Remember Kate Millett? She made the cover of Time in 1970 after her dissection of literary machismo, Sexual Politics, became a blockbuster best-seller and won her the title of leading feminist spokesperson.
It didn’t last. Although she was married, she soon announced that she was a lesbian, which split the women’s movement and destroyed her superstar status. Thereafter came two rambling autobiographical books, and a series of liberal causes that finally got her expelled from Iran for trying to stir up the Ayatollah’s docile female population.
During this time she also suffered from manic depression and was committed twice by family members. She emerged from the hospital dependent on the drug Lithium to balance her moods, only to make the ironic discovery that balanced moods are inimical to creativity. Lithium slows the thought process and represses brain activity, which interfered with her writing, while its side effect of hand tremors interfered with her sculpting and painting.
In the early 80’s, Millett decided to go off Lithium and take her chances. This harrowing, often unbearable book is the story of what happened to her when she tried to buck a system and an era that have declared war on self-reliance.
Trying to go cold turkey while running an artists’ colony and feminist commune on her upstate New York farm, she was thwarted at every turn by the bevy of do-your-own thing blithe spirits with whom she had surrounded herself. With the studied casualness of the sane confronting the mad, they kept asking her “Are you all right?” and “How do you feel?” until she was ready to scream.
With cheeky, college-age lesbian hippies running in and out of her office, yelling and playing rock music, she did scream: “I lost my temper while trying to write a check.” Her perfectly natural outburst “proved” to the communards that she had entered a manic stage and was losing her mind. They ganged up on her and nagged her to take her Lithium, and even though she was the owner of the farm, she was rendered helpless by the sacred structure of commune life: “Impudent kid, I think again, aware that our democratic style does not really grant me any literal authority over anyone; it is all to be a product of personality, and mine is in ruins.”
Soon these committed pacifists, including her own lesbian lover, a proponent of every conceivable civil right, decided to use force: “Her hand approaches my mouth so fast I hardly see it; she is forcing the pill between my lips, her other hand reaching to hold my chin, as one forces a child to take pills, even a dog. Sheila’s a paid-up member of the American Civil Liberties Union.”
To her terrified disbelief, her sister, her lover, and several friends tried to get around New York’s involuntary commitment law (“It’s done all the time”) to have her institutionalized so she would be forced to take Lithium. Their excuse was that she was spending money like water—what was once the sin of waste is now a “symptom” of mania to those of little faith in anything but the religion of psychiatry.
In commitment interviews her every natural reaction conspired against her; Irish as Paddy’s pig and endowed with an artistic temperament, she nonetheless had to prove her sanity by following the law of the loony bin: “Keep your temper and never raise your voice.” American cultural ignorance was another nemesis: a chance literary reference, natural enough for a writer, to a scene in a Dumas novel made the doctors think she was hallucinating, and she had to refrain from laughing too hysterically when a self-satisfied feminist psychiatrist complimented her with “You didn’t decompose.” She meant that Millett remained admirably calm during an examination.
Matters came to a head when Millett went to Ireland and got involved with Bernadette Devlin, the Irish Labour Party, and the hunger strikers in Ulster. If Franz Kafka had written the screenplay of The Snake Pit, it would still fall short of Millett’s description of what happened to her in the Auld Sod when the commitment cabal back home joined forces with the Irish constabulary to have her snatched from the airport and dumped in an insane asylum in the wilds of County Clare. Here, in a scabrous ward of moaning old women whose families no longer wanted them, she is sedated not only with Lithium but several other tranquilizers, becoming a prisoner of “the triumph of ignorance: television and narcotic fantasy,” until her Irish political allies gain her release.
This is a gripping and valuable book, the kind we have been getting lately from former feminist honchos who seem to be sidling up to conservatism. Anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin now hates the ACLU, Susan Brownmiller has turned into a starchy spinster who unabashedly “blamed the victim” in her Hedda Nussbaum novel, and now Kate Millett has declared war on the insidious mental health industry and the passivity of a citizenry that accepts prescription pills
not only for manic depression but for the blues, ordinary depression, and alcoholism, even for schoolchildren who are hyperactive . . . whatever synthetic they are all eating so obediently has become a form of social control . . . because this psychiatrist thing is in itself a form of social control.
Unfortunately, she fingers the wrong villain. She blames “fascism,” “Reagan’s new America,” the Pope and the CIA for pioneering the authoritarianism that psychiatry has adopted, unable or unwilling to see that it is her own liberal side of the political spectrum that enshrined psychiatry in the first place, beginning with the fashionable craze for Freud in the 20’s down to today’s constant admonitions to “seek professional help” for the slightest upset. The perfectibility of mankind, whether through yammering on the couch or through biochemistry, is a liberal goal. The conservative takes his leaf from Seneca: “Scorn pain; either it will go away or you will.” Conservatives don’t believe in coddling people, but neither do we kill them with the kindness that Millett endured.
This is a personal story; she says nothing about the need for involuntary commitment among the raving homeless, many of whom were sprung from mental institutions by an erring liberalism that likes to extend freedom for groups while restricting it for individuals. Except for spready analyses of farming problems and muzzy descriptions of lesbian ecstasies (“the billy goat of our perfect shamelessness” unconsciously combines the two), Millett’s writing here is highly readable and effective, marked by a self-described style of “run-of-the-mouth Americanese” that is often ingratiating.
The book’s most pleasant surprise is her casual and unselfconscious repudiation of radical feminism as she watches a horse:
Suddenly the maleness, the majesty of its maleness, opens itself to me and I love it, revere it. Remember in a burst how I have always loved it, maleness, men themselves, all things masculine. . . . I had forgotten, too, its place in things, its half of the universe. As if in the years of feminism and the need to square imbalance it had seemed necessary to negate what claimed too much for itself.
That should soothe the reviewer who said that reading Sexual Politics was like “sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker.”
[The Loony Bin Trip, by Kate Millett (New York: Simon and Schuster) 352 pp., $19.95]