Bonnie Burstow is a university professor, antipsychiatry activist, prison abolitionist, philosopher, feminist therapist, anarchist, prolific author. This blog is devoted to raising critical awareness of psychiatry generally. It is likewise devoted to the antipsychiatry research projects, publications, and related activities of Dr. Bonnie Burstow.
Amazing course! Utterly transformative! I am now approaching my traumatized clients in an informed, respectful, anti-oppressive way.Who could have thought that as practitioners, we could actually improve the world? (a typical evaluative comment by my trauma class students)
Thank you so much, Bonnie, for helping me stretch beyond my comfort level (remark made this year by a current student)
In every agency where I’ve worked since taking this course, psych survivors begin flocking to me. Nu? They quickly figure out that I won’t betray them and I actually have a sense of how to help (a comment made six years ago by a former student)
There are legions of ways that one can help rescue the world from the clutches of institutional psychiatry—being an activist, mounting consciousness-raising events, researching, writing books and articles, writing sensitizing fiction, organizing, being a practitioner in a whole new vein. All of these, I routinely pursue and am known for. Arguably, however, my single strongest way is less known (except at my own university)—through the courses that I teach and how I teach them. Obviously courses almost exclusively focused on problematizing psychiatry serve but more widespread influence may actually arise from more general courses in which antipsychiatry principles are simply fully integrated. And of these, none of what I teach is more effective than my trauma course (Working with Survivors of Trauma), which is a graduate course intended for practitioners—broadly defined.
Now practitioners and academics, not to mention the world at large, commonly employ a trauma frame when trying to understand people’s troubles, hence the widespread interest in trauma courses. What is particularly good about this when you consider psychiatry, is that a huge percentage of psychiatric survivors have had major trauma in their lives, even before psychiatry entered the picture, and the vast majority of times psychiatry itself further traumatizes them. What is more general, and also good, operating from a trauma framework means on some level understanding that the problems that people face are not just “in their heads”—that people are responding to very real and indeed horrendous things that have happened to them. What the drawbacks are, not just with the public at large, and not just with conventional practitioners but even with progressive practitioners with a critique of psychiatry, people using such a frame easily slip out of, and in fact, are lured into slipping out of their critique, in the process falling into a conspicuously psychiatric framework. By way of example, while progressive folk are at least occasionally wary of using other DSM diagnoses, they tend to make an exception for “PTSD” (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), using it as if it were acceptable. Why? Because they appreciate the terror of people who have been exposed to terrible events and are committed to help of some sort being available, and so they somehow kid themselves that this one diagnosis is acceptable. The point is, though, despite the presence of what is called “Criterion A” which stipulates the existence of an external precipitating event, like other diagnoses, PTSD pathologizes, individualizes, and decontextualizes, in the process, additionally, reduces people’s meaningful ways of coping to “symptoms” of a “disorder”. By way of example, instead of cutting or self-injury being understood as an activity meaningfully turned to by traumatized people to cope with emotional pain, cutting gets turned into a “symptom” of PTSD—one, moreover, for which “psychiatric drugs” may be in order (for a far more thorough critique of PTSD, see Burstow, 2005). Which brings us to the question of trauma practitioners.
While most practitioners use the PTSD frame, far better trauma work is done by practitioners who principally respond empathically, largely ignoring the diagnostic frame. Empathy alone, while necessary and wonderful, however, is insufficient. The point is, besides that there are skills to acquire, one can be empathic and still not understand the role of oppressions in trauma, and as a result in multiple ways fail the people one is trying to serve. What we need, I would suggest, are once skilled and fully counterhegemonic trauma workers, whose counterhegemony includes antipsychiatry principles. And for to happen we need really enlightened counterhegemonic courses.
The course referenced in the quotations with which this article began is one such course. And it accordingly is the focus of this article.
LHA 1111: Working with Survivors of Trauma
For almost two decades I have taught a graduate course called “Working with Survivors of Trauma” at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It is a counterhegemonic trauma course, which means that it does not use traditional or conventional understandings of trauma, but problematizes them. While employing the word “trauma”, it uses the term metaphorically (literally, “trauma” means “wound”). It places a major emphasis on circumstance, and it is vested in the understanding that a strong relationship exists between trauma and oppression. The course prioritizes the bringing together theory and practice. Correspondingly, the goals of the course are to help people understand trauma in at once more personal and more political ways, and to help people turn themselves into practitioners who contribute to the creation of a better—hence less traumatizing—world. At the same time, the course humanizes trauma work, conceptualizing it as something that anyone can do. Ergo, there is an emphasis on sharing skills with the community; the term “befriender” is used, with the understanding being that any of us can “befriend”—and that befriending is the responsibility of all of us. Correspondingly, the concept of ‘trauma practitioner” itself is broadly defined, with a trauma practitioner being anyone from a counsellor/therapist, to an artist, to an activist, to a community organizer, to a spiritual leader, to an advocate, to an adult educator, to a co-worker, to a friend.
Preceding the formal start of the class, small group interviews are held by way of preparation. Here we begin dialoguing about the role of oppression in trauma—e.g., sexism, racism, homophobia. Here the perspective of the course is explained. Significantly, it is clarified right at these interviews, that just as people are asked not to be sexist, racist, or homophobic, they are similarly asked not to be mentalist. Correspondingly, norms and perspectives with respect to psychiatry are spelt out: What are those norms? The most elementary is that “mental health” language is not to be used (e.g., with all of us discussing why, ruled out are words like “symptoms”, “hallucination”, “paranoid”, each and every DSM disorder, including PTSD itself). And we immediately start exploring more human and more sensitive words which people can use instead (e.g., instead of “hallucination” expressions like “seeing and hearing what others do not”). Correspondingly, it is clarified that while many different resources can be used, and while what people do outside the course is their decision, in this particular course psychiatry is neither theorized nor used as a resource, but as an institution which is of danger to the traumatized people with whom we work. What goes along with this, helping people protect themselves from psychiatry just like helping people protect themselves from all other traumatizing institutions is framed as a critical dimension of trauma work. That said, psychiatry is afforded special attention precisely because it is conventionally theorized as help, because of its exceptional power, moreover, because what it overwhelmingly does is deprive people of their freedom (called “institutional care”), medicalize what is not medical (called “being scientific”), and brain-damage them (called “treatment”).
A multitude of different types of trauma are explored in this course as well as ways of approaching them. Examples are childhood sexual abuse, the trauma of residential school survivors, death itself, trauma arising from natural disaster, refugee trauma, trauma in war-torn countries, the insidious trauma involved in contending with daily racism or sexism, the use of the arts in trauma work. Explored also are how to work with two traumatized communities who are in conflict with one another (including where one of these transparently oppresses the other). For obvious reasons Palestinians in my class commonly choose to work in this area. The trauma industry as a profit-making and growth industry is critiqued. Correspondingly, not just European approaches to trauma are discussed, but also non-Eurocentric approaches. What goes along with this, the class explores the damage done when mainstream western understandings of and approaches to trauma are imposed on people from other cultures (for an excellent book that documents just such a case, see Watters, 2011).
The course focuses on both individual work and community work, with the understanding that: a) communities are traumatized as well as individuals; b) community and connection are a critical route to dealing with trauma. What goes along with this, oppression and the oppression of one’s community are seen as necessary levels to understand even when dealing with what is traditionally construed as “individual trauma”, with the point being that history matters and that trauma is not “discrete”.
A multiple layer approach to trauma work is encouraged. To aid with this, early on, course members are divided into small groups. Each member of the class is then handed a diagram of mine called “Focal Layers in ‘Individual’ Trauma Work”, which depicts such pivotal layers as “The Trauma Experienced Now”, “Identity and Other Personal Factors that Serve as Context and Shape Experience”, “Long Term Historical Identity-Based Trauma”, and “Dimensions of the Human Condition” (for more details, see the diagram itself at https://www.dropbox.com/s/uf5nxjfkht9lvav/layertrauma%20burstow.pdf?dl=0
Whereupon, the groups are asked to follow the instructions below, then to report back to the class a whole:
1. Carefully examine the layers of trauma diagram. In your small group, discuss the meaning of each of the layers and how you think they connect.
2. While respecting the need for anonymity, choose a trauma to discuss that involves: a) an actual traumatized person that at least one of you knows in depth and b) a traumatized community of which this person is a part.
3. Using the diagram, discuss the different levels and layers of trauma as they directly or indirectly connect up with this person’s trauma.
4. Assuming that you have been turned for help, with reference to each of layers, begin reflecting on how you might go about assisting this person.
To help students acquire a feel for dealing with the types of problems which typically confuse practitioners and which most deal with abysmally, much of the class involves concrete exercises in which students grapple with difficult scenarios, figuring out together how to understand what is happening to the person or group and what might be helpful. A large percentage of the exercises focus on traumatized people who would be traditionally seen as “seriously deluded” and traditionally slated for psychiatric intervention. Why this is important is that unless practitioners can become comfortable with and adept at working with such situations, regardless of how good they are theoretically, here they are likely to slip up, and actually do the person or the community harm.
To give you a “feel” for this use of exercises, what follows is one of many written scenarios used in the class, together with the instructions:
Emergency Call from Mark
A client called “Mark has just phoned. Mark is a psychiatric survivor who was battered as a child. He tells you that someone is strangling him, that there is a hand around his throat. You can hear him choking. You ask him who the assailant is. And he tells you that he can’t see anyone but that he can feel this hand choking him. You ask him how long the hand has been choking him. He tells you for that it’s been going on for hours. Everywhere he goes, the assailant walks with him, choking him.
a) What do you think is going on here?
b) Any hunches that you think you should check out? Which of these would you check out initially?
c) What might you want to check out in the long term?
d) How are you going to help this man? Short term? Long term?
e) What role do you see advocacy as possibly playing?
f) Record your agreements and disagreements so that you can report back to the class as a whole
The report-back by each team is immediately followed by the class as a whole grappling with what members came up with, affirming some parts, problematizing others.
The vast majority of the scenarios are drawn from my own practice. Correspondingly, after—and only after—the class has grappled with everyone’s answer, I share as something worth considering what I did, why I did it, and what in each case, the consequences were.
I will not be discussing this scenario above in detail here. Suffice it to say, however, that Mark was assaulted as a child, that the hand choking him was one of his own hands, and that pivotal to resolving the immediate crisis was walking him through removing what he sees as the hand of the assailant, reminding him that he can remove this hand at any time if it begins assailing him again, while in the short term, not questioning or complicating his belief that an external assault is happening here. By the same token, the crux of good work in the short run and the medium run includes helping this person figure out who in his life it might be safe and who would be risky to share this story with—in other words, helping him at once reach out selectively and become skilled at protecting himself from unwanted “intervention”. The crux of good work in the long run, while including all of the above, to the extent possible, involves helping Mark start approaching the “external hand choking him” metaphorically, see how the past affects the present, and begin coming to terms with both what his father did to him and his own response to it, though obviously only insofar as he is open to going there (For further discussion of this scenario and for other scenarios, see Burstow, 2015).
Respecting People’s Wishes, Including When It Comes to “Suicide”
If the question of respecting people’s wishes—something absolutely paramount in counterhegemonic courses—needs to be and is systematically reinforced when it comes to people who are traditionally seen as “deluded”, it similarly needs to be reinforced when it comes to people considering ending their lives. What I tell my students is that when we are dealing with adults—regardless of how scared the trauma practitioner may be, and in contradiction with what they are taught in clinical psychology, they need to respect people’s right to end their lives and in no way rob people of it. We have to be safe people for others to be with, to be able to share what they need to share with—and we are anything but that when we think that we should be making their decisions for them. Correspondingly, we need to be alert to the fact folks seen as “suicidal” are in special jeopardy from psychiatry, hence more energy often needs to put into helping them protect themselves from it. Finally, I let my students know that for decades I specialized in working with clients typically called “suicidal”, and I never once interfered with their rights, and what I think is related, not once did any of these clients kill themselves. The point is that if you create a safe place where people can share anything—including their intention to kill themselves—it minimally becomes increasingly possible for them to entertain staying alive.
Nor, I would note in passing, as counterhegemonic trauma practitioners do we in this class even hypothetically entertain psychologizing solutions when it comes to populations with “high suicide rates”. Rather, we frame the issues politically in alliance with—and taking our lead from— counterhegemonic leaders (including activists) from the communities in question. In this regard, there are “high suicide rates” among the Indigenous people on Turtle Island and the answer of the respective governments has been to fund more and more self-esteem training for Indigenous communities. On top of the fact that, expectably, these programs keep proving to be ineffective, as the Indigenous scholar/activist Roland Chisjohn (2017) so poignantly points out and asks: In Nazi Germany, Jews had three times the rate of suicide as the rest of the population. Does anyone think this was because of lack of self-esteem training?’
Use of the Arts
Arts are integrated into the course in a variety of ways. They are included in reading lists. There is invariably a student presentation on the use of art in trauma work (art therapy is viewed as only one of the many possibilities, with the class encouraged to be more political than this). Art figures to varying degrees in the course assignments. Correspondingly, ways in which artists have used art to help audiences appreciate or process trauma is intermittently discussed, in the process with it being demonstrated that “professionals” have no monopoly on knowledge, and beyond this, unearthing what conventional trauma practitioners need to learn from artists.
By way of example, about three quarter ways through the course, I tell the story of what happened when Marlene Dietrich went to Israel to receive an award for her heroism during World War II. In a nutshell, Dietrich was a German star of the silent screen in which the Third Reich, took special pride. Horrified by what Germany had become, she defected to the US, whereupon the Nazi regime did everything imaginable to get her back, including eventually murdering her family. Despite the imminent danger that this presented to her, determined to contribute what she could to the war effort, day after day, Dietrich went into the front lines to entertain the troops of the Allies.
What happened years later when she was informed that she was to be presented with this award? She said she would like to sing to the audience in her own Native tongue—German—seemingly totally ignoring the ban against speaking German in Israel. Now obviously, on one level, Germany is just a language and not something inherently offensive, but besides being a symbol, the very sound of German was a trauma trigger for Jews. No one knew what to do. How could they conceivably allow it? And yet how could they possibly refuse a request from the legendary war hero Marlene Dietrich? And so the people in charge of the ceremony said nothing, hoping that she would forget about this request. Dietrich arrived. She was presented with the award. Then she announced she was about to sing in her Native language. While initially, a few people gasped, sing in German, she did. Cleverly, skillfully, and probably to a large extent, intuitively, Dietrich sang a song which brought to mind the millions of killed Jews, even though the song per se had no direct connection to this topic. Correspondingly, each time she launched into a new refrain, she sang louder and more angrily, in her own way expressing outrage at the wholesale murder of Jews. The long and the short? She finished to thunderous applause. And next day newspapers throughout the country enthusiastically reported what a “hit” Dietrich was, adding that the ban against speaking German in Israel was now gone.
Naturally, the question and the seeming contradiction that the class wrestled with here is this: How could Dietrich accomplish in one night what literally hundreds of conventional trauma practitioners, indeed, a veritable army of trauma practitioners over several yearscould not? And as trauma practitioners, what have we to learn from this artist? From artists in general?
There are two assignments for this course. Assignment One is a typical graduate course assignment, involving presentations to the class by teams of two or three. Students are asked to both present on how to work with one of the traumas focused on in the course, bringing theory and practice together in the process, moreover, to make the presentation uniquely theirs (e.g., not just a repetition of what others have said or done). If Assignment One is common enough in trauma courses, albeit done with a counterhegemonic twist, by contrast, Assignment Two is, as it were, “out of the box”.
Generally, when the first assignment in a graduate course is doing a presentation, the second is writing an essay. Alas, the usefulness of such essays is short-lived, and to a degree, it is make-work. While of course, inevitably students learn something in the process, their primary reasons for writing this essay is to get a mark—after which, all too commonly, it is tossed in their filing cabinet and seldom looked at again. Why not have an assignment that allows students to get a grade, while contributing in a concrete way to their ongoing work as trauma practitioners? This in mind, students are asked to focus on a specific traumatized population that they are interested in working with, then create a “tool” or product that they can use in their work with this population.
This assignment inspires students to be creative. Some, of course, choose to pursue relatively conventional projects like creating a design for a workshop for a specific traumatized population. While this too can be good, far more allow their imagination to soar. To give you one among many examples of the truly wonderful work students have done, one year, realizing that there was almost no discussion of wife battery in the specific South Asian community from which they come, two students or mine from the same community decided to research the phenomenon together. They began by interviewing battered women in their community, then out of that research created a play, this with the voices of the women emerging loud and clear. Shortly thereafter, they submitted a proposal to perform their play in an upcoming cultural festival of their community. The proposal was accepted. They enacted the play. It was enormously well received and ended up being brought back yearly by popular demand. Correspondingly, it was used by these students, by priests, by women activists, and by other leaders in their community to help mobilize the community to begin talking about and actually addressing wife battery. What stellar trauma work! Work that actually does what trauma practitioners should be doing—finding ways that witnessing and empowerment can happen and helping create a better and less traumatized world! And how preferable to penning an essay that quickly disappears into a filing cabinet!
Questions Frequently Posed to Me About this Course
How does one bestow credibility and legitimacy on an area or a perspective when in the public eye, it has almost none? How does one turn antipsychiatry into a respected area of study and practice in the face of psychiatric hegemony? How does one attract more and more students to this and related fields of study? How might one at the same time begin healing the rifts between Antipsychiatry and Mad Studies? And how does one ensure that what advances are made at one university spread to others?
There are a number of different ways, many of which I have personally pursued over the years. One way is to endow at different respected universities Antipsychiatry and Mad Studies scholarships. This is the story of three such scholarships—and the struggles and strategies involved.
An important context for this article are battles in which I partook from 2006 until a couple of years ago which led to the creation of the world’s first antipsychiatry scholarship, this at University of Toronto (see http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/oise/Current_Students/Graduate_Student_Funding/Scholarship_Opportunities/OISE_Internal_Awards/index.html ) What is likewise context is a previous article of mine, also published in Mad in America, called “Conferring Legitimacy on the Counterhegemonic” (see https://www.madinamerica.com/2017/05/conferring-legitimacy-counterhegemonic/) that theorizes in considerable detail what transpired during that period—the fight, the strategies, the use of allies. A more immediate context is how the first awarding of this scholarship was actually accomplished and the groundwork laid to ensure that this scholarship does not go off course. The most recent context largely materialized in the last few months—arriving at agreements with two other universities—York and Ryerson—whereupon, upon my death, and in accordance with agreed-on provisions in my new will, money from my estate will be used to establish Antipsychiatry and Mad Studies scholarships in each of these universities.
I will begin this discussion with the 2006 work and the formal creation of the Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at University of Toronto, but this will not be the primary focus and so people who want further details on it are advised to read the article mentioned above. I will proceed to zero in on the various developments which happened since then. I will end with an identification of lessons learned and with an invitation to others.
In 2006, I began what proved to be nine months of negotiations with OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) and U. of T. (University of Toronto) to get an agreement for a clause in a will which I was drafting whereby my residual estate would go to creating a perpetual scholarship for OISE students doing theses in the areas of antipsychiatry and/or homelessness. To be clear, while homelessness is a pressing concern and research area of mine, my overriding intent was to fund students working in antipsychiatry. Nonetheless, I was keenly aware that the academics in question would welcome something in homelessness but not antipsychiatry. Hence, linking the two together was good strategy. And indeed while a scholarship in homelessness was objected to by no one, antipsychiatry proved to be a formidable stumbling block. There appeared to be no end of objections to it. For nine months I met with who was then the current dean of OISE, carefully addressing every objection which she had. Examples of obstacles, together with responses that materialized were: She told me they could not mount a scholarship that gave priority to psych survivors because psychiatric survivors themselves would never want such a thing, whereupon, I turned to the Mad Students Society, who went on record saying they very much wanted it. I was told that the endowment as described was a human rights violation—when it demonstrably was not. Correspondingly, I was told that OISE could not create such a scholarship because no program or department at OISE would feel qualified to oversee the giving of such an award, whereupon, I immediately mobilized and at my urging, two different departments at OISE passed resolutions stating definitively that they would be happy to oversee it. And so the negotiations went. Nine months passed with me responding fastidiously to each and every objection raised. Finally, when it started to look as if this process would never end, I told U. of T. that unless they accepted the offer within the next seven days (and it had not yet cleared the Dean’s office and there were two other levels that would have to approve), I would withdraw it and make a comparable offer to Carleton University. Three days later, with the dean’s help, the proposed endowment had been approved by all U. of T., with no further changes required.
Fast forward a few years—Shaindl Diamond, the executor of my will got in touch with me, worried. She knew that when I died, the residual estate provisions in my will would have to go through the university again, and she feared that she was not be as good at negotiating as I was. Correspondingly, she asked if I could try to establish a small antipsychiatry scholarship at OISE/UT now, with the hope that this would pave the way for the larger scholarship articulated in my will. I quickly agreed.
Years of negotiations followed as I tried to bring into being the Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at OISE/UT. Now this was to be a “matching scholarship” That is, I was agreeing to personally match all amounts I could raise from the community. I promised U. of T. additionally, I would contribute whatever was needed so that at the bare minimum, the scholarship fund had $50,000 dollars in it. I got the approval of the new dean quickly. And with help from OISE, I immediately took to mobilizing the community to help fund-raise. In the process, stellar allies like Dr. Peter Breggin, Dr. Lauren Tenney, and Reverend Cheri DiNovo came aboard, publicly endorsing the scholarship. With these endorsements in hand, we reached out to potential donors; and with students taking the primary role, in particular Efrat Gold, we created a video on the significance of the scholarship (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJyA6RyQmMo). Meanwhile I continued to negotiate with U. of T. around wording that we could both accept.
Did I run into problems? Yes—huge problems and legions of them. For example, throughout this process, every person assigned by OISE to help me steward the request though U. of T. or reach out to the press kept being “let go” unexpectedly and when they disappeared, their correspondence with respect to the scholarship disappeared with them. My solution was to keep each and every email that transpired on the topic (and there were literally hundreds of them) and to forward relevant email to new people as they surfaced. What was also distressing but in the end proved more amusing than serious, additionally, some Canadian psychiatrists spoke openly at international conferences telling those assembled they were hell-bent on stopping the “misguided” scholarship. This I basically ignored. What was far more serious, one stall after another materialized. Whereupon my institutional allies at OISE and I settled on a strategy that proved to be “a winner”. We argued that disallowing the scholarship was at odds with academic freedom.
As we got closer and closer to the goal, a historic meeting took place between several OISE administrators and me, during which we hammered out provisional details on how the yearly award would work. Alas, less than a month later, the OISE official in charge of the scholarship was let go, with the entire email exchange between the two of us likewise gone. And again, I began negotiating with new people. Frustrating? “You betchya!” But we soldiered on.
Eventually, a wording was accepted and the scholarship was approved by the University Board of Governors. Alas, however, once the press got wind of the scholarship, I was trashed in media around the world. Threats were made on my life. And one mainstream professional claimed to be one of many in the process of initiating law suits against me. Mostly I simply ignored the unfair treatment and threats—and my students and I concentrated on creating ever new consciousness-raising and fundraising-events. Essentially, we counted on the old adage that all press was good press. And so it was to prove.
What was the primary consequence of being trashed in the media around the world? Once in a while, I was able to convince the media to let me respond (e.g., after having been trashed in a student newspaper—The Varsity—I convinced those in charge to let me to write an OP Ed piece where instead of focusing of the unjust attacks on me, I availed myself of the opportunity to educate the public about psychiatry and antipsychiatry; see https://thevarsity.ca/2016/11/13/op-ed-understanding-what-is-at-stake) What was totally unexpected and likewise thrilling, a billionaire in the US who otherwise would never have gotten wind of this Canadian development heard of the scholarship and made a very sizeable contribution to it, which I then proceeded to match. We now had scholarship with a healthy amount of money behind it—something that may well never have happened otherwise. In other words the bad publicity helped us prevail beyond our wildest dreams!
Recent Developments Around the Scholarship
We now had a scholarship to which the university community was committed, and everyone acted accordingly. We met, accomplished what we needed to do to ensure that this was more than a “paper victory”. It was decided at OISE that we would pick the first recipient of the scholarship in early April of 2018, also, so as to ensure that the process would not go awry, that I would be in charge of coordinating. At the urging of the administration, I handpicked the rest of evaluation committee. I invited one person from each OISE department, and with the aid of helpful officials, I put processes in place to ensure that students knew how to apply. We mounted all relevant information on the OISE website. Applications began coming in, complete with thesis proposals and recommendations from supervisors. In April, the committee met to select who will soon be the very first recipient of the award. And what a glorious meeting it was!
Contrary to the worries of many that the scholarship would be a “non-starter’ for no students would be interested, we received four exceptionally impressive applications. As we all of us agreed, every single one of the applications was strong enough to be awarded the scholarship. I was granted the opportunity to clarify antipsychiatry to the selection committee and my colleagues were delighted to be finding out more. As we began discussing the applications, it was evident that everyone was committed to making the choice carefully, taking all relevant factors into consideration. Correspondingly one hour later, with smiles flashing around the room. we had unanimously chosen “a winner”. Truly an inspiring beginning. And nothing could be clearer that that we had turned a corner.
Subsequent Scholarship Developments
With stories like this, the point reached at this juncture would generally be the end of the saga, for I had ostensibly accomplished what I set out to do. It is not the end! The point is, I kept focused on the larger mission—both at University of Toronto and beyond. Correspondingly, I continued to use the scholarship to consciousness-raise.
In addition to this, new stages of a more extensive endowment journey soon commenced. The initial impetus for them was that my will was eleven years old. So it was time to look at revisions, more particularly, and more generally, to take stock of what I was leaving to posterity.
The first thing I noticed is that my residual estate (which I had scrimped and saved for and had ensured was sizeable as well as constituting the vast majority of my estate) was still going to a “compromise scholarship” in which the scholarship was divided between research into homelessness and antipsychiatry research. What that meant in essence is a huge amount of my money (moreover an amount about 15 times the size of the scholarship that I had just endowed) would be going into a scholarship where antipsychiatry research was only part of the focus. It soon dawned on me, correspondingly, how easy it would be for the scholarship to almost always get awarded to theses in the other area, with antipsychiatry thereby pushed to the side. For a few seconds, this realization floored me. Then I remembered Wittgenstein’s ladder. For people who do not know what I mean, in his major tome Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, the brilliant philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein articulated a theory of language that could successfully serve as a tool to arrive at a type of awareness. At the same time, he knew that the theory was incorrect. Toward the end of this impressive work, accordingly, he acknowledged as much. Correspondingly, he urged readers to think of the original formulation as a ladder that gets you to the roof top. It did its job in letting you get where you needed to go—now you needed to throw away the ladder (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittgenstein%27s_ladder)
Yes, I told myself, this is exactly what I need to do with the original scholarship that I negotiated back in 2006. It has gotten us where we needed to go; now it is important to throw it away. Why use a hypothetical scholarship that was barely okay, when I now have a fully existing scholarship that does the job brilliantly? Whereupon I revised my will, replacing the former residual clause provision with the following “For the residue of my estate, I instruct my executor as follows: To pay the Governing Council at University of Toronto one hundred per cent (100%) of the residue of my estate to be used to augment the Dr. Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry at the University of Toronto at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.” And with that change, with that fortuitous use of the Wittgenstein ladder formula, a fuller revolution has just happened. And was this strategic about-turn the end of the process? As it happened, no.
As I quickly realized as I continued reviewing my will, I could further adjust my will so that the revolution in process could be bigger still. Why limit myself to a scholarship at one university only when we could accomplish more?, I asked myself. Now to be clear, I had only enough savings for one huge scholarship—and huge, it certainly will become upon my passing. However, why not try to endow smaller scholarships in a similar vein at other universities—Would not this create synergy and bestow exponentially more legitimacy on the area? I immediately thought of the other universities in the Toronto area. Could I not to some extent cover all three universities in Toronto so that wherever any student went in the city, they could access a scholarship of this ilk? And might not this in the fullness of time even culminate in like-minded counterhegemonic scholars at different universities working together?
So asking myself and so reasoning, I reached out to a few of my allies at Ryerson University and York University who also teach in the general area. Thrilled, they immediately committed themselves to helping both now and after my demise. Noticing myself that both of these universities had strengths in Mad Studies, which itself could act as a bridge and conjecturing that here additionally was an opportunity to bring Mad Studies and Antipsychiatry closer together, I decided to work at creating scholarships in both universities for students doing theses in either of these areas.
Knowing from experience that the first objections that would be raised would likely be that there were few courses and little or no faculty in the area— with help, I first created a list of faculty in these areas at each university as well as lists of the relevant courses that were taught. And with this information in hand, I got in touch with the relevant university administrators, prepared to make the case, beginning with Ryerson. With Ryerson, the issue of faculty and relevant course was checked out with record speed, and the only real complication that I came across is with what is called the “variance clause”.
A variance clause is a standard clause which is always included in endowment agreements. It gives the institution in question the right to use the money for something somewhat different than what is spelt out. If you are trying to endow anything, you can never get around having negotiate a variance clause. And if the scholarship intended is highly counter-hegemonic—here is a key place where you are likely to be faced with seemingly insurmountable problems. Indeed, it is one of the principle factors that held up the University of Toronto scholarship for years. What in essence you have to do is rein in the degree of discretionary power that officials want granted the university even while negotiating a variance clause that takes into consideration the organization’s needs (and changing needs), all this while ensuring that your intention will actually be honoured not only now but long after your demise. And it is with this last part that a benefactor has to be especially careful.
Now by this time, I had become adept at finding solutions and what also helped, I was dealing with a much more nimble university, moreover staff who were both surprised and delighted that someone who had been neither faculty or student at their university actually wanted to give them money. Hence, while we were forced into some tricky “back-and-forths” with wording—within four days we had come to an agreement. Three weeks later, an agreement had likewise been reached with York University. Whereupon, I revised my new will accordingly. And I sent the additions to my lawyer.
The upshot? About a week ago (April 26, 2018) my new will was officially signed and witnessed. If I might be allowed an exclamation here—halleluiah!
Lesson to be Gleaned from the Foregoing:
· Piece by piece a person can mount a revolutionary change even when it seems impossible
· Be strategic, not reactive
· Take every setback as a time to reflect, every obstacle as a learning opportunity
· Gather your forces around you—psych survivors, students, colleagues, on-side administrators
· Leverage the espoused values of the institution that you are trying to influence (e.g., note, in this story, the strategic use of the value academic freedom)
· Do not worry about personal attacks and bad publicity—all publicity is good publicity
· Know that you can seldom just accept the university’s standard variance clause. Figure out what is needed to safeguard what you are trying to achieve and act accordingly—even when doing so adds years to the process.
· Keep your eyes on the “big picture”, and when you have ostensibly won, just take this as a time to expand your horizons
· Be at once 100% visionary, 100% principled, and 100% pragmatic.
· Use every conceivable moment as a cherished opportunity to educate and organize.
· As with Wittgenstein’s ladder, use as tools what helps you reach your goal, while being prepared to cast away formulations and achievements no longer helpful.
Closing Remarks and an Invitation
A quiet revolution has just happened—a formidable piece of counter-hegemony. We now have antipsychiatry scholarships ensconced at all three universities in a major international city. And with this, antipsychiatry has made sizeable inroads into academia. We have not only laid down infrastructure and built in safeguards—human and other—we have altered the discourse.
To be clear, this is just one aspect of the gargantuan job that has to be done to make universities work for us and more generally and more importantly, to make society as a whole work for us. And it is absolutely critical that people concentrate on other and in many respects more important parts of the struggle. To keep with the focus of this particular article, however, in ending, let me ask: If we can have antipsychiatry and/or Mad Studies scholarships embedded in every Toronto university, why can’t we “decolonize” other cities similarly? How about New York? How about Tokyo?
Roughly speaking, I have provided, as it were, a road map to be followed, used for inspiration, varied, as the case may be. And in whatever way feels right to you, I invite others able and interested to take up the challenge. Please note, we already know that the fight to create such counter-hegemonic scholarships is not only a meaningful one but a fight that we can actually win. Correspondingly, it can but contribute to the winning of other battles. Who is to say what this might lead to down the road with respect to individual freedom? Valuing of difference? The way society understands and responds to “personal troubles”? Societal recognition of hidden racism, sexism, poverty, et. al.? The very existence of psychiatry?
That said, I cannot “sign off” without thanking all the people who contributed to this glorious breakthrough (students, psych survivors, radical practitioners, movement people, faculty, administrators, donors, etc.)—to name just a few: Sim Kapoor, Dr. Sona Kazemi, Efrat Gold (and family), Dr. Simon Adam, Sharry Taylor, Dr. Peter Breggin, Dr. Lauren Tenney, Dr. Shaindl Diamond, Julie Wood, Reverend Cheri DiNovo, Dr. Charles Pascal, Dr. Jennifer Poole, Dr. Chris Chapman, Inna Hupponen, Mark Riczu, Dr. Jane Gaskell, Dr. Jack Quarter, Vesna Bajic, Dr. Nina Bascia, Don Weitz, Dr. Glen Jones, Dr. Ian Macleod, Lise Watson, Dr. Tanya Titchkosky, Dr. Linda Muzzin, Oriel Vargas, Nichole Schott, Rebecca Ballen, Dr. Mark Federman, Margaret Brennan, Dr. Jeanne Watson, Lara Cartmale, Michael Hill, lawyer Christine Davidson—and to add two highly helpful staff from Ryerson and York—Mira Claxton and Marisa Barias. Individually and collectively, you helped pave the way for the dawning of a new era. My heart-felt gratitude to each and every one of you.