The context in which this article is penned is rule by institutions which are functions of the state, in particular those deemed services; the ways in which these interconnect to create a veritable trap; contrary to current hegemony, the ease with which they can substantially harm those that they “serve.” Pivotal in this article is the “mental health system” and the psychiatric dangers that it presents (for an extensive demonstration that psychiatry intrinsically harms and lacks validity, see Burstow, 2015). Likewise figuring prominently are the educational system and the social services—which, despite their comparative validity are themselves centralized sites of social control, and as such, also wreak havoc in people’s lives.
At the centre of the discussion are two stories, each involving individuals competently attending to their own needs and/or the needs of their loved ones precisely by keeping one or more of these institutions at bay. These particular stories were chosen because of my intricate knowledge of each, also because of the contrast between them (they take place in very different eras, and very different modes of resistance are involved). Questions explored with respect to them include: What problems do the stories bring to light? Would the complications encountered in the first story have been better or worse if some semblance of these events played out today? What attitude do they suggest that we should take to the various apparatuses of the state? What do they tell us about resistance? And insofar as the solutions arrived at by the central protagonists might be thought of as instructive, what do they alert us to, open up as possibilities, or prefigure?
Story One: Ottawa, 1950s.
A younger me is the central protagonist of this story, age 12-13. My family had just moved from Winnipeg Manitoba to Ottawa Ontario, and both in Ottawa itself and in the new school that I attended I found myself encountering a level of anti-Semitism which I had not previously experienced. Badly thrown, for better or for worse, I did not share these conundrums with my folks for my dad had just suffered a major heart attack and parents were in such dire financial distress that it is all they could do to put food on the table. What I did is stop going to school. A truant officer was summarily dispatched to our flat to drag me to school. Eyeing this menacing looking figure approaching the door, I locked it, whereupon he yelled, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll unlock the door pronto.” As I did not respond, he eventually departed. This left the school in a tricky position for what was happening here blatantly broke the rules. What was their solution to this interference with standard operations? To insist that I must be “mentally ill” and force me to see a psychiatrist – a framing which “solved” their immediate problem.
For the next year and a half, I saw a psychiatrist thrice a week. He began by administering an ink blot test, then asking follow-up questions. Whence began an extended conversation, which in no way touched on any of my conundrums. Now one day I inquired what would happen to me when I was out of answers to his queries. He never responded, from which I surmised that my safest course of action was to keep the conversation going. Now I did indeed wonder whether or not I might be “mentally ill”, as almost everyone beset by psychiatry does—for we are primed to do so. However, he soon made a critical error that signaled to me that he had not a clue what he was doing. He told my folks and the school authorities that it was okay that I had left school for I had not the intelligence to pass out of grade 7. Well aware that I had just heard something preposterous, I made my own assessment of the assessor and his tools, and I continued to bide my time. Meanwhile, knowing that I would be seriously disadvantaged in life with nothing but a grade 6 education, I took a part-time job at the National Art Gallery of Canada—and I stayed alert to whatever “possibilities” arose.
One day my family announced that we would be moving back to Manitoba, more particularly, to the small northern town of Churchill—for my dad had landed a job there. Here was my moment! I intuitively knew that whatever anti-Semitism awaited me there would be in a range that I could handle. I immediately told my parents that I wished to return to school. They nodded. Taking a deep breath, I continued, “but I don’t want to go back to grade 7. How about if I go to the grade I would’ve been in at this juncture had none of this ever happened –y’know, grade 9.” Without soliciting any further explanation, again my parents nodded. The question, however, was how to pull off a coup of this proportion given that no school would knowingly permit such a major violation of their rules. Indeed, as we were all aware, such a request would not even “compute”. My father’s brow knit as if he were lost in thought. Then he responded, “I’ll assure them that you passed out of grades 7 and 8 and that I have sent for the records and they simply have not yet arrived.”
My parents looked at me, knowing that I was the weak link for I had (and yes, still have) a passion for truth. I also knew that we were up against an unbending power and this was a critical moment–for here was my opportunity to get my life back on track. So I took a deep breath, then returned their nod. And without a word from anyone, the die was cast.
We moved. I spent the summer hitting the books so that I could handle grade 9. Then the school year commenced.
For the next several months, my father stalled the principal, who kept calling to inquire about my records from Ottawa. Come the end of the first term, I took the interim exams and came in top of my class. Then circumstances landed us in Winnipeg, where I subsequently took the departmental exams. The successful completion of the departmental exams meant that I could now “officially” enter grade 10.
I continued on, completed high school, attended a number of different universities, where I acquired four different degrees, included a doctorate, and received numerous awards (e.g., the Russell Gold Medal in Philosophy). Then I resumed teaching in universities (which I had begun after my first masters). In the fullness of time, I became a world famous scholar who had published extensively. All this, by a person, note, “officially” without sufficient intelligence to pass out of grade 7.
Discussion of Story One
Students being forced to deal with pernicious racialization is a common plight in schools. As a 12 year old who was thrown by a level of it that I had not previously witnessed, I dealt with it as best as I could. Clearly, the solution itself was less than ideal. At the same time, getting distance from the daily assault on my dignity was a reasonable course of action given that there was nothing in the system which even allowed for the possibility of such difficulties existing. Hence the decision to absent myself (the first act of resistance). Once I acted on this decision, two of arms of the state—the educational system and psychiatry—entered in to rectify a breach of their rules that could only be conceptualized institutionally as something over which they needed to reassert control. I was now trapped at least seemingly between two unacceptable outcomes—being dragged back into an oppressive learning environment or falling prey to psychiatry.
To the best of my ability I proceeded to keep both institutions at bay. I kept the school system at bay by going along with their insistence that I see a psychiatrist. And I kept psychiatry at bay in essence by engaging in a kind of mindless chatter that might best be characterized as stalling. Anguished though I was, the task which I set myself was competently performed, in other words, and the tactic was successful.
Likewise competently exercised and sensible was the decision to return to school once I had reason to believe that I would be entering a safer environment. By the same token the decision made by my entire family—for me to skip two grades and for us all to lie to the principal—also made sense. Lest it strike you otherwise, let me invite you for a moment to consider the alternative: Had we played by the rules, not only would I have been unnecessarily stuck in a class with students two years younger, having received the relevant documents from Ottawa, instead of approaching me as a bright and promising student, the school officials would have instantly turned to pathologizing. And indeed we were all of us acutely aware of this, and as such, our response constitutes “critically aware resistance”.
Herein, let me suggest, the fact that we were working class served the family well. The point here is that working class families, like most other oppressed groups, harbour an inherent distrust of the establishment, have a standpoint which, while hardly foolproof, uniquely positions us to see through the official line. What we understood, quite simply, is that the system is not our friend. And what is mere dishonesty in one situation is self-protection in another. Not that sheer luck did not likewise come to our aid.
That said, to return to the various institutions themselves, what was wrong with what each one did—beginning with the educational system? Besides that the educational system allowed an atmosphere of anti-Semitism to flourish in the first place, it activated institutional responses which were ill advised, insensitive, and punitive. And capturing even themselves up by their rules, they turned a situation which called for listening, respect, and creative problem-solving into one which allowed for only two possible interpretations and two possible courses of action—both of them injurious—EITHER the child was “derelict” and therefore should be manhandled into returning to school OR the child was “mentally ill” and therefore should be forced into the psychiatric system.
What did psychiatry in turn do wrong? It uncritically accepted its role as the correct handler of the situation. It failed to share information. It prioritized its own dubious tools over human relating. Correspondingly, as an agent of the state, the psychiatrist proceeded to come up with an assessment that not only made no sense but was transparently political. The point is if “the child” was both “mentally ill” and “intellectually incapable”, the broken rules became far less of a problem for the other arm of the state—the school. Moreover, psychiatry’s “owning” of the situation was guaranteed.
Now as it happens, only two arms of the state directly figure in this saga, and in both cases, significantly, contrary to their own sense of themselves, they were problem-creators, not problem-solvers. Nonetheless another arm of the state might easily have entered in, and had it done so, it too would have been a problem-creator. To wit: What if the family had been less skillful in pulling off this ruse and the deception and collusion became evident? In accordance with the boss texts which determine its operation, the school would have been obliged to call in Child and Family Services. Expertly applying their own texts, the Child and Family Services officials, in turn, would have “determined” that the welfare of the child was at stake, that the parents were badly negligent at the bare minimum, and that the removal of the child from the home was mandatory. At which point, “the child” would not only have lost her home, her foundation, and her one true ally but in all likelihood, would once again have been facing the danger of the psychiatric system (theorized as help). Moreover, the family as a whole would suffer.
Now it might be argued that this happened eons ago and things would have played out in a better way today. Let me suggest, however, that racialization in schools remains a fact. Moreover, if we assume even a vaguely similar beginning and a vaguely similar set of circumstances, the outcome today would be every bit as bad and arguably considerably worse. How so?
There is now a far closer relationship between the educational system and the psychiatric system. Moreover, there has not only been a “drug revolution” but a specific honing in on the child market (see Whitaker, 2010 and Burstow 2015). Ergo, “the child” would almost certainly have ended up on psychiatric drugs, with all the brain-damage which this entails—a course of action that would have likely commenced the moment that she stopped attending class.
Nor would the escape route that opened up later exist. The point is, unlike in 1950s, subterfuge of that particular nature is impossible under the current circumstances for the problematic records would follow the child electronically wherever she went. Moreover, even were it possible, were the subterfuge ever discovered, not only would the social services still remove the child (see http://web2.gov.mb.ca/laws/statutes/ccsm/c080e.php), and not only would psychiatry similarly summarily be called in, the psychiatry called in would be modern psychiatry –that is, one duly armed with toxic drugs.
Story Two: Toronto, Current Times
The major protagonists in this story are: a woman whose husband had recently died (pseudonym: Nel), her children, and her mother-in-law (pseudonym: Lisa).
A year ago, as a well known antipsychiatry therapist whose opinion she respected, Lisa called me to solicit my advice about how to help her daughter-in-law. The backstory? Nel was overwhelmed, was having enormous trouble coping. And she would every so often start screaming at her children. The children in turn were frightened of their mother. What had Lisa already done with respect to her family? Something remarkable. She had supported both the children and their mother. She had also begun advocating on Lisa’s behalf, arranging for nonintrusive counseling and stopping psychiatry’s relentless attempt to push psychiatric drugs on Nel. Having been asked what she might do now, I naturally applauded Lisa’s efforts to date and urged her to continue on in the same vein. I likewise suggested that she spend as much time as possible listening to Nel, helping her mourn, and brainstorming solutions with her (and I gave her ideas how to do this), that she support the children similarly, that she provide the children with a place to which to retreat, as needed, moreover, that she encourage the family to hold meetings where everyone discussed the problems in the family and explored ways to support one another.
What next I heard from Lisa, besides having enacted all my suggestions, she had also in effect taught her family all that I had taught her. Additionally, she had masterminded an agreement whereby when Nel was having a bad day, she would shut herself in her room to spare the children, and on the children’s side, they would let their mom know that they needed to take off now and would return when “the storm had blown over.” Which they all accomplished without involving authorities and without incident.
What happened in the fullness of time? The pain, needless to say, did not disappear. Nonetheless, Nel began getting control over her life. The family became good at handling its problems together. The children ceased being afraid, confident that they were loved, knowing, moreover, that everything could be discussed and everything handled together. Correspondingly, the family unit stayed in tact.
Discussion of Story Two
The institutions involved here or which threatened to become so are two of the very ones that figured so prominently in the first story. However, a very different dynamic played out, with the institutions totally kept in line—with one, additionally, drawn on as needed—and by someone with a keen sense of how to advocate.
That psychiatry posed an imminent threat to Nel is transparently obvious. Lisa’s calm and effective resistance, however, prevented anything untoward from happening. What Lisa did is gently but persistently block the intrusion at hand and successfully lobby instead for the provision of empathic psychological counseling while reassuring everyone by her steady ongoing involvement. By the same token, once again we have a situation in which Child and Family Services would normally have been called in, and had this happened, once again, in all likelihood the children would have been removed—and everyone thereby harmed. The persistent, skillful, and loving help which Lisa provided prevented this from happening, moreover turned the entire situation around, leaving all family members and the family as a whole in a far better place.
What particularly strikes me about this story, I would add, is how incredibly better Lisa responded than oh-so-many mothers-in-law would. The point is that a situation like this in a patriarchal culture is a setup for a mother-in-law in grieving and who is naturally worried about her grandchildren to fall into pathologizing and/or vilifying her daughter-in-law, perhaps even encouraging social services to remove the children, placing them in her custody instead. This might or might not be accompanied by her urging that the daughter-in-law be “afforded” psychiatric “care”. How wonderful that Lisa was so clear-sighted and giving that instead of sacrificing the daughter-in-law, she safeguarded her, while helping the entire family.
In so doing, I would add, she prefigured how families and community members might handle problems in the better type of society that I would like to see us build (for details, see Burstow, 2015, Chapter Nine).
This article has laid bare a number of the intricate, insidious, and profound ways that institutions which are arms of the state individually and collectively control people, in the process substantially injuring and/or endangering them. It likewise has made visible everyday acts of skilled resistance. Correspondingly, it has demonstrated the utter necessity of such resistance. Had I chosen stories involving other institutions, I would suggest, as long as psychiatry or the criminal justice system were one of them—and to an appreciable degree, even were they not—similar dynamics would have materialized.
The primary lessons to be gleaned from the forgoing are: While for sure there are times when certain institutions serve us, we can ill afford to simply place our faith in any institution, much less any institution embedded in the state, this, note, despite the fact that society “dictates” otherwise. We need to be aware of the connections between all major social institutions, to see how they can work together to the enormous disadvantage of human beings caught up by them. We need to prioritize people over institutions. We need to keep our eyes peeled for instances when resistance is in order. And we need to know how to resist.
In ending, some concrete recommendations that readers might consider:
- Nurture a healthy skepticism about all the arms of the state, including, and perhaps especially, ones theorized as “help”.
- Albeit it may well be that psychiatry (and I would personally add others) is the sole arm of the state totally lacking in validity, be aware that an analysis restricted to psychiatry is insufficient. Safety lies in having an analysis of all regimes of ruling, having a sense of how they interconnect, and acting accordingly.
- Get into the practice of noticing how power operates.
- Step back from the worldview created by regimes of ruling so that you are in a position to truly assess both what is happening and what the institution or the institutional network is likely to do. A good beginning is distancing yourself from their discourses (see Burstow, 2013).
- Touch base with and respect your own knowledge and that of your community—for irrespective of how the institutions may frame things, you surely do have knowledge.
- Take note of the institutions currently governing your actions or those of your loved ones and/or community, with an eye to determining what problems might arise, what steps you can predict, and how, if necessary, you might work around them.
- Observe how seemingly separate institutions connect together in ways which entrap individuals.
- Study not only the routine operation of institutions but the permutations that occur when they connect with racialized communities, with women, with the very young, with the very old, with the disabled, with the LGBTQ community.
- Remember that “experts” and their “knowledge” are themselves institutional products.
- Be willing to reach out as helpful; be equally willing to keep your own counsel as necessary.
- Negotiate and advocate where helpful.
- When facing the power, contradictions, and circular reasoning of institutions, be prepared to sabotage and to do so skillfully.
- Study resistance strategies, investigating what works and under what circumstances.
- Try to navigate life in ways that maximize the likelihood that everyone’s welfare is safeguarded, community is supported, and a decentering of power occurs.
Finally, never forget that children are far more resourceful than adults realize, moreover, while they may be at a loss to explain themselves, they have unique insight into their own needs. Correspondingly, if you find yourself dismissing their behavior as misguided, as simply bad, or worse yet, as evidence of a fictitious disease like “oppositional defiance disorder”, reach back to the time when you were a kid—then think again!!
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[For this article and others by this author, see http://bizomadness.blogspot.ca/).
- Burstow, B. (2015). Psychiatry and the Business of Madness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Burstow, B. (2013). A Rose by any Other Name. In Mad Matters. ed. Brenda Lefrançois, Robert Menzies, and Geoffrey Reaume. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, pp. 79-93.
- Whitaker, R. (2010). Anatomy of an epidemic. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.
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.