Z Magazine Book Reviews


Women’ Encounters with the Mental Health Establishment: Escaping
the Yellow Wallpaper


Edited by Elayne Clift


Haworth Press, 2002, 217 pages


In
one of my most vivid childhood memories, my grandmother is
standing behind a heavily barred window, screaming at my mother
to get her out of the state psychiatric hospital that imprisoned
her. Her plaintive shrieks scared the hell out of me. Was
my grandmother crazy, as innuendo indicated? Or was she simply
inconsolable following the sudden death of her mate? I knew
better than to ask, but wondered what she was doing, locked
up in a remote corner of Connecticut, far from everything
and everyone who mattered to her.


Although my grandmother’s depression receded and she
was able to come home, she died before I got to ask the questions
that have lingered in my gut for decades. I will always mourn
this. Yet there is solace to be had. Girl, Interrupted,
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
Nest, The Bell Jar
, and now Women’s Encounters
with the Mental Health Establishment
all allow outsiders
to glimpse mental illness and the overwhelmed, and often inefficient
and unkind, psychiatric system with which the mentally ill
interact.


The 53 poems, short stories, and essays comprising Elayne
Clift’s anthology run the gamut, from teenaged girls
hospitalized and pumped full of Thorazine, to middle-class
professionals seeking redemption on the couches of Freudian
psychoanalysts. Contributors include Charlotte Perkins Gilman,
Kate Millett, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton as well as a host
of lesser-know authors. Their heartfelt writing touches an
array of psychiatric successes and failures; their insights
make this an important collection for service providers as
well as consumers.


Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper provides
the test’s Prologue. Originally published 110 years ago,
the story remains astoundingly resonant. A chronicle of one
woman’s descent into obsessive-compulsive madness, it
presents a confluence of factors in the protagonist’s
life. Sexism intersects social isolation and class privilege
intersects post-partum depression, in this still salient and
powerful tale.


The Prologue is followed by three chapters: Hospitals, Therapy
and Hope. While the categories seem arbitrary, the overall
message of each section is clear: Small acts of kindness are
often as curative as formal therapy or psycho-pharmacology
in helping women cope with mental illness.


Throughout, women articulate what they want from the people
who treat them—to be listened to, to be handled with
dignity, and to be taken seriously. It doesn’t seem like
too much to ask, but as the entries indicate, these basic
desires are regularly trampled by insensitive, and perhaps
overburdened, workers.


In “Life Inside,” Mindy Lewis writes of her admission
to the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) in 1967,
when she was 15. An allegedly schizophrenic ward of the state,
her chronicle of a 27-month stay at the facility paints a
ghoulish picture of inept care and blatant disregard for social,
nutritional, and emotional well-being.


Although Lewis’s story has a happy ending—she got
better and became a magazine designer and writer—her
experience also includes vindication: In 1987, a NYSPI doctor
calling Lewis as part of a follow-up study, made a startling
admission. “We didn’t know very much about treating
adolescents in those days,” he told her. What’s
more, incest was shockingly misunderstood. “Nobody asked
about it back then,” the doctor admits. Looking back,
Lewis writes, the sexual abuse was obvious. “Subtle clues
had fluttered everywhere, like butterflies caught in our hair,
wings moving the air. This one’s love of her brother,
hate of her uncle, fear of her father; [another patient’s]
endless scrubbing.” It would take Second Wave feminists
to force the issue into public, and medical, consciousness.


Catherine Ann Fabio’s “Safe Places” is similarly
chilling. “Ever since I was a child I heard a suicidal
voice,” she confides, and no wonder. Beaten by her father
and constantly berated by a mother who once handed her a butcher
knife and told her to “Do us all a favor and kill yourself,”
she has been in and out of psych wards since she was 16. Before
she was 30, doctors had prescribed Ativan, BuSpar, Comp- azine,
Desipramine, Elavil, Hald- ol, Lithium, Pamelor, Prozac, Stelazine,
Tegratol, Thorazine, Trilafon, Valium, and Zanax to quell
her psychotic depression. Nothing helped. For years she was
suicidal, delusional. Worse, her diagnosis seemed to depend
on which mental health practitioner she saw; at various points
she has been labeled manic-depressive, schizophrenic, or as
having an anti-social personality or Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder.
For
Fabio, a happy ending was made possible by a stint in a supportive—and
safe—shelter for battered women. It seems miraculous,
but her time in the shelter gave her the space to pull her
life together. She got off all psycho- tropic medications,
began college, and is presently pursuing a doctorate in psychology.


Unfortunately, not every contributor has been as successful
in keeping despair at bay. Poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath
took their own lives, unable to cope with whatever tormented
them. “Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself, counting
this row and that row of moccasins waiting on the silent shelf,”
writes Sexton in “You, Doctor Martin.”


Indeed, desperation is palpable throughout Women’s
Encounters with the Mental Health Establishment.
So is
rage—at families, at professional insensitivity, and
at systemic classism, racism, and sexism. Although homophobia
and the illnesses born of entrenched heterosexism are not
adequately addressed in the book, readers still get a glimmer
of what it means to have a serious psychiatric disorder.


One of the final—and most hopeful—pieces in the
collection is called “Simple Prayer” and its author
chose anonymity. “When doctors listen, when they offer
a Kleenex or a hot meal, when society funds a hospital, maybe
those acts are prayers. Maybe care givers are saying to God
and to the Devil, ‘We do not shoot our wounded.’
This may sound like thin comfort, but it wasn’t to me.
When I finally collapsed from a lifetime of pretending I was
fine, somebody took me in, gave me a meal and a bed, and asked
nothing in return.”


I certainly hope my grandmother felt that way about her confinement.
Upon her release, she took a job as a supermarket checkout
clerk. On her feet eight hours a day, she bagged groceries,
rang up sales, and was unfailingly cheerful to customers.
Perhaps the hospitalization gave her the time she needed to
grieve her losses. Or perhaps she received good, sensitive
therapy. I can only be grateful that she got out, intact.
In my childs-eye view, she was capable of running the world.

Eleanor
J. Bader, a social worker, is the co-author of
Targets
of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism
and a frequent
contributor to
Library Journal, In These Times,
the New York Law Journal, and
the Progressive.


The
Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War


By Fred Jerome


St. Martins Press 2002; 358 pp.



Review by Rich Gibson


My
students are usually surprised twice about the fact that Albert
Einstein, the world’s most famous scientist and the fellow
who proposed the bomb to Roosevelt, was not invited to work
on the Manhattan project. They are surprised that Einstein
wasn’t asked and they are surprised that they never noticed
the incongruity. Now, another surprise: while the Manhattan
project was riddled with Soviet spies who went undetected
until the secrets were already out, Einstein, a loyal oppositionist,
was under constant surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s
corrupt Federal Bureau of Investigation. Fred Jerome, author
of The Einstein
File, Hoover’s Secret War
, has the documents to prove
it. Jerome, a lifelong radical, knows what it is like. His
own family was subjected to similar surveillance in New York
City when he was a youth in the 1950s.


Following path-breaking research by Richard Alan Schwarz,
a Florida professor and author of The Cold War Reference
Guide
, Jerome obtained Einstein’s FBI file through
a series of battles with the agency. He had the assistance
of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. He followed up with
key, often revealing, interviews with the players from all
sides.


What Jerome unveils is what James Loewen noted earlier in
Lies My Teacher Told Me; history is often sanitized
and what is erased in the case of Albert Einstein is a passion
for socialist humanist politics. What Jerome offers is a multi-dimensional
view of Einstein as a fighter, going beyond his theoretical
contributions to his courageous everyday social practice.


Einstein’s political theory isn’t thin, of course.
Some of it has particular import today: “The flag is
a symbol of the fact that man [sic] is still a herd animal.”
Einstein regretfully reconsidered his theoretical pacificism
in the face of the Nazi onslaught he escaped.


But in a period when all of North American citizenry is being
set up as an internal spy agency, a service limited to groups
like the American Legion before 2001, Einstein’s experience
with the FBI is especially instructive. Hoover did all he
could to ruin Albert Einstein in the name of patriotism. Hoover’s
actions, wrapped in language of the common good, damaged masses
of people.


Einstein was denied key security clearances, bugged, followed.
Hoover even thought about deporting him—hard to do to
the world’s most beloved playful intellectual. As Jerome
demonstrates, Hoover mixed his anti-Semitism with anti-communism,
much like the Nazi movement where he found many of his resources,
like the rantings of Elizabeth Dilling, author of the notorious
Red Network, a compilation of fictions that Hoover
used as a guide, and Hoover’s contacts with his Nazi
counterpart, Heinrich Himmler, a favored Hoover correspondent
until 1939.
Hoover
despised Einstein and wanted to show him up as a spy. Einstein,
after all, stood for all Hoover loathed: internationalism,
anti-racism, rationalism, openness. Jerome has the details
of how Hoover’s hatred played out, not only in documents,
but also in gripping interviews with some of the agents assigned
to twist facts into indictments.


Still, what Jerome offers here is not just the history of
the effort to demonize Einstein and later to neuter him, but
a chilling history of U.S. intelligence services, steeped
in targeting those who see friendly connections between people
as a way to social progress. An era is portrayed here, an
era that is reverberating now. In passing, we encounter the
battle against Lynch Law, Paul Robeson, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman,
Dubois (America’s greatest historian tried as a foreign
agent), a fairly predictable cast, but illuminated in new
ways. It is significant to be reminded that Hoover’s
attacks on Einstein were, of course, personal, but the vilification
took place in an epoch when open anti-Semitism and proto-fascist
pronouncements were part of the popular discourse. The most
widely circulated Catholic newspaper in the U.S. editorialized,
on anti-Semitic grounds, for Einstein’s deportation.
There are amusing moments within The Einstein File
and a few annoyances. Jerome must have been a pamphleteer
at some point in his career. There are suggestions that some
players “couldn’t organize their way out of a paper
bag,” or “…without foreigners it is unlikely
the Manhattan project could have produced a firecracker.”


Teachers will find a wealth of what might be inadvertent material
here. Einstein was always interested in pedagogy. It won’t
give away the game to show two gems: “Love is a better
teacher than a sense of duty.” “I am not more gifted,
just more curious.” It is not surprising at all that
Einstein was prescient in social matters. Early in the Depression
he wrote that it was clear that abundance existed, that all
the necessary human connections existed, for all to lead reasonably
decent lives, yet what was absent was the intelligent will
to share. He made every effort to publicly join and support
groups that organized for his views. What is surprising is
that this well-known history was so quickly obliterated. Jerome’s
well-organized and nicely referenced ambush on secrecy in
The Einstein File recreates a living Einstein, an unrelieved
humble rebel finding his own way in a new nation where he
came full of hope, but quickly found disappointment. Yet Einstein
never gave in, never quit. In restoring this part of Einstein’s
life, Jerome tenders reason for continued resistance and hope.


Rich Gibson, with Wayne Ross, recently edited a special
Marxism and Education edition of the on-line journal
,
Cultural Logic.


The
Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?


By Joel Kovel


Zed Books, 2002



Review by Tom Gallagher


Peggy
Lee used to sing, “Is that all there is?” And that’s
what Joel Kovel wants to know too. But where the song asked
it locally and existentially, Kovel puts the question globally,
and specifically—about capitalism. The
Enemy of Nature
asks a big question: Can the human race
do better than the capitalist system currently wreaking havoc
on the globe? Kovel is not sure of the answer. He thinks it’s
“Yes.” As he sees it, an economic system that leaves
fundamental decisions about the uses of the earth’s resources
and the livelihood of its people in the hands of the managers
of capital is just no way to run a planet.


The destruction of the World Trade Center happened after Kovel
wrote this book—he refers to it in a postscript to his
preface—but its aftermath provides an interesting comparison
to an event that Kovel does describe at length—the December
4, 1984 venting of 46.3 tons of methyl isocyanate gas from
the Bhopal, India Union Carbide plant—the largest industrial
accident in history. The gas, which does not occur in nature,
but is manufactured for use in pesticide production, immediately
killed about 8,000 people and an equal amount afterward, with
“people…still dying, 15 years later, at the rate of
10-15 a month.”


But no worldwide cries for fundamental change followed these
deaths. The event was treated as if it were a typhoon or some
other natural disaster, rather than one that resulted from
a series of human decisions. All there was, really, was law
suits. The Indian government sought $3 billion; Union Carbide
ultimately paid $470 million, plus another $50 million in
legal fees. President Bush thinks that “in the long run,
there’s no capitalism without conscience,” but what’s
for sure is that there’s no capitalism without really
high-priced legal advice. Worth it though, because although
the legal/political system may be capitalism’s only actually-existing
conscience, the system requires limiting the costs of that
conscience.

Kovel
cites another author’s assessment that, had Union Carbide
management “been genuinely forthcoming and made truly
disinterested offers of help on a scale appropriate to the
magnitude of the disaster, they would almost certainly have
been confronted with suits by shareholders seeking to hold
the management accountable for mishandling company funds.”
In other words, by its own terms, the system worked.


But while allowing that “capital has shown a phenomenal
resilience,” as “various modes of revolt have come
and gone…as Che Guevara has become the name for a brand
of beer,” Kovel nonetheless concludes that capitalism
“cannot recuperate the ecological crisis because its
essential being, manifest in the ‘grow or die’ syndrome,
is to produce such a crisis.” Capitalism is doomed—or
else we are. So, he reasons, capitalism must be replaced—“as
daunting as that prospect may be.”


Then what? Kovel, somewhat inaccurately, writes that the movements
currently known for being opposed to globalization “have
discovered what they are against. But what are they to be
for?” Actually, while this movement has protested against
a range of economic developments and institutions, currently
it is just not done to object to capitalism as a worldwide
system, hence the strange “anti-globalization” moniker
under which the most global movement the world has yet seen
operates. But in any case, an agreed-on goal does not exist.
Kovel’s got one, however: “Ecosocialism”—an
updated socialism that sees socioeconomic questions inextricably
intertwined with the fundamental physical facts of life on
earth. While the perspective may be generally familiar to
many readers, it is seldom articulated—at least not as
thoroughly as here.


Kovel says he understands that the idea of transcending capitalism
is widely considered “quaint” these days. Given
the history of the Soviet Union, a regime that Kovel reckons
“would likely have executed Marx,” while claiming
the status of being “really existing socialism,”
“quaint” would be putting it charitably for a lot
of people. Even on the left there will probably be something
of an “Is that all there is?” reaction to Kovel’s
desire to spif up socialism. After all, didn’t even Lionel
Jospin, the recent French Socialist Party presidential candidate,
acknowledge that his “party’s platform was not socialist?”
Why another book on an old idea with a new prefix?


Well, for the sake of clarity, actually. As anyone who’s
ever tried describing some idea about a world economy governed
by democratic process probably knows, eventually someone asks
some version of the question, “Why, isn’t that socialism?”
Whatever demurrals, qualifiers and new adjectives may be used,
the final answer to that question generally goes something
like, “Well, yes. It is what socialism was supposed to
be.”


So, our author reckons, we would be better off just calling
“socialism” “socialism.” After all, no
one gave up on “democracy” because of the atrocities
committed in its name. It’s important, in that if Kovel’s
assessment of the severity of the ecological crisis is accurate,
you’d want people to start being able to clearly discuss
an alternative sooner rather than later.


Kovel favorably, and frequently, cites Karl Marx—something
generally way forbidden in most ecological left writing—because
he finds him “the best interpreter humanity has ever
had of its own historical emerging”—sort of a Babe
Ruth of political economy.


Acknowledging that he cannot prove wrong those who believe
that “Capitalism is innate and inevitable, a straight
shot from the Olduvai Gorge to the New York Stock Exchange,”
Kovel writes hoping to improve the future, rather than predict
it. The crux of all political activity for him is to advance
the belief and the hope that people can put together a better
way to run this world. Ultimately, he takes the 19th century
socialists’ argument that humanity faced the choice between
“socialism or barbarism” a step further: If we don’t
turn to “ecosocialism” we may go the way of the
Neanderthal.

Tom
Gallagher is an activist,  a freelance writer, and a
frequent contributor to
Z.