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A curse for a cursed profession

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But a short while ago, I was slugging away on a work-related report – a dreary task that nudges the mind to drift -- when I found myself wondering what I might add to the premiere launch of my book Psychiatry Interrogated, soon to be upon me, to lend it that extra "oomph."

Before I knew it, I had set aside the report and was in the midst of penning a poem -- one modelled on the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s masterpiece "A Curse for a Nation." 

Now, in "polite society," cursing is largely verboten. Let me suggest, however, that if done in the correct spirit and adroitly, cursing can be a highly useful type of anti-oppression work. How so? It can at once shed light on oppression, express the outrage warranted, and motivate action.  On top of which, it can be personally liberating. Moreover, as Browning so sagely points out, paradoxical though this may seem, it can itself be a loving act.

In Browning’s poem, what Browning was cursing was the United States. Why?  Because of the abomination of slavery. Read the poem and you will see the force, the satisfaction of "saying it like it is," the implicit consciousness-raising, all of which made it enormously popular within abolitionist circles at the time. It was precisely with this awareness that as the day of my book launch neared, I instinctively found myself turning to her poem. 

Now to be clear, I am not intending here any kind of comparison between -- let alone an equation of -- American slavery and the practices of modern psychiatry. Obviously, there are profound differences. Nor am I weighing in on either side of the debate that every so often surfaces in venues like Mad in America as to whether or not slavery and psychiatry should be compared. What am I doing? Approaching both as institutional oppression, just as I would approach sexism or classism. Correspondingly, I am allowing the poem to inspire me.

Nor, as it happens, am I the first antipsychiatry theorist to be inspired by this poem (nor likely to be the last). I would refer readers in this regard to psychologist John Breeding’s wondrous Jungian poem "An Anima Curse for a Profession."

That said, what happened in the days leading up to the launch might best be described as being "taken over." Half mesmerized, again and again, I found myself turning to Browning's poem, reading, rewriting, rewriting anew, drawing on key phrases and sections, all the while conjuring up the everyday practices of modern psychiatry. What particularly captivated me about Browning's poem is that the very worst curse that she could imagine bestowing on the targeted oppressors is that they be themselves -- that is, they continue to do exactly what they have always done.

What emerged from my labour is a poem entitled "A Curse for a Cursed Profession." And on February 24, at the premiere launch of Psychiatry Interrogated in the Nexus Lounge at OISE/University of Toronto, I read this poem to an audience of 200 people. It was the culmination of a very different type of pedagogy in which I, as editor of the book, and four other contributors (Dr. Jennifer Poole, Lauren Spring, Mary Jean Hande, and Rob Wipond) introduced the audience to the anthology. 

As Psychiatry Interrogated is the world's very first anthology of institutional ethnography investigations into psychiatry -- itself a major achievement -- there was an emphasis that evening on scholarship as we explained the benefit of institutional ethnography as a methodology and, bit by bit, laid out the findings of our various projects. An excited audience learned, for example, how it is that perfectly competent nurses lose not only their jobs but their very nursing accreditation through the everyday activation of psychiatric texts. They likewise learned how the compulsory "mental health" framing in Canadian workplaces routinely operates to the detriment of those purportedly helped.

Following the speeches was a highly animated Q&A. Then came my poem -- something far less scholarly and far more visceral. From the smiles of recognition and triumph that quickly inundated the room, nothing could be clearer that it struck a chord, hence my decision to reproduce it here.

A few words about my poem itself: As with Browning’s, the first section is a prelude; the second, the curse.  In my prelude -- and this happened with Breeding too -- many of Browning's phrases and ideas are used, as is her general design. My curse, on the other hand, differs dramatically from Browning's. This, nonetheless, remains the same: In both cases, each stanza ends with a refrain that gives voice to the curse. Correspondingly, the worst curse that I too could imagine bestowing on my target is that they be themselves

Which bring us to the poem:

Please accept this poem as intended -- as a part of an account of a Toronto book launch, as a critique of psychiatry in a new key, as a creative way to go about activism, as a moment of inspiration. And do enjoy, ponder, change, build on, and curse as the spirit moves you.


A Curse for a Cursed Profession

I heard an angel speak last night.
And he said: Write
Write a curse against the profession of psychiatry for me
And send it over and against the therapeutic sea.

I faltered, taking up the word.
"Not so, my lord," I answered.
"If curses there must be, choose another
To send this curse against my brother

For I am a soul moved by love.
Love of everyone around me
Love of the vulnerable, love of the lofty
Love of everyone who is or ever will be."

"Therefore," said the voice, "shalt thou write
My curse tonight.
From the summit of love a curse is driven
As lightning is from the tops of heaven."


"Forgive me, liege," I answered. "Ever more
My heart is sore
For the sins of the modern state: For the little feet
Of drugged urchins who stagger across the street
But curse, I cannot.
Cursing is a man's job.
I a woman have only known
How the heart melts and tears run."

"Therefore," continued the angel,
"Shalt thou write my curse tonight
Weep and write
For a curse from the depths of womanhood
Is salty, and bitter, and good."
So thus I wept and thus I wrote
What all may read
And thus, as was beholden on me
-- For well I understood the necessity --
I sent it over and against the therapeutic sea.


The Curse

Because thou hast broken the Hippocratic Oath,
Because ye lie about science while donning its garb
And never so much as feel an ounce of shame
As ye and thy professional brethern grab ever more power and fame,
This is thy curse: Prescribe.

When others uncover thy mistakes: Cry foul!
Dismiss without consideration.
When women whom thou hast electroshocked forget who they are,
Call it progress and stand thy ground,
And when the children of women arrive early at the grave,
Having been on Prozac since age 5,
Never forget, as doctors, you do no wrong
Unlike the common throng:
This is thy curse: Prescribe.

Like Bismarck, like Attila the Hun,
Have thy arsenal always ready at hand,
With words begin, with words end.
"Schizophrenia," call it, "bipolar," "ADHD."
If thou thinkest thou might later commit,
Tick "paranoid" next to "PTSD."
Verily, verily,
Off thy tongue, let the fateful words roll trippingly.
Then before thy office the poor wretch starts to depart,
This is thy curse: Prescribe.

When thou runnest out of people here on whom thy kindness to bestow,
Like the merchants of old,
Be bold
And set sail for lands yet untapped.
How about Sri Lanka? How about Ghana? How about the Congo?
Surely they too can gain
From the white man's game.
This is thy curse: Prescribe.

And if, perchance, thou findeth thyself losing the credibility battle,
Time it will be to name the latest disease --Prognostically speaking, the horror of horrors! --
"Acute Antipsychiatry Disorder" --
Quick! Enter it into the DSM, ensuring that no other diseases it borders!
And as the ignorant celebrate in the noonday sun,
And as liberation rings from the mountain top,
This is thy curse: Prescribe.

For the original version of this article, see here.

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Image: Elizabeth Barrett Browning (archive) 

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