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A Psychiatrist Searches for Sanity in a Crazy World

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Review of The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee, by Dr. Stuart Jeanne Bramhall (Eloquent Books, 2010)

This is a frightening book. Much of it reads like a thriller, but unfortunately it is a true story. Dr. Stuart Jeanne Bramhill, a woman (despite the unusual first name) and a psychiatrist, describes her 15-year long mental, emotional and physical ordeal resulting from her involvement in leftist activist politics in Seattle, Washington. Beginning in 1986, says Bramhall, "for some unknown reason, some faceless higher-up in one of the eleven federal agencies that spy on American citizens decided I posed a threat to national security," and from then on she was subjected to phone harassment, wiretaps, break-ins, and even attempts on her life. Since she was never able to prove any of this (and how does one prove it?), she was also confronted with the disbelief of her own professional colleagues, who were quick to diagnose her as "psychotic" and gave her the choice of losing her medical license or spending a week in a locked ward at a mental hospital for observation. She chose the latter, though she continued to be misdiagnosed and over-medicated, which exacerbated her mental torment and had serious physical side-effects that lasted for years afterward.

Bramhall learned the hard way that her fellow medical professionals were the last people in the world she could be honest with about her feelings of persecution:

The moment I mentioned the CIA, my psychiatrist decided I was psychotic and refused to listen anything else I said... Nelson's erroneous diagnosis stemmed from pure political naivete. He had no reason to come in contact with political or union activists, unemployed whistleblowers or the low-income street people that the police, and, I believed, U.S. intelligence, recruited as informants. Nevertheless, I had no confidence in any of my colleagues to objectively assess my mental state. I practiced in a totally different world from other Seattle psychiatrists, who automatically turned away patients who couldn't afford their one hundred dollar fee.


Bramhall was never more than a "lukewarm radical":

I was a very late bloomer politically. Despite my early disenchantment with the "establishment," as we called it in the sixties and seventies, it never occurred to me to blame political factors for my chronic sense of loneliness, alienation, and unmet emotional and social needs.


At thirty-five, she "fell into Marxism almost by accident" when a medical colleague invited her to join CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, formed in 1981 to protest Reagan's covert war against El Salvador). Marxism helped her "make sense for the first time of a political system riddled with contradictions," but she "never accepted the need for violent revolution to overthrow capitalism."

This would have been enough, I think, to have alienated her from most of her colleagues, since it must be as almost as hard to be a "Marxist" psychiatrist in the U.S. as it was to a "capitalist" one in the former Soviet Union, where political deviance was routinely equated with psychosis.

But Bramhall crossed a number of other tripwires in her efforts to combine political activism with her profession, the most conspicuous one being the color line. As a white woman who actively pursued her profession, as well as social and political associations, in the African American community, she became involved with other activists whose motivations, she came to suspect, were not as innocent or transparent as her own. One of her early acquaintances, a former Black Panther called Jabari Sisulu, put it succinctly: "White professionals who fraternize with black radicals are at much greater risk than I am." Bramhall's story is testimony to the truth of this statement.

Over the years, as she continued to participate in local activist projects like the effort to turn an abandoned school building in Seattle into an African American museum and cultural center, Bramhall broadened her political consciousness by reading about the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Cointelpro, AIDS, and more recently, 9/11 -- in short, by delving into the immense body of literature dealing with the facts and evidence about such topics that continues to be systematically suppressed by the mainstream press and dismissed as "conspiracy theory" but which is now readily accessible on the internet. At some points, her activities at the "micro" level intersected, perhaps with consequences, with the "macro" level (my terms), such as her association with Edna Laidlow, who claimed to be the lover of the "umbrella man" at Dealey Plaza who supposedly gave the signal to begin the shooting of JFK. She also suspects that her effort to publicize an ulcer drug called "Tagomet" [sic, presumably Tagamet] as a treatment for AIDS may have triggered a covert response.

The reader, like Bramhall herself, waits in vain for any resolution of the question of who was harassing her and why. This is hardly surprising, since none of the issues at the "macro" level have been resolved either. Despite the ever-increasing mountain of evidence of government involvement in multitudinous conspiracies ("plans by more than one person to do bad things") against "the people," both domestic and foreign, the steadfast response of both government and mainstream press, which are in this respect identical, remains the same. It is not denial -- which would require facts and arguments -- but silence.

Thus Bramhall leaves us, at the end of the book in 2002, having emigrated to New Zealand in hope of starting a new life at a healthy distance from the "insidious pseudo-culture" of the U.S. public relations industry and "stranglehold of the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence." I wish her luck, and as an longtime ex-pat myself I can say that she made a rational decision. I too am a kind of "American Refugee," as Bramhall subtitles her memoir. Fortunately, I never experienced the kind of personal harassment she did, but reading her book gives me a strong sense of "there but for fortune." I could have easily gone the way of Stuart Bramhall, just as I could have ended up in Vietnam or (more likely) in Canada fleeing the draft. But I got lucky. First of all, I was lucky enough to realize early on that the Vietnam war was insane, and secondly, I found a psychiatrist who shared my view. (He called it a "mass neurosis," which I thought a gross understatement, but it served my purpose of escaping the draft.)

I did not leave the U.S. for political reasons, however. I left, in 1977, because even armed with a Ph.D. (in linguistics), I couldn't get a decent job. So I guess I was an economic "refugee." (Part of Bramhall's motive for emigrating was also economic, her medical practice having suffered under cutbacks in Medicare and Medicaid in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations.) I was, obviously, opposed to the Vietnam war, but I did not become "radicalized" until much later, in 1988, when I was older than Bramhall was when she turned to Marxism, so I too was a late bloomer, politically. The catalyst for me was, I am almost ashamed to say, a TV program: Nigel Turner's documentary about the assassination of President Kennedy (The Men Who Killed Kennedy). I saw this in Germany, after I had been living here for almost 11 years. This was the major turning point for me, but it all happened in my head. In Bramhall's case, despite the opinion of her bourgeois colleagues, I don't think it was in her head. Maybe some of it was, but her story is much too detailed to be dismissed as paranoia.

So the irony of our two stories is complete. On the one hand, we have a psychiatrist who is persecuted for political reasons and falsely judged by her colleagues to be insane. On the other hand we have a linguist who opposes an insane war and is correctly judged by a "renegade" psychiatrist (as I'm sure his colleagues would have described him in those days) to be sane and therefore unfit to "serve." Both of us end up leaving the country.

But not everyone can leave. Vietnam did not end. It's here again under a different name: Afghanistan/Iraq. In fact, things are much worse now, much more insane, than they were in the sixties. There was at least some attempt to lie convincingly about the reasons for the Vietnam war. The "communist threat" was more convincing than the the blatant lies about non-existent weapons of mass destruction, retaliation for 9/11, and bringing "freedom and democracy" to those unfortunate countries. A very large portion of the population, probably close to one half, disbelieves the government's story of 9/11, and a clear majority does not support the ongoing war (read "military engagement"). There is a huge disjuncture between what people think and what the government and the mainstream media tell them.

If societies were people, the U.S. would have to be locked up with the criminally insane. No person could remain sane harboring so many violently conflicting ideas. Societies are not people, but people do have to live in this insane society. How do they do it? I think there are three alternatives: 1) denial, 2) acceptance, and 3) fighting back. 1) and 2) are themselves psychotic states. How can you deny or accept insanity without becoming part of it?

3) is the only sane, reasonable and honorable alternative. This is what Bramhall did, and what many of us try to do, each in our own way. It is wrong to see her story as negative or her struggle as futile. It is part of the ongoing struggle.

 

http://www.mdmorrissey.info

Born in Washington, D.C., academic training (Ph.D.) in linguistics, now retired after teaching English as a foreign language at a German university for many years, but still living in Germany.


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Dr. Bramhall mentions me as the "translator" of AI... by Michael David Morrissey on Thursday, Aug 12, 2010 at 12:25:14 PM
If you want my view of how things stand, see me co... by Michael David Morrissey on Friday, Aug 13, 2010 at 11:15:31 AM