Loony Bin Trip Paperback – 17 Oct 1991
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"Not since Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has the literature of madness emitted such a powerful anti-institutional cry." -- Washington Post ADVANCE PRAISE "The forced incarceration, the mental anguish, and the sheer humiliation of 'going mad' are made real in Millett's detailed and passionate narrative of her own experiences. This is a brave book. Once again, the pioneer of women's liberation in our century makes us consider the nature of freedom--what it is and who has a right to it." -- Andrea Dworkin, author of Letters from a War Zone "[Millett] takes you inside her mind in a way that no psychiatrist has ever done, and what you see there is not a mad woman, but another person, just like you, only a little bit more talented, and very, very sane (but damned mad). It is a magic book." -- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of The Assault on Truth "Kate Millett is magnificent: a historical figure in her own lifetime, a truly exciting writer, a chronicler of our times... [Her] critique of institutional psychiatry and our well-meaning collusion with it is devastating and true... Millett's spirit is indomitable, her bravery thrilling, her return long awaited." -- Phyllis Chesler, author of Women and Madness --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Though I felt that Kate really should have known better than to do some of what she did, knowing that others were likely to use them excuses to have her committed, I still felt deeply her fear and helplessness. I was especially disgusted by the attitude of the shrink who failed to get her hauled away in the Bowry only through Kate's quick thinking.
The minuses of this book for me were the many times the she goes into descriptions of artists and other creative types in such exalted terms. Kate left little doubt that, to her, anyone who does other things with their lives are empty shells who rely on the chosen ones (such as herself) to be able to see the world as it truly is. This sort of elitism (how many times does she tell us she is a professor and published writer) and condescension is sickening in someone who spends so much of her life trying to right great wrongs of society.
She wrote in the Preface to this 1990 book, “This is an account of a journey into that nightmare state ascribed to madness: that social condition, that experience of being cast out and confined. I am telling you what happened to me. Because the telling functions for me as a kind of exorcism… through reliving what occurred… I am telling this too in the hope that it may help all those who have been or are about to be in the same boat, those captured and shaken by this bizarre system of beliefs: the general suspicion of ‘mental disease,’ the physical fact of incarceration and compulsory drugs, finally the threat of being put away and locked up forever, or if released, stigmatized throughout the course of our lives… For seven years I lived with a hand tremor, diarrhea, the possibility of kidney damage and all the other ‘side effects’ of lithium. Then, in the summer of 1980, I decided to go off lithium, therefore severing the control of an authority I had never entirely believed in and had reasons to resent… If I had kept my own counsel, maybe nothing would have come of the decision. But I imagined I was safe. This is what happened.”
She recalls having called her sister, who asked her, “Are you taking your lithium?” Millett observes, “Suddenly it all comes back, the last time, the loony-bin trip, the shame, the terror of being locked up. It was she who put me there---a thing I can forgive but not quite forget, though it was forgotten until the line: ‘Are you taking your medicine?’ like a bullying sergeant… in those prisons I thought I had left forever. I realize that if she were to know I have gone off the stuff, she might be out here in no time, might even have me busted with a few phone calls. Meaning well---they always mean well. And they always win: by the time you are busted you are crazy, certified and incompetent… broken by the bust and, when the depression comes down, contrite and crumped and only too willing to crawl to the psychiatrists, take what they give you; the arrival of depression proving you were manic too at the moment when they cornered you. I will not be cornered again. This call was a mistake… the very opposite of what I want to evoke.” (Pg. 28-29)
She explains, “Then why quit taking lithium? … Six years of being on a drug that made one sluggish, the mind sedated… A few months off lithium without freaking out might prove otherwise, establish my sanity… to lift the judgment against me would be to have my selfhood again, absolved of the ever-present and proven charge of insanity… Not an ‘illness’ but a crime, for in fact that’s how it’s seen. Lithium maintenance is only a suspended sentence. What if I were innocent altogether? Sane all along? Rather than the bearer of an incurable illness, a chronic recurrent disease, a rot in the very heart of the brain, a cancer of the mind?” (Pg. 31-32)
She recounts, “Dear God, what will they do to me, the long sad corridors of how long? … No on I knew when I worked at St. Peter’s ever got out alive and was not back a few months later---this is the labyrinth; the rest of my life I will wear this mark on my forehead if this is the place it seems… I was voluntarily visiting a psychiatrist, that was the deal. This … is a hospital, a mental hospital, an institution---iron gates.” (Pg. 39)
She points out, “How crazy craziness makes everyone, how irrationally afraid. The madness hidden in each of us, called to, identified… The more I fear my own insanity the more I punish yours: the madman at the crossroad, the senile old woman, the wild-eyed girl, the agitated man talking to himself on the subway.” (Pg. 67-68)
She comments about her book ‘Flying’: “There is no longer anything to write now, nothing suggests itself. ‘Flying’ was the whole discovery of writing and it is over now… it’s over and there is nothing more to come. From writing to live I have come to live to write, but the well is now dry as a vacuum… You had to wait till thirty-five to write at all… your whole life a required course just to produce a thesis. Next came ‘Flying,’ a first book really, one book of your own. Before the bubble burst and you lost your guts, sat at the dining room table… and in two speedy afternoons discovered you were not a writer at all. You were scared when you started ‘Flying,’ but now the scare is past all measure, a panic huge and unconquerable.” (Pg. 77)
She argues, “your deliverance from the hell you lived through … [is] a stigma you will carry all your life. Spoken or silent. And that is what stopping the lithium did; it stopped the shame, the compliance. It brought me back to that time again---the six lost years fall out and hang aside and I am knitted up, a being murdered and buried and back again. Hypothetically, I could still be taking lithium and come to this conclusion, validate the past. But lithium represented collusion; when I stopped I was no longer cooperating in some social an emotional way.” (Pg. 95)
She recalls, “it is a barracks, a jail, a stone fortress… The malign intent of the place is clear; its details are hazy. A barracks, a prison, the worst bin of all. The mad politics of whose side these men are on: do they imprison rebels here or is it a rest stop for terrorists, revolutionaries, men of violence…?... Would I be among women or thrown to some male dogs, jailers worse than any policemen? As the police bring me through the doors I already regret their departure; they at least did me no harm. I am terrified anew. Locks, there are locks. Once past the door you are finished. And bars on the windows… The sound of keys. And the pretense of a hospital.” (Pg. 193)
She ruminates, “But if you are to be any use, you will have to stop equating madness with captivity; that is, stop proving you aren’t crazy, since this assumes that if you were, you might deserve to be locked up: you’re only innocent if you’re sane, and so on. So your mind has to be cold sober, if possible slightly depressed, in order to be adequate or credible. No mania… Not till you permit madness… can you really stand against the bin as prison and punishment. Then you have a case---not otherwise. But you don’t even know madness from sanity. And you fear madness as much as the others, would cut it out of your mind like a cancer… they still have no right to put you here, deprive you of your liberty and even hope… But you don’t believe it enough yet. No one else believe it at all. That, finally, is the problem.” (Pg. 248)
She records, “What applies now is the descent of the one illness I have never questioned---depression. I feel it descending hourly, daily, recognize the vertigo. I am certain of the onset because of the panic, the great heightened fear---which is both imaginary in its monstrous proportions and real as well, since it is the last attempt of the psyche to struggle free before being burned alive in inertia. Panic is a haste in emergency that finds the dime but drops it while scrabbling for the telephone number.” (Pg. 260)
She laments, “Death is everything, it blots out life. Would it would come soon. Imagine twenty or thirty more years of this, an old an older and then decrepit woman living alone… There is so much to be ashamed of now. I was crazy, I am mad; I have an illness that will worsen through my life. I know I can’t succeed at suicide; I don’t even think of it anymore. Only of death, wanting to be dead. Unable to get there.” (Pg. 275)
She concludes, “I wrote ‘The Loony-Bin Trip’ in part to recover myself, my mind, even its claims to sanity. But I hope as well that I might relinquish that conundrum---sanity/insanity… I wrote [the book] to go back over the ground and discover whether I did go mad. Went mad or was driven crazy---that differentiation. But it is not so cut and dried, cannot be. And if I did go mad, even acknowledging latitude and overlap, then what was madness, the irrational, what was it like? Experientially, rolling back the secret and shame, remembering.” (Pg. 313)
This is a disturbing, yet profoundly thought-provoking book. It will be of great interest to most persons interested in Kate Millett, but also those with an interest in institutional psychiatry, anti-psychiatry, the Mad Pride movement, and other areas.