Book Review: The Other Mrs. Smith by Bonnie Burstow

Jim Gottstein, JD
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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.

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45 COMMENTS

  1. I know a few people who refuse to read nonfiction because they see it as too technical, too difficult to understand, or perhaps even too academic. Many associate nonfiction with their negative memories of “school” and therefore, fear it. They prefer a chance to escape into something totally make-believe. And yet, a fiction writer is more obliged to write “believably,” while the public demands that a nonfiction book “reads like a great novel.”

    The best fiction slips shining gems of truth within its covers. I remember when I was a student composer (before psychiatry) I learned about composers who wrote brilliant music under terrible regimes, under the pressures of Nazi Germany and behind the Iron Curtain. You do hear the message, sometimes even in pauses between notes. They say prisoners write on toilet paper when they have nothing else.

    I believe this is what we, as a group, are doing. We are scratching out poetry on whatever we have. We are living in times of incredible silencing. Toss it to the wind. It may fly far.

    • Yes, we artists are the “canaries in the coal mines” “raging against the machine,” trying to warn humanity about society’s systemic problems, and it seems sometimes, like no one hears.

      When I was recovering from my unfortunate stint with psychiatry, I was exploring Chagall’s artwork. He was a Jew who lived through the Nazi holocaust. I am a Christian who was drugged by psychiatry for belief in the Holy Spirt in the US today.

      I remember pouring through a book about Chagall’s work, and it was as if Chagall’s imagery told the story of my life (except switch Paris with Chicago, and his love for his wife, with my love and respect for God). I guess since we both lived in times of extreme psychiatric power and destruction, it’s not surprising Chagall’s work spoke to me. (Not literally, crazy psychiatrists).

      I will agree, angst is good inspiration for artists. And hopefully, we are making a difference with our scribbles and paint slathers. Good luck with your book, Bonnie, I really liked your last one. Thanks for the book review, Jim.

      • Ah…my paternal grandma introduced me to Chagall. She had a collection of his work, and I am not sure of the format, but my memories of her showing these works to me date from very early on. I believe she also had a Chagall hung on her wall. Undoubtedly not an original but it was worth something. All the Kramer sisters were artistic and one was a professional artist. They all lived to be very old, if I recall correctly. Some of their kids are still living.

  2. This ECT stuff is truly a sorry mess, even more so more so, because the average shrink doesn’t know how to prevent long-term memory loss for such treatments, even though the means (niacin in megadoses) has been around for 50+years. Unfortunately, it came from the guys who preferred using long-term niacin therapy instead of long-term drugging, which means we can be sure it will continue to be ignored or opposed by conventional shrinks, the same way these guys fail to prevent tardive dyskinesia by making sure their tranquilized patients are discouraged from using supplemental manganese and pharmaceutical manufacturers are discouraged from adding 2mg of manganese to their tablets containing antipsychotic drugs, doubtlessly because it’s only been around 30+ years and used and approved by the same mavericks.

  3. One day ago, CAMH sent out some tweets marking the celebration of 80 years of electroshock, citing articles that suggest ECT is wonderful and people have “misconceptions” about this “treatment”.
    The lies and pro-ECT propaganda continue.

  4. I’m glad that the book is gaining publicity and hope that it continues to do so – it has the potential of being something that reaches many people that otherwise would never even approach the topic.
    I am toying with the idea of writing a book of my own on a similar-different topic – in the first person, about a woman who was given SSRIs after “PPD” and ended up killing her baby. There’s a case in Israel right now, with the details under court-imposed gag order, but the rumors are that the woman “was suffering from PPD” and she’s been in jail for the last 2 weeks. The baby is rumored to have drowned in a jacuzzi. Of course people say “look how terrible when depression isn’t treated…” The only problem is that I’ve never taken SSRIs, so I’m worried that I wouldn’t be able to portray it properly. On the other hand, nobody else is writing this book as far as I know – so maybe something is better than nothing. I wonder what any people here who have taken SSRIs (especially for “PPD”) think of the idea? I’d appreciate feedback very much. Thank you.

    • Her depression was “treated.” How can people claim it wasn’t? Are they just ignorant of what happened?

      If a woman consumes 10,000 calories a day and is obese would you tell her the problem is her low caloric intake? About as stupid as psychiatry’s claims that drugs will solve every emotional pain and eliminate crime. All we need to be peaceful, model citizens is…drugs, DRUGS, and MORE DRUGS!!!

    • Much thanks, BCharris, and much thanks, Gabi Taylor. I honestly think this novel has the potential to move a lot of people and do some heavy lifting for us, though of course, only if it is widely read. Any help that MIA readers can give getting it in into their local libraries and spreading the word about the novel would be greatly appreciated and my sense is would be time well spent. This novel–The Other Mrs. Smith– truly helps people “get” the horror of ECT in a visceral way–what ECT does to people and it could lead to a public outcry against shock–something that we desperately need. If you haven’t dipped into it yet, I encourage you to do so and suspect you won’t regret it for among other things, strange though this may seem, besides being informative and moving, it is a well written book and with all its rich characters and twists and turns, it is highly enjoyable. As one of the commentators on Amazon put it, ” Make a cup of tea, get your favorite blanket, curl up, and enjoy – it’s that good.”

      • I plan to post a review of my own at some point.

        Anyone who publicly posts a review should be careful to comment on the book itself. A review is not a debate about electroshock, though a reviewer might describe the book’s emotional impact (which in effect reveals the reviewer’s position).

        I should add that my observation of product review sites in general has been that they’ve been co-opted, and I don’t even know if that is the right word for what has happened. Vendors are realizing that consumers rely on these sites to make purchasing decisions. Some review sites are better than others at deleting fraudulent reviews, whether positive glowing ones, or negative ones that are untruthful or defaming.

        Amazon, in turn, has tightened up and is making sure reviewers actually purchased the product. I believe Amazon requires a login to post a review. Still, I am finding that Amazon reviews are now far less reliable than they were only a few years ago. I receive far too many emails from vendors literally bribing me to post a review, offering me a free product, etc.

    • My ex-shrink came out with a PPD book. I saw him in Bennington, VT. The book is out of print now. His name is Carl Burak, MD. I suppose he took advantage of the woman he wrote about and exploited the hell out of her. Anyway, I bet you can get it used on Amazon. I can tell you more in private about “Carl.” I saw his associate, a psychologist, Dr. Alkoff, and I never really directly saw Dr. Burak, who was prescribing, which wasn’t even legal (Alkoff relayed the info to Burak, who then prescribed, which was their way of doing things) but they claimed it was Kosher. Alkoff insisted he “knew all about the drugs.” He didn’t. He didn’t know much about anything…but that’s besides the point. I learned about Burak’s book when I saw it on Amazon. They had a racket going and I guess were rather wealthy. I suspect the trio (Burak, Burak’s wife, and Alkoff) skipped town after too many scandals. Alkoff fled to Florida, then, to Seattle. Always looked very fishy to me to have multiple licenses like that.

  5. I hope I can comment because I’ve been restricted for way too long. Many moons I have been enjoying A novel with my furry feline by my side taking a moment to comment. My comments don’t post for long time or not at all. For long time all I said was random YouTube videos like song danger danger by naughty naughty or Gunther videos. Let me begin by saying excuse me but I was verklempt. I didn’t have the vanacular for my passion on the subject of mental health. Things have changed and I’m ready to be there for society at large. For folks who listen here but don’t join in. The you’s The me’s the everybody in between. The killjoys from band mbv, the Kingdom of crystal skull guys and gals who know things may not what seem but don’t agree with you either. The mom who watched the movie Canvas and she’d a tear for her family member, those who wimper in loneliness, the downtrodden and sullen.

    Only wanted to jump in here and say that with depression the circumstances may be that one of the several bodily systems could be malfunctioning. Basically the messages from that system travel up to brain. That would make it hard for antidepressants to work very well but they do work in some circumstances. With psychosis the actual problem is in the brain or brain messenging or wiring. I think psychosis medicines probably work better because of this. Well that’s my two cents. See this url for how I gathered this line of thinking.

    https://www.edgarcayce.org/the-readings/health-and-wellness/holistic-health-database/overview-of-depression/

    https://www.edgarcayce.org/the-readings/health-and-wellness/holistic-health-database/overview-of-schizophrenia/

    • Saying something over and over again doesn’t make it true. Where is your evidence? Your Edgar Cayce link on Depression is simply a stating of opinion with no facts, and his opinion conflicts with even mainstream psychiatrists these days who have admitted several years ago that the “chemical imbalance” theory is completely unsupported by evidence and has no validity.

      • Oh the media has been going on about a “blood test” lately but I checked up on that one. It looks like more misleading propaganda since what the actual blood tests are that they refer to are the ones you get that rule out “other causes” such as checking your thyroid, checking for diabetes or low blood sugar, checking liver and kidneys and for cushing’s disease and maybe making sure you don’t have anemia or Vitamin D deficiency. Funny when I went to therapy back in 1981 I sure wasn’t given a blood test at all. I was never asked to see a primary care doc that I recall. Finally my parents insisted I see one.

  6. A heads up re The Other Mrs. Smith and the role that it can play, Right now in cities around the world (e.g., Cork, Ireland, Toronto, Canada, Montreal Canada), people are gearing up for annual feminist demonstration against electroshock, held on May 12 (e.g, in many parts of the world, the day before Mother’s Day) In Canada, in light of the sexist as well as ageist facts about ECT, the event has long been called “Stop Shocking Our Mothers and Grandmothers”. This year in Ontario and perhaps also Quebec , the primary chant at the demos will be “We are the Other Mrs. Smith! Stop Shock [email protected] It is our hope that the media will ask us about this and thereby reinforce the synergy that we are trying to create. If you are at any demonstration in the days leading up to Mother’s Day, do join us in the chant.

  7. How many years of chanting and marching and protesting and books, with the outcome being an increase in the use of ECT, particularly in England?
    Increased use in autism and dementia. Attempts by the FDA to reclassify the device to Class II- two years ago, still no ruling. FDA hearings in 2011 called for testing- never done.
    What has come of all the efforts of Dr. Breggin and Linda Andre and dedicated people such as yourself? What is happening? Shows like Dr. Oz and The Doctors have in the last few months declared ECT “humane”, “effective”, and “safe”- showcasing pro -ECT doctors and patients who claim they were “helped”. No balance. No rebuttal. No horror stories presented. These shows reach multi-millions of people and the message they are sending is a big, evil lie. The press keeps printing “saved my life stories” and pointing to the Sherwin Nuland, Kitty Dukakis, Carrie Fisher promotions.
    Neurologists and other real doctors are not speaking out.
    Mayo Clinic, Macleans, CAMH, and other “renowned”, “teaching” hospitals are promoting and advertising shock.
    And, a judge just refused to certify a class action against Shock manufacturers and their brain boiling “product”.
    I am overwhelmed. How can one slay a monster like this?

    Thank-you to Mr. Gottstein for your review, and Bonnie for writing this book. It was good to see Bonnie and Nancy being interviewed on CTV- we need more media coverage like this.

  8. Interestingly, there are no rehabs, that I know of, for people damaged by ECT. Unless, of course, you count state “hospitals” where they hide damaged people. Or nursing homes. Or we don’t see them or know of them because families are invariably advised to “disengage” due to the patient’s “grave mental illness.” The rest are rehabbed only in our memories. They are gone.

    There will never be rehab until there is public acknowledgement that ECT causes brain damage. What they often claim, post-ECT, is that some new underlying, latent mental illness suddenly and mysteriously appears out of the blue. Rehab for a fake mental illness won’t address the real harm that has been done. Until the truth is acknowledged and faced head on, and confessed by these criminals, I fear we will lose many more precious lives.

  9. The very word “mental illness” is ambiguous and the way believers use it is inconsistent and crazy.

    They call it a mental illness but claim it is a brain illness. Why not call it that? Oh, yes. That might cause more confusion since the populace would conflate said “illnesses” with legitimate brain disorders like cancer/ epilepsy/ALS. (No one with a legitimate brain illness can be legally locked up and treated against their will.)

    Then those whiny articles and cartoons that speculate, “What if we treated physical illnesses like mental illnesses?” Uh, when they ask that question don’t they realize they’re making a distinction between the two? In which case their claim that “mental illness” is a brain disease doesn’t fly since that would make it a physical illness after all.

  10. I thought this was a nice review of the novel Jim!

    I recently read The Other Mrs. Smith. Here are some highlights from a review I wrote for it;

    As a reader, I want to be moved and changed by a piece of writing, by complex characters that offer me a new understanding about life. As a writer, I look to be offered examples of writing that help me become a better one. With the book, I wasn’t disappointed. It offered both.

    To be honest, I am pretty amazed at how an accomplished academic professional such as Bonnie Burstow can shift gears into such rich and poetic prose that draws the reader into a collection of complex, original characters that unfold through a mysterious evolving plot that has all kinds of twists and turns. Without giving too much away here, the novel offers us a beautiful and tragic view of one brilliant woman’s life story shifting between her time living in two diverse Canadian cities; Winnipeg and Toronto. She moves us back and forth through time, offering readers a sobering account with grace, humour, dignity, and tenderness.

    It is a beautifully crafted feminist novel– a real page-turner that takes the reader on an emotional ride through the protagonist’s experience as an electroshock survivor. Naively, like so many of us, I had no idea people were even still be treated with it, never mind how damaging it is for one’s memory.

    Besides its feminist theme, it also holds space for issues of various marginalized communities from Indigenous peoples and the homeless, to the trans community. However, the underlying lesson the author offers here goes beyond the labels and categories we’ve created among us and down into to the bones of what it means to be human. Yes, we fight for what we believe in, we do our own work, we follow our passion and we stand up for injustice but also–ultimately, this book reminds us about acceptance too. It offers us a message about the great paradox of life we all must recognize sooner or later; we all experience great suffering and great joy. Life is tragic and beautiful. We will shed big tears of both kind and it’s all ok. Perhaps it is when we come to truly allow a space for both, when we don’t cling to our ideas about how things should be for us– we find our peace.

  11. Many of us around the world on May 12 will demonstrating against electroshock, demanding its abolition. This is an international day of protest against electroshock, with a clear feminist focus what with the statistics of two to three times as many women get ECT as men. If there is nothing going on in your city, do consider putting together a demo. In a number of the cities, what we will be chanting (and all the better if any press turning up asks you what it means) is:

    “We are The Other Mrs. Smith
    Stop shock now: