Having written the first history of electroshock not written by a practitioner or patient, Push Button Psychiatry ( 2002), I continue to be fascinated by the media’s re-discovery of this psychiatric tool. Simon Winchester has written an account of his treatment of Electro-Convulsive-Therapy in the 1960s see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323968704578649822173655816.html, and the book review in the Wall Street Journal led me back to a paper, which I initially wrote in 1995; since it is unlikely I will ever get around to publishing it I decided to share excerpts in this blog.
ECT AS MIRACLE MAKER, CRUCIFIER & RESURRECTOR:
Christian Imagery and ECT 1940-Present
In submitting to the shock, the patient is laid on a bed with his arms and legs fastened and held by four attendants; an adhesive covered tongue depressor is placed between the patient’s teeth to prevent biting of the tongue. At the push of a button … the patient instantaneously becomes unconscious, undergoes convulsions and lapses into what resembles a profound sleep 1
…Dr. Deutsch has smeared a thick yellowish jelly on his temples. Now he is dripping the padded ends of the forceps into a big bowl of saltwater and the white folds of the gauze over the rubber pads are soaking it up. The dripping forceps are clamped over Bevan’s head, a pad on each temple. A gag is slipped between his teeth; the five attendants bear down on ankles, knees, hands, and shoulders. Dr Deutsch reaches out to the box…. He throws the switch. It happens, what would happen when you throw 110 volts of electricity into a living body. It seems as though it would burst. For fifty Seconds it seems as though it would burst.2
These descriptions provide a glimpse into the psychiatric practice of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), also known as electroshock or shock treatment. The history of this treatment, used on over a million individuals suffering mental disease since its introduction in the United States in 1940, has been
most often written from the perspective of the practitioner and the ex-patient.3 However, these histories tend to overlook the cultural significance of the symbolism evident in descriptions of the treatment. Indeed, literary, medical, and patient narratives contain a number of competing metaphors to describe ECT, including the idea that ECT is a torture or an execution; ECT as an assembly line of psychiatry, or ECT as a procedure equivalent to rebooting the human computer.4
Winchester, himself reaches for this metaphor in his own text.
1 H. Warren Dunham and S. Kirson Weinberg, The Culture of the State Mental Hospital Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1960, 170.
2M B Ray Doctors of the Mind: What Psychiatry Can Do (Boston: Little Brown & CO 1946), 229
3 Zigmond Lebensohn, “Electroconvulsive Therapy: Psychiatry’s Villain or Hero?” The American Journal of Social Psychiatry IV , 4 Fall 1984, 39-43; but see Timothy Kneeland and Carol Warren, Pushbutton Psychiatry: A History of Electroshock in America (Westport CT: Praeger,2002)
4 ECT as a torture machine see Jack Kerkhouff How Thin the Veil: A Newspaperman’s Story of His Own Mental Crack Up and Recovery (New York: Greenberg, 1952), 10; for ECT as assembly line see Ray Doctors of the Mind, 229 and J Batz “A Kinder Gentler Shock” The Riverfront Times, 21 October, 1996, pp. 9, 15. For the computer metaphor see Patricia Cornwall, Body of Evidence (New York: Avon Books, 1991), 284.