream society, but how their gaining acceptance resulted in an end of their renegade cultural contributions.

In Russell’s chapter, “Gay Liberation, American Liberation,” he describes the historic clash between gay people who enjoyed the pleasures and freedom of being outside mainstream America vs. gay people who sought to gain mainstream respectability and social acceptance. Russell argues that, ironically, the respectable homosexual civil rights movement in the 1950s failed to end police harassment, but what worked was the Stonewall uprising in 1969—for Russell, “one of the great renegade moments in American history,” where gays couldn’t care less about mainstream respectability as they flaunted their sexuality and physically terrified the police.

And a year after Stonewall in 1970, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) infiltrated a conference of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) where a film was demonstrating the use of electroshock treatment to decrease same-sex attraction. GLF members, again caring little about notions of acceptable behavior, shouted “torture” and seized microphones to scold psychiatrists. Gay activists effectively intimidated the APA into abolishing homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973.

The post-Stonewall gay pride movement with annual marches that included semi-naked people celebrating sexual openness was, for Russell, a truly renegade culture. But he argues that as homosexuality has become more socially acceptable, gay activism has come to primarily be about the right to have the same lifestyles as exist in mainstream culture — e.g., marriage, monogamy, and the nuclear family. For Russell, this is one of many examples of how mainstream acceptance results in a loss of freedom-loving, pleasure-seeking renegade values.

While those attempting to maintain the status quo try to limit personal liberties for the sake of their notion of social order, Russell argues that so too do reformers attempt to limit personal liberties of their group for the sake of greater social acceptability for their cause. He argues that all groups that have sought social control—to either maintain or reform society—have strongly promoted the work ethic, condemned sexual freedom, and decried the decadence of consumerism.

Russell’s general argument—that the respectable vs. renegade divide is an ignored and hugely significant part of American history, and that with social acceptance comes a loss of a renegade culture—is such a valuable contribution that I hesitate to quibble about his renegade categorizations and correlates. But I don’t know how one could not define anarchists such as Emma Goldman and her buddies as renegades, yet Emma and her friends and lovers fought for both social reform and sexual freedom, practicing sexual freedom in their own lives. And there is another renegade culture that today exists which also doesn’t fit so neatly into Russell’s categorizations and correlates.

Psychiatric Survivors: America’s Last Renegades?

Twelve-steppers at AA or NA meetings, attempting to recover from alcohol or drug abuse, routinely offer funny stories about the destructive craziness of their lives before recovery, though one often senses that there remains some attraction for the freedom, pleasure, and excitement of their non-normie past.

In contrast, there is a non-normie culture—in the tradition of renegade cultures that Russell describes—who pokes fun at normie culture, seeing their own culture as life-affirming. This non-normie group is comprised of ex-mental patients who refer to themselves as “psychiatric survivors” or having had “lived experience of altered states of consciousness.” For them, psychiatric treatment was dehumanizing and oppressive.

Similar to the historic conflict within persecuted gay culture, there is conflict among psychiatric survivors as well. While all fight against psychiatric oppression, some want their behaviors depathologized so they can fit into the mainstream, but others want to hold on their renegade culture.

MindFreedom is a coalition of psychiatric survivor organizations from around the world and has championed Mad Pride. As the New York Times reported in 2008 (‘Mad Pride’ Fights a Stigma), “Just as gay-rights activists reclaimed the word queer as a badge of honor rather than a slur, these advocates proudly call themselves mad.”

Janet Foner, psychiatric survivor and MindFreedom Board Member who leads Mental Health Liberation workshops, describes “The 10 Warning Signs of Normality,” jokingly describing normality as achronic mental illness afflicting much of the general population.” Some of these “normality warning signs” include:

COOL: Holding everything in and always putting “a good face on it.”

SERIOUS: Always doing the proper thing—never anything unusual, playful, spontaneous, wild, or creative.

NICE: Always acting nice even if you can’t stand the other person.

RIGHT: Always doing everything right— wear the “right clothes,” saying the “right thing,” and associating with only with the “right people,” and believing there is only one right way.

BORING: Conversations, life, and living space are dull and boring.

OBEDIENT: Always trying not to offend, especially those in authority.

In this renegade culture, life affirming non-normality includes even hearing voices (what mainstream psychiatrist call “auditory hallucinations” and consider a hallmark symptom of psychoses such as schizophrenia). This culture asks, “So, What’s Wrong with Hearing Voices?” (Behavioral Healthcare, 2011), and have developed the Hearing Voices Network.

This renegade culture share the anarchist beliefs of non-hierarchical organization, personal liberty, mutual aid, and resistance to illegitimate authority. While they might not fit neatly into Russell’s renegade characteristics and correlates—as individuals vary on their commitment to social reform, the work ethic, consumption, and sexual freedom—they share an opposition to coercion and to the control orientation of normie psychiatrists and normie society.  This and their belief in fun makes them renegades, one of the last renegade groups who together are having some good times in bad-times America.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Twelve-steppers at AA meetings…

    One of the few good things about alcoholism and drug addiction is they can be treated for free. Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous use social support instead of drugs, and it kinda works. It’s no surprise that the millions of people recovering without Pharma’s pills are its latest target as it tries to fatten it bottom line. Pharma and psych are increasingly pressuring rehab facilities and doctors to add a mental illness diagnoses to recovering patients to sell expensive pills. Ka-ching!

    Tradition Ten explicitly states that “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”

    Whats this ? http://www.aa.org/pdf/products/p-11_aamembersMedDrug.pdf

    That’s AA taking a side in controversy after feeling pressure from the psych industry.

    Psychiatry creates addicts and then turns around and does a blame the victim “you are an addict”… born that way…

    Sneaky right ?

    Its time for some renegades who are real good at social media to get the truth about big pharma and psych into the recovery community.

    They don’t even wait for detox to be over before the labels and psych meds get started in most rehabs forget about waiting out post acute withdrawal !

    Listen to the horror stories when the subject of child psychiatry comes up in rehab, its horrible. I met a guy who got arrested after going to his child psychiatrists office for a confrontation, he said that doctor ” F***ed up my childhood and played my parents “.

    There are so many psychiatric survivors in alcohol/addiction recovery with healthy resentments that don’t even know they are psychiatric survivors.

    Parents fall for that stupid ‘dual diagnosis’ that “explains everything” and then sends there kid to a crappy rehab that just labels and drugs everyone into zombie oblivion !

    It’s sick.

    • I guess you read line “Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain” .

      Alcohol Cravings Induced via Increased Serotonin

      by Ann Blake Tracy, Director, ICFDA

      There is an alarming connection between alcoholism and the various prescription drugs that increase serotonin. The most popular of those drugs are: PROZAC, ZOLOFT, PAXIL, LUVOX, SERZONE, EFFEXOR, ANAFRANIL, and the new diet pills, FEN-PHEN and REDUX. For seven years numerous reports have been made by reformed alcoholics (some for 15 years and longer) who are being “driven” to alcohol again after being prescribed one of these drugs. And many other patients who had no previous history of alcoholism have continued to report an “overwhelming compulsion” to drink while using these drugs.

      READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE AT: http://www.drugawareness.org/book-excerpts/ssris-and-alcohol

      Look at this: Alcohol craving on SSRIs
      http://survivingantidepressants.org/index.php?/topic/2147-alcohol-craving-on-ssris/

      If I want to tell anyone at AA psychiatry is a dangerous scam I am going to do so.

      “The failure of the war against drugs is largely due to the failure to stop one of the most dangerous drug pushers of all time: the psychiatrist. The sad irony is that he has also established himself in positions enabling him to control the drug rehab field, even though he can show no results for the billions awarded by governments and legislatures. Governments, groups, families, and individuals that continue to accept his false information and drug rehabilitation techniques, do so at their own peril. The odds overwhelmingly predict that they will fail in every respect.”

      -CCHR on Rehab Fraud

  2. I think it is not true that we psych survivors have a culture of our own, though I suppose it can be said of those who use the identity of “survivor.” But this is a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of people in this country who have been inmates of psychiatric wards.

    I suppose I have to say where this number comes from. In 1982, during the campaign in Berkeley to ban shock treatment here, the NIMH said that seven million people in the US had experienced shock treatment, and 30 million had been admitted to psychiatric facilities (how I hate that word). I trusted that 30 million figure, though, because it would have been more in the interest of the NIMH to claim a very small number.

    Since then, over thirty years, I think it’s a fair estimate that half these people have died. However, there seems to be general agreement that there are about two million admissions to psych facilities every year. In my experience as a patients rights advocate in California, about half of the admissions were of people who had been locked up before, while the other half were people who had never seen the inside of a psych ward up till then. But I don’t know how typical California is, so being conservative and estimating only one in four is a newly-minted mental case means there are about a half-million new “mental patients” created every year. Thus, the total figure is probably still about thirty million, one-tenth of the US population.

    Unfortunately, almost all of them are in the closet. Who would want such an identity? What would be gained by coming out?

    Over the years, I have had a fair amount of people like this come out to me, and all of them said they didn’t want to discuss their experience since it was so distressing. Those who were public figures, like politicians, virtually swore me to secrecy.

    Our human rights movement has a potentially huge constituency, but we haven’t reached out to them in any effective way. They don’t want jobs in the mental illness system, which is what SAMHSA offers. Too bad we don’t have the fun culture that Bruce thinks we have. No,for the most part we are not very nice to each other, so why should these “normal survivors” want to join us?

  3. Nice article, Bruce. For myself, imagine Jerry Seinfeld’s voice here: “But I don’t wanna be a normie!”

    I do think many of us have forged a new culture. Some of my most creative, intelligent, loyal friends are psych survivors. I have a sense of comraderie with them far more valuable than I do with the rest of the world.

    I actually believe that my mental health system nightmare overall may even have improved me. I learned to be strong, to think critically, to engage in coherent argument, and to defend myself against attack. In short, I am a better person now.

    As an aside, I am wary of AA, especially one of their 10 guidelines by which you’re supposed to concede your personal power. Also, I’m not at all religious so these groups wouldn’t be a good fit for me.

    • Hey Francesca, it sounds as if you have some good things going on in B.C. I guess over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of support from people in the movement too. That’s when there was a lot going on locally. But in my social media (aka Facebook) contacts with people, I’ve experienced a lot of, at the least, inconsiderateness and at worst, outright trashing. When you are just words on a computer screen, people forget you are a real person and act like they are playing a video game, the kind where you wipe out all the other side with advanced weapons. It’s so fun to kill people…

      As for my psychiatric experience strengthening me, I don’t know. But I’ve always suspected that if I hadn’t had that experience, I would have become a smug, “successful” person that who I am now would not respect. Certainly I’ve learned to think for myself and not just think like everyone around me. If I had done that in Rockland State Hospital as a child, I would never have survived. But thinking for oneself isn’t valued much in our culture and can isolate you.

      Well, as I wrote earlier on this page that calls for a whole book. And THAT book I am trying to write now.

      I still would love to visit you and your group in Vancouver/Victoria and I hope that can happen in the near future.

  4. I posted this article on facebook in response to a gay male friend who was questioning gay assmililation, with a picture of the drag queen and movie star, Divine! He really liked the article.

    I don’t know if there is a big Mad/Survivor culture outside of Mad Pride and some hearing voices groups either, but I’d like to see it grow if there is one.

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