The Other Mrs. Smith, by Bonnie Burstow, Inanna Publications (November 24, 2017), 447 pages.
Bonnie Burstow, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, is a well-known and oft-published critic of institutional psychiatry who has published many non-fiction books and articles. Dr. Burstow has been a student and friend of psychiatric patients for over four decades, I believe, and is one of those non-psychiatric survivors who “gets it.” In The Other Mrs. Smith, Dr. Burstow chose to use the fiction format, presumably because she felt it was the best way for readers to understand what it is like to experience electroshock and deal with the aftermath. In this she succeeds spectacularly.
The protagonist is Naomi Cohan (Nomi) and the book starts out during her childhood in Winnipeg where she lives with her identical twin sister Rose (Ro) and her labor activist mother and father. They are Jewish and even though not all that religious, their Jewish life is richly described. One suspects this part is largely autobiographical. Many Yiddish words are used and Dr. Burstow helpfully provides a glossary at the end of the book (which I didn’t find in my Kindle until I finished the book). As a Jew, and having a twin sister and two identical twin brothers, I could relate to those aspects. Also, being married to an electroshock survivor, The Other Mrs. Smith resonated with me on that basis as well.
The book is divided into three parts, the first being Naomi’s childhood in the 1940s, the second starting with her waking up after having been electroshocked a number of times in the 1970s, and the third about thirty years later in 2008 where we get to see how things turned out.
Growing up, Naomi is the superstar of the twins with Rose always taking second place in the first part. This is largely reversed after Naomi’s electroshockings. We see that in spite of the inevitable sibling conflicts, the two are incredible close and connected, including telepathically, especially at times of great danger. The telepathy was the most difficult part for me to believe, but my identical twin brothers were also very connected, especially when they were younger. My twin is not identical and we never had that sort of connection.
In addition to her mother and father, both interesting characters, one of the other main characters in the book is Gerald (Ger), Naomi’s ex-husband’s first wife, who is transgender and a great friend to Naomi. The other main characters are ex-husband Earl, Naomi’s daughter Ruth, and Jack, the psychiatric patient who became Naomi’s great helper and friend in the hospital and held a radio to his ear to cope with the voices.
While Earl, who authorized shocking Naomi, was a bit of a jerk, Dr. Burstow does not really make him a villain. He believed the doctors when they said Naomi needed to be shocked and then drugged when she was experiencing postpartum depression.
The really compelling part of The Other Mrs. Smith is its description of what it is like to wake up from being electroshocked and try to deal with the accompanying massive memory loss. In fact, The Other Mrs. Smith opens up with a description of the binders of notes assembled from what Naomi was able to find out about her life in the years before electroshock. The binders function as her memory.
Dr. Burstow resisted the temptation to have Naomi’s life totally destroyed by electroshock. There is no doubt that Naomi’s life was substantially and seriously diminished from the electroshock, but she was able to build a successful post-shock life, hard as it was. This is a fine and hard line to walk and Dr. Burstow does a good job. The Other Mrs. Smith ultimately is a story of triumph over electroshock. The other side is also briefly covered with someone who had managed to escape psychiatry being recaptured and subjected to electroshock again, ultimately choosing to commit suicide rather than endure more electroshock.
Another thing The Other Mrs. Smith does well is make the other psychiatric inmates real people, most likable, some not.
The third part of The Other Mrs. Smith, which took place in 2008, has our protagonist becoming an activist and recruiting other psychiatric survivors as they mount an effort to get electroshock abolished. The very real organization Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA) is involved although the names have been fictionalized.
I think it has been at least twenty years since I read a novel and I am glad I read The Other Mrs. Smith. I hope it garners a wide audience so that the general public can gain some idea of the horror of electroshock.