What is the BizOMadness Blog?

This blog is devoted to raising critical awareness of psychiatry generally. It is likewise devoted to the antipsychiatry research projects, publications, and related activities of Dr. Bonnie Burstow. Especially foregrounded are The Psychiatry Project, The Madness Project, and "Psychiatry and the Business of Madness". Related to one another, The Psychiatry Project and The Madness Project involve hundreds of interviews, a dozen focus groups, analysis of several hundred documents and their activation, and dedicated periods of institutional observation. The culmination of both as well as of decades of related interviews and activities is "Psychiatry and the Business of Madness" (timely updates on its publication will be provided)--a cutting edge book in which psychiatry is investigated from multiple angles and which begins to tackle the inevitable question: So if we get rid of psychiatry, where do we go from there?

For the Events page to find events related to this research or this book, see

To check out reviews of Psychiatry and the Business of Madness and related publications, see http://bizomadnessreviews.blogspot.ca/

Tuesday, May 8, 2018


How does one bestow credibility and legitimacy on an area or a perspective when in the public eye, it has almost none? How does one turn antipsychiatry into a respected area of study and practice in the face of psychiatric hegemony? How does one attract more and more students to this and related fields of study? How might one at the same time begin healing the rifts between Antipsychiatry and Mad Studies?  And how does one ensure that what advances are made at one university spread to others?

There are a number of different ways, many of which I have personally pursued over the years. One way is to endow at different respected universities Antipsychiatry and Mad Studies scholarships. This is the story of three such scholarships—and the struggles and strategies involved. 

An important context for this article are battles in which I partook from 2006 until a couple of years ago which led to the creation of the world’s first antipsychiatry scholarship, this at University of Toronto (see http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/oise/Current_Students/Graduate_Student_Funding/Scholarship_Opportunities/OISE_Internal_Awards/index.html ) What is likewise context is a  previous article of mine, also  published in Mad in America, called “Conferring Legitimacy on the Counterhegemonic” (see https://www.madinamerica.com/2017/05/conferring-legitimacy-counterhegemonic/) that theorizes in considerable detail what transpired during that period—the fight, the strategies, the use of allies. A more immediate context is how the first awarding of this scholarship was actually accomplished and the groundwork laid to ensure that this scholarship does not go off course. The most recent context largely materialized in the last few months—arriving at agreements with two other universities—York and Ryerson—whereupon, upon my death, and in accordance with agreed-on  provisions in my new will, money from my estate will be used to establish Antipsychiatry and  Mad Studies scholarships in each of these universities.

I will begin this discussion with the 2006 work and the formal creation of the Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at University of Toronto, but this will not be the primary focus and so people who want further details on it are advised to read the article mentioned above.  I will proceed to zero in on the various developments which happened since then.  I will end with an identification of lessons learned and with an invitation to others.

The Beginning

In 2006, I began what proved to be nine months of negotiations with OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) and U. of T. (University of Toronto) to get an agreement for a clause in a will which I was drafting whereby my residual estate would go to creating a perpetual scholarship for OISE students doing theses in the areas of antipsychiatry and/or homelessness.  To be clear, while homelessness is a pressing concern and research area of mine, my overriding intent was to fund students working in antipsychiatry.  Nonetheless, I was keenly aware that the academics in question would welcome something in homelessness but not antipsychiatry.  Hence, linking the two together was good strategy. And indeed while a scholarship in homelessness was objected to by no one, antipsychiatry proved to be a formidable stumbling block. There appeared to be no end of objections to it. For nine months I met with who was then the current dean of OISE, carefully addressing every objection which she had.  Examples of obstacles, together with responses that materialized were: She told me they could not mount a scholarship that gave priority to psych survivors because psychiatric survivors themselves would never want such a thing, whereupon, I  turned to the Mad Students Society, who went on record saying they very much wanted it.  I was told that the endowment as described was a human rights violation—when it demonstrably was not. Correspondingly, I was told that OISE could not create such a scholarship because no program or department at OISE would feel qualified to oversee the giving of such an award, whereupon, I immediately mobilized and at my urging, two different departments at OISE passed resolutions stating definitively that they would be happy to oversee it. And so the negotiations went. Nine months passed with me responding fastidiously to each and every objection raised. Finally, when it started to look as if this process would never end, I told U. of T. that unless they accepted the offer within the next seven days (and it had not yet cleared the Dean’s office and there were two other levels that would have to approve), I  would withdraw it and  make a comparable offer to Carleton University. Three days later, with the dean’s help, the proposed endowment had been approved by all U. of T., with no further changes required.

Fast forward a few years—Shaindl Diamond, the executor of my will got in touch with me, worried.  She knew that when I died, the residual estate provisions in my will would have to go through the university again, and she feared that she was not be as good at negotiating as I was.  Correspondingly, she asked if I could try to establish a small antipsychiatry scholarship at OISE/UT now, with the hope that this would pave the way for the larger scholarship articulated in my will. I quickly agreed. 

Years of negotiations followed as I tried to bring into being the Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at OISE/UT. Now this was to be a “matching scholarship” That is, I was agreeing to personally match all amounts I could raise from the community. I promised U. of T. additionally, I would contribute whatever was needed so that at the bare minimum, the scholarship fund had $50,000 dollars in it. I got the approval of the new dean quickly. And with help from OISE, I immediately took to mobilizing the community to help fund-raise.  In the process, stellar allies like Dr. Peter Breggin, Dr. Lauren Tenney, and Reverend Cheri DiNovo came aboard, publicly endorsing the scholarship. With these endorsements in hand, we reached out to potential donors; and with students taking the primary role, in particular Efrat Gold, we created a video on the significance of the scholarship (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJyA6RyQmMo). Meanwhile I continued to negotiate with U. of T. around wording that we could both accept. 

Did I run into problems?  Yes—huge problems and legions of them.  For example, throughout this process, every person assigned by OISE to help me steward the request though U. of T. or reach out to the press kept being “let go” unexpectedly and when they disappeared, their correspondence with respect to the scholarship disappeared with them.  My solution was to keep each and every email that transpired on the topic (and there were literally hundreds of them) and to forward relevant email to new people as they surfaced. What was also distressing but in the end proved more amusing than serious, additionally, some Canadian psychiatrists spoke openly at international conferences telling those assembled they were hell-bent on stopping the “misguided” scholarship.  This I basically ignored. What was far more serious, one stall after another materialized. Whereupon my institutional allies at OISE and I settled on a strategy that proved to be “a winner”. We argued that disallowing the scholarship was at odds with academic freedom.

As we got closer and closer to the goal, a historic meeting took place between several OISE administrators and me, during which we hammered out provisional details on how the yearly award would work. Alas, less than a month later, the OISE official in charge of the scholarship was let go, with the entire email exchange between the two of us likewise gone. And again, I began negotiating with new people. Frustrating? “You betchya!” But we soldiered on.

Eventually, a wording was accepted and the scholarship was approved by the University Board of Governors. Alas, however, once the press got wind of the scholarship, I was trashed in media around the world. Threats were made on my life.  And one mainstream professional claimed to be one of many in the process of initiating law suits against me. Mostly I simply ignored the unfair treatment and threats—and my students and I concentrated on creating ever new consciousness-raising and fundraising-events.  Essentially, we counted on the old adage that all press was good press. And so it was to prove.

What was the primary consequence of being trashed in the media around the world?  Once in a while, I was able to convince the media to let me respond (e.g.,  after having been trashed in a student newspaper—The Varsity—I convinced those in charge to let me to write an OP Ed piece where instead of focusing of the unjust attacks on me, I availed myself of the opportunity to educate the public about psychiatry and antipsychiatry; see https://thevarsity.ca/2016/11/13/op-ed-understanding-what-is-at-stake) What was totally unexpected and likewise thrilling, a billionaire in the US who otherwise would never have gotten wind of this Canadian development heard of the scholarship and made a very sizeable contribution to it, which I then proceeded to match.  We now had scholarship with a healthy amount of money behind it—something that may well never have happened otherwise.  In other words the bad publicity helped us prevail beyond our wildest dreams!

Recent Developments Around the Scholarship

We now had a scholarship to which the university community was committed, and everyone acted accordingly. We met, accomplished what we needed to do to ensure that this was more than a “paper victory”.  It was decided at OISE that we would pick the first recipient of the scholarship in early April of 2018, also, so as to ensure that the process would not go awry, that I would be in charge of coordinating. At the urging of the administration, I handpicked the rest of evaluation committee. I invited one person from each OISE department, and with the aid of helpful officials, I put processes in place to ensure that students knew how to apply.  We mounted all relevant information on the OISE website. Applications began coming in, complete with thesis proposals and recommendations from supervisors. In April, the committee met to select who will soon be the very first recipient of the award. And what a glorious meeting it was!

Contrary to the worries of many that the scholarship would be a “non-starter’ for  no students would be interested, we received four exceptionally impressive applications.  As we all of us agreed, every single one of the applications was strong enough to be awarded the scholarship. I was granted the opportunity to clarify antipsychiatry to the selection committee and my colleagues were delighted to be finding out more.  As we began discussing the applications, it was evident that everyone was committed to making the choice carefully, taking all relevant factors into consideration. Correspondingly one hour later, with smiles flashing around the room. we had unanimously chosen “a winner”. Truly an inspiring beginning.  And nothing could be clearer that that we had turned a corner.

Subsequent Scholarship Developments 

With stories like this, the point reached at this juncture would generally be the end of the saga, for I had ostensibly accomplished what I set out to do. It is not the end! The point is, I kept focused on the larger mission—both at University of Toronto and beyond. Correspondingly, I continued to use the scholarship to consciousness-raise. 

In addition to this, new stages of a more extensive endowment journey soon commenced. The initial impetus for them was that my will was eleven years old. So it was time to look at revisions, more particularly, and more generally, to take stock of what I was leaving to posterity.

The first thing I noticed is that my residual estate (which I had scrimped and saved for and had ensured was sizeable as well as constituting the vast majority of my estate) was still going to a “compromise scholarship” in which the scholarship was divided between research into homelessness and antipsychiatry research. What that meant in essence is a huge amount of my money (moreover an amount about 15 times the size of the scholarship that I had just endowed) would be going into a scholarship where antipsychiatry research was only part of the focus. It soon dawned on me, correspondingly, how easy it would be for the scholarship to almost always get awarded to theses in the other area, with antipsychiatry thereby pushed to the side. For a few seconds, this realization floored me. Then I remembered Wittgenstein’s ladder. For people who do not know what I mean, in his major tome Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, the brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein articulated a theory of language that could successfully serve as a tool to arrive at a type of awareness. At the same time, he knew that the theory was incorrect. Toward the end of this impressive work, accordingly, he acknowledged as much. Correspondingly, he urged readers to think of the original formulation as a ladder that gets you to the roof top.  It did its job in letting you get where you needed to go—now you needed to throw away the ladder (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittgenstein%27s_ladder)

Yes, I told myself, this is exactly what I need to do with the original scholarship that I negotiated back in 2006. It has gotten us where we needed to go; now it is important to throw it away. Why use a hypothetical scholarship that was barely okay, when I now have a fully existing scholarship that does the job brilliantly? Whereupon I revised my will, replacing the former residual clause provision with the following “For the residue of my estate, I instruct my executor as follows:  To pay the Governing Council at University of Toronto one hundred per cent (100%) of the residue of my estate to be used to augment the Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at the University of Toronto at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.” And with that change, with that fortuitous use of the Wittgenstein ladder formula, a fuller revolution has just happened.  And was this strategic about-turn the end of the process?  As it happened, no.

As I quickly realized as I continued reviewing my will, I could further adjust my will so that the revolution in process could be bigger still. Why limit myself to a scholarship at one university only when we could accomplish more?, I asked myself.  Now to be clear, I had only enough savings for one huge scholarship—and huge, it certainly will become upon my passing.  However, why not try to endow smaller scholarships in a similar vein at other universities—Would not this create synergy and bestow exponentially more legitimacy on the area?  I immediately thought of the other universities in the Toronto area.  Could I not to some extent cover all three universities in Toronto so that wherever any student went in the city, they could access a scholarship of this ilk? And might not this in the fullness of time even culminate in like-minded counterhegemonic scholars at different universities working together?

So asking myself and so reasoning, I reached out to a few of my allies at Ryerson University and York University who also teach in the general area. Thrilled, they immediately committed themselves to helping both now and after my demise. Noticing myself that both of these universities had strengths in Mad Studies, which itself could act as a bridge and conjecturing that here additionally was an opportunity to bring Mad Studies and Antipsychiatry closer together, I decided to work at creating scholarships in both universities for students doing theses in either of these areas. 

Knowing from experience that the first objections that would be raised would likely be that there were few courses and little or no faculty in the area— with help, I first created a list of faculty in these areas at each university as well as lists of the relevant courses that were taught. And with this information in hand, I got in touch with the relevant university administrators, prepared to make the case, beginning with Ryerson. With Ryerson, the issue of faculty and relevant course was checked out with record speed, and the only real complication that I came across is with what is called the “variance clause”. 

A variance clause is a standard clause which is always included in endowment agreements.  It gives the institution in question the right to use the money for something somewhat different than what is spelt out.  If you are trying to endow anything, you can never get around having negotiate a variance clause. And if the scholarship intended is highly counter-hegemonic—here is a key place where you are likely to be faced with seemingly insurmountable problems. Indeed, it is one of the principle factors that held up the University of Toronto scholarship for years.  What in essence you have to do is rein in the degree of discretionary power that officials want granted the university even while negotiating a variance clause that takes into consideration the organization’s needs (and changing needs), all this while ensuring that your intention will actually be honoured not only now but long after your demise. And it is with this last part that a benefactor has to be especially careful.

Now by this time, I had become adept at finding solutions and what also helped, I was dealing with a much more nimble university, moreover staff who were both surprised and delighted that someone who had been neither faculty or student at their university actually wanted to give them money. Hence, while we were forced into some tricky “back-and-forths” with wording—within four days we had come to an agreement. Three weeks later, an agreement had likewise been reached with York University. Whereupon, I revised my new will accordingly.  And I sent the additions to my lawyer.

The upshot?  About a week ago (April 26, 2018) my new will was officially signed and witnessed.  If I might be allowed an exclamation here—halleluiah!

Lesson to be Gleaned from the Foregoing:

·      Piece by piece a person can mount a revolutionary change even when it seems impossible
·      Be strategic, not reactive
·      Take every setback as a time to reflect, every obstacle as a learning opportunity   
·      Gather your forces around you—psych survivors, students, colleagues, on-side administrators
·      Leverage the espoused values of the institution that you are trying to influence (e.g., note, in this story, the strategic use of the value academic freedom)
·      Do not worry about personal attacks and bad publicity—all publicity is good publicity
·      Know that you can seldom just accept the university’s standard variance clause.  Figure out what is needed to safeguard what you are trying to achieve and act accordingly—even when doing so adds years to the process.
·      Keep your eyes on the “big picture”, and when you have ostensibly won, just take this as a time to expand your horizons
·      Be at once 100% visionary, 100% principled, and 100% pragmatic.
·      Use every conceivable moment as a cherished opportunity to educate and organize.
·      As with Wittgenstein’s ladder, use as tools what helps you reach your goal, while being prepared to cast away formulations and achievements no longer helpful.

Closing Remarks and an Invitation

 A quiet revolution has just happened—a formidable piece of counter-hegemony. We now have antipsychiatry scholarships ensconced at all three universities in a major international city. And with this, antipsychiatry has made sizeable inroads into academia. We have not only laid down infrastructure and built in safeguards—human and other—we have altered the discourse. 

To be clear, this is just one aspect of the gargantuan job that has to be done to make universities work for us and more generally and more importantly, to make society as a whole work for us. And it is absolutely critical that people concentrate on other and in many respects more important parts of the struggle.  To keep with the focus of this particular article, however, in ending, let me ask: If we can have antipsychiatry and/or Mad Studies scholarships embedded in every Toronto university, why can’t we “decolonize” other cities similarly?  How about New York? How about Tokyo?

Roughly speaking, I have provided, as it were, a road map to be followed, used for inspiration, varied, as the case may be. And in whatever way feels right to you, I invite others able and interested to take up the challenge.  Please note, we already know that the fight to create such counter-hegemonic scholarships is not only a meaningful one but a fight that we can actually win. Correspondingly, it can but contribute to the winning of other battles. Who is to say what this might lead to down the road with respect to individual freedom?  Valuing of difference?  The way society understands and responds to “personal troubles”? Societal recognition of hidden racism, sexism, poverty, et. al.? The very existence of psychiatry?   

That said, I cannot “sign off” without thanking all the people who contributed to this glorious breakthrough (students, psych survivors, radical practitioners, movement people, faculty, administrators, donors, etc.)—to name just a few: Sim Kapoor,  Dr. Sona Kazemi, Efrat Gold (and family), Dr. Simon Adam, Sharry Taylor,  Dr. Peter Breggin, Dr. Lauren Tenney, Dr. Shaindl Diamond, Julie Wood, Reverend Cheri DiNovo, Dr. Charles Pascal, Dr. Jennifer Poole, Dr. Chris Chapman, Inna Hupponen, Mark Riczu, Dr. Jane Gaskell, Dr. Jack Quarter, Vesna Bajic, Dr. Nina Bascia, Don Weitz, Dr. Glen Jones, Dr. Ian Macleod, Lise Watson, Dr. Tanya Titchkosky, Dr. Linda Muzzin, Oriel Vargas, Nichole Schott, Rebecca Ballen, Dr. Mark Federman, Margaret Brennan, Dr. Jeanne Watson, Lara Cartmale, Michael Hill, lawyer Christine Davidson—and to add two highly helpful staff from Ryerson and York—Mira Claxton and Marisa Barias.

Individually and collectively, you helped pave the way for the dawning of a new era. My heart-felt gratitude to each and every one of you.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Aha" Moments: In the World of Electroshock

So Bonnie, what have you done about electroshock this week? (critical question put to me approximately once a month for over twenty years by now deceased ECT survivor Sue Clarke)

Pound. Pound. Pound. Adonoi, Mary Mother of God, Buddha, Ishtar, Inanna, Allah, anyone with ears that receive and a heart that quickens, make it stop. Pound. Pound. Pound. I swear on the holy Torah, I swear on the blessed cross, I swear on the winds that lift up and the rivers that tumble from the Creator’s bountiful lips, I will do anything. Do this, and lo, I will walk through the rest of my days humbly revering thy name. I will set up a table for thee in the presence of mine enemies. Night and day, will I sing halleluiah, my knees flat against the earth, my eyes lowered, my hands brought together in prayer. I will press the horn of a ram to my grateful lips and issue a call to all corners of the earth; and the sweet young children, innocence dripping from their milky breath, will come running, running, running toward the sea; and we will all join hands and ascend to the glorious orchard. Then we will gather together in the New Jerusalem and sing hymns in thy praise. But please, I beseech thee: Make it stop. Make it stop.  (from Burstow, The Other Mrs. Smith; see https://www.amazon.com/Other-Mrs-Smith-Bonnie-Burstow/dp/1771334215

Probe, if you will, the passages above. Then let them simmer quietly at the back of your mind as we focus in on the subject of this article. To begin with a brief discussion of “aha” moments:

Throughout our lives, times inevitably come, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes not, when we are blessed with “aha” moments. Those are moments when a “light bulb” seems to go on.  One type of “aha” moment is commonly known as a “Eureka” moment, a concept named after Archimedes, who allegedly exclaimed, “Eureka” upon lowering himself into a bath and seeing the water rise. What he had purportedly discovered at that moment is that the volume of water displaced by an object immersed in it is equal to the volume of said object (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eureka_(word). “Eureka” comes from the Greek word “heureka”, which means, “I found it”. When one’s “aha” moment is of the “eureka” variety, one has discovered for all intents and purposes what was known to no one earlier. A still more common type of “aha” moment relates to suddenly coming to understand a phenomenon on a far deeper level, irrespective of what others do or do not know. Both types of “aha moments” are deeply significant and both tend to lead to abiding personal transformation and commitment. Which brings us to the point of this article.

The overarching topic of this article is electroshock. Its purpose is to uncover some key “aha” moments which I have had with respect to electroshock. My hope in sharing these is that the very uncovering will open up a heightened understanding of both shock and of combatting shock and in the process help improve our activism.

One of my  First  Big “Aha” Moments around Electroshock

As far back as the 1950s, I was acutely aware that ECT causes memory loss as well as brain damage.  And well before the 1980s hit, I had taken in the horrific stories of a large number of shock survivors, including my own father’s (during the 1950s and 1960s my dad was subjected to over 200 “shock treatments”). Moreover, I was conversant with the critiques and the medical literature. Of course embed in those earlier years were a number of mini “aha” moments. This notwithstanding, it was not until 1984 that my commitment to do whatever I could to end ECT solidified, and yes, it was connected with “aha moments”. 

In 1984, as co-chair of the Ontario Coalition to Stop Electroshock (see http://www.connexions.org/CxLibrary/CX2984.htm), I was involved in mounting an official public hearing involving four days of shock testimony by shock survivors.  This took place over two weekends at Toronto City Hall. What happened to me at those hearings? I came to understand the ECT experience on a far deeper level.  For one thing, the enormity of the obstruction to people’s lives became far more pressingly real to me, as survivors went into intricate details of the skills which they lost—not being able to do mathematics, no longer being able to hold down anything except the most menial job, not remembering from moment to moment what was happening to them. You cannot be the same person that you once were if you sit in a hearing day after day hearkening to words like Connie Neil’s:

Well, the piano’s in my house, but if just sits there.  I don’t have that kind of ability any longer…People come up to me… and they tell me about things we’ve done. I don’t know who they are.  I don’t what they’re talking about, Mostly what I had was …. modified electroshock. And it was seen as effective. By “effective”, I know what they mean is that they diminish the person. They certainly diminished me…. I work as a pay clerk.  I write little figures and that’s about all….And it’s a direct result of the treatment (Phoenix Rising Collective, 1984, pp. 20A-21A).

Complementing this awareness were veritable “eureka” moments where I took in various gender-specific issues.  To be more specific, while it was abundantly clear that both women and men were badly affected, the enormity of the  gender difference became blatantly obvious as woman after women testified to losing, for instance, ten to eleven years of their life. What became clear, to focus in on this,  is that women’s memory is far more damaged by the treatment—a, difference, significantly,  empirically confirmed  decades later in Sackeim, 2005 (https://coalitionagainstpsychiatricassault.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/sack.pdf).
It likewise became clear how women uniquely and disproportionately were pressured into shock. Correspondingly, as woman after woman made statements like, “I was so depressed at the time; it was just after the birth of my first child” or “it was just after the birth of my second child,” it hit me like a thunderbolt that women were being electroshocked and consequently brain-damaged for post-partum depression—something that happens to most woman and eventually resolves on its own. Needless to say, I was horrified.

How was I personally transformed by these “aha” moments? I doubled my efforts to combat electroshock because I knew deep in my bones that I could not in good conscience do otherwise. That is, I could not witness what I had witnessed, hear what I had heard and do less.  Herein lie a commitment from which I would never shy away. I began writing voluminously about electroshock. And holding fast to the feminist insight, I explicitly began theorizing electroshock as a form of “violence against women”, e.g., Burstow, 2006  (https://coalitionagainstpsychiatricassault.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/womenect.pdf).  In short, an awakening had happened, and, what was to be a major trajectory of my life began taking shape.  I wrote, I gave speeches, I organized more hearings (for transcripts of testimony from a more recent hearing, see https://coalitionagainstpsychiatricassault.wordpress.com/articles/personal-narratives/), I mounted educationals, I was the principle investigator of a number of research projects, I appeared frequently in the media, I co-created petitions, I helped draft reports and submit demands to government. Moreover, I was part of organizing demonstrations in Toronto and around the world against electroshock—demonstrations that we continue to this day.

Now in this, the heyday of the anti-ECT resistance (1970s to the early 1990s), we largely had the media, and the public on our side. Expectably, however, the ECT industry poured ever more time and money into the creation and dissemination of ECT propaganda, with the long term result being that we lost the ear of the media and the general public. Additionally, and what is not unrelated, we in Canada anyway had made a strategic error. We demanded a government investigation.   We got it. And in that very act of picking the wrong goal and being granted what we had asked, we for all intents and purposes had “shot ourselves in the foot”. What happened?, you may wonder. A government committee was formed to investigate ECT, just as we haf requested. It took two years before the task force presented their findings and recommendations.  By that time, the media has lost all interest in the story. And not coincidentally, not a single one of the recommendations were ever acted upon.  You might call this an “aha” moment, though it was not about shock but about what is and is not good strategy.

This said, we continued to mobilize as for sure we had to, but try though we did, in no way could regain the momentum, this despite hearings, educationals, and reams of research.

Later “Aha” Moments

Fast forward to 2009. In what was itself a mini “aha” moment, I began asking myself: Just how do we get the issue of ECT back on the political agenda? Whereupon I was reminded of the power of art.  The average person does not read transcripts of, nor come to hearings; nor do they tend to be affected by them to the degree that I am.  But they do read novels and are uniquely affected by them.  Whereupon after sitting with the question and with shock material for several months, I began penning  a novel centred on a fictional shock survivor, eventually to be called “The Other Mrs. Smith.”

I knew instinctively that if this novel were to have the power it needed to, it had to engender in the readers something like “aha” moments, which would happen most poignantly if readers found themselves inside the head of a shock survivor. Which in essence meant two things: One, that the novel’s central protagonist should be a fictional shock survivor. Two, that the novel had to be narrated in the first person by that protagonist. This was the gambit. And herein lie the decision that would make or break the novel. 

Upon so deciding, I called shock survivor and former lawyer Carla McKague to tell what I was doing.  Was she ever ecstatic! “Bonnie,” she exclaimed, “this is exactly what we in the movement need, and be assured, I will be there to help you with any editing work that arises.”

What happened? In short, a whole lot of hard work. Now the novel (soon to be named “The Other Mrs. Smith”) was largely on course for the first year or so.  Nonetheless, the time came when the chore that I had set for myself began seeming impossible. What was the problem?  The problem was the narration, or to put this another way, the initial gambit I had made. The point is, while I personally would have no trouble telling this story, I was not the narrator. Naomi, the fictional shock survivor was. And the fictional shock survivor could not. Why not? In large part because her memory loss was such that she did not know huge sections of the story that she was trying to tell. She kept hitting dead ends, memory voids, vacuousness. And as a result, as author, naturally, I too kept hitting dead end after dead end.

About a year and a half after starting, accordingly, I called Carla to tell her that I may have to stop the novel. She answered, “Bonnie, you can’t stop. This novel is exactly what the movement needs.”  Whereupon, I nodded and returned to my labours.

Another year or so passed, with promising moments here and there, nonetheless with the task which I had set myself mainly feeling harder and harder, indeed, mostly, well nigh impossible. What with all these dead ends, I felt as if I were “going crazy”. One day I said to myself: “I would do anything to get my life back.”  And suddenly, it dawned on me. Of course, I can get my life back.  All I have to do get my life back is give up writing this novel.

Now for a few seconds there, I felt absolutely exhilarated, so clear did the course ahead of me seem. When suddenly, I stopped myself. “Yes, of course,” I said to myself, “by stopping writing this novel, you can get your life back.  However, shock survivors cannot get their lives back.  And if shock survivors cannot get their lives back, then you shouldn’t either.” This is what solidarity means. And herein lies the moral imperative.

What were the “aha moments” embedded in this part of my tale? One clearly was the discovery of the moral imperative.  If shock survivors cannot get their lives, then it behooved me not to give up.  What was every bit as fundamental and what constituted a discovery in its own right was my greatly increased awareness of the sheer arduousness of the journey, the double bind in which Naomi’s memory loss placed me. The point is that in the very plight in which I found myself was an echo, however faint, of the plight of the shock survivor herself. Now to be clear, my plight was and is utterly miniscule compared to what shock survivors experience moment by moment.  In facing it, in struggling with it, in trying to work through it, nonetheless, I came to understand on a whole new level the daily travail of the shock survivor.  “Aha,” went something deep in my soul.

This lived experience profoundly enriched the novel. The point is, albeit in a comparatively miniscule way, the problems which I faced as author—e.g., how to navigate the memory gaps—paralleled the day-in day-out problems of shock survivors. Moreover, bit by bit in finding solutions to such problems, I came to take in as well not only the extent of the injury but the sheer ingenuity that entered into the daily work of shock survivors, that is, the work they survivors have to do to manage and inject meaning back into their lives.

An Update

In the fullness of time finished the third draft of my novel. And about two years later, it looked like I had found a publisher.  Whereupon, I called Carla, who at this point, was near death’s door.

“Carla,” I said, “I know it’s hard for you to be on the phone, but I’ll say one thing: It seems like I’ve landed a publisher.”

“Bonnie, thank God!” she exclaimed.

Never again was I able to speak to Carla, for she died but a few weeks later. But she died keenly aware of what her insistence had helped make possible.

And where am I at this point? The novel is out; the reviews are pouring in. And once again, I am doubling and tripping my efforts—for how conceivably could I do otherwise?   Moreover, I have heard from a number of readers who had barely given a thought to shock previously, who were truly aghast by what they had encountered and moved to do something about it.

Lessons to be Gleaned from the Above

The shock industry can and does disseminate ever more propaganda which runs counters to what survivors know and say about shock, even what good research solidly establishes, albeit continuing to engage in these endeavours, we absolutely must. What it cannot do is stop “aha” moments, which moments, accordingly, are critical to our own understanding and critical to good activism. 

“Aha” moments in this area are not easy. They will often tie you in knots and leave you feeling like you are getting nowhere. Commonly, in that very frustration and “lostness”, nonetheless, lies the route to better understanding and better consciousness-raising.

Praxis: Concluding Remarks

Hopefully, this article has given the reader an added appreciation of “aha” moments, their possible place in activism, and how they do and can play out in the world of electroshock. What guidance for your own anti-ECT activism, can be gleaned from them?, you may be wondering. To name a few:

Beyond demonstrating, beyond joining law suits (both of which, of course, are critical) consider helping facilitate ECT testimony and witnessing—for this has an obvious multiplier effect. Then step back and work at incorporating what you have learned into the education and activism that you do—for no, most people do not read testimony or attend hearings. 

By the same token, talk to shock survivors that you know.  Figure out what grabs you about their story and work at distilling it and/or assisting them to do so.  Of course, going this route may be far too traumatic for many shock survivors—and this too need to respected.

Art is particularly key, and we have not used it anywhere near enough. You might think back on your own “aha” moments with respect to ECT, then construct works of art that transform these into “aha” moments for others. Alternatively or additionally, incorporate art more broadly in your educationals.

 then follow up with The Other Mrs. Smith (https://www.amazon.ca/Other-Mrs-Smith-Bonnie-Burstow/dp/1771334215/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519509896&sr=8-1&keywords=the+other+mrs.+smith) –-and see where this inspires you to go.  If you belong to a book club, of course, see if you can add such fiction as material to be read and discussed. The more people reading such works, the better. The point is that fiction both encapsulates and gives rise to “aha moments” in its own right, and as such, can move the public in a way that non-fiction seldom does.

What might survivors themselves do? This of course is totally up to the individual survivor, and indeed, a huge variety of responses are possible. To use The Other Mrs. Smith once again as an example, there are those who find it too traumatizing to even read such a novel—and what better judge of this than them?  And so they keep the novel at arm’s length. Others such Connie Neil and Helene Grandbois both have read or are reading the novel and helping promote it. Finding her own way, still another survivor Nancy Rubenstein chose not to read the novel, but nonetheless helped promote it on national television (https://www.facebook.com/CTVNewsChannel/videos/1610452955682696/). On an individual level, everyone ferrets out what works or does not work for them—and everyone’s choices need to be respected.  The point is to consult and heed your own wisdom.

In ending, I invite the reader to consider making abolishing ECT a priority, while leveraging the heuristic and the personal. Whether or not you directly engage in art, consider making what you say/do/draw personal and conveying the urgency. Indeed, while, to be clear, this is one option only—and one which is not always wise—taking a page from Theatre of the Oppressed (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_of_the_Oppressed), one might even go so far as a) bodying forth the horror vividly, and b) letting the audience know that the horror will continue unless they personally do something to stop it.

Correspondingly, in line with this, and in the spirit of survivor Sue Clarke, with whom this article began, as my parting words, permit me to inquire:

So, what have you done about electroshock this week?


Phoenix Rising Collective (Ed.) (1984). Testimony on electroshock, Phoenix Rising, 4 (3 and 4), 16a-22A.