January 24, 2001 the United Nations voted in favor of giving Support
Coalition International consultative status -
a groundbreaking achievement for everybody supporting human rights in psychiatry.
The document's original address:
Kate Millett's Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, Sexual Politics (1970), placed her at the forefront of the women's movement. Her political works also include The Prostitution Papers (1973) and The Politics of Cruelty (1994). Millett has published extensively on personal issues, including her autobiography, Flying (1974), Sita (1977) the story of a doomed romantic relationship, The Loony Bin Trip (1990), Kate's story of institutionalization following a mental breakdown, and A.D., Kate's story of her Aunt Dorothy and the rift in their relationship caused by her aunt's reaction to Kate's lesbianism. Also a visual artist, Kate founded the Women's Art Colony Farm and has shown her work internationally. Somewhat of a forgotten heroine, Kate continues to walk the line for oppressed groups. On February 12, 2000, Kate went before the United Nations (UN) to argue for the consultative status of Support Coalition International (SCI). An active SCI member since 1993, Kate's persuasiveness before the UN committee helped get SCI recommended for roster status, after two years of applying.
For the first time in history, human rights abuses in the "mental health system" are on the table with other international human rights issues. SCI has been nominated for roster status, which allows SCI to designate representatives to the UN. Representatives will be invited to attend conferences and meetings of some of the UN's main agencies, such as ECOSOC and the UN human rights commission. Click here for more information. Kate has been said to be one of this century's most important chroniclers. Below she describes her experience as a psychiatric survivor arguing for human rights before the UN.
It's 5:30, there are only 30 minutes left in today's session. They will quit promptly at six this evening because the interpreters leave on time. Sessions, however, never start on time. Today's three o'clock session began at four. I had almost hoped to escape, since there are five groups with representatives present to be heard in this half hour. Part of me swears I will not come back tomorrow, though I know I will not be able to stay away if we are not to be heard, ever to be heard. Our outlandish cause in this room,the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. Vast overpowering world authority, the banks of chairs with the names of nations below, the wide podium with the Turkish chairman, the lady by his side who is chief of the Non Governmental Section, and has signed all the letters to our Support Coalition International. Letters to David Oaks, the director of this brave organization with its 100 groups in 14 countries.
We are asking now for NGO status from the United Nations. It is a dream come true. It is also a nightmare: I am the only one to speak for us, am only a member, a sympathizer, author of The Loony Bin Trip and "psychiatric survivor" the only qualification for membership and code word for someone stigmatized as mad who has nevertheless returned or appears to have returned from the vast noisy wards of the mental gulag. Our impossible cause. And I its impossible "representative." What could I say to turn back their ridicule, their amazed disbelief that the mad are setting up to judge the sane, imagine themselves "abused" and their human right abrogated, have come to complain against psychiatry itself. In being labeled psychiatric patients we have lost all credibility as human beings. And psychiatry is the law of the land, here as in most places. The people I address will, as everyone does, regard its practices as "treatment" by a "helping profession" against whom there is no real appeal. In calling them "coercive," I represent delusion "craziness" itself. Maybe they won't get to me today. There is only 30 minute left. I may be spared. To be here in this room and before these delegates, the epitome of sanity and respectability, appealing for the supposedly crazed in their torments of electroshock and four point restraint, the forced drugging, the involuntary commitments and incarcerations that will last who knows how long, easily forever. Time going on forever in these places;I have been there, fight not to remember. But how else to appeal, how else to summon the passion and hubris to confront this? Thirty minutes left; perhaps they will call someone else; there are a few other people up here at the top of the room, miles it seems from the delegates at the podium; they too have waited all day to be heard. I might be spared. I might be able to stay away tomorrow because it is no good -- I cannot summon the words to represent this cause. So surreal and unlikely to those who would hear me. I will go mute, forget even the scribbles on my folder. I have read the papers David sent, something like six times now, tired to memorize phrases, know details, have examples of projects - it will all disappear if they call me up there. I have never felt such incapacity in my life, such despair before an ordeal.
Even my class yesterday went badly - certain failure here will drop me into depression that will last all winter, self and identity are disappearing. Before this session I looked a fright in the mirror of the ladies room, long white disheveled hair; should have gotten a smart haircut; what was I thinking of? No food in the house since it seems I am always here: Monday, today all day. I was supposed to give dinner to my niece and her child tonight. I feel a ghost haunting the upper rows of this chamber, some scarecrows who will be heard with derision. Here at the moment I should be brave and speak well, unafraid, armed and resolute.
I go over my sheaf of paper again from the Coalition, the purposes and plans, budget and achievements, and in a manila file on the whose cover I have scribbled my few sentences clutched against the moment I may have to speak as a "representative" of beings who have been electroshocked, restrained, force-fed drugs, committed and incarcerated. Phases I have scribbled as human rights abuses by coercive psychiatry, words to clutch at. In case I should be called. Hoping I won't be, knowing I will fail, perhaps fail to say anything at all, to make any sound or sense at all, unable to word such an appeal in this vast bureaucratic chamber where elite young functionaries represent all the peoples of the world. Not the poor and downtrodden, but the powerful whose power is expressed like energy itself in the carpet and walls and glass and flags and guard and passes. The hope of the world up in the hands of these dilatory well-dressed performers who consume hours in repetition questions and quarrels, underground politics of nation and personality.
Back in session, they had promised to hear new applications whose representatives are present from 4:30 on, and have dispensed with two already. There are only 30 minutes left on the huge clock behind the podium. Then I hear them call our name, "Addendum eleven, number nine" says the chairman. A moment ago he had said thirteen and I felt relief. I must have missed something; maybe thirteen isn't present or has been passed over. "Nine" the chairman says, "Support Coalition." My god, they did get to us. "This will be in the big blue binder and the questions answered will be in the slim orange folder." They shuffle papers. "And representative is present," he concludes. Me, the representative; the mind wilts at the term. They don't always call the representatives, they sometimes ask for questions to be answered by mail or fax front the head office. I could get lucky. There is a terrible silence while the twenty or so delegates present consult the blue book for our application, the slim red folder for David's answer to their questions already put to David and answered three weeks ago. No, we have nothing to do with Scientology? Scientology seems to be the only organization ever to oppose psychiatry so we were suspicious on this ground - is there any connection? Heavens no, we even have a lawyer's letter insisting there is no connection whatsoever. And where did the surplus money from the ninety-eight budget come from? An end of the year donation which made a computer possible and a part-time worker, both beautifully explained in David's letter in the slim red folder. A budget small and obviously honest. The two questions appear to have been answered, there are no little cardboard flag up as when delegates raise questions. In fact they seem utterly bewildered, silent or without interest at all. There is an embarrassing quiet. We are too far out, just as I imagined. Even the chairman in non-plussed. He cannot seem to describe what we are about. "In the Informals, you may remember, this application was put in the list number two." The informals are their closed meetings, rarely referred to. List two speaks for itself: controversial, something to be pushed aside and "deferred." Or worse still, classified in the "grey area" where applications may linger up to two years and are often simply denied when they are finally heard. Resounding silence. The chairman does not now how to proceed. The delegates fail altogether to respond. We are an embarrassment, a list two, becoming conundrum. "There is a representative present and I will call that person to the podium." The Chairman says imperially. He may have found a way out but I'm lost, I'm in it for now.
I see myself walking down the long steps on the right hand side, observe myself in my best clothes, my figure bulky in black with a dark scarf, oddly enough seeing myself not with the scarf I wear today but the pink on I wore on Monday when we were never called, when Celia Brown was here, a board member, a young and black and feisty and more credible - wish she were here oday. Instead this figure slowly, the white hair and the black clothes, a lone figure taking the longest time to get there. Fragile, aged. Welcomed with the utmost civility routinely practiced here where "Distinguished delegates" is the term of address, each speaker thing the previous speaker in flowery terms. I am thanked by the man who hands me up, thanked by the Chairman. If they only know my utter incapacity to answer any question at all. I am asked to define our mission and hardly need to read my scribbled notes, to explain that we direct ourselves to human rights abuses under coercive psychiatry, namely forced drugging, electroshock, four point restraint and involuntary commitment and incarceration. There is a rustle of interest. I respond to this and go on to say that our role is education, to break the silence surrounding these issues everywhere, to form a network of support for the victims of this abuse and educate the public and policy makers, and to train advocates. I forget to mention Dendron, the magazine, but lean on its coverage of the report of the National Council of Disability, for here is at least some credibility, a government agency and a liberal law to be enforced. An old friend in the movement, Rae Unzicker, helped see it drafted. "People with psychiatric disabilities" (language I shudder at but it sets a tone they might comprehend) "are routinely deprived of their rights in any way no other disability group has been." Substantiating this, the council held hearings in Albany New York in 1998, "and heard testimony graphically describing how people with psychiatric disabilities have been beaten, shocked, isolated, incarcerated, restricted, raped, deprived of food and bathroom privileges and physically and psychologically abused in institutions and their communities, and routinely deprived of their rights and treated as less than full citizens and human beings."
A rustle of interest, the energy of attention in the figures before me, a woman's lovely face, a Latina delegate I suppose, listening and nodding: she will be my guide and beacon. I am now emboldened to say the very term mental patient denotes someone less than human who by virtue of the legal category of "substituted judgement" has for all purposes lost civil and even human status. I go on to summarize the Council's conclusions: "Laws that allow the use of involuntary treatments such as forced drugging and inpatient and outpatient commitment should be viewed as inherently suspect because they are incompatible with the principle of self determination." The report even came to conclude that "Public policy need to move into the direction of a totally voluntary community based health system." Since "mental health treatment should be healing, not punishment." The face I look for smiles and nods. "Accordingly," the Report goes on, "the use of aversive treatments, including physical and chemical restraints, seclusion and similar techniques that restrict freedom of movement, should be banned." Even coming to what Rae saw as their finest moment "Public policy should move toward the elimination of electroconvulsive therapy."
There are questions by now, the delegates have raised their cardboard country signs to indicate that the debate should be joined. I stop in astonishment that I had gotten this far. The lady smiles me on, the other faces, when you can see them omit a different energy: puzzlement, some hostility, much interest. Of course the US delegate is right off the starting line. Should I have tried to approach him? Would it have been inappropriate toadying? Does it matter? Too late anyway. His assistant, a pale haired lady who someone said was a relative of Senator Kerry has already left for the day; might she have restrained him? But Rick Williams for the United States objects at once: were we against medication of all types? What about someone violent and uncontrollable brought to a hospital in an ambulance? He is clearly astonished the one could speak of abuse at all; psychiatry is medicine, a helping profession. Hard to believe anyone is so naïve, but his faith is entire. Another delegate questions what I meant by speaking of us as part of a social change movement. Another questions our claims to be international: what countries and projects? I am permitted to answer that the countries were we have members and sponsor organizations are listed in our publication. As to our projects, I mention all the rallies against out-patient commitment in New York and California, years of rallies against electroshock. Our project with the German group Irrenoffensive at the Free University of Berlin where we put psychiatry on trial at the Foucault Tribunal of Human Rights Abuses just because it relied and insisted on coercion. I give a thumbnail sketch of the movement for mental liberation arising in the early 70's in opposition to the growing influence on psychiatry for social control, the growing power of the pharmaceutical industry, how these groups had coalesced into the Support Coalition. I answer the American that we do not oppose medication if truly voluntary but involuntary commitment of the use of force or fraud of any kind was something we opposed, as indeed so did the National Council's Report. The Pakistani delegate asks if we equated any of these abuses with torture - where was the line? I admitted the wide range of cases and mentioned Don Weitz's contribution the Vienna plus five human rights conference in Ottawa where he was able to have the sentence, "Special efforts should be made to avoid the degrading and humiliating treatment of psychiatric patients" inserted into the section on torture which the Vienna Conference brought to the United Nations. I also urged that four-point restraint, to be tied prone and pinioned at wrists and ankles and left there seemingly forever, resembled torture not treatment and could be seen as punishment, was indeed often used as such. Another question, from the Russian delegate, was psychiatry likely to be used politically as punishment, I agreed it had been, knowing Stalin's use of it, which I put as tactfully as possible given his openness to asking such a question. Last the American goes at me again; what of the homeless, out in the cold at this hour, surely they would be better off inside and warm. This in a city who mayor forbids to give alms in the subway and where the homeless are ignored and regarded as criminals. Or mental patients, presumably the subject of our delegate's sympathy. I again remind him that our objective is human rights abuses and coercion, and decades of mistreatment. He had earlier ascribed criminal behavior to the mad and I remind him that we had the law to deal with crime, that crime itself was a real, not an ascribed phenomenon, with evidence and circumstance and proof, whereas diagnoses made on the medical model were ascriptions, little more than notions at time and built on a medical model that could not be proven and behind which there had been decades of human rights abuses and real suffering.
It was time to get off stage. All along I have been aware of the clock ticking, seen it from the corner of my eye. I have taken so much time they will not be able to hear another applicant. I feel guilty and sorry for the other ghosts on the top balcony. In fact there is so little time that we may never be voted on today and our application may drift off into limbo, the dreaded "grey area," where applications seem to float for years and are likely to be refused. I have listened as several such were snuffed out. Most likely, we will be "deferred," carried over till the next hearings in May, five months from now. Having been thanked and "invited" back to my seat, I wait, sure we'll never make it. The delegates speak their pieces. The young German delegate applauds our work: "even though my country fails to respect the rights spoken of," he himself does acknowledge them and suggested we be given status. A sympathetic voice second this opinion in Spanish and suggests roster status (a lower category than special status or even general which we had asked for); a way for them to compromise. To hell with the gradations, I think, if we can just pass and be granted NGO consultative status. Other voices urge it. Surely the lady who smiled-in fact there are several Spanish voices in our favor. Bolivia, I wonder?, Chile? Pakistan endorses us. The American stands; I close my eyes, afraid this is the end of our hopes but though it is clear he is suspicious and unconvinced, he offers "to be flexible here." China, which also does not approve (the two nations that control so many citizens, I think) but he too, through the woman translator's voice "offers to be flexible." It is six o'clock. Earlier the chairman had asked the translators to stay one or two extra moments of this to be settled - will they go this far, or just toss us noow into some never never land future. If I hadn't been here that surely would have been the case. I hold my breath. The chairman sees an opening in the roster classification, offers it, sees no cards raised in objection and so rules.
We are accredited.
It seems one of the great moments of my life as I dare to go to the front and thank the lady, who is from Bolivia - "It was your face that gave me hope and courage." She is conferring with the woman delegate from the Sudan, wrapped in a beautiful scarf, which is part Islamic correctitude, part fashion, but she is also a woman who can neither vote nor hold a drivers license in her own country, and whose position here is a kind of national hypocrisy. But she had not stood in our way: she congratulates me and we shake hands. Many of the delegates smile and say congratulations, giving me to feel my sincerity had moved them. I nod my thanks to the chairman and even give my American colleague a try, assuring him that it is the abuses of the system we concern ourselves with, hoping to working on him the future, if he is not replaced by George Bush who might have someone else more obdurate in his place. Since they still have ashtrays at the UN and there are places where one can smoke, even while walking along the corridors, I celebrate with a smoke. I am approached by a man and someone who congratulates me again and tell me they have been here for nearly two weeks now, up on the top seats. I realize now I have spotted the woman, a serious face. They are Claudine and Harold, here to represent Gay Rights. Both Canadian and US, and have been deliberately put aside day after day because of the prejudice of the chair's Turkish macho and other unfriendly delegates, mostly Islamic. Claudine lights up. I put out my cigarette and start another - in a moment we are friends. The man looks at my name tag and hoots - he's read me, didn't recognize me. During my entire time here I have lived a charmed life. No one ever did spot me though I have a tag and sign my name to the list each session. It is wonderful being nobody, and probably very effective: to be only this old woman with white hair. We laugh about it and they are sure the white hair helped, surely with the Latinos - and it was Latin America who took their cue and sided against the American delegate. The man, Hal Kooden, is sure of it. I feel the oddity of this: seeing myself in the mirror, I had felt this very thing condemned me most. Hal used to belong to several anti-psychiatric groups back in the 70s; we do a bit of history and whom we know. I invite them to help me celebrate by letting me buy them a drink. They are both delighted, and the woman, Claudine Ouellet, from Quebec, telephones her lover on a cell phone as we stroll along Second Avenue shopping for a bar: "You will never believe who I met today, who I'm walking with, who I'm having a drink with." How fortunate I am to have found allies, here at the moment it is over: much as I might have taken comfort with them before through these two days and 12 hours of meetings - to have people to celebrate this with. Hoow much grimmer to just get a cab and go home. I had postponed dinner with my niece, there was nothing to eat in the loft...to go home alone after such a moment would be a terrible let down. Instead to sit in a bar and go over the old days, the long struggle for women and gays, naming the folks we knew in common and the ones we should still meet, how it gives purpose and reason. And to cheer them on that they would be heard tomorrow, that their longer ordeal would end in triumph as mine had. Thirty years ago I was busted into a nuthouse in California. And again seven years later in Ireland. The first time due to family disagreement over politics, the second as political punishment for supporting the Irish hunger strikers. These two occasions broke my life in pieces; I was never the same again; assurance became difficult. Although I had learned a great deal, I had also been wounded severely. My book The Loony Bin Trip helped to heal me. When it was published I went to California on tour, came back to San Francisco where my publisher put me up in a grand hotel where I could entertain my friends. Dizzily aware that it was all because I had spend a night as a prisoner in solitary in Berkeley's Herrick Hospital and weeks in Napa thirteen years before. Years writing that book and struggling back.
But this afternoon at the United Nations was a watershed too, a victory for me and for all my kind. It was lovely to meet two new friends and have a drink and chat, but the real moment was in the ladies room, when I surveyed myself and found myself probably grotesque before the people I had now to address and persuade, had no nerve but knew I had to do it anyway, had to work, focus, try, even if I were overwhelmed and inarticulate, even if I failed miserably, I had to stand for this cause and began scribbling again the phrases I would use because words might fail me. How after all could I sum up all the suffering I had to represent, all the thousands and their millions of hours of misery. "Maybe with a scream," David laughed at me when we talked it over. Yes, with a scream one could. Art surely could. But a scream would be "security" and then the psycho cops. Reason had to substitute, the powers of persuasion, an appeal to kindness, empathy, imagination, the fact of suffering under force finally had to bridge the gulf. My new friend Hal told me he had overheard the lady delegate from Algiers ask in lingering confusion when it was over - "What is a psychiatric survivor?" May she never come to know really, but it is well she has been introduced to the idea. Many of the delegates from other countries could figure it out, could come to realize, perhaps already even "knew somewhere," could guess or imagine from similarities to other conditions they had been made to face now.