“In the woods, they will blast your courage
To tell you, you are not a tree
That the wild woods and the grey skies
Are not your cousins
Though their atoms be like yours.”
Over a period of 40 years I’ve produced art, poetry, play, essays, drawings, prints and paintings to tell a story of childhood abuse at the hands of Psychiatry.
Psychiatry is the only branch of medicine to have an established movement set up to challenge it. Can you imagine the idea of an Anti-Oncology Movement or an Anti-Gynecology Movement? No, because people accept that these are valid branches of medicine. Despite the difficulties both morally and in terms of intervention that medical treatment represents no-one would argue that those working within these professions are – working within the unpredictability and frailty of human limitations – doing their utmost for the common good.
However, for centuries an Anti-Psychiatry Movement has talked about the uses of Psychiatry as a means of social control; and a coercive instrument of oppression, due to an unequal power relationship between ‘doctor’ and ‘patient’. Daniel Defoe argued in his book Augusta Triumphans (1728) that husbands used asylum hospitals to incarcerate their disobedient wives. Mary Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) revolves around the story of a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband.
Elaine Showalter extensively critiqued 19th-century literature and its impact on the emerging field of psychiatry from a feminist perspective in her book The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (Virago 1987). As the 20th-century progressed (and with the advent of the scientifically-justified murder of so many ‘mentally ill’ under Nazi Germany) the field of anti-psychiatry became more prominent, questioning the medicalisation of “madness”. A key understanding of anti-psychiatry is that mental illness is a myth (Szasz 1972). The argument is that illness is a physical concept and therefore cannot be applied to psychological disorder without any physical pathology. Anti-psychiatry takes the view that psychiatric treatments are often more damaging than helpful to patients, and that the diagnostic process is highly subjective.
In more recent years the Critical Psychiatry Network – led by a group of consultant psychiatrists – has challenged the role of Psychiatry from within. Dr Joanna Moncrief wrote The Myth of the Chemical Cure, (Palgrave, 2008) challenging the idea central to modern day psychiatry that psychiatric drugs work by correcting ‘chemical imbalance’ and arguing that this false ideology is shaped principally by commercial and political vested interests, rather than the aim of supporting individuals in ’recovery’.
Through a combination of performance and imagery Fools’ Gold tells the story of my art-making. It tells the story of the torture and murder of my mother by her psychiatrist. And it tells the story of my own journey through psychosis over several decades, on the run from psychiatric treatment.
Fools’ Gold tells the story of my compulsion to make, exhibit and perform autobiographical work based on the experience and understanding of how psychiatry disables through the public acceptance of the misconceptions of a false medical science.
In order to find outlets for making the work public – both funded and unfunded – has meant the work being framed within a Survivor and Disability Arts context. Under the auspices of these frameworks the fuller deeper messages of the work within a political context – be it playwriting, poetry or artwork – has been undermined.
In attempting to unravel a story of how psychiatry can and does disable people I’ve been knocked back by clichéd responses. Art reflecting on abuse and trauma within a Survivor or Disability Arts context is invariably viewed as Art Therapy because of the tradition of using art as a means of ‘overcoming’ trauma.
Because of the history of these frameworks and the purpose of Survivor Arts and Disability Arts being seen as a means of ‘expression’ rather than of ‘Art’, there is a sense in which the political will of the work is repeatedly reduced to a personal context either as a story about impairment or a story about triumph over tragedy. The challenge to understand how contemporary Psychiatry gets away with oppressing society is subsumed by a dismissal of the work as ‘catharsis’. Due to its autobiographical nature there is a general assumption that the work has been made for the self as an act of ‘therapy’.
Audiences miss the point that the work has been made to try to kickstart a meaningful conversation. From where I sit there is a need for intervention to support people in crisis, but the ‘medicalising’ of peoples’ experience obfuscates. It is much more an issue of welfare and wellbeing, more often than not affected by the economic situation an individual finds themselves in than it is a ‘medical’ matter.
The US journalist Robert Whitaker has published much research on the disabling impact of neuroleptic medication going back to its beginnings with the introduction of Chlorpromazine in 1951. His books have spawned the Mad In America movement with its mission to serve as a catalyst for rethinking psychiatric care in the United States (and abroad) https://www.madinamerica.com
Being appointed the role of being one of ‘The Mad’ by the State can happen to anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time. At that juncture the individual then becomes a ‘disabled person’ by virtue of being placed in an unequal power relationship, subject to stigma and put simply, not being taken seriously. In this context Disability is not something a person ‘has’, its not a condition that inhabits the body, but is a role that society metes out to individuals who do not conform to the ‘normative’ structures in place that society demands are adhered to.
I’m not criticising the motives of mental health workers or the existence of a support mechanism for supporting peoples whose lives are in crisis, but Psychiatry’s role is so often to act as a pseudo-scientific ‘religion’ dedicated to pathologising human behaviour. As such it becomes a weapon of the State in disabling any person deemed as a threat – very often within a family context.
Artwork that attempts to frame ‘mental health’ from a personal political standpoint is by its nature subject to patronisation as a framework for allowing audiences to feel better about themselves for appreciating how difficult others lives can be. The response unwittingly and unconsciously denies the emphasis on the complexities of a relationship that Psychiatry plays in all our lives in defining ‘normalcy’.
But then, it’s also all about context. How you frame the context for telling the narrative of your life will shape the reading of the work?
Fools’ Gold is my attempt to frame the telling and the context through a 45 minute performance reflecting on my experience of working within the Survivor and Disability Arts Movements and telling the story of the search for connection and change within a framework that reduces the pearls being offered to scraps for swine.