There is nothing wrong with me–except I was born at least two thousand years too late. Ladies of Amazonian proportions and Berserker propensities have passed quite out of vogue and have no place in this too damned civilized world…here I sit—mad as a hatter—with nothing to do but either become madder and madder or else recover enough of my sanity to be allowed to go back to the life which drove me mad. [Lara Jefferson]
Early Wednesday morning, my six year old daughter was running about the house, tearful and enraged, shouting through her sobs,”No Mummy, No! I’m NOT going to school”. She refused to get dressed, hid in the closet and then eventually resorted to feigning a stomach ache. When I’d got her to calm down I managed to find out what was wrong:
“I don’t like marching. It’s BORING,” she replied.
“We’re practicing for sports day and we have to march outside for AGES.”
“Well…Yes, that does sound rather dull.”
“It is. It is the most BORING thing in the world. And we just march and march…”
Does my daughter have psychological issues because she’s unable to placidly conform to the behavior that the school expects of her..? Is she suffering from “being a child”? (In other words, is this how we expect children to behave ?)
Or is her behavior the normal reaction of any human being who is forced to carry out a mind-numbing and clearly pointless task?
And what does it mean to her to know that she must conform to gendered behavior, and to understand that for six hours a day while she’s in school what is acceptable behaviour for boys is deemed inappropriate for her own caste, whose members must be as polite and deferential as possible at all times?
When it comes to explaining away the sadness and anger of females, psychiatry has always offered the former explanation. Women were inherently crazy, so the thinking went, and treatment was focused on helping them deal with their woman-ness in what was considered to be a perfectly sane society. Psychiatrists and psychologists were firm in their conviction that being a woman meant you were predisposed for madness.
There was, however, one type of woman who could avoid being declared “mad” by the professionals. Such a woman employed a canny survival tactic, and it involved acting. If she was able to stuff herself into a little box of caricatured behavior which distorted her natural impulses, in other words, if she could perform femininity, then she fared better. Such grossly feminine women have generally been safer from witch-hunts and from being locked up in mental asylums. (Note: it is not the women who are gross, but the mannerisms they have been forced to adopt in order to survive. I myself “do femininity” these days because I’ve found it to be an effective camouflage, which helps me fly under the radar.)
In 2007, a famous pop singer shaved her head because she was done with being objectified. The witch-hunt that followed was designed to show women what happens to those of us who step out of line. Shortly after the incident took place, her father and brother declared that she was not fit to manage her finances and became her conservators. The judicial courts supported them and they assumed control over all facets of her life, including her professional life as she was deemed psychologically unfit. (In other words they forced her back into femininity and pocketed her earnings.) She lost custody of her children. In April 2012, her manager who had recently become her fiancé, asked to be her co-conservator, meaning that he will have legal control over several facets of her life.
Non-feminine behaviour in females has always been regarded as a pathology. And because all but the most broken and brainwashed women exhibit non-feminine behaviour in some form or other, it has led to countless women being hospitalized, drugged, lobotomized, restrained and so forth in psychiatric hospitals.
By femininity, I am of course referring to: heterosexuality, saintly motherhood, not talking back to your husband, not having the audacity to believe you are a human being, repressing your creative energy, not refusing sex with your unattractive husband, keeping your hair long, wearing make-up, finding fulfillment in cleaning the toilet and a myriad of other oppressive behavioural traits imposed upon women by society in order that they fit into the little slots that patriarchy has designed for them.
When radical feminist women such as Phyllis Chesler entered the field of psychiatry, they were horrified at what they found. And at what they didn’t find. After taking advanced degrees in the subject, Chesler realized that she had learned nothing about how to ease a person’s suffering. Over the course of the past thirty years women have painstakingly overhauled the entire profession.
But not without facing fierce resistance from the old boys. Just imagine! That for a long time men wanted nothing to change, refusing to listen to the female psychiatrists who insisted that everything had to change.
The fact that women in the field have had to fight against their male superiors for psychiatry to become a more humane profession tells us that it has never been about helping people, but about controlling women. Both the records of the perpetrators and witness testimonies substantiate this view:
LAURA: In the beginning, I wasn’t shrewd at all. I was just so hurt (laughter). I didn’t know that they would punish me three times as much if I tried to escape…They put me in a straight jacket and this was rather cruel and kept me alone in this room for twenty-four hours. I could hardly move and I was completely stiff. They wouldn’t even let me go to the bathroom. They put a bedpan under me and things like that… [Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler Ph.D]
When men took it upon themselves to build enormous, castle-esque, soul-destroying buildings of stone with the intention of incarcerating countless women, who would be raped, tortured, electrocuted, lobotomized, experimented on, half-drowned, locked in solitary confinement, restrained to the bed and drugged unnecessarily, we can only assume that they had been built for this exact purpose: to perpetrate acts of political torture against an oppressed and politically disenfranchised group.
Standing symbolically just on the outskirts of town, with their high walls, gloomy stone facades, iron gates and cheerless windows, the grotesque architecture of mental hospitals also served another, very specific, purpose. It sent a foreboding message to all women who dared to refuse the proscribed gender roles of happy housewife, happy hooker, or happy factory hand. I believe that in every woman’s subconscious there lingers dreaded unsaids…“You want to be careful, or the men in white coats will come for you..”
Phyllis Chesler describes her dismay in her book, Women and Madness:
Much of what we take for granted today was not even whispered about fifty years ago. During the 1950s and 1960s, clinicians were still being taught that women suffer from penis-envy, are morally inferior to men, innately masochistic, dependent, passive, heterosexual, and monogamous. We also learned that it was mothers– not fathers, genetic predispositions, accidents, and/or poverty– who caused neurosis and psychosis.
None of my professors ever said that women (or men) were oppressed, or that oppression is traumatizing–especially when those who suffer are blamed for their own misery and diagnostically pathologized. No one ever taught me how to administer a test for mental health– only for mental illness.
I still think of this as psychiatric imperialism.
I knew that what I was being taught was neither useful or true.
I began analyzing mental illness statistics about the relevant academic studies. I read historical accounts of women’s lives. I located the stories of European women who’d been condemned as witches (including Joan of Arc) and, from the sixteenth century on, psychiatrically imprisoned. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in both Europe and North America, a man had the legal right to lock his perfectly sane wife or daughter away in a mental asylum. And some did. Authoritarian, violent, drunken, and/or insane husbands had their wives psychiatrically imprisoned, sometimes forever, as a way of punishing them for being too uppity–and in order to marry other women.
Whether the woman patient was entirely sane, or whether she had experienced post-partum or other depression, heard voices, or was “hysterically” paralyzed; whether she was well-educated and well-to-do, or an illiterate member of the working poor; whether she had led a relatively privileged life or had been repeatedly raped, or abused in other ways; whether she accepted she could no longer cope with her narrow social role; whether she had been idle for too long or had worked too hard for too long and was fatigued beyond measure– she was not treated with any kindness or medical expertise. Many women of the asylum did not survive the brutal beatings, the near-drownings, the force-feedings, the body-restraints, the long periods in their own filth and in solitary confinement, the absence of kindness or reason–all of which passed for “treatment.” [Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D Women and Madness]
As I sifted through the literature on what men have done to women in the name of psychiatry, a strong, insistent hunch crept up on me which I eventually could not ignore. Never had it been more clear to me that their professional incompetence could no longer be swept under the carpet. I believe we have no alternative but to recognize that any man who has become a medical professional (particularly in the fields of psychiatry and gynecology) must be presumed incompetent until proven otherwise. Given the ample historical data available to back this conclusion, it would be irresponsible of us not to do so.
Of all the appalling atrocities I came across as I researched this article, there were a few that loomed large in all their patriarchal glory. I’ve assembled eight pieces of information that I’ve decided to call the “Eight Absurdities” . I’ve chosen the word “absurd” because of the ludicrous rationalizations that men have used in order to justify the maniacal “treatments” they designed and implemented in order to cure women of being human.
Insane human beings who believed they were sane (men) had the power to treat sane human beings who were told they were insane (women). We must ensure that such an Orwellian situation ( whereby Sanity is Insanity, and Insanity is Sanity) is never repeated.
Absurdity #1 Being Oppressed is a Mental Illness.
In patriarchal societies incest, rape and family violence are endemic. Women are economically disenfranchised and statistics show that they are poorer than men by far. However, psychiatrists believed that whenever a human response to severe violence or to emotional or material deprivation manifested in women it was a sign of pathology.
In other words, if a rape victim remained happy, upbeat and generally okay, she would have ticked all the boxes of “mentally healthy”. Whereas if she showed signs of trauma, PTSD, insomnia, flashbacks and so forth, she would have been treated for madness.
Or if a woman who had children to feed was unable to make ends meet because the very fact she had children prevented her from working, and tried to end her despair by attempting suicide, she would be classified as “mad” (and in many cases still is.) Nobody would have helped her with her cooking and laundry. Nobody would have paid for her heating. Nobody would have removed her abusive spouse from the home, if she had one. And nobody would have offered her childcare so that she could find a job (were there any job available to her). When it came to women (and non-Caucasian males) psychiatrists maintained that their life circumstances were irrelevant to the symptoms they manifested.
Naturally, I find this completely absurd.
Absurdity #2 Convicted rapists and paedophiles have access to female patients.
Women admitted to mental asylums are often raped by male members of staff and by male patients. How many women never report their rapes we will never know.
Often, the reason the women are there in the first place is because they’re suffering from the psychological repercussions of rape–either rape in childhood or at the hands of their current spouse. These traumatized women are sometimes diagnosed as having “borderline personality disorder”, when in fact the correct diagnosis is “torture victim.”
Women are more likely to be raped in state custody than anywhere else, and each time they are raped it heaps trauma upon trauma upon trauma. If they report it they are usually disbelieved.
Despite the fact that women in psychiatric institutions are a free-for-all for rapists, consensual love or sexual activity between two female patients has traditionally been punished—a situation I find utterly, laughably absurd.
Absurdity #3 Bearing a child out of wedlock, or in wedlock, is a mental illness.
Women who had “illegitimate” babies were locked away in mental hospitals by their fathers, sometimes for life. Other women with “legitimate” babies were locked away in mental hospitals by their husbands, sometimes for life.
As a radical feminist, I find the concept of “legitimacy” and “illegitimacy” inherently absurd and do not recognize a distinction. All children are legitimate by virtue of the fact their mother gave birth to them, so it is particularly unnerving to realize that these man-made, completely arbitrary categories were used as a premise to incarcerate women.
All of the women received aggressive “treatment” at the hands of psychiatric doctors.
LAURA: The first thing they did was give everyone shock treatment. It didn’t matter who you were. You walked in and they gave you shock three times a week. Before they decided what ward they were going to put you into, they shocked you completely…I was scared to death. I thought I was going to die…The only person who came to see me, and this is going to make you laugh a little bit, came to give me an I.Q test [Women and Madness, p.193]
Many of the women were beaten. They were denied contact with the outside world. They were forced into unpaid sex-typed labour such as domestics and laundresses. If they refused these jobs they were considered crazy and uncooperative and severely punished. If they did the jobs well the hospital staff would be unwilling to let them go.
A veritable witch’s dunking.
Absurdity #4 Sex between Patient and Therapist.
In the 1950s and 1960s a number of leading psycho-analysts married their most beautiful patients. Plenty more had casual sex with their patients. Nobody thought there was anything wrong with this at the time. Today feminist analysis explains how this is a serious boundary violation and breach of power. There are now hundreds of studies and books documenting this phenomenon.
Most of these sexual contacts took place between middle-aged male therapists and younger female patients. Even in cases where the women managed to articulate the boundary violation, they usually did not sue for fear of being disbelieved in court. After all, many were being treated for “paranoid tendencies.”
The entire farce can be summed up by one documented case:
One therapist suggested to his female patient that sexual contact might increase her “transferential” involvement with him. When she finally refused to pay for such treatment and began seeing another therapist, the first therapist told her he would continue seeing her for “sex” and would not “charge” her for it—but wouldn’t listen to her “problems” any longer. [Women and Madness]
Now that feminists have highlighted the damage that male therapists can cause to female clients, the onus is on the field of psychiatry to prove that there are any “upsides” to a woman being treated by a man. I suspect there are none.
Absurdity # 5 Women who fight back against their rapists or violent husbands are mentally ill.
Women who have fought back against their rapists and batterers find themselves in jail or in mental institutions for daring to save their own lives. Chesler reminds us that these brave, unbroken women are political prisoners, who should be honored by feminists.
Absurdity #6 Sexology
Sexologists have earned a reputation for being advanced, progressive and open-minded. They have been lauded for attacking puritan, Victorian uptight sexual mores, and for their “discovery” that women experienced sexual urges of their own. They are seen as pioneers for the right of women to experience sexual pleasure.
Upon closer inspection, however, we find that they have only ever supported patriarchally mandated sexuality, such as: BDSM practices (especially the concept that women are innately masochistic), monogamy within marriage and the “sexual liberation” of unattached women.
In cases where women’s sexuality did not serve men in some way, sexologists have traditionally stepped in to lure them back onto the path of righteousness. In The Spinster and her Enemies Sheila Jeffreys explains that sexology is inimical to women’s liberation, and she references a number of famous sexologists such as Walter Heape:
“He was worried that marriage seemed to be out of fashion and looked forward to a time in the future when marriage would be more attractive to celibates. The solution to ‘man-hating’ was to overcome women’s dislike of sex and ensure that they married. Several of his later works are devoted to sex education and particularly solving the problem, as he saw it, of female frigidity.”
Lesbians, married women who refused to have sex with their husbands and single celibate women who focused their energy on something more interesting than men, were hit hardest by the sexuality meddlers. Moreover, the fact that it took until the end of the nineteenth century for the phenomenon of the female sex drive to be “discovered” tells us more about men (and their incompetence in the bedroom) than it does anything about women.
Absurdity #7 The Second Wave of Psychosurgery Coincided with the Second Wave of Feminism.
Out of all eight pillars this where we should focus our attention the most. Psycho-surgery involves mutilating healthy brain tissue, with the aim of apparently changing the person’s behavior. It is not generally used on psychopathic serial killers and rapists (always male), as you might expect, but rather on unhappy women.
During the 1970s, women’s unhappiness and rage culminated in an upsurge of feminist consciousness. Mary Daly wrote at the time:
The current wave of psycho-surgery is aimed not only at state hospital patients, but especially at relatively well-functioning “neurotics”, particularly women. On February 24, 1972, Dr Breggin’s article, “The Return of the Lobotomy and Psychosurgery” was read to the Congressional Record. Discussing the remarkably large proportion of women who are being lobotomized, Dr Breggin explains that it is more socially acceptable to lobotomize women because creativity, which the operation totally destroys, is in this society “an expendable quality in women.” A famous psychosurgeon (Freeman, the “dean of lobotomists”) is quoted saying that lobotomized women make good housekeepers. Concerning this phenomenon, Dr Barbara Roberts, a feminist, observes that psychosocial conditioning is no longer as effective as it once was in suppressing female anger:
“But, ever resourceful, patriarchal class society is developing what could prove to be the “final solution” to the “woman problem” (and the “problems” caused by all other oppressed groups). That weapon is psychosurgery.”
The weapons that modern technology is developing for social control of deviants, particularly women, are more subtle than burning at the stake. They merely destroy minds–the capacity for creativity, imagination, and rebellion–while leaving hands and uteruses intact to perform the services of manual work and breeding. ” [Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father]
I think you’ll agree with me that by now we’ve left the realms of simple male
insanity absurdity, and have entered loony loop la-la man-loon land.
Absurdity #8 The Diagnostic Criteria of Personality Disorders
A more recent absurdity I came across was the fact that when people are unable to cope with life, or if they exhibit certain behaviors, they are told they have a personality disorder. Personality disorders are included in the Diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association.
Those diagnosed with a personality disorder may experience difficulties in cognition, emotiveness, interpersonal functioning or control of impulses. In general, personality disorders are diagnosed in 40-60 percent of psychiatric patients, which is the most frequent of all psychiatric diagnoses.
What is interesting about the diagnostic criteria of personality disorders is how well they can be used to uphold the patriarchal status quo. For example, research shows that males are more likely to have “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (NPD) than females. But when you look at the symptoms of NPD there is immediate cause for suspicion:
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by a long-standing pattern of grandiosity (either in fantasy or actual behavior), an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others.
Where I come from, this is what was known as “NBD” (Nasty Bastard Disorder). And if a woman suspected that her sister or friend was in a relationship with a man showing symptoms of NBD she would strongly advise her to leave him. Today, the docs may diagnose him with NPD, guilt-tripping his significant other into staying with him.
Similarly, “histrionic personality disorder” apparently manifests more in women than in men. It is described thus:
“a personality disorder characterized by a pattern of excessive emotionality and attention-seeking, including an excessive need for approval and inappropriately seductive behavior, usually beginning in early adulthood. These individuals are lively, dramatic, vivacious, enthusiastic, and flirtatious. HPD affects four times as many women as men”
I find it unreasonable that psychologists have invented a symptom called “inappropriately seductive behavior” in order to label women, when we live in a society that teaches women that their sexuality is the entire sum of their worth.
It is especially strange when you factor in that prostitutes, and to a lesser extent wives, are obligated to display seductive behaviour even when they feel no natural inclination to, because that is what men demand of them.
Perhaps the energy of psychiatrists would be better spent worrying about the psychic toll of being forced to pretend you fancy your clients, and being forced to fake enjoyment of sex over and over again, rather than about women who have decided—for whatever reason—to behave seductively of their own volition. Or perhaps they could read a book on rape trauma in order to learn that women sometimes “act out” after they’ve being attacked…
In sum, the diagnostic criteria of personality disorders seem to excuse men’s bad behavior, while pathologizing women’s trauma. The fact that “excessive emotionality” can still be legitimately regarded as a symptom of mental illness, existing in a vacuum outside of any political context, tells us that here in 2012 psychiatry is still up to its old tricks.
[This is Part 1 of a two-part article. In Part 2 I examine the life and death of Virginia Woolf]
Talgarth Mental Asylum in Wales
[Talgarth Mental Hospital in Wales, sourced from: