‘How to Touch a Hot Stove‘ (the centerpiece of what is being called ‘The Hot Stove Project‘) is a film that professes to be about a new civil rights movement. It employs interview clips from a wide array of ‘big names’ on all sides of the ‘mental health’ world, in a purported effort to compare and contrast the many voices that lay claim to that concept. I could go on explaining in my own words, but instead I’ll use the words of the filmmakers themselves:
Featuring narration by actor John Turturro and exclusive interviews with Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin, Elyn Saks, Susanna Kaysen, Joanne Greenberg, and others, “How to Touch a Hot Stove” points to complex variations in human experience and differences in thinking, feeling, and perception. It identifies the new civil rights movement that has emerged to combat the marginalization of those with ‘mental disorders,’ explores why that movement is more complex than other civil rights movements, and reveals the often disparate perspectives held both by professionals and those with lived experience — as it challenges audiences to go ‘beyond the movement’ and make a difference!
Indeed, this is the description that lured me into the first screening I attended. Because of this language of ‘Civil Rights Movement.’ Because of the suggested recognition of oppression and advocacy for change. Because that language resonated with me, and in fact, is language I’ve used myself on many an occasion. It promised to be something different.
In fact, the filmmakers, Lois Oppenheim (a Professor of French at Montclair State University) and Alice Maher (a practicing psychiatrist based in New York City) did a fairly good job of writing about a film that would surely have stood out in a sea of chemically imbalanced cinema. They even put ‘mental disorders’ in quotation marks in the written description (and did the same with ‘mental illness’ when it appears in the film), which of course, for most of us, signifies at least some degree of skepticism about such medicalized perspectives. Perfect! Unfortunately, the film they wrote about is not the film they made.
Instead, I would suggest that the film’s write-up was more manipulation mixed with low expectations, anticipating that people who see the world in that manner (such as myself) will take validation from the marks and ‘civil rights’ pretense but somehow miss all the disingenuity and superficiality. In truth, the film’s blatant bias in favor of a ‘mental illness’ perspective becomes evident a mere four minutes in when actor John Turturro provides a voice over that reads:
“…a class of illness like no other. All other forms of illnesses – from diabetes to cancer – are things that one has, but mental illness (Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, depression) can feel like conditions that define one’s worth, one’s integrity, one’s competency, trustworthiness. For this reason, mental illnesses are like invisible scarlet letters revealed when a diagnosis is made public, when a history of hospitalization or medication treatment is discovered, or behaviors that we do not recognize as normal are displayed.”
Strangely, the film also fails to define what on earth a ‘civil rights movement’ even is within this context. At best, they seem to be linking it to ‘stigma’ (“A new civil rights movement emerged to counter the stigma,” says a slide about halfway through). As far as I can tell, the filmmakers are – much like Glenn Close (whose terrible commercial is given some screen time here – see my blog ‘Anti Anti-Stigma’ for more on that) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – fully enveloped in the misconception that getting rid of ‘stigma’ means easing the way to people happily accepting their psychiatric diagnoses and the resultant recommended treatments. Imagine if that’s all it took to win this fight? But, civil rights movements are not about ‘stigma.’ They are about:
- Lack of choice
- Lack of voice
No real mention is made of losses of liberty or harm done within the current system in this film, and although a few people throw that ‘civil rights’ term about, they never quite get to why. Perhaps most notably, the filmmakers seem to fail entirely to recognize that so much oppression (you know, that stuff that’s inextricably connected to what drives a civil rights movement) is generated by promoting a one-size-fits-all disease-oriented perspective. Kind of like they are doing.
Does the film actually give face time to people who see the world in a different way than the voice over (a.k.a., the voice of the filmmakers) suggests? Absolutely. However, with the occasional exception, the ‘counter’ clips suffer from bad sound, bad imaging, or bad editing.
For example, David Oaks (referred to in Stove’s credits as the ‘former Co-Founder of Mindfreedom,’ although it’s unclear to me how, in the absence of a time machine, anyone would ever become the ‘former’ Co-Founder of anything they once were a part of founding) is given a grand total of 5 seconds on screen, and this is all he’s allowed space to say:
“We’re directly inspired by the civil rights movement. We need our own.”
No one who didn’t already know him would have any idea from that statement what he actually believes or how loudly and articulately he’s spoken out about so many human and civil rights violations. Frankly, I receive his presence in the film as manipulation, as well. Including a leader from one of the most well-known and radical organizations in the country allows the filmmakers to tout their diverse cast of characters and gives them ammo to combat their critics, while still silencing the messages that people like Oaks would normally bring. (Anyone who wants to understand Oaks’ real message should simply head over to www.mindfreedom.org directly.)
Ron Unger, on the other hand, is given a fair amount of screen time, but not enough to make real sense of the complex ideas to which he’s speaking (especially for people who are new to them). Meanwhile his entire interview is filmed over the web so that it’s hard to ‘hear’ anything over his strange, zombie-like pallor. (Anyone who wants to understand the thoughtful and nuanced place that Unger tends to come from need only go as far as his blog on this very site.)
And, Joanne Greenberg’s interview is so chopped up that, at more than one point, it seems to suggest that she takes a flatly medical model view of her own experiences, which simply isn’t accurate even if she does indeed use some ‘illness’ language at times. (Anyone who wants a much fuller version of Greenberg’s story can watch Daniel Mackler’s ‘Take These Broken Wings’ available free on Youtube here.)
To be clear, this is not a simple critique of a filmmaker’s method or skill. What I am saying here is that people who could have potentially spoken from the point-of-view of personal experience and who could have offered some depth to the ‘civil rights’ terminology were routinely silenced or diminished by the way they were filmed and cut up.
In fairness, some of the medical model stalwarts are also poorly presented (for example, Elyn Saks offers commentary in voice only with questionable sound quality layered over a still image), and honestly the whole film is largely an incomprehensible mish mash. But, within the chaos of clips, who (other than Turturro) comes off most strongly?
Well, for one, there’s Peter Pitts, the President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. I’ve never heard of him before, but he makes a point to bring us back to the time-honored tradition of relating ‘mental illness’ to ‘brain chemistry’ and what film of this nature would be complete without that? Jeffrey Lieberman (Chief, Department of Psychiatry and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and President of the American Psychiatric Association) is also graced with a clear image and good sound as he pontificates about the certain biological roots of psychiatric diagnoses. There’s also two clear mentions of people with psychiatric diagnoses being “scary” (one coming with a recommendation to keep them away from the general public when they’re like that), and a whole parade of individuals saying ‘mental illness’ or ‘mental disorder’ more times than I can possibly count.
And the real kicker? Patrick Kennedy. Yes, Patrick Kennedy is one of the only people to specifically speak the words ‘civil rights movement’ in this film. He appears directly before Oaks, and his first four speaking parts are spliced together over archived footage from his uncle, President John F. Kennedy. (And yes, I said ‘first four.’ Because there’s at least two more. Because P. Kennedy clearly deserves at least six times the air time of someone like Oaks when it comes to talking about this work in relationship to a civil rights movement. What!?)
Powerful? Yes (the music even gets louder and more dramatic to tell us so), but bear in mind that that’s the same Patrick Kennedy that is a white, cisgender man born into wealth who regularly promotes pro-force initiatives such as the Murphy Bill. (See the Campaign for Real Change in Mental Health Policy’s website or the Western Mass RLC’s ‘Stop the Murphy Bills’ page for more on that!) Yes, he’s that guy. I know this will be a shocker for some, but his is not a name that typically leaps to my mind when I think about ‘civil rights.’ Frankly, how a film can claim a ‘civil rights’ framework and then fail to talk at all about force, while simultaneously elevating someone whose one of our current-day, force-pushing mascots is kind of mind blowing to me.
Any mention of the problems with diagnosis and understanding people’s experiences differently is only given a cursory mention, and in ways that are generally so vague, incoherent, or hard to hear that most people won’t even notice them, once again pretending to represent us while actually having the effect of silencing. And there’s certainly no emphasis on what most of us mean when we say ‘this is a civil rights movement.’
What we mean, of course, is that it’s the system that has most typically oppressed us. It’s often been the ‘treatment’ that has oppressed us. It’s the casual nature by which the rights of people who’ve been given psychiatric diagnoses are disregarded or invalidated that has oppressed us. As aforementioned, it’s the very label of ‘mental illness,’ the lack of choice, and the perpetuation of a one-model system that has oppressed us. It’s the fact that our society is structured around raising up particular types of people (generally white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, Christians of at least moderate means and who behave and understand the world in popular ways) and constructing all systems as if their way is the way, while painting the rest of us as inherently aberrant that oppresses us.
And it’s well-degreed people with influential roles like Maher and Oppenheim, and movie stars like Turturro, that further that oppression (even if only unintentionally) by pretending to understand. By responding with condescension when they are challenged, as if we should be thanking them (if only we knew what was good for us) instead of offering up objections. By acting like they’re trying to do something different while pushing the same old thing. By creating something palatable to the NAMI-addled masses through meaningful words that have been virtually stripped of all their meaning. By speaking for us while pretending to speak with us (just as people have done throughout history with all civil rights movements that have come before us). How nice for all those organizations that don’t want to be challenged, but do want to feel good about themselves and like they’re a part of the ‘good fight,’ too.
At the last screening of ‘Hot Stove’ that I attended, a fellow audience member approached me when I expressed offense that the filmmakers were using the language of ‘civil rights movement,’ and suggested that maybe they just “didn’t understand.” She said they were probably “just ignorant.”
But isn’t that in itself a key element of an oppressive system? That people in dominant societal roles have the privilege of getting their voice heard regardless of their ignorance on a given matter? Isn’t that what, at least in part, a civil rights movement is designed to fight against? And, when that system takes our language and twists it into an unrecognizable pretzel, isn’t that what we would normally call ‘co-optation’?
And, speaking of language, I am no one’s ‘hot stove.’ I don’t know quite what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish when they came up with that particular analogy but it is deeply offensive no matter what they intended.
Honestly, at this point, I have to wonder why this film continues to get so much play. Why have organizations like the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis (ISPS – who themselves claim to be making efforts to change the conversation and who have truly put in substantial effort to incorporate alternative perspectives from the Hearing Voices Movement among others) played ‘Hot Stove’ at more than one of their conferences, and often at prime times and in prime locations? Are Oppenheim and Maher members? Are their credentials that impressive? What is it? More importantly, how can we get them to stop?
And, before I recommend turning this ‘Stove’ off for good, some food for thought: Although this film employs (I might even say ‘takes advantage of’) many references to and images of people of color (and borrows footage of Obama and, basketball player, Ron Artest)… Although its formed its whole thesis on a comparison (however superficially explored) to the civil rights movement that rose up in the 50’s and 60’s… The filmmakers seem to have chosen not to include interviews with a single person who appears to be black, brown or anything other than white.
In a film that feigns ‘civil rights movement’ while the ‘professionals’ continue to speak for the diagnosed, in spite of the fact that all civil rights movements have fought for people to be able to speak for themselves, that seems worth thinking about.
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.