The Electric Cattle Prod of Enforced Conformity

Next up on the reading list?  Jonathan Metzl’s The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.  Yes, still with the light reading over here at if you want kin.

I tried, actually.  After the fear and loathing of Methland, I needed something easy, escapist.  I love mysteries, love detective stories, so I grabbed the nearest one and started reading.  I made it through the first chapter and had to close the book.  Maybe the book sucked.  It was certainly cheesy.  More, however, I think my brain was insulted that I had taken it from all the thinking it had to do with Reding’s book to some mindless romp.

So I had no choice but to pick up Metzl’s book.  I heard the author interviewed on NPR months ago and knew from those few minutes that I needed to read this book.  I put it off for a while, knowing it would anger and frustrate me.  And it does anger and frustrate me.  In some ways, I’m having the same reaction to this book as I had to Henrietta Lacks.  And, as both deal with troubling and/or abhorrent medical treatment of women and black people, that makes sense.  I am saddened and pissed off by turns, praying that I will turn the page and read about the massive lawsuit that saved Alice Wilson or Cesar Williams and shut down the mental hospital in which both were imprisoned.  But that moment hasn’t come.  And, even though I am only halfway into the book, I don’t imagine that turned-page-salvation moment ever coming.  Alice and Cesar are lost to that system.

The Protest Psychosis doesn’t — yet — affect my ability to sleep or make me afraid in my home.  Doesn’t — yet — tighten my chest and make my breathing painful the way Blood Dazzler did.  It’s frustrating and heartbreaking, but not terrifying or traumatizing (yet).

And, while I’m happy to be able to read this book without adverse effect, I have to wonder why I am.  The information shared is every bit as terrifying and traumatizing as any of the others.  What’s the difference?  Yes, with the Henrietta Lacks story I had a direct, intensely personal identification.  The same for Blood Dazzler.  But not with the others.

This book is a catalog of ways white men have effectively criminalized and hospitalized groups that have challenged them, so it can’t be that I can’t identify — or identify “enough” with the people or the situation.   If anything, some of the things I’m reading here should upset me even more than what I’ve dealt with in other books.  Alice Wilson was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane because she made a scene in public and embarrassed her husband.  Ok, so I’m single, and maybe I can imagine that I’ll never make a scene in public.  Maybe.  But I’m certainly going to continue being black, and there were psychiatrists espousing the belief that the simple fact of my being African American could make me schizophrenic.

Saying it out loud like that makes me think I should be frightened … and makes me think that I already am but that I’ve been in denial about it.  When I read The Art of Political Murder, I was terrified every night as I walked into my house because that was when Bishop Gerardi was attacked and killed.  Fox was kind enough to point out that I might feel safer if I started locking the front door.  And she was right.  Locking the door didn’t erase the whole of my terror, but it helped.  But locking the door didn’t last.  After a while, the fear lessened, and I went back to my old ways.  In the last week, I’ve started locking again.  And I haven’t known why I suddenly felt the need.  There’s been no change in the degree to which I feel safe in my neighborhood, so there must be something else going on.  So perhaps the book has hit me more deeply than I realized.

Fear and sleeplessness would be logical reactions to this book.  There was a maybe-occasionally unconscious, clearly concerted effort to paint as insane black men who had the audacity to challenge the system that oppressed them, to hospitalize as many of those men as possible.  And I suppose I could have escaped that exact net, but what about my brother, a man who chafes under harsh authority, pushes back against inequitable treatment?  He would have been labeled and locked up as quickly as any of the men pulled off the streets in the 60s and 70s.

The thought of that is terrifying to me.  For doing nothing more than being a black man with his head held high and refusing the ignore a racist taunt from a random, angry white man, my brother — like Otis James — could have found himself beaten, accused of inciting violence and diagnosed as a violent paranoid schizophrenic.  And that was only thirty years ago.  And Tony and I are old enough now that, had we lived in Detroit in the 70s instead of in our sleepy, only quietly racist upstate town, Tony might have lived that story.

And now that I’ve had that realization, I’m sure it will be Tony I’m seeing as I read the rest of the awful stories Metzl has to tell me.


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