Monday, October 8, 2012

Inconvenient People - then and now

Two articles caught my attention over the week-end, both having to do with coercive psychiatry. The first is a book review of who got sent to asylums in Victorian England, and the second is an in-depth  look by social worker Jack Carney at New York State's Kendra's Law, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey and DJ Jaffe.

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctors in Victorian England, by Sarah Wise, Bodley Head RRP£20, 496 pages

The most potent image of Victorian insanity in popular culture is that of the “clothed hyena” Bertha, the mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It is, writes Sarah Wise in Inconvenient People, “perhaps the most vicious depiction of an insane person to have been committed to paper”.

Yet in 1847, when the novel was published, Mr Rochester’s decision not to place Bertha in an institution was intended to be read as “a mark of his nobility, not perversity, or brutality”. Through vivid case histories, Wise’s fascinating book traces almost a century of legislation dealing with the insane.

Bertha’s plight gave rise to a celebrated work of feminist literary scholarship, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). But Wise seeks to refute the notion that the 19th-century lunacy laws were yet another manifestation of male dominance and female victimisation. Her research indicates that men were just as likely to be “victims of malicious asylum incarceration”; perhaps more so, given that these cases often revolved around money.

There are some villainous mothers here, seeking to regain control of a son’s inheritance, or prevent an unsuitable match. In 1829, Edward Davies, a wealthy young tea-broker of endearingly eccentric habits, was dragged from a London coffee house by two burly men who tried to bundle him into a cab. Such force angered the public and a mob formed to prevent the abduction. Wise shows how the robust notion of English liberty trumping all other considerations declined as the century progressed, allowing state intervention in previously sacrosanct areas: within families or even marriage. (Emphasis my own)

Read the rest of this fascinating book review here

Fast forward from Victorian England to New York State today.

More on New York’s Kendra’s Law: Opponents Lining Up for Decisive Battle in 2015
By Jack Carney, DSW

“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means — except by getting off his back.” Leo Tolstoy, Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence (1886)

This article is about coercion in its various forms – that which is direct, unequivocal, almost thuggish, and that which is more subtle, usually masked as well-meaning, referred to by David Oaks as “velvet gloved.”.....
For the past twenty-five years and more, E. Fuller Torrey has pushed the notion that persons diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia, are so dangerous and potentially violent that they must be treated, i.e., medicated, with or without their consent. His basic strategy has been to pursue, state by state, the passage of outpatient treatment commitment legislation, which effort has been facilitated by his long collaboration with NAMI and by his Treatment Advocacy Center, founded by him in 1998. He has been quite successful in this endeavor – to date, 42 states have passed involuntary outpatient commitment laws – and he appears to have set his sights on Kendra’s Law and changing its status from temporary to permanent. A preview of his pursuit of that objective was on display this past summer, when two police officers were stabbed by persons presumed to be mentally ill and a great clamor was raised in much of the media to expand Kendra’s Law. Civil rights and peer/survivor advocates rallied and beat back the effort, convincing State legislators that the expansion of treatment services was the more effective remedy not the addition of coercive amendments to the existing Law. Perhaps not the ideal response for those of us who’d prefer to see the mental health system shrink, but an indication of the continuing influence of civil libertarian arguments in liberal New York.

Read more here

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