Brutal History and its Contemporary Ghosts
“Imagine that you and all your friends were participating in a revolution,” says Ricardo as we walk the late night streets of Santiago, Chile, at the height of summer. It’s the year 2015, it’s hot out, even at night time, but there’s a slight breeze and I’m keeping the best of company. Even with his graying stubble and glasses, it’s hard to tell Ricardo’s 65 years old by the spring in his step and his animated hands as he tells his stories. Ricardo has searching eyes, a sweet smile and infectious laugh. He grabs both my shoulders for emphasis and looks directly at me so he knows I’m paying attention and I understand his words:
“Look, gringo,” he says affectionately but deadly serious, “imagine that the president of your country is a socialist and he’s nationalized the land, the workers and students have joined forces, and for the first time ever the universities are free and people, the working people and the poor without money, are studying their own history. There’s an intellectual culture and excitement in the air, solidarity in the streets: people cooking food for each other, playing music and dancing. Workers are proud of their work, the art being made isn’t made to convince people to consume useless products, it’s to educate and build a new culture. There is an incredible hope for the future, for revolutions across the world. Now imagine that you’re a young man and you’re free to explore and grow and have adventures and be part of this growing world revolution.” His eyes narrow and he gets a pained expression on his brow:
“Then one day there’s an announcement that the military is taking over the country. You’re with all your comrades at the university waiting for the president, Salvador Allende, to arrive and give a speech to rally the people, but he never shows up: the military has bombed the presidential palace and killed him, rounded up everyone they could who protested and put them in detention centers! And that’s it: there’s a coup and it’s all over. This really happened, Sascha: I lived through it. September 11, 1973. The only reason I didn’t end up dead that day was that I was at a safe house down the street from the university. I was there that morning in the crowd and I left just before they took Victor Jara and all the others, brought them to the stadium. The bastards broke Victor’s his hands so he couldn’t play his guitar, broke his hands before murdering him and leaving him dead in the streets. But you already know that story.
“It was a nightmare I will never recover from. They killed 5000 of us and tortured many thousands more. The right wing military government turned this country back in time to the dark ages. They convinced themselves that they were doing God’s work, that the Communist’s and anyone working with them were devils, subhumans, savages. And that’s how they treated us. They put the entire country under curfew for 5 years! 5 years! Can you imagine? It killed the night life, it filled us with fear, it murdered the soul of the people. They caught me one night sneaking out during curfew and brought me to a camp and tortured me. They shot a bullet through my hand, the pain was unbelievable, it was almost amputated, but here it is, mangled, but I still have it. I’m lucky I’m alive to tell you this story, so many of my friends from that time are dead!”
The late night heat of Santiago suddenly feels unbearable, heavy with ghosts. We’re on the underground Metro now, airless in a fluorescent lit car, Roberto holding the metal pole with his mangled but usable hand, so much heat, just lots of people pressed up against each other in silence. We’re the only ones talking within earshot. I’m so grateful for this man’s company in this crazy city.
“And you want to know the worst thing?” He continues, with the edge of tears in his eyes, staring straight at me: “The worst thing about it all is that they killed all our best people. All the most creative and vibrant voices of our generation: the best organizers, the best artists, the freest souls: murdered, disappeared and broken. They killed the locos, Sascha! You know how you and your friends talk about—how do you call them—the ‘Mad Ones?’ That’s who they targeted and murdered. The wildest ones, the strongest personalities, the ones who would now get a mental diagnosis and be put on drugs, the ones who could never fit in anywhere else, the ones who couldn’t stand to live under fascism. They killed them, Sascha.”
Roberto laughs, and it’s the kind of genuine and deep laugh that you only earn from having lived through horror: “This society is schizophrenic, man, not us. Look at this locura: look how scared people are of each other on the streets! They did our best to turn the people into sheep and they did a good job, didn’t they? This country is like a shell of its former self: They imposed the same individualist model that you have in your country: the neoliberal Yanki culture where everyone’s out for themselves, a bunch of isolated souls looking out for their individual interests. Back when I was young they got people to turn each other in for being Communists, for being gay, for being against the government for whatever reason. If they saw a man walking down the street with long hair the police would hold him down and cut it off! I swear to you I watched it happen! The police carried scissors. If a woman was wearing a short dress they would make her cover up her legs or send her home. You were either a Man or a Woman in the eyes of the state, no deviation. Once, during a demonstration in the 80s they grabbed two young protestors, brought them around a corner, doused them in gasoline and set them on fire! That really happened! The mean spiritedness and brutality is beyond comprehension. Who could do such a thing? That is the locura of this society. And like so many others I lived though it to tell the tales.”
The Movement for Alternatives to Psychiatry
Ricardo is one of the elders in a young movement that’s working to change the psychiatric system. I’ve been invited to come speak at a two conference called Alternatives to Psychiatry. Most of the Chileans I’ve met know the history of the dictatorship from reading books about it. The movement, like my movement back home, has its roots in left wing politics: a critique of capitalism and big business. There’s a strong analysis of the relationship between biopsychiatry and neoliberalism — consumer culture and the mass use of pharmaceuticals to keep people drugged and silent. The situation in Chile is eerily similar to the US: huge amounts of the population are taking psychiatric drugs, the language they’re using to talk about their inner worlds is the same as the language people use in the US: “mental illnesses,” “chemical imbalances,” “medication non-compliance,” etc. It translates seamlessly into the broken individualist culture of Chile. And it comes, like so many other pieces of Chilean culture and politics, directly from the United States.
The next day I walk around with Juan Carlos and his partner Carolina. They invite me to breakfast at their tiny apartment; one room with a bed and a little kitchen. They’re young and struggling to pay rent like so many others. Juan Carlos is the main organizer of the Alternatives to Psychiatry Conference. He is so enthusiastic to talk about the movement that I have to constantly remind him to slow down cause I can’t understand his unfamiliar vocabulary. His bookshelf is full of spanish language copies of classic anti-psychiatry texts and rare editions of Alfredo Monfatt and other Latin American social psychologists. He gives me precious photocopies of books made in Mexico in the 70s from transcriptions of gatherings of people trying to create a new movement for community psychiatry which ended up crushed by neoliberalism and biopsychiatry, just like in the United States and Europe. The writing is powerful and it is from these words that he’s gotten the language of “Alternatives to Psychiatry.” Just like us, they understand that there’s no future in an “anti-psychiatry movement.” We have to move beyond and learn from the past. I am so moved and inspired by his force of vision at 27 years old, the same age I was when I started The Icarus Project.
Carolina and Juan Carlos and I visit his old university, the same university (which now has a different name) that Victor Jara was rounded up in and taken to be murdered. In the early 70s it was filled with Leftist professors and revolutionary popular culture. Juan Carlos says: “You see that spot right there? There’s a photo of Angela Davis with a huge afro visiting from the United States and speaking in 1972. This is where Fidel Castro came to speak when he visited from Cuba. This entire campus would be filled with people to hear Allende speak. When the Coup happened the military pulled out all the leftist professors and either killed them or deported them.” Carolina adds: “My mom was from a poor family and she was going to school here at the time. When the Coup happened she had to drop out because they started charging tuition and she couldn’t afford it. She was in her last year and never finished and we grew up poor. Like so many others, my mother had her dreams crushed by the dictatorship.”
After visiting the university we visited a hospital and school for public health named after Salvador Allende because he had been a practicing doctor at the hospital before he became president. There was a package waiting for us of printed manuals entitled “Manuel de Derechos en Salud Mental.” Juan Carlos was the coordinator of the project, a handsome 45 page booklet with a color cover. It looked very similar to some of the materials developed by our friends in the movement in the US from the National Empowerment Center and others who inhabit the space between SAMSHA and Mad in America. In fact, the language was strikingly similar.
I remember in Buenos Aires a few weeks earlier my compañiera Agustina telling me that the words “Usuarios” and “Ex Usuarios” came to replace “Pacientes” the same way that “Users” and “Ex Users” replaced “Patients” in the mental health movement in the US. “Users” as in “users of mental health services.” I’ve never been fond of the word “user” in english: it sounds cold, or like it’s referring to someone shooting dope; a “drug user.” But in spanish the word “usuario” actually sounds lush, the ‘u’ vowel is way sexier than then consonant ‘y’ sound of the ‘u’ in user. Also, the ‘r’ rolls off the tongue which is a distinctive characteristic of español. Somehow I have a much easier time identifying myself as a “usuario” than a “user.” It just sounds sexier. But I still hold onto my identity of having “regalos peligrosos” (dangerous gifts) with a wink and a smile.
The Alternatives to Psychiatry Conference – or “Encuentro” (I’ve always liked the spanish word better because it has the same root as “encounter”) was by all accounts a roaring success.
Imagine, if you will, a leftist social center in the middle of Santiago, with posters and banners covering the walls, and about a hundred Chileans coming from the North and the South of the country (far away!) packed into a room at 9:30 in the morning, with me and my Chilean friend Happy Lee del Canto Sabag and a distinguished looking man named Carlos Peres Soto at the front giving a talk about the need for a new movement called “Alternatives to Psychiatry.” Professor Soto is a university physics professor and the author of at least 8 books, including his most recent “Una Nueva Antipsychiatria” (A New Anti-Psychiatry.) An articulate critic of the political system and it’s relationship to the pharmaceutical industry, he leveled measured critiques at the system and called for a movement to hold the government and industry accountable. I, in contrast, am the foreigner with the broken but enthusiastic spanish, telling stories about my community back home, our network of radical mental health support groups of artists and activists, and our visions for changing the world. Happy is my translator when I can’t remember how to say something I turn to her and she smile and tells me what to say.
The two days are filled with powerful conversations, discussions of alternatives and popular health, experiences of usarios and ex usuarios, the human rights of those in the system, popular music, art and culture. There are lots of young people, a mix of usarios and psychologists, and, like our movement back home, it’s often hard to tell the difference. The entire conference is videotaped and recorded with audio. On the second day Happy and I facilitate a “Mapas Locos” (Mad Maps) workshop which was an amazing and exhausting experience for me: a big room full of people talking about their inner worlds publicly for the first time. “What are the things in your life that are most important to you?” “How do you know when you’re well? What does it feel like in your body? What does it look like in your actions?” So many voices, so many nods of recognition and smiles. It felt very familiar. It felt like planting a lot of seeds, a lot of future conversations. I had so many talks with strangers who were grateful that I had come from so far away. It was challenging at times to understand what people were saying to me. Somehow it was much easier after drinking a couple beers and relaxing. Saturday night there was a big party in the streets of Santiago, a holiday celebrating some old war between Peru and Bolivia. But it was beautiful: so much music and dancing in the streets, people selling art and food, reveling in the summertime, despite the legacy of so much repression. We were a big group drinking beer in the street. It felt really good to have the solidarity.
The Lesson to Bring Home
At some point, after a few days, amidst the heat of the city, and all the stories I had heard from my new friends, and my time riding the subways and the buses, looking into stranger’s eyes, looking at the familiar slick advertisements and chain stores everywhere, the palm trees planted to mimic the city of Miami, it hit me like a hard slap in the face: this country, Chile, this “economic miracle,” this “neoliberal experiment,” is the perfect way to explain everything that’s wrong with the biomedical model of “mental illness.”
Where I live, back in the United States, it’s so common to use the language of “mental illness” to talk about people’s individual problems. We take it as a given, as some kind of scientific truth that if we are depressed, it is because we have a chemical imbalance in our brain. We assume that someone who is “schizophrenic” is so because of some genetic flaw. There is something wrong with our neurotransmitters, our personal biology, something that can be cured with a pill. But this is culture, not science. Even if some us are born more sensitive and different, and even if some of us use pills to take care of ourselves in this crazy world, that doesn’t make us “sick.” The whole idea of “sickness” comes from the culture we live in. And it’s a culture that has a political origin.
You can’t get a more stark example of how neoliberal politics and psychiatry work than in the country of Chile: these people had a socialist revolution that was crushed beyond recognition by a fascist dictatorship directly supported by the United States government, a solidarity among the people that was broken with bullets and torture and terror. All these years later they take just as many antidepressants and antipsychotics as we do, because their system has been designed after our system. They are told they are mentally ill and they believe it.
I left Chile with a burning desire in my heart to tell their story to my community back home. I think the story of the Chilean people rising up and being crushed and blatantly forced into an oppressive model of psychiatry is one of the pieces of the puzzle that is going to unlock the biopsychiatric riddle. We are human beings with history and politics and ideals of a better world. We need new language to talk about the complexities of intergenerational trauma. We need new language to talk about madness and oppression. We don’t need to become normalized into the system, the system we live under is pathological and psychotic.
There are more and more of us who are determined to build an international movement that doesn’t forget its history, and that reweaves solidarity and community back into a model of mental and emotional and spiritual health. The system we live under is organized to keep a small number of people in control of the rest of us. Those who don’t fit into the model are drugged and silenced. We — the Mad Ones, the ones who have no choice but to feel the suffering of this planet and the people on it — we have a responsibility to create a new world that can hold our visions and brilliance. We have a responsibility to know our own histories of oppression and resistance. We carry with us the memories of the dead, the tortured, the exiled, and the ones whose flames can never be extinguished. Like Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied before he was shot down: “Human Salvation Lies in the Hands of the Creatively Maladjusted.” We need to hold onto this vision as we continue to build our international movement.
Thanks to all the [email protected] who looked out for me and came out to our Mapas Locos workshops in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Puerto Montt and Santiago, Chile over the past month. Your kindness and hospitality was so appreciated! Than you so much for sharing your stories and your hopes and your dreams with a passing traveler. Please stay in touch! Mad love!
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This article first appeared on Sascha Dubrul’s website,
Maps to the Other Side