“So Bonnie, what have you done about electroshock this week?” (critical question put to me approximately once a month for over twenty years by now-deceased ECT survivor Sue Clarke)
Pound. Pound. Pound. Adonoi, Mary Mother of God, Buddha, Ishtar, Inanna, Allah, anyone with ears that receive and a heart that quickens, make it stop. Pound. Pound. Pound. I swear on the holy Torah, I swear on the blessed cross, I swear on the winds that lift up and the rivers that tumble from the Creator’s bountiful lips, I will do anything. Do this, and lo, I will walk through the rest of my days humbly revering thy name. I will set up a table for thee in the presence of mine enemies. Night and day, will I sing halleluiah, my knees flat against the earth, my eyes lowered, my hands brought together in prayer. I will press the horn of a ram to my grateful lips and issue a call to all corners of the earth; and the sweet young children, innocence dripping from their milky breath, will come running, running, running toward the sea; and we will all join hands and ascend to the glorious orchard. Then we will gather together in the New Jerusalem and sing hymns in thy praise. But please, I beseech thee: Make it stop. Make it stop. (from Burstow, The Other Mrs. Smith)
Probe, if you will, the passages above—the thoughts running through the mind of a fictional shock survivor in the midst of an ECT series. Then let them simmer quietly at the back of your mind as we focus in on the subject of this article. To begin with a brief discussion of “aha” moments:
Throughout our lives, times inevitably come, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes not, when we are blessed with “aha” moments. Those are moments when a “light bulb” seems to go on. One type of “aha” moment is commonly known as a “Eureka” moment, a concept named after Archimedes, who allegedly exclaimed “Eureka” upon lowering himself into a bath and seeing the water rise. What he had purportedly discovered at that moment is that the volume of water displaced by an object immersed in it is equal to the volume of said object. “Eureka” comes from the Greek word “heureka,” which means “I found it.” When one’s “aha” moment is of the “eureka” variety, one has discovered for all intents and purposes what was known to no one earlier. A still more common type of “aha” moment relates to suddenly coming to understand a phenomenon on a far deeper level, irrespective of what others do or do not know. Both types of “aha moments” are deeply significant and both tend to lead to abiding personal transformation and commitment. Which brings us to the point of this article.
The overarching topic of this article is electroshock. Its purpose is to uncover some key “aha” moments which I have had with respect to electroshock. My hope in sharing these is that the very uncovering will open up a heightened understanding of both shock and of combating shock, and in the process help improve our activism.
One of my First Big “Aha” Moments around Electroshock
As far back as the 1950s, I was acutely aware that ECT causes memory loss as well as brain damage. And well before the 1980s hit, I had taken in the horrific stories of a large number of shock survivors, including my own father’s (during the 1950s and 1960s my dad was subjected to over 200 “shock treatments”). Moreover, I was conversant with the critiques and the medical literature. Of course, embedded in those earlier years were a number of mini “aha” moments. This notwithstanding, it was not until 1984 that my commitment to do whatever I could to end ECT solidified, and yes, it was connected with “aha moments.”
In 1984, as co-chair of the Ontario Coalition to Stop Electroshock, I was involved in mounting an official public hearing involving four days of shock testimony by shock survivors. This took place over two weekends at Toronto City Hall. What happened to me at those hearings? I came to understand the ECT experience on a far deeper level. For one thing, the enormity of the obstruction to people’s lives became far more pressingly real to me, as survivors went into intricate details of the skills they had lost—not being able to do mathematics, no longer being able to hold down anything except the most menial job, not remembering from moment to moment what was happening to them. You cannot be the same person that you once were if you sit in a hearing day after day hearkening to words like Connie Neil’s:
Well, the piano’s in my house, but if just sits there. I don’t have that kind of ability any longer… People come up to me… and they tell me about things we’ve done. I don’t know who they are. I don’t what they’re talking about, Mostly what I had was . . . modified electroshock. And it was seen as effective. By “effective,” I know what they mean is that they diminish the person. They certainly diminished me… I work as a pay clerk. I write little figures and that’s about all… And it’s a direct result of the treatment. (Phoenix Rising Collective, 1984, pp. 20A-21A)
Complementing this awareness were veritable “eureka” moments where I took in various gender-specific issues. To be more specific: while it was abundantly clear that both women and men were badly affected, the enormity of the gender difference became blatantly obvious as woman after woman testified to losing, for instance, ten to eleven years of their life. What became clear, to focus in on this, is that women’s memory is far more damaged by the treatment—a difference significantly and empirically confirmed decades later in Sackeim, 2005.
It likewise became clear how women uniquely and disproportionately were pressured into shock. Correspondingly, as woman after woman made statements like, “I was so depressed at the time; it was just after the birth of my first child” or “it was just after the birth of my second child,” it hit me like a thunderbolt that women were being electroshocked and consequently brain-damaged for postpartum depression—something that happens to most women and eventually resolves on its own. Needless to say, I was horrified.
How was I personally transformed by these “aha” moments? I doubled my efforts to combat electroshock because I knew deep in my bones that I could not in good conscience do otherwise. That is, I could not witness what I had witnessed, hear what I had heard and do less. Herein lay a commitment from which I would never shy away. I began writing voluminously about electroshock. And holding fast to the feminist insight, I explicitly began theorizing electroshock as a form of “violence against women”, e.g., Burstow, 2006. In short, an awakening had happened, and what was to be a major trajectory of my life began taking shape. I wrote, I gave speeches, I organized more hearings (for transcripts of testimony from a more recent hearing, see these personal testimonials on the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault site). I mounted educationals, I was the principle investigator of a number of research projects, I appeared frequently in the media, I co-created petitions, I helped draft reports and submit demands to government. Moreover, I was part of organizing demonstrations against electroshock in Toronto and around the world—demonstrations that we continue to this day.
Now in this, the heyday of the anti-ECT resistance (1970s to the early 1990s), we largely had the media and the public on our side. Expectably, however, the ECT industry poured ever more time and money into the creation and dissemination of ECT propaganda, with the long-term result being that we lost the ear of the media and the general public. Additionally, and not unrelated, we in Canada had made a strategic error. We demanded a government investigation. We got it. And in that very act of picking the wrong goal and being granted what we had asked, we for all intents and purposes had “shot ourselves in the foot.” What happened, you may wonder. A government committee was formed to investigate ECT, just as we had requested. It took two years before the task force presented their findings and recommendations. By that time, the media has lost all interest in the story. And not coincidentally, not a single one of the recommendations were ever acted upon. You might call this an “aha” moment, though it was not about shock but about what is and is not good strategy.
This said, we continued to mobilize as for sure we had to, but try though we did, we in no way could regain the momentum—this despite hearings, educationals, and reams of research.
Later “Aha” Moments
Fast forward to 2009. In what was itself a mini “aha” moment, I began asking myself: Just how do we get the issue of ECT back on the political agenda? Whereupon I was reminded of the power of art. The average person does come to hearings nor read transcripts of them; nor do they tend to be affected by them to the degree that I am. But they do read novels and are uniquely affected by them. After sitting with the question and with shock material for several months, I began penning a novel centered on a fictional shock survivor.
I knew instinctively that if this novel were to have the power it needed to, it had to engender in the readers something like “aha” moments, which would happen most poignantly if readers found themselves inside the head of a shock survivor. Which in essence meant two things: One, that the novel’s central protagonist should be a fictional shock survivor. Two, that the novel had to be narrated in the first person by that protagonist. This was the gambit. And herein lay the decision that would make or break the novel.
Upon so deciding, I called shock survivor and former lawyer Carla McKague to tell her what I was doing. Was she ever ecstatic! “Bonnie,” she exclaimed, “this is exactly what we in the movement need, and be assured, I will be there to help you with any editing work that arises.”
What happened? In short, a whole lot of hard work. Now the novel (soon to be named The Other Mrs. Smith) was largely on course for the first year or so. Nonetheless, the time came when the chore that I had set for myself began seeming impossible. What was the problem? The problem was the narration. While I personally would have no trouble telling this story, I was not the narrator. Naomi, the fictional shock survivor, was. And the fictional shock survivor could not narrate. Why not? In large part because her memory loss was such that she did not know huge sections of the story that she was trying to tell. She kept hitting dead ends, memory voids, vacuousness. And as a result, as author, naturally I too kept hitting dead end after dead end.
About a year and a half after starting, accordingly, I called Carla to tell her that I might have to stop the novel. She answered, “Bonnie, you can’t stop. This novel is exactly what the movement needs.” Whereupon I nodded and returned to my labours.
Another year or so passed, with promising moments here and there, nonetheless with the task which I had set myself mainly feeling harder and harder; indeed, mostly, well nigh impossible. What with all these dead ends, I felt as if I were “going crazy”. One day I said to myself: “I would do anything to get my life back.” And suddenly, it dawned on me. Of course, I can get my life back. All I have to do get my life back is give up writing this novel.
Now for a few seconds there, I felt absolutely exhilarated, so clear did the course ahead of me seem. When suddenly, I stopped myself. “Yes, of course,” I said to myself, “by stopping writing this novel, you can get your life back. However, shock survivors cannot get their lives back. And if shock survivors cannot get their lives back, then you shouldn’t either.” This is what solidarity means. And herein lies the moral imperative.
What were the “aha moments” embedded in this part of my tale? One clearly was the discovery of the moral imperative. If shock survivors cannot get their lives back, then it behooved me not to give up. What was every bit as fundamental and what constituted a discovery in its own right was my greatly increased awareness of the sheer arduousness of the journey, the double bind in which Naomi’s memory loss placed me. The point is that in the very plight in which I found myself was an echo, however faint, of the plight of the shock survivor herself. Now to be clear, my plight was and is utterly minuscule compared to what shock survivors experience moment by moment. In facing it, in struggling with it, in trying to work through it, nonetheless, I came to understand on a whole new level the daily travail of the shock survivor. “Aha,” went something deep in my soul.
This lived experience profoundly enriched the novel. Albeit in a comparatively minuscule way, the problems which I faced as author—e.g., how to navigate the memory gaps—paralleled the day-in day-out problems of shock survivors. Moreover, bit by bit in finding solutions to such problems, I came to take in as well not only the extent of the injury but the sheer ingenuity that entered into the daily work of shock survivors—that is, the work the survivors have to do to manage and inject meaning back into their lives.
In the fullness of time I finished the third draft of my novel. And about two years later, it looked like I had found a publisher. Whereupon I called Carla, who at this point, was near death’s door.
“Carla,” I said, “I know it’s hard for you to be on the phone, but I’ll say one thing: It seems like I’ve landed a publisher.”
“Bonnie, thank God!” she exclaimed.
Never again was I able to speak to Carla, for she died but a few weeks later. But she died keenly aware of what her insistence had helped make possible.
And where am I at this point? The novel is out; the reviews are pouring in. And once again, I am doubling and tripling my efforts—for how conceivably could I do otherwise? Moreover, I have heard from a number of readers who had barely given a thought to shock previously, who were truly aghast by what they had encountered and moved to do something about it.
Lessons to be Gleaned from the Above
The shock industry can and does disseminate ever more propaganda which runs counter to what survivors know and say about shock, even what good research solidly establishes (although we absolutely must continue to engage in these endeavours). What it cannot do is stop “aha” moments; moments which are critical to our own understanding and critical to good activism.
“Aha” moments in this area are not easy. They will often tie you in knots and leave you feeling like you are getting nowhere. Commonly, in that very frustration and “lostness,” nonetheless, lies the route to better understanding and better consciousness-raising.
Praxis: Concluding Remarks
Hopefully, this article has given the reader an added appreciation of “aha” moments, their possible place in activism, and how they do and can play out in the world of electroshock. What guidance for your own anti-ECT activism, can be gleaned from them, you may be wondering? To name a few:
Beyond demonstrating, beyond joining lawsuits (both of which, of course, are critical), consider helping facilitate ECT testimony and witnessing—for this has an obvious multiplier effect. Then step back and work at incorporating what you have learned into the education and activism that you do—because no, most people do not read testimony or attend hearings.
By the same token, talk to any shock survivors that you know. Figure out what grabs you about their story and work at distilling it and/or assisting them to do so. Of course, going this route may be far too traumatic for many shock survivors—and this too needs to be respected.
Art is particularly key, and we have not used it anywhere near enough. You might think back on your own “aha” moments with respect to ECT, then construct works of art that transform these into “aha” moments for others. Alternatively or additionally, incorporate art more broadly in your educationals.
On a simpler level, if you have not done so already, insofar as this feels safe for you, do read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then follow up with The Other Mrs. Smith—and see where this inspires you to go. If you belong to a book club, of course, see if you can add such fiction as material to be read and discussed. The more people reading such works, the better. The point is that fiction both encapsulates and gives rise to “aha moments” in its own right, and as such, can move the public in a way that non-fiction seldom does.
What might survivors themselves do? This of course is totally up to the individual survivor, and indeed, a huge variety of responses are possible. To use The Other Mrs. Smith once again as an example, there are those who find it too traumatizing to even read such a novel—and what better judge of this than them? And so they keep the novel at arm’s length. Others such as Connie Neil and Helene Grandbois both have read or are reading the novel and helping promote it. Finding her own way, still another survivor Nancy Rubenstein chose not to read the novel, but nonetheless helped promote it on national television. On an individual level, everyone ferrets out what works or does not work for them—and everyone’s choices need to be respected. The point is to consult and heed your own wisdom.
In ending, I invite the reader to consider making abolishing ECT a priority, while leveraging the heuristic and the personal. Whether or not you directly engage in art, consider making what you say/do/draw personal and conveying the urgency. While, to be clear, this is one option only—and one which is not always wise—taking a page from Theatre of the Oppressed, one might even go so far as: a) bodying forth the horror vividly, and b) letting the audience know that the horror will continue unless they personally do something to stop it.
Correspondingly, in line with this, and in the spirit of survivor Sue Clarke, with whom this article began, as my parting words, permit me to inquire:
So, what have you done about electroshock this week?
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.