Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part essay. This first part describes Jessica’s personal experiences with involuntary commitment, the psychiatric system, and the courts—leading to her founding of a mad community, Madwomen in the Attic. The second part will describe the timeline of Madwomen in the Attic, the challenges faced during its first year, and projects and hope for the future. The essay was adapted from a speech delivered at “Madness, Violence, and Technologies of Care,” a symposium held at the Center for Disability Studies, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, May 2019.
The reason I labeled this essay “Making a Mad Community, from Attic to Attic” is because I think it’s hard to build a mad community. It’s hard because a mad community is mad and there is no mad model for making a community—it does not adhere to norms for community-making. Mad community-making is abnormal, it does not happen through the usual power structures, it does not happen through systems because there are not systems that uplift the mad, it happens in the hidden chambers of sanist hierarchies, and it’s created through obstacles, obstacles that never go away. Mad community-making happens through struggle, intense struggle.
I have learned this through my experiences, as a madwoman trying to build a mad community with the organization that I co-founded with my sister in 2017, Madwomen in the Attic. This two-part piece outlines our struggle to build a mad community across locations, across differences, across challenges, across borders and barriers, across countries.
How does one build a sense of community if one is kept under lock and key in an institution—if one spends most of one’s life in and out of institutions? How does one build a sense of community if one is at home, afraid to leave the house, experiencing intense anxiety or fear of leaving it? How does one build a sense of community if one is used to feeling like an outsider who is not fit, not mentally fit, to be part of society? If one has been told they are psychotic and if one is taken into the care of the state, being forced to relinquish their rights? How does one seek and participate in the making of a community if one is a prisoner in an institution or the property of the state or a social disgrace?
Making a mad community requires that we think about community-making in new ways. Attics, proverbial and literal—but mostly proverbial—become locations of community-making. Our words, our words set out into the universe, become the community we keep. We can be each other’s readers, we can struggle from our locations, we can fight to let one another know that we exist. Though we are always, in some way, being contained or erased, we fight that containment and erasure, and in that struggle, whether solitary or not, we are building community, the community of refusal, of fractured but striving solidarity. We are using our madness to influence the world because our very existence is an act of defiance and resistance.
The name “Madwomen in the Attic” is inspired by Gilbert and Gubar’s work of literary criticism of which Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a central referent, The Madwoman in the Attic. The trope of the madwoman in the attic has been adopted by many different groups for feminist purposes, including the writing workshop group at Carlow University in Pennsylvania.
Our deliberate use of “madwoman” in our group’s name was in order to try to start a conversation—about language itself—and about the role of women in patriarchal beliefs and practices surrounding what is now called “mental illness.” The name is contentious, and some find it off-putting or fear that others, ignorant of its meaning, will find it off-putting.
A member who came to our first meeting—but then never attended again because she is tired of fighting this fight all her life and is ready for the next generation to take over—suggested changing the name to draw in more people because she felted the name might alienate us more than we already are and might make it harder for us to establish credibility. We have opted not to change the name. The name makes a point about stigma and it encourages us to have difficult conversations about identity, language, consciousness, and madness.
But what about the attic? Is it relevant? Is it necessary? Isn’t it outdated? Our metaphorical attics embody the qualities of literal and metaphysical spaces, private and social and structural spaces, spaces in which we might voluntarily keep and enclosures in which we might be kept. The trope of the attic is not outdated; there is still meaning to be made within its confines, however horrifying or romanticized.
Whether we choose them or are forced into them, our attics are the metaphorical manifestations of the literal and psychic spaces we occupy and that occupy us; just as mad-making happens in these spaces, so does mad community-building.
The attic, as metaphor and liminal space, is vital to bringing together and building a sometimes harmonious and sometime discordant and dissenting mad community. Some have the privilege of exercising a certain degree of personal and communal agency: entry and exit into and out of conversations and community are possible; however, not everyone has access—for example, some who might find this essay relevant to their lives and work will not have a means of accessing it because of institutional or financial challenges. Constraints in the paths of connection are challenges that many communities face but as community situated in specific kinds of marginalization, the mad community experiences the barriers posed against “meeting in one space” to a significant degree.
The marginalization and constraints against the physical collaborations of madwomen, combined with our agency in the face of both, have prompted us to think in non-traditional ways about the meanings we attribute to concepts such as “community” and “community building,” as well as to find alternative ways to collaborate, ones that embrace differences and that challenge fixed notions of proximity and isolation.
As a grassroots feminist mental health and madness literacy organization in a mid-size rust-belt city in the United States, Madwomen in the Attic faces certain challenges in community-building. My fellow founder and sister, Melissa Bennett, and I have learned a great deal in trying to build a mad community in the western New York area, and our efforts, successes, and failures have made us think in new ways about community-building.
MITA aims to offer support and advocacy opportunities to women and gender-non-conforming people who have been affected by the mental health industry and the stigma attached to diagnostic labels. We originally framed the organization as being primarily for those who have been harmed by the mental health industry, but we learned quickly that people who came to our meetings had complex relationships with the mental health system and some did not feel they had been harmed but had, rather, been helped by it.
Over a short period of time, in order to address the realities and needs of those who were in attendance at our meetings, we changed some of our language to reflect a broader range of experiences and more complex feelings, and this is one of the core lessons we learned about making a mad community: language matters; it is always in flux, changing, and needing to be talked about and negotiated to reflect our evolving understandings of one another, of language, and of phenomena, in a changing world.
About three months prior to the unofficial founding of MITA in 2017, I was involuntarily institutionalized at a local psychiatric hospital for ten days. The context of the birth of our organization is important because it demonstrates the need for building a mad community and also the difficulty in doing so.
Without divulging the details of my institutionalization in this essay, there are certain events from that time that constitute the back story for the origin of our organization. While I was institutionalized and my family members were fighting for my release, my sister came to visit me. She visited me every chance she could get as she and my father and brother rotated so that I would never spend the three-four visiting hours a day alone.
We did not know it at the time, but we were learning about what it means to build a mad community: they were trying to advocate for me, and everything was standing in their way. The system itself was my causer of harm and they were my community, small but mighty, working within and against this system to support, help, and connect with me. Our communication was limited, our connections were put under extreme constraints that required certain departures from our usual way of operating as a family.
I had no access to outside information from within the institution. I could not advocate for myself: I had neither access to computers nor to the internet nor to windows that could show me the world outside. Life was reduced to a bed and to two short visits a day by my family members. There was no privacy or autonomy for speech or thought. My only access to the outside world, and means of organizing, was a monitored payphone in a central location. Using it meant being in a noisy, chaotic, and uncomfortable environment. Using it meant you had to know the numbers by heart if you wanted to dial them. But it was the one mode through which I could ask my father what he was working on or my sister to print out an important document for my court date.
During what was one of the hardest visits with my sister-advocate, she sat across from me in the dirty, degrading public lounge. There was nowhere else for us to sit. She was not allowed to enter the room in which I slept. We sat on plastic chairs opposite one another, in the bright white light, where she broke the news to me that I had been let go from one of my jobs because of my time away. They needed to replace me because the work I did was needed and I was not there.
I wept and crumbled into myself, despite the numbness I had internalized as a fight or flight response to trauma. To be kept from work hit me harder than being kept from clothing, from the freedom to walk anywhere but down a hall, because it was a blow not just to the moment of right now but a blow to my future. It was not just I who would be destroyed by this, I then knew; my future was evaporating.
She wept with me, and wrapped her arms around my back. We both felt our mutual helplessness, mine to escape this prison and this ruined future, and hers to help me escape. Every fiber in my broken being knew that what was happening was wrong. Every fiber in hers knew this, too, but there was nothing we could do. And so we wept together in our helplessness, two sisters in a psychiatric ward, one free, one shackled, holding each other.
I expressed what I knew to her: that I would never recover from this experience but that, if I made it out, I would do everything I could to let everyone know about what it was like. She uttered words, words like “I’m so sorry, Jess” and “This is so wrong” and “It’s horrible here” and “No one knows what it’s like in this place.” It was in that moment of shared helplessness that she made a promise to me: to help me when I was released—to help me do something to try to change things. Made then was a pact between sisters, a promise of help, an undefined goal. Survival first, however, was necessary.
While we did not know it, that moment, in that room, between two sisters, was the birthplace of Madwomen in the Attic. It wasn’t until months later that the promise was actualized. When I was released after my ten-day commitment, it was on the court-ordered condition that I not engage in any kind of writing on the internet. I was court ordered to abstain from writing, first, for a period of a month. Then, at my second hearing, the GOP judge presiding over my case, Emilio Colaiacovo, said that I needed to be “kept on a leash” and imposed another month-long ban on my ability to write online.
It was during this second month in which I was banned from writing online that I came up with the idea for Madwomen in the Attic. The imposed isolation and the barrier against my ability to build a community of support for myself was the very thing that encouraged me to start building a mad community, in spite of what seemed like insurmountable barrier. I was talking with a friend about wanting to do something about what happened to me, about wanting to start some kind of group, but wasn’t sure where to start, given that I was banned from writing on the internet. He encouraged me and pointed out that my court document did not indicate that I was banned from writing off of the internet. That loophole in Judge Colaiacovo’s unconscionable and abusive court order was the opening through which I climbed toward liberation and community-making.
And so the idea for Madwomen in the Attic was born of my will, my will to revolt against my silencing by the judge, my will to work within the restrictions of my patriarchal oppressor in order to undermine his overreaching misogynistic authority, and my will to practice agency, feminist agency. I drew on my background in feminist theory and women’s literature, as well as on my master’s thesis. I determined that I would name the group Madwomen in the Attic, inspired by the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, and I asked my sister to co-found the organization with me. She said yes.
In an instant, a trace of my anguish was relieved—as I began to conceptualize, I felt the gears shift within me from feeling plagued by helplessness toward being fueled by agency. This was, truly, the only way to survive, for me, in the months following Psychiatric Hell, and so I created an organization in order to save myself and others from having to live and re-live the horrors of institutionalization in perpetual shame and isolation. I did not, at the time, know that other organizations, like mine, existed.
One way to build a mad community is to do what we did: to go through the loopholes, to push the boundaries. For me, it was the loophole in the court order. First, the order said nothing about publishing writing on paper. And so we started there. With paper. With print. With ink on paper. I set a date for our first meeting to take place after my final court date, and then I created a flyer. I printed hundreds of them, and my friend Larry helped me tape them up around town, in churches, in coffee shops, in every public venue we could reach.
Just to have the signs up was something, something monumental. It was revolt; to me, it was revolutionary. I was not breaking the law but I was breaking the abuse that its misuse imposed. Would the judge see them around town? I wondered. Part of me hoped he would. Part of me feared he would enact revenge against me from the bench if he did. Would those who had me committed see them around town? I hoped they would.
The other loophole I figured out was that I could not write on the internet, but others could write about me. And so two of my close friends posted up the flyers online, at their own suggestion and of their own accord. Another friend of mine, an editor-in-chief of an area-wide local newspaper, added our event to the local calendar and planned for a piece to be published on my traumatic experience and on the start of Madwomen in the Attic after my final court date.
The work of three or four friends, who did what they could do to help me, ended up being small-scale revolutionary, underground work. They did what was right because they were motivated by care for me and because they saw legitimacy in what I was fighting against and fighting to create: a public awareness, pushback against a corrupt system, a mad feminist community.
Then we were finally back in court for the third time. The outcome was better than in the past. Something had changed. My lawyer, who worked for Mental Hygiene Legal Service (an arm of the state and the state hospital, ECMC and who was provided to me while I was institutionalized), discovered that the judge, in fact, had no right to keep me under the court’s authority nor to order me off of the internet and censor my writing.
She discovered that he was operating outside of the bounds of his authority in keeping me in the court system: during the first court date, he should have either kept me or released me, but he could not order for punitive actions against me because I had not been charged with a crime. In other words, what I was told is that a judge can either order for a person’s institutionalization or release them—they do not have the ability to operate as punitive intermediaries of the released-but-monitored mentally ill—the orders he gave me were outside of his jurisdiction.
So, on the third court date, my lawyer was prepared with this information, and as soon as court commenced, she informed him that he had no right to make any decisions over me any longer. He submitted to the rule of law, and, at that point, immediately wished me well and released me from his court. I was free to write again, although the threat of censorship and institutionalization is still a cloud that looms over my writing desk to this day.
Madwomen in the Attic held its first meeting on April 17th 2017.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part essay. The second part will describe the timeline of Madwomen in the Attic, the challenges faced during its first year, and projects and hope for the future.