The Loony-Bin Trip
University of Illinois Press, 2000
ISBN: 0252068882, 9780252068881
An exceptional brilliance
Kate Millet, well-known for her work, Sexual Politics was a pioneer of the second wave of feminism. She is hailed by many as the very reason why women today have better pays and greater equality in a number of fields. She was also an artist and activist of note and famous in her own time, internationally. For me, though, it is the brilliance of her memoir, The Loony-Bin Trip, which reads like a novel, for which, she should be considered immortal. Incidentally, it's almost exactly a year now since Millet passed away. So, it is only right that we remember her, close as we are also to the World Mental Health day/month.
The Loony-Bin Trip describes Millet’s many trips to mental health institutions across the world. No, she was not visiting them as a feminist researcher of mental health but as, a patient. She was admitted involuntarily, numerous times by her own sister, husband and mother. She disagreed with the diagnosis as well as the drugs. She also endured much suffering from the stigma attached to mental health issues. According to her, it is Psychiatry that creates the illness: "When you have been told that your mind is unsound, there is a kind of despair that takes over..." she says in one of her interviews.
Despite the setbacks, Millet bounced back, with a scathing analysis of mental health institutions and their methods and championed a strong anti-psychiatry movement that helps many to this day. Millet records her experience in mental health institutions in The Loony-Bin Trip and it is undoubtedly a work of literary excellence in its own right. It engages and enthralls the reader with keen observations and visceral details. More than these, it presents a voice of truth spoken from the heart that definitively stands out and makes an unforgettable impression on the reader.
The memoir begins with her time in a farm in Poughkeepsie, where she has founded an artist’s commune. The description of life in there is vivid and written in a lively dialogue format. The plot begins with her decision to stop taking Lithium, (a drug she had taken for over seven years) and moves through the aftermath of this decision. The range of side-effects of Lithium are not trivial. She writes: “Accusing me of mania, my elder sister’s voice has an odd manic quality. “Are you taking your medicine?” A low controlled mania, the kind of control in furious questions addressed to children, such as “Will you get down from there?” (32)
It appears, women cannot take decisions about their own health. The struggles and arguments here, are somewhat similar to that of writer, Iris Mudroch suffering from Alzheimer’s. We see Mudroch’s resistance to the way health systems designate her subjectivity in her husband’s two memoirs. Why, even Virginia Woolf rejected the diagnosis she was offered. It is always, others, apparently, who define women’s health, diagnose their ailments and provide a cure, when none is sought. Perhaps all that is sought, is often, only a change in conventionality coupled with a desire to incorporate the truth of one’s desires and thoughts into one’s being. This is the context and content of Millet’s ‘mental politics.’ Frustrated by others’ seeking to control her, Millet writes: “Of course, I had only to take the lithium in order to be accepted back. The ascription of madness was never lost.” (32) When interviewed decades later, too, however, Millet insisted she was not mad, but that she had moments of high productivity that was severely misunderstood.
The phenomenon of ‘improper’ women diagnosed with mental health issues, is not alien in India, either. Marriage and motherhood are often seen as a solution for women who are excelling too much, or are exceeding the boundaries placed by conventional society. Ignorance about postpartum depression is so deep-set that it dislodges and shocks the layperson, who is deeply invested in the grand idea of motherhood, promoted by mainstream Indian culture. One is reminded of Foucault in these contexts. His works unravel the need for norms in western society, especially those put in place after the age of reason, which served well to keep away vagrants, prostitutes and blasphemers. That Foucault views norms as constructs, while tracing the shifting meaning of madness, in Madness and Civilization, is particularly helpful for an analysis of the women’s mental health movements, world over, today. Although India lacked the formal institutions Foucault analyzes, such as the Hospital, the Church and the Panopticon, which were all created to govern, general ignorance has a played a negative part in the way we respond to those with mental illnesses in India.
In the Loony-Bin Trip, Millet describes depression well: ''During depression the world disappears. Language itself. . . One's real state of mind is a source of shame. So one is necessarily silent about it, leaving nothing else for subject matter.'' Describing the circularity of the Psychiatric treatment and institution, she writes:
Imagine anything at all, for after all one is free to do it here. That is the purpose of this place; it was made for you to be mad in. And when you give in and have a real fine bout, they have won. And then they have their evidence as well. But the temptation in the long hours is hard to resist, and it comes over you like the drowsiness of the powders. . .
The moments of clarity are the worst. You burn in humiliation remembering yesterday's folderol, your own foolish thoughts. Not the boredom of here, the passive futility of reality, but the flights of fancy, which would convict you, are the evidence that you merit your fate and are here for a purpose. The crime of the imaginary. The lure of madness as illness. And you crumble day by day and admit your guilt. Induced madness. Refuse a pill and you will be tied down and given a hypodermic by force. Enforced irrationality. With all the force of the state behind it, pharmaceutical corporations, and an entrenched bureaucratic psychiatry. Unassailable social beliefs, general throughout the culture. And all the scientific prestige of medicine. Locks, bars, buildings, cops. A massive system. (241)
Millet says of her family, who had her committed to mental institutions several times, in an interview with Darby Penney, in 2002: “…you never recover from betrayals like that.”i In 1973, they had her detained and placed in a mental institution for her extreme involvement in the life of a political prisoner, whom she was trying to save from execution. Of what feminist do we know, past or present, who does not also have a problem with her mother? Since mother-daughter relationships are deeply entrenched in the transfer of patriarchal beliefs, whenever daughters have resisted patriarchy, the result has only been deep fissures in the relationship, much labeling and a complete lack of acceptance. So much so that the rejection by the mother therein is enough to cause depression in the daughters. Elsewhere, Millet reveals how she shocked her mother with her radicality and her lesbianism. Of all of this, she says that she had crossed the conventional boundaries of who she was supposed to be: “I was supposed to be women's lib, and now I'd exceeded it and gone over into international politics.” Millet was treated with electro-shock therapy in the mental hospitals she was at, and prescribed drugs that are taboo today. Apart from depression, she had to fight drug dependency as well. Her clarifications that depression is a “dread” for the patient, as opposed to the common belief that it is an attention-seeking behavior tactic or an affordable luxury item, is useful, to this day. For, often, parents and friends offer retort to an admission of depression with: ‘Oh she can afford it, I couldn’t.’
In the concluding part of The Loony Bin-Trip, Millet writes:
I wrote The Loony-Bin Trip between 1982 and 1985. The last section was written first, in a hangover of penitence and self-renunciation, that complicity with social disapproval which is depression. Now, when I reread it, I find something in it rings false. True, it describes depression: the giving in, the giving up, an abnegation so complete it becomes a false consciousness. But typing it over I want to say, Wait a moment---why call this depression?---why not call it grief? You've permitted your grief, even your outrage, to be converted into a disease.ii
Of all the things humans suffer, mental health issues are examples for the worst suffering. But of all the suffering humanity endures, women always suffer every ailment way more than men. This is what makes women’s mental health the most difficult but important thing to talk about. We can only hope that with each passing year, people around us become more sensitive towards those of us who have suffered, no matter how we assess it. Depression caused by poverty, by betrayals in relationships and trauma inflicted by others are events that Psychological counseling has no convincing responses for, yet. It places all responsibility of healing on the sufferer and takes away any notion of justice by excusing those who inflict unbearable suffering upon us, exempting them and every oppressive social institution. Is this not why religious texts that define hell in great detail or offer up a theory of karma are soothing to those of us who have suffered immensely; we would like to think that those who betrayed us may one day reach their destined hell. It is not that the religious are so deluded, as Freud said of all believers, as to seek shelter in religion, really. It’s the other way around; religion serves the survivor of psychological trauma.
What Kate Millet has clarified as: grief, not depression, others in the women’s movement have defined as a cry for help. Feminism has repeatedly urged us to think of women’s mental illnesses --as a time of hibernation wherein they would like to heal themselves from within and, --as an effort to communicate the injustice they have suffered, rather than as expressions of nerviness or uncontrollable impulses. Women’s insanity is mostly a result of the oppressive conditions they live in, the constant controls and betrayals they face, from which there is no hope. As Millet once said: “This is how psychiatry has functioned-as a kind of property arm of the government, who can put you away if your husband doesn't like you.” In the exact same mental health institutions where Millet was, pregnant women with unwanted children, jilted lovers and abused wives were shoved in for the lack of an alternative.
Within the Indian context, the feminist method of interrogating the circumstances of insanity has had a different history. Typically, this has been the argument that spirituality has had with materialists, who quickly judge those spiritual as insane for having unusual or alternative experiences. Stigma about mental health is so often so bad that it leaves no time and space for the survivor to heal traumas or, even understand the symptoms and the condition. A fine example of such stigma is the bus that carried people to NIMHANS, in Bangalore. The very bus number and its route came to be associated with insanity, and were deeply feared by people for decades. Today, of course, with much education, the situation has vastly improved.
Parts of The Loony-Bin Trip could be a difficult read for those who are depressed. For many with mild forms of depression, a number of things may not even make sense. For yet others, it could act as a trigger. Nevertheless, for the lay reader, of what is easily comprehensible, there are extraordinary chunks of lucid, powerful and beautiful writing that are completely absorbing. Millet observes acutely, offers terse sentences with a punch if you can take them, and cutting critiques if you can digest them. The only downside of this eminent classic is that it is a tad repetitive. This book is a must-read for everyone interested in solutions to mental illnesses and a patient’s perspective, although the memoir was first published in 1990.
i https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Darby_Penney/publication/259856851_Insist_on_Your _Sanity_An_Interview_with_Kate_Millett/links/55243fac0cf2b123c51738d8/ Insist-on-Your-Sanity-An-Interview-with-Kate-Millett.pdf
Issue 81 (Sep-Oct 2018)