rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Electroshock as violence against women: fighting back

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Woman in silhouette. Photo: Lord Of Pixels/Flickr

Pound. Pound. Pound. What am I?
I am a totally blank wall
. (Burstow, The Other Mrs. Smith)

This is second article in the Zapped series -- a series about an inherently damaging procedure euphemistically known as "electroshock therapy" or ECT. The first of the articles highlighted breaking news about ECT over the years, almost any part of which should have sufficed to result in governments around the world putting an end to ECT.

Nonetheless, as revealed in the article, not only did this not happen, most of the news in question was not even covered by the mainstream media. Examples of breaking news highlighted in that first article was the finding that electroshock is no more effective than placebo, and more importantly, findings in what is by far the largest study in ECT history -- the Sackeim et al. study -- where it was proven to a level far exceeding statistical significance that extensive damage and memory impairment occurs with every single type of ECT. 

That said, the primary focus of that article was on a recent lawsuit against the shock-machine manufacturers, and the court's determination, which was summarized by D. L. Group, thusly:

  • A reasonable jury could find that plaintiffs suffered brain damage as a result of ECT.
  • A reasonable jury could find that the ECT device manufacturer caused plaintiffs brain damage through failure to warn their treating physicians of brain injury, or alternatively by failing to investigate and report allegations of brain damage and permanent memory loss to the FDA, so that information would be available to the public.

All of which resulted in Somatics (the giant of the shock machine manufacturers) at long last inserting an admission of permanent brain damage in their disclosure about the risks accompanying use of their machines.

And again, this news was not covered.

Law suits are "one way to go"; and survivors who want to avail themselves of that option, do check out the first article in this series. Direct action is another. In this, the second article of the series, the focus is on direct action.

This focus could take us to many different parts of the world for there are anti-ECT actions going on in several locales -- in England, for example, and in Chile. The most radical of the actions is in Toronto -- so let's zero in on the Toronto scene.

What do the Toronto activists have in store for us? On the day before Mother's Day, May 11, activists will be gathering at Queen's Park for their annual rally against ECT, complete with testimonials, demands for action, and music. What they will be calling for -- as they always do -- is the abolition of this inherently brain-damaging "treatment."

What is new and especially thrilling this year: the following day, May 12, at noon, at a location still to be announced, a hunger strike will commence. The people striking will all be women, and the lead striker will be Connie Neil -- an 80-year-old shock survivor. 

A resident of Ontario, Connie is a shock survivor whose memory was so impaired by the "treatment," she could not even buy groceries for she could no longer distinguish one type of meat from another, for example. Is this story unique? No it is not. It is precisely because Connie's story is not an outlier but is frighteningly typical that survivors are geared for action.

By going on a hunger strike, of course, the survivors and their allies are following in the tradition of Gandhi. Drawing on the principles and methods of nonviolent resistance, they are applying moral pressure. Correspondingly, the bodies and brains of shock survivors having been jeopardized by the "professionals," in no uncertain terms, in their own way, they are putting their bodies on the line. Herein we see a new line of attack, together with a symbol so potent that it has the potential of grabbing the attention of the media and the heart and soul of the public.

At the same time that this is an exciting new direction in this fight, I might add, it is linked to an old piece of "breaking news" that the world has consistently ignored -- just like it has ignored every other inconvenient truth about electroshock.

To back up a bit, although this is the first hunger strike against ECT in history, survivors and their allies have been demonstrating against ECT for decades. And for ages, the Toronto demonstration has been hosted by Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA) and it has happened either on or the day before Mother's Day, with the slogan being "Stop Shocking Our Mothers and Grandmothers." 

Why Mother's Day, you may be wondering? And why is the action called "Stop Shocking our Mothers and Grandmothers?" Because the unvarnished truth is the elderly have disproportionately been subjected to this treatment -- and a statistic that is even more telling, throughout the entire history of ECT, two to three times as many women are shocked than men. This, note, irrespective of "diagnosis."

If you want to know why overwhelmingly women are targeted, you can pick up a sense of what is happening here by perusing statements made by shock proponents in the early days before the industry started denying brain damage. Tellingly, leading shock proponent, Abraham Myerson, for example, had this to say about the people being given ECT: "These people have more intelligence than they can handle, and a reduction of intelligence is an important factor in the curative process." Factor in who primarily is subjected to electroshock, it is pretty clear that it is overwhelmingly women whose brains are seen as expendable, with the concomitant disrupting of their ability to think theorized as optimal.

This in itself would suffice to label electroshock as sexist and indeed, a form of violence against women -- but the story does not end here. Listen to the testimonies of women shock survivors and compare it to men's and an even more horrific truth become clear -- that the very gender singled out for shock is the one most harmed by it. Note in this regard, as you can see from the testimonials from official hearings such as those posted on the CAPA website, it is primarily women shock survivors whose memory have become so impaired that they have to take notes all day long to get through the day; correspondingly, it is overwhelmingly women who speak of 20 or 30 years of their memory having been completely and permanently erased.

On a personal note, early on, as a researcher/activist, this gender difference became painfully apparent to me -- as did the fact that husbands were often complicit in the brain-damaging of their wives by signing for them to be shocked -- and alas, no, not always innocently. Hence I started penning scholarly articles where I explicitly identified electroshock as a form of violence against women. A line of investigation likewise pursued by other feminist researchers and with "damning revelations" arising, like husbands' explicitly describing the injury done to their wives' memory as a "good thing" for now the wife could no long remember why she was angry with him -- though once again, findings like this were never covered by the mainstream media.

Then came scientific corroboration of the reality of greater damage. To wit: One additional finding of the definitive Sackeim report -- and again one at a statistical level of significance -- is precisely that women's memory is significantly more impaired by this "treatment" than men's are.

What we have here -- no less -- is a diminishment of women, the battering of women's brains, the controlling of women, the destruction of women's memory, a frontal assault on women, masquerading as help. And with this piece of the puzzle falling into place, why the Toronto anti-ECT activists are proceeding as they are becomes crystal clear.

It is indeed appropriate that the action against shock be on a day associated with women for women are central to this story. The scheduling of it on or near Mother's Day is particularly apt because women have commonly reported being shocked just after the birth of their first child, or just after the birth of their second. And yes, "grandmothers" need to be mentioned because of the targeting of the elderly. And yes, it is important that the strikers themselves be women to dramatize the fact that we are dealing with nothing less than violence against women -- also to show that women are rising up, that women will not stand for such abuse any longer.

Here we see a brilliant piece of activism. And here is how and why the resistance is unfolding as it is. Bravo, Connie and everyone else involved -- the women strikers in particular! Hopefully, at long last, the media will take note.

To give readers some sense of what they can do to support the cause: spread the word about both the damage done and the disturbingly sexist nature of ECT. If you are a member of the media, write the tale that cries out to be told. If you happen to be in Toronto, whether you are a member of the media or an everyday citizen, do try to turn up at the press conference on May 10, at noon in room 7-162 at OISE (252 Bloor West).

Come the following day to the rally against shock (Saturday, May 11, just south of Queen's Park at noon); also if you can, do come the day after that, May 12 to support Connie and the women strikers as they begin their hunger strike. (For details on these events, see the CAPA website.) Correspondingly, if you are a survivor or family member, consider speaking at the demo yourself.

Finally, whoever and wherever you are, how about enlisting the support of community leaders? How about calling your MPP? How about raising your voices in protest and insisting on the abolition of this atrocity once and for all? Note, we are the people and this violence is being perpetrated in our name.

Is this travesty really what we as a society want to stand for?

Dr. Bonnie Burstow is best known as a philosopher, a social theorist, an antipsychiatry activist, a feminist psychotherapist, and a prolific author. She is a faculty member in Adult Education and Community Development in OISE at the University of Toronto.

Photo: Lord Of Pixels/Flickr

Help make rabble sustainable. Please consider supporting our work with a monthly donation. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.