Eyes peer at me, then quickly look away.
Because they are afraid.
Because they sense the humiliation.
Because they know not what else to do.
Stretchers in front of me. Stretchers behind me.
Some poor soul being dragged where none of us want to go.
Who would have thought that a single shriek could fill the universe?
(from Burstow, 2017 — The Other Mrs. Smith)
In the midst of flagrant professional misrepresentation of ECT, this article will provide hard-hitting and accurate information about the “psychiatric treatment” known as electroshock (ECT). This is a call to arms. Quite simply, the time has come for a frontal assault on the ECT industry and on the professionals associated with it. The time has come to rid society of this barbaric “treatment” altogether.
Naturally, it would make no sense to call for the end to a “treatment” unless it was, first and foremost, clearly profoundly injurious. So…
What are the Salient Facts about Electroshock?
There are so many horrific facts about ECT that it would take several articles to list them all. In a nutshell, however, some of the most pressing of these are:
- ECT is a putative “treatment” involving the application of sufficient electricity to the brain to produce a grand mal (Whitaker, 20021). A relevant point here is that every other branch of medicine moves mountains to prevent grand mal seizures because of the damage that results. By contrast, psychiatry is purposely perpetrating grand male seizures, at the same time denying the damage in question.
- ECT is inherently brain-damaging, with damage arising from both the seizure and the electricity.2
- ECT always causes memory loss, much of it extensive and permanent—both loss of memories from before the shock (retrograde amnesia) and inability to remember new facts (anterograde amnesia) (see Burstow, 20153).
- Contrary to what the shock proponents claim, not a single form of ECT gets around the problems of brain damage and memory loss. What does the largest study in electroshock history show—and this to a degree of statistic significance? Despite the standard reference to “new and improved,” every single mode of ECT damages and creates memory loss (see Sackeim et al, 20074).
- As thousands of courageous ECT survivors have testified over the decades, most shock survivors are greatly impeded in their ability to navigate life as a result of this putative “benign treatment.” A typical day for a frighteningly large number is having to take notes all day long, for otherwise, by the time the day has ended, they will have no way of knowing what has happened. More generally, an abundance of survivors routinely forget people in their lives, cannot remember facts, ways of proceeding, details—are stuck having to settle for a simplistic job despite having prepared for something very different, for gone are many of the skills that they have spent a lifetime acquiring (see ECT survivor testimony).
- Electroshock is overwhelmingly an attack on women. In this regard: Two to three times as many women as men are subjected to electroshock. The psychiatric rationale for this difference is that electroshock helps with depression and women are more depressed than men. The truth, however, is that women are given electroshock two to three times as often as men irrespective of diagnosis. What is likewise significant, the very people who are targeted for shock (women) are the ones typically most damaged by it (see Burstow, 20065).
- The rationale for delivering this terrible blow to the mind and to the integrity of one’s being is that ECT allegedly prevents suicide. The truth is that it does not lower the suicide rate (Black et al., 19896). In fact, a study by Munk-Olsen, et al., 2007,7 suggests instead that in the days after the “treatment,” it actually raises the risk of suicide.
- Electroshock is not effective even by psychiatry’s self-serving measures of effectiveness. As decades and decades of studies show, within six weeks electroshock is no more effective than placebo (for an extensive meta-analysis of the various effectiveness studies, see Ross, 20068).
In short, people are being permanently damaged—for nothing! Virtually nothing! Hence the call to arms.
What Makes This a Good Time to Combat Shock?
A good time to mobilize on any issue is when you can detect movement on it—which is exactly where we are at this juncture. The point is, after decades of us activists largely spinning our wheels around shock, in the last half year, the attack on shock has been gaining real momentum. What are we seeing? Major lawsuits, legislative intervention, an uncompromising new novel that truly lays bare the reality of shock: all reasons to seize the moment.
The leading legal action is in California. And it is a class action lawsuit against the manufacturers of shock machines. The filers of the motion are DK Law Group. The major defendants are the giant shock machine manufacturers MECTA Corporation and Somatics—and yes, these are giants! The allegations are: negligence, failure to warn, and loss of consortium. Anyone can join the class action if they have have sustained injury in California any time from May of 1982 onward as a result of the negligence of the shock manufacturers (for further details, including how to get involved, see David Karen’s blog).
Significantly, while this action is restricted to California, DK Law Group is committed to helping law firms in other states file similar cases. And interest is growing in having comparable suits worldwide.
Herein lies a promising new direction and a momentum that we have not seen before.
I would just add: a Canadian law firm is also actively considering launching a class action lawsuit, but unfortunately it would be open only to Canadians subjected to electroshock in the last two years (clearly an attempt to stay within the statute of limitations). What is promising, nonetheless, is that the conversation is happening.
The Pennsylvania Motion
A promising development has likewise materialized in Pennsylvania. In short, a bill has been introduced by state representatives Stephen Kinsey and Tom Murt to prohibit the use of electroshock on children—a fortuitous initiative that could reverse the current targeting of children and youth.
Ways to Contribute to the Momentum Identified to Date
Targeted ways to contribute to the current momentum, include a) taking part in or otherwise supporting the lawsuits and bills currently under way, and b) doing the footwork necessary to bring about similar suits and similar laws in additional jurisdictions. Obviously still other ways are speak-outs, demonstrations, and educationals.
A Different Kind Development, and a Special Opportunity: The Novel The Other Mrs. Smith
When we think of defeating shock, we quite rightly think of lawsuits and legislative interventions—all of which is necessary and all of which is good. We also think of demonstrations and speak-outs—also good. Alas, though, we tend to overlook the enormous power of art. Art is magical; it opens up a public space for understanding and transformation. Points can be made that otherwise allude. Art moves and educates, and can stir the public to protest. Correspondingly, if demonstrations or speak-outs sufficed to stir public indignation against shock, we would have won the battle against shock long ago. And has a development happened here as well—something that can add to the current momentum? In a word, “yes.” Enter the new novel The Other Mrs. Smith—and in the interests of full disclosure, to be clear, I am the author.
The blurb on the cover of The Other Mrs. Smith is as good an initial introduction to this novel as any. It reads:
This novel traces the life experiences of a once highly successful woman who falls prey to electroshock and subsequently struggles to piece back together her life. Naomi suffers enormous memory loss; additionally, an estrangement from her family of origin that she has no way to wrap her mind around. The novel begins with her wandering the corridor of St. Patricks-St Andrews Mental Health Centre (St. Pukes) faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of coming to terms with the damage done her, as well uncovering the hidden details of her life. It moves back and forth between a relatively happy childhood in the legendary north-end Winnipeg of the mid-1900s and post-ECT adulthood in Toronto. An exceptionally kind man named Ger who befriends Naomi comes to suspect that important pieces of the puzzle of what befell her lurk beneath the surface of writing in a binder of hers, which comes to be known as Black Binder Number Three. What Naomi progressively comes to do, often with Ger’s help and just as often with the help of a very different and eerily similar sister named Rose, is find ways to do justice to her life and to the various people in it. Filled with a vast array of colourful and insightful characters from a variety of communities—Toronto’s Kensington Market of the 1970s, the 1970’s trans community, north-end Winnipeg Jewry, and the ingenious and frequently hilarious mad community—this novel sensitizes us to the horror of electroshock, takes us to new levels in our understanding of what it means to be human, and, in the process, leads us to question the very concept of normalcy.
This is an engaging novel with broad appeal. At the same time, it drives home the horror of shock in a way not seen in fiction before. We see the effects of this “treatment” play out over the span of the heroine’s life. We see the effects on the next generation. And we come to know the reality of shock from the inside—not just the outside—for the novel is narrated in the first person by a fictional shock survivor. Moreover, the sexist nature of this “treatment” is inescapable.
How I came to write this novel, I would add, is itself informative. I was part of the big 1980s push to abolish shock. Now, there were moments back then when it looked as if us activists were on the verge of winning. Then I saw us totally lose the momentum. For the next several decades, like others in the struggle, I continued to push for the abolition of shock with very little that was promising materializing, when one day the idea of writing an ECT-centered novel narrated in the first person occurred to me. I knew that a first person narrative about someone badly harmed contravenes the inherited wisdom of what is possible to pull off in a work of fiction, but in short, I decided to pursue this seemingly impossible project anyway.
Soon after making this decision, I phoned Toronto shock survivor and long time activist Carla McKague and told her what I was doing. “For God’s sake, Bonnie, do it,” she insisted. “We have never had anything like this. What you are describing is a novel that the movement direly needs.”
Whereupon I threw my heart and soul into this project for the next two years. However, problem after problem kept materializing. And I soon realized why a novel of this sort had been declared something that should not be tried. What emerged was often overwhelming and just as often confusing.
Anyway, the time came when I again called Carla to tell her that I was going to have to stop for it just wasn’t working. Her answer was, “Bonnie, don’t stop. The movement, it absolutely needs this novel.” And understanding her point only too well, back to the drawing board I went.
Two years later and after considerable work, again I felt the urgent need to stop—this time not so much because it was not working, though there were problems of this nature too, but because it was just too hard, just too agonizing. Along with this, there was an enigma at the very centre of the project: namely, while I myself could tell Naomi’s story, the fictional narrator into whose head I had placed myself was often at a loss for how to tell it precisely because of the memory impairment, precisely because of the damage done to her by shock.
A related issue is that there were moments when I felt that I could not endure another second of being inside the head of someone whose memory was this impaired. To put this another way, I did not want to have to keep facing dead end after dead end. How wonderful it would be to get my life back! I found myself thinking. And to get it back, all I really had to do was give up writing this novel. Now for a brief moment there, that is precisely what I was determined to do—when suddenly the realization struck me like a thunderbolt:
Yes, of course, I could get my life back. But those of you who are shock survivors, you do not have the same option, do you? That is, you do not have the luxury to get your lives back. And if you can’t do it, then neither should I. Herein lay the moral imperative.
It took me almost ten years to complete this novel and to land a publisher, but the longer I worked at it, the better, the richer, the more fulsome the novel became. What is particularly telling is that the very difficulties that had originally led me to declare the writing of this novel an impossibility were exactly what allowed this novel to become rich, multi-leveled and potent. In fact, it was soon evident not just to me but to everyone around me that what had emerged was nothing short of “dynamite.”
Fast forward. The novel is now out, and yes, my sense is that it genuinely has the power to motivate the public—it is that sensitizing, that powerful—but only if it is widely read. Hence my own current campaign.
If, after reading the novel, you too become convinced of the importance of ensuring that this novel is widely read, here are some ways that you can help:
- Write a review on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca and encourage others to do the same (if over 100 of these materialize, the novel will indeed start to take off).
- Follow me on twitter and re-tweet the quotations from the novel that I post.
- Repost messages that I post about it on Facebook.
- Email information about the novel to friends, post it to listservs; write blurbs about it on Facebook, on your blogsite, on your personal webpage.
- Write a full scale review for a major publication.
- Give it as birthday and Christmas presents to your loved ones—and do remember, Christmas is just around the corner.
- If you are part of a book club, look into getting The Other Mrs. Smith on the agenda.
- Put in a request for your local library to purchase a copy; also hook up with women’s and trans centres in your area and encourage them to have a copy on hand.
- In any demos and other actions that you mount in support of the current move against electroshock—and I hope these will be legion—do consider reading a passage from the novel.
- Get in touch with literary and media figures that you may know with the goal of interesting them.
This article has provided a brief summary of what is wrong with electroshock and why it should be abolished. It has clarified what makes this an optimal moment to act while articulating the momentum that is building. And in the process, it has introduced you to current actions to which you might contribute—a groundbreaking class action lawsuit, a legislative bill that could help to safeguard our children, and finally, a novel that has the potential to do heavy lifting for us.
That said, to end this article as it began, with a quotation from the novel, what follows are the opening words of the fictional heroine Naomi, ushering you into the world of what I call the novel The Other Mrs. Smith and what she calls her “memoir”:
My name is Naomi, Nomi for short. Not two years ago I was at a public meeting in Toronto where an aged woman looked everyone straight in the eye and asked, “After all our years of service, is this what we have to look forward to?” Two months later, a far younger woman who is ever so precious to me called with an urgent request. “Write about everything,” she pleaded. “Do it for whoever—yourself, me, others at risk. Just do it.” Hence this curious journey on which we are embarking.
Now in the sweep of literature, there have been many unusual, one might even say “oddball” narrators—corpses, the cross on which Jesus Christ hung, even—and I kid you not—a fish. By these standards, I am a fairly everyday narrator, for as best I can make out, I am neither the holy rood nor any kind of fish—well, leastways not since I last checked. What I am is a sixty-five-year-old activist with holes in my head and a whopper of a memory problem. And that is the crux of the matter. But enough said.
This is one of those stories, you see, best left to unfold on its own. Like a surprise autumn sunset. Like a murder at dawn. I would only point out that there are depths here to plumb, truths to probe. Step into my world, additionally, and you will quickly find yourself rubbing shoulders with a vast array of some of the most endearing and fascinating souls that a person could hope to meet—some housed like Gerald, some from the streets like my buddy Jack who could always roll the meanest cigarette in Turtle Island. Ah, but all in good time.
Now I could begin almost anywhere—when I discovered the films of Ingmar Bergman, when I fuckin’ rediscovered the films of Ingmar Bergman—but if I am to trust in that old Spenser formula, “where it most concerneth me,” there is really only one place to begin: When I first started crawling out of the void. When those glimmers of consciousness first came upon me in the opening days of March 1973…
- Whitaker, R. (2002). Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. New York: Perseus Books. ↩
- Breggin, P. (1991). Toxic psychiatry. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ↩
- Burstow, B. (2015). Psychiatry and the Business of Madness: An Ethical and Epistemological Accounting. New York: Palgrave. ↩
- Sackeim, H. et al (2007). The cognitive effects of electroconvulsive therapy in community settings. Neuropsychopharmacology, 32, 244-255. ↩
- Burstow, B (2006). Electroshock as a form of violence against women, Violence Against Women, Vol. 12, No. 4, 2006: pp. 372-392 ↩
- Black, D. et al (1989). Does electroshock influence mortality in depressives? Annals of Psychiatry, I, 165-173. ↩
- Munk-Olsen, T., Laursen, T., Videbech, P., Mortensen, P., & Rosenberg, R. (2007). All-cause mortality among recipients of electroconvulsive therapy. British Journal of Psychiatry, 190, 435-439. ↩
- Ross, C. (2006). The sham ECT literature. Ethical Human Psychiatry and Psychology, 8, 17-26. ↩
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.