As a movement theorist, I have frequently written about ways of increasing our effectiveness as a movement (e.g., Burstow, 2014a and 2015a). While prioritizing strategic resistance, mostly, I have focused on practices so horrific that they scream out for redress—ECT, for example (Burstow, 2015b). The topic of this article, by contrast, is a far less heart-wrenching problem—the lack of mainstream attention to our publications—whether these be books by Breggin, Whitaker, Scull, or others. If this seems an issue that can safely be relegated to the “back burner” while we attend to the real horrors out there, I would point out that to an appreciable degree, our success as a movement depends on our ability to sway the general public—and if the mainstream press and media never afford our books their due—not even the blatantly cutting edge ones (and if anything, these are treated worse) and the general public, as a consequence, remains largely unaware of their existence, the likelihood of succeeding in our primary mission(s) is substantially reduced. The point is, secondary though this clearly is on a human level, it is a problem that we can ill afford to ignore.
That said, there are three related disjunctures underpinning this article. The first is the number of critical psychiatry or antipsychiatry authors who have confided in me of late that they have largely given up trying to get mainstream coverage and so are putting their energy elsewhere. While to be clear, this is a reasonable choice under the circumstances, the mainstream is a battleground that we can ill afford to cede. I would add that while I do not share the dim prognosis of many of my colleagues, nonetheless, as I ponder how to garner mainstream coverage for what should have been an easy book to get it for (Psychiatry and the Business of Madness, Burstow, 2015c), I too am aware that those of us who push the boundaries are up against a seemingly impenetrable obstacle. And herein lies the larger disjuncture. The point is, we make little sense to the mainstream press or media. Whatever role the financial cooptation of the media does or does not play here, our discourse is simply outside of their story line. Consequently, they provide negligible coverage of our books—ergo, the general public seldom hear of them, nor are primed to pick them up. And to be clear, the difference in treatment at issue here is not minor but palpable.
What is telling in this regard, when I emailed news editor Rob Wipond asking him his sense of the extent of the differential treatment—a phenomenon that he is uniquely positioned to assess—this was his response:
In my role as news editor for Mad in America, I go through reams of news alerts and notifications every day, and I can tell you that Jeffrey Lieberman’s book celebrating the alleged successes of modern mainstream psychiatry has been getting an immense amount of coverage and reviews in the media. Conversely, since I started this job a year ago, I have not seen any book that takes even a slightly critical approach towards modern mainstream psychiatry get a tiny fraction of that amount of coverage. (personal correspondence)
Not an easy truth for sure, but all the more reason that we need to face it head-on.
The third disjuncture (a smaller one) presented itself when I checked how Disability Incarcerated (Ben-Moshe, Chapman, and Carey, 2014) was faring on Amazon.ca, approximately one year after its release. This is a stellar anthology by American and Canadian authors which brings together prison abolition, critical disability, and antiracism. Having reviewed the book for the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies (see Burstow, 2014b), four weeks ago, as I was perusing books on Amazon.ca, I decided to see how that site’s readers were assessing the book (as reasonable an indicator as any of the interest being shown by the general public). To my disappointment, I found one review only. Not that most of our other books were faring any better. And to be clear, not that on some level that I was not painfully aware of what I would find.
That noted, the immediate problem that we are facing is this: Despite the transparently superior quality of our authors’ publications—and compare any of our leading books to, say, Lieberman’s (2015) book, and you will quickly see what I mean—and despite our authors’ best efforts to break into the mainstream, our books receive comparatively few reviews in the mainstream press; they are not picked up by the mainstream media; correspondingly, they are not shown the same interest by the casual reader.
Such is the dilemma and the challenge.
For revealing accounts of why this is happening, see Whitaker (2010), Wipond (2013), and Burstow (2015c). That noted, “why” is not the focus of this article. The question being posed here, rather, is: Practically speaking, what can we as a movement do to turn this situation around? That is, how might we help increase the number of reviews which our authors receive in the mainstream press? How do we pry open the door to the mainstream media? And what can we do about the fact that a comparatively low number of people post comments about our books in the comments sections of sites like Amazon?
A good beginning, let me suggest, is taking the issue seriously. Also—and this may be a stretch for some—acknowledging that the movement as a whole has a huge vested interest in the success of our books, and as such, we have a role to play here. The point is: Yes, we can say that this is not our problem, that it is the problem rather of the authors and their publishers (without question, true to point), but if we do that, what is, after all, our cause suffers. A very different choice—and I am inviting fellow activists to consider it—is going in the opposite direction, that is, taking up what might be called “book activism,” whether in groups or at an individual level, whether systematically (developing concrete goals and a plan) or more sporadically. What am I suggesting? That individually and collectively, we concretely take this problem on as a movement.
For those interested, there are many different ways to go about this—and we will be but scratching the surface in this article. However, let me begin with a global suggestion that has an immediate payoff even were we not explicitly thinking about getting these books into others’ hands. As educators and activists, among the most valuable tools at our disposal are precisely these books and articles—they provide evidence; they give details; they make vivid; they explain. So why not conscientiously put them to work? Toward this end, activists who are taking up this challenge and who have not already done so might begin by truly immersing themselves in the literature, turning themselves into authorities in their own right (common mistakes to avoid here are: 1) restricting oneself to one’s favourite author and assuming that “he” has “said it all”; and 2), failing to appreciate the significant differences between the books—the very specific perspective, the unique contribution, who is being spoken to, what it teaches or could be used to teach).
With this expertise under one’s belt, one can readily go into “high gear”—and such is my recommendation. That is, as the occasion arises, use the familiarity gleaned to make effective selections to assist you in whatever task be at hand. If speaking with a person who is claiming that ECT does not cause brain damage, for example, you might cite specific passages in Breggin (2008). Alternatively, if calling the APA into question, Whitaker and Cosgrave (2015) could come in handy. And from the perspective of movement building, if trying to interest anti-colonial activists in our cause, you might draw on Mills (2013). Such an approach, note, has the obvious advantage of immediately serving your purpose while at the same time promoting the book(s) in question.
Those who want to approach the challenge more modestly, by contrast, can draw on methods already known to them. Some examples are: recommending specific books to friends. Lending out books. Correspondingly, those of us who are academics integrating such books into courses and reference lists.
Now, to be clear, none of the foregoing in itself results in mainstream coverage. This notwithstanding, if enough of us do it, it increases the exposure of these books. Additionally, in so doing, it creates an atmosphere more conducive to mainstream coverage.
For those wanting to go further, on the other hand, those moreover, intent on proceeding methodically, one way of beginning would be developing criteria which could be used to judge which books to devote most of one’s energy to. Examples of possible criteria are: a) the extent to which the book undermines psychiatry (the “attrition model” criterion); b) the coverage afforded sexism, racism, ableism, classism, etc. (the anti-oppression criterion); c) the degree to which the book hooks into issues currently in the news (the relevance criterion). A possible next step would be choosing a few books on which to focus. The pivotal steps of course are executing actions which create a stir about them.
That noted, the question arises: What actions? And where? One obvious venue is the social media—a revue, I would add, that a goodly number of survivors and their allies are already putting to good use. Individuals or groups might systematically use Facebook and/or Twitter to inform people about “pivotal books”. Other related and possible activities include: Sensitizing our “friends” and “followers” to a book by posting quotations; alerting them to news about the book; making a point of retweeting and reposting (thereby extending the work of other activists). Additionally, where a book is assessed as especially critical and you and/or our group are so inclined, more extensive internet-related book activism might be considered, including:
- Creating YouTube pieces about why it is important and/or what it reveals.
- Interviewing the author and mounting the interview.
- Creating pages and/or blog sites dedicated to it.
- Generating discussion about the book on Reddit.
- Creating pointer pages for book-related events.
- Writing your own reviews, then tweeting about these.
Now the reader may well be thinking: Fair enough, but social media coverage hardly equates with mainstream coverage. True. Nonetheless, the point is, if done skillfully, what you post can attract the interest of the general public—which is, after all, the ultimate goal. For example, if one your tweets goes viral or if enough people put your messages on their timeline, a stir is created which takes the message far beyond your original network. Correspondingly, if there is a big enough social media stir around any of these books, at that point the mainstream press and mainstream media themselves “sit up and take notice”. What is critical here, is not just posting occasionally (which many of us already do) but keeping the pressure up, retaining the focus.
That said, book activism can of course also include directly approaching the mainstream media and press. In this regard, if you know any reporters who write reviews in the areas of health or social change, you might approach them—and if you do this, where possible align your proposal in some way with a storyline that they have already used (a clear hook). Additionally or alternatively, you might send individualized proposals involving a book to select programs. Watching previous shows makes sense as preparatory work for the familiarity so gleaned will help you choose judiciously and shape the proposal in ways that increase the likelihood of it gaining traction. Keeping an eye on current items in the news and linking with one of them is likewise an asset. And note, coordinating with others who subsequently submit overlapping proposals to the same program greatly enhances the chance of a proposal of this ilk being taken up.
In this regard, numbers are all-important (as is independent status). If both author and the publisher try to pitch a book to the producers of a mainstream program, short of having a solid relationship with them, vital though it be that they make such pitches, in most instances, they stand little chance of being successful. By contrast, if say, over a three month stretch ten different people make similar but separate pitches, the producer is primed to surmise a growing interest in the area and respond accordingly.
Examples of Canadian programs that might be approached in this regard include: The Current, The Agenda, the Fifth Estate, The Passionate Eye, W-5. I leave it to readers from other parts of the world to generate comparable lists.
This sheds a bit of light on the first two questions. Which brings us to the issue of the paucity of comments afforded our books on online sites like Amazon and Indigo.
An obvious answer—and I will stick with one—is that we rectify such problems by posting in the comments sections ourselves. The good news is: Here our power as readers is considerable, and here we can make a major impact with very little effort. The point is that whether the target book (the book we are trying to promote) be Disability Incarcerated (Ben-Moshe, Chapman, and Carey, 2014), Psychiatry and the Business of Madness (Burstow, 2015c) Psychiatry Under the Influence (Whitaker and Cosgrove, 2015), Mad Matters (LeFrançois, Menzies, and Reaume, 2013), Decolonizing Global Mental Health (Mills, 2013), or one of Breggin’s works, the more of us who post comments about the book, the more significant the book looks; what goes along with this, by sharing what we ourselves think of the work, we are concretely suggesting to people who are specifically looking to be interested, why they should consider this book. Correspondingly, comments, as it were, themselves beget more comments. The point is, after reading several comments about a book which they themselves have read, people are tempted to “add their two cents”. And while there is hardly a one-to-one relationship, the more comments, the more readers for the book—all of which translates into more people potentially being “persuaded”. By the same token, the more comments, the more that the mainstream media will take note, which further translates into broader coverage, and by extension, a broader readership.
What, in a nutshell, is the process?
- Go to one of the online sites where the book is sold.
- Find and click on the book about which you would like to comment.
- Scroll down to the “Customer Reviews” section.
- Click on the box which reads “Create your own review” or a variant thereof.
- Rate the book (usually a 1-5 rating), and enter your comments.
- Then hit post or publish.
Do you need to have purchased the book from the outlet in question to post a comment? In the case of some sites, yes. With others, no.
That said, we all have multiple demands on our time and so while I have outlined some fairly extensive actions, I am aware that most people’s contributions will be on the modest side. All good. Should you choose to get involved in this dimension of our struggle, just do what you are comfortable doing. Have fun in the process—you may find yourself discovering skills that you never knew that you had. However large or small your individual contributions, each contribution adds up. Correspondingly, be assured that if we as a community have a mind to do this—and such is my hope—together we can turn ourselves into a force to be reckoned with.
This article has put forward the case that pivotal to the success of our movement is getting our authors read by the public at large; it has noted the paucity of coverage by the mainstream press and media (a highly related issue); and it has recommended that we include book activism within our activist repertoire. The bulk of article focuses in on ways to go about such activism. Ways explored include: assiduously referencing our books when making points; use of social media; directly pitching a story to the mainstream media; and posting comments on online sites where the books are sold.
In ending, let me invite readers with experience in this or related areas to share their own suggestions about how best to do book activism. What have you yourself done? What have you seen work? Not work? What do you know about the media in your area that it would be helpful for the rest of us to know?
An observation in closing: While for sure there are exceptions, generally, all coverage, including psychiatry “panning” our books works to our advantage. So do not worry if your postings culminate in psychiatry going on the offensive, that is, devoting their energy to attacking the target book—don’t even become alarmed it they start making spurious claims about it (to some extent, inevitable). The fact that they bother is itself an indicator that they are losing ground. Correspondingly, their doing so, spells controversy. And the value of controversy especially when handled skillfully may be gleaned from the PsychOut experience:
To wit, PsychOut was an activist University of Toronto conference on organizing against psychiatry. It received highly negative and indeed demeaning press—presenters being portrayed as “flakes”, the entire operation portrayed as a waste of the public purse—hence the controversy. A war of words ensued—which the knowledgeable activists won handily. The long and short? The bad press, together with activists’ able response to it, culminated in the most extensive and the best press that we activists/antipsychiatry scholars had received in decades (see Burstow and Diamond, 2011).
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(For this and related articles, see http://bizomadness.blogspot.ca/)
Ben-Moshe, L., Chapman, C., & Carey, A. (2014). Disability Incarcerated. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Breggin, P. (2008). Brain-disabling treatments in psychiatry: Drugs, electroshock, and the psychopharmaceutical complex. New York: Springer.
Burstow, B. (2014a). The withering of psychiatry: An attrition model for antipsychiatry. In B. Burstow, B. LeFrançois, & S. Diamond (Eds.), Psychiatry disrupted: Theorizing resistance and crafting the revolution (pp. 34-51). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Burstow, B. (2014b). A prison by any other name: A review of Disability Incarcerated. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 2014, Volume 3. No. 3, pp. 137-143.
Burstow, B. (2015a) “Doing” antipsychiatry on all cylinders: Possibilities, enigmas, challenges. Retrieved April 15 2015 from https://www.madinamerica.com/2015/04/antipsychiatry-cylinders-possibilities-enigmas-challenges/.
Burstow, B. (2015b). Protesting ECT: A moral/existential calling. Retrieved April 17 2015 from https://www.madinamerica.com/2015/03/protesting-ect-moralexistential-calling/
Burstow, B. (2015c). Psychiatry and the business of madness: An ethical and epistemological accounting. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Burstow, B. & Diamond, S. (2011). Building a global network of activists. Asylum, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 21-22.
LeFrançois, B., Menzies, R., & Reaume, G. (2013). Mad matters: A critical reader in mad studies. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.
Lieberman, J. (2015). Shrinks: The untold story. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Mills, C. (2013). Decolonizing global mental health: The psychiatrization of the majority world. London: Routledge.
Whitaker, R. (2010). Anatomy of an epidemic. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.
Whitaker, R. & Cosgrove, L. (2015). Psychiatry under the influence: Institutional corruption, social injury, and prescriptions for reform. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wipond, R. (2103). Pitching mad: News media and the psychiatric survivor perspective. In B. LeFrançois, R. Menzies, and G. Reaume. Mad matters: A critical reader in mad studies (pp. 253-264). Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.