When I interviewed psychiatrist Gordon Warme for my first hour-long documentary, Mars Project, I kept thinking “somebody needs to make a movie about this Warme guy.”
Dr. Warme was remarkable because he was a sensible light in the confusing darkness of mental health discourse. He was one of the few psych-professionals who addressed the obvious contradictions of his specialty and I found his views to be refreshing. He bucked convention and was a counter-balance to mainstream psychiatry’s mantra: “be normal and compliant.”
Gordon Warme, MD, died in June 2023, at 90 years old. He had practised psychiatry for many years in Toronto after receiving formal psychiatric training in Topeka, Kansas at the Menninger Clinic. By the seventies, he had returned to Toronto, taking a position at the child and family psychiatry department at the institution known today as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). After many years there, he set up a private practice and taught psychiatry at the University of Toronto. In 2017, he wrote a Mad in America blog, “What if the Folly Is in Us, Too?” and also appeared on a podcast where he was interviewed by James Moore.
I was illuminated to Warme’s writing through David Reville, a Toronto psych-survivor and instructor of the History of Madness course at what’s now called Toronto Metropolitan University. Reville had known Warme as a family therapist 30 years earlier, and Reville lent me Warme’s book Daggers of the Mind. After I read it and most of his work that I could borrow from the library, Reville proposed an interview with Dr. Warme for Mars Project. A few years after the release of that film, I began adapting his writings for a cerebral, artful documentary. Those endeavours became Bay St. Healer, a project based on the life and writings of Dr. Gordon Warme.
I had to re familiarize myself with his work, reading his self-published paperback Brain Evangelists. I wanted to understand his thinking as best I could in order to create a stimulating environment for the interview so that he would feel comfortable expressing his most interesting views on camera. When he candidly commented that “psychiatry is a superstition too, but it’s a superstition I want to have arguments about,” I knew we were on the right track.
From his writing and appearances on television, Warme focused on the cultural role that shamans, witch doctors, and placebo cures played in medicine. As incisive as he was in alluding to the idea that some of his colleagues were fools, I believe he did so in the service of his patients. There was no placating of mysterious mental illnesses or giving trivial advice. Instead, he was interested in tackling problems and prompting his patients to examine themselves closely, to break out of old habits.
His early books are dense, information-rich field manuals, but his writing from 2006 is what really captured my attention. These works read like novels with deeply personal insights, reflections that bridge decades of memories together. I read the books intently; easy to do since they are written in clear, accessible language. After we interviewed him in December 2011 for Mars Project, he and I emailed. Most surprisingly, he began sending me chapters of new writing. In the summer of 2018, I shot his portrait photos and we had the first conversations about making a movie. What began as a probe into his claim that there is no proof that psychiatric diseases are biological in nature, expanded into a reflective portrait of a curious individual.
For as long as I knew him, he insisted there was nothing particularly scientific about psychiatry, a position that, I believe, he developed over decades, until his opinions grew out of fashion. Conventional psychiatry disregarded him, basically ignoring him altogether. I think perhaps he deserved a little more credit than what many of his psychiatric contemporaries were willing to afford him. Personally, I was shocked and impressed by his interesting ideas and stories. I was on a mission to translate them to the screen.
I told people that I was making a documentary on a controversial old psychiatrist, a creative non-fiction film where a bunch of facts were strung together into something resembling a narrative. It was worthwhile study, the thought experiments that materialized when trying to find imagery to compliment the discussion. When Warme writes about the role of the psychiatrist: “turning the patient into a work of art,” how can one translate that visually? On the reflection that doctors are nearly godlike in our society, how can one create a picture of the unspoken reverence of medical professions through animations and motion graphics?
I think most storytellers feel the pressure of omitting too many good stories. I felt the same way about the samples I dug up from his writing, pieces of text I would record him reading, the audio of which I would use in contrast to the on-camera interviews we shot together. In a December 2019 video shoot, I provided some old photographs for him to flip through and asked him about his childhood. He recalled his father’s abrupt arrest and six-year internment for the duration of WWII, simply for being of German heritage at the wrong place in the wrong time. This sparked an inner conflict between the evil-doer vs. the protector, which became a defining moment for his becoming a talking doctor.
There was his remarkable work as a family psychiatrist and sensible voice for gun reform. He and forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Atcheson were the primary psychiatrists in the inquest tasked with investigating one of Canada’s first student-perpetrated shootings inside a suburban high school in May 1975. Incidents like these aren’t exceptionally numerous in Ontario, but at that time, an adolescent could easily buy a rifle and ammunition from a hardware store. The incident was a massive shock to the community and it attracted a lot of press, so there was plenty of material to include in our film. Warme and Atcheson interviewed everyone: the suspect’s closest family, his classmates, teachers, and staff. They examined gruesome crime scene photographs and combed through police reports in order to draft their official report.
In this document, delivered to the Chief Coroner of Ontario, they stressed the need for the government to alter the law on the availability of recreational firearms. When I came along, fascinated by his role in the aftermath of the shooting, it was over 40 years later. He downplayed it, but I knew the events demonstrated his commitment to difficult case work and how it could help in protecting and healing a community.
I was particularly moved by the story of a long-time patient that made Dr. Warme see psychiatry’s errors. Cathy Jones (a fictitious name), is the inspiration for Cure of Folly. She made him see his profession’s shortcomings. They first met in Topeka, when he was an eager new psychotherapist. At 16 she was forcefully hospitalized and became tethered to psychiatry for the rest of her life. He saw how the medications she was prescribed lead to tardive dyskinesia and other ailments. He reveals a 20-year letter-writing correspondence with her and how she referred to him as “Wermie,” recalling how he brought her candy bars and took her for walks around the Menninger Clinic. It’s emotional reading, but it shows why he became so hyper-critical of the ways psychiatry sometimes ruined people’s lives. The two and half minutes I included in the film only provide a glimpse of a troubling and important story.
There are other moments that carry with them a subtler context, like walking around Queen Street in front of the shiny glass buildings that make up the new and improved Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Ontario’s principal mental health authority. This stands in contrast to the quaint, faux bohemian shopfronts across the street, the side of the street Warme walks on. It was significant to show him against this backdrop because he had lived through major developments on this site. As a young medical resident in the late fifties, he lived on the property back when they still stabled horses. The once iconic 19th century dome of the old Provincial Lunatic Asylum at 999 Queen was dismantled and replaced by brutalist architecture. These structures only stood for a short few decades before their dismantling ushered in the mirrored facades of modernity and reinvention so valued by the corporate overlords now running the place.
During the last stage of his life and while filming the documentary, Dr. Warme resided on the northern end of Bay Street, Canada’s financial headquarters. From his vantage point overlooking the city, he contemplated an, at times, controversial career. The title Bay St. Healer playfully hints at Dr. Warme’s clientele and his own position within society.
Late in his career, he was candid about not prescribing medications to patients, even if they asked, deferring to more knowledgeable practitioners. And perhaps, more fairly, the field changed and maybe his most productive years were behind him. He had already established himself in family psychiatry, what more was there to do but reflect on his career? Agree or disagree, the culture of therapy is tied to language and class, like those in upper middle-class neighbourhoods of Park Avenue in New York City or Deer Park in Toronto. Is it merely a coincidence that the office of Toronto’s Psychoanalytic Society is in this affluent part of the city?
As a filmmaker, I’m keenly aware how mainstream documentaries and news networks push a point of view with obnoxious hosts, polarized opinions, fast-paced editing, striking sound effects, and slick graphics. There’s usually no room for opposing viewpoints or letting the audience make up their own mind. Its fast-pace is for pushing a point of view that probably doesn’t allow a deeper understanding of the subject or for the process of reflection. And that’s why I wanted to do something different. I felt that was the only way to do justice to Dr. Warme’s work.
In the same way that Dr. Warme and others pull themes from music, pop culture, and science on being a doctor and the duty of care, I did the same thing, pulling and piecing together bits of media related to what Dr. Warme wrote about and reassembled them into a film.
Last fall, after finishing the film (or abandoning it for my own well-being), I sent a copy of Bay St. Healer to some most-excellent folks at Mad in America and, a few short weeks later, they organized a virtual screening of the movie over Zoom. We had at least 200 attendees from around the world, and there was an active comments and Q&A chat board—complete with emojis floating up on-screen during the movie. That cold, foggy afternoon was one of the last times we’d see Dr. Warme in person. He died five months later.
Bay St. Healer was submitted to almost 70 film festivals worldwide, but only hit the screens of two regional U.S. festivals. In the old days, filmmakers relied on the support of these festivals to validate their work, but internet streaming has changed everything. While I never got the big, lucrative streaming deal, I did get three smaller distribution agreements. One is with educational non-profit Moving Images in Vancouver, their market is universities, colleges, and libraries. For readers wanting an easy way to watch it for themselves, I’m pleased to have the film on documentary streaming platforms Docsville and Guidedoc. Plus, there’s nearly an hour of free content, outtakes and extras on YouTube.
Gordon Warme was kind of an endangered species, since many psych-professionals today peddle cures and new technologies. It’s murky business, but refreshing, to have a character like him be as candid as he was about psychiatry. He was stubborn about being a good scientist and about finding proof. He didn’t rely on misleading diagnostic tools like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a text that went through all its major edits over his lifetime.
Dr. Warme was an unconventional psychiatrist and I’m an unconventional filmmaker. We were kindred weirdos who found common ground despite the fact I wasn’t a doctor and he wasn’t an artist. Creating this film was a once in a lifetime experience and I count myself lucky to have been in his orbit for the last few years of his life.
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.
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