Thoughts on Electroshock- Part I





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,  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.

Part I


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.


A Landmark for Same-Sex Marriage: Supreme Court update June 26, 2013 -first published on blogspot

This blog reviews the SCOTUS decisions in US v Windsor (DOMA) and Hollingsworth v Perry (Prop 8)- June 26, 2013 and contains a brief review of what happened, why it happened, and what it means for the future.

What Happened


The Defense of Marriage Act  (DOMA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton in September of 1996.   The act stated that for federal purposes marriage was defined as that between a man and a woman effectively upholding traditional marriage customs, laws and practices.

What propelled this decision were seismic cultural changes that were beginning to make themselves felt by the early 1990s.   To understand the context you would have to recall that as late as the 1970s the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality a mental illness, and that in 1986 the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v Hardwick that the state of Georgia had a right to uphold sodomy laws which effectively criminalized the intimate relations of same sex couples.   Perhaps the ultimate rejection of a same sex lifestyle came in 1992 the state of Colorado passed amendment 2 which forbid any political subdivision of that state from recognizing gay and lesbian individuals as a protected class.   Arguing that such action violated Equal Protection the case made its way to the Supreme Court as Romer v Evans,  the decision was written by Anthony Kennedy (who also penned US v Windsor) struck down the amendment as not only a violation of Equal Protection it lacked any rationale:  “Its sheer breadth is so discontinuous with the reasons offered for it that the amendment seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects; it lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests,” wrote Kennedy.

Fearing, that the decision in Romer would set a precedent for gay rights (which it did)  Congress and the president enacted DOMA.   Romer did indeed set a precedent and led the Supreme Court in Lawrence v Texas (2003) to overturn Bowers which effectively cleared the way for same sex marriage legislation.   This in turn has led to the decision today.

Why it Happened


Ten years after Lawrence, DOMA was held to be unconstitutional in US v Windsor (2013) because it violated the Equal Protection and Due Process guarantees in the Fifth Amendment.  It was also a question of federalism as States have always had the right to regulate, as they saw fit, marriage and marital relations.    Kennedy wrote that “DOMA rejects this long-established precept. The State’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. But the Federal Government uses the state-defined class for the opposite purpose—to impose restrictions and disabilities”  Kennedy explained that “DOMA’s avowed purpose and practical effect are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.”  

Dissenters in the case focused more on the question of whether the petitioners had standing in the Court.   However Scalia’s blistering dissent is worth reading for his trenchant criticism of judicial activism.

What it Means for Now the future

In a blistering dissent, Justice Scalia rightly pointed out that the precedent established here, and the language used will lead to challenges in every state that attempts to maintain a traditional marriage.

By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition. Henceforth those challengers will lead with this Court’s declaration that there is “no legitimate purpose” served by such a law, and will claim that the traditional definition has “the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure” the “personhood and dignity” of same-sex couples, see ante, at 25, 26.

Updated August 12, 2013

As expected judges across the United States have over the last eight weeks been  applying the ruling to strike  at same-sex marriage laws.  In Cincinnati, a judge suggested that Ohio’s 2004 law banning the recognition of same-sex marriages is likely unconstitutional.

In Michigan, in two separate cases, judges cited the decision in Windsor to strike down laws denying domestic benefits to same-sex couples and to challenge the state’s ban on gay marriage.

At least nine other legal challenges against same-sex marriage have been filed since  the Windsor decision and these could have the effect that justice Scalia keenly perceived.

Meanwhile Minnesota and Rhode Island have passed laws making same-sex marriage legal in their states and more states, including Illinois, New Jersey, and Hawaii may be next.

Thoughts on the Future of Small Museums #mobile-apps #public history

One of my LinkedIn network members, a marketing expert,  shared a story today on how Google Maps is creating new ties to social mobile marketing.  The story led  me to think about the future of smaller, roadside museums.  Especially those that developed at a time when the family road trip was the norm.  Small  museums could always expect to bring in summer-time traffic by catchy billboards or kitschy icons along a state route or interstate.   The days of people loading up the station wagon for the family outing are gone:  families are smaller, gas is higher. and individuals  are more likely to be tied into an adult supervised structured event  in the summer(sports, educational, arts, etc).

What then might the future of commemorative sites, museums, and even roadside historical markers be in an age when few people go to AAA for a trip-ticket that includes guidebooks and physical maps?  Now the traveler is more apt to  check their computer, tablet, android, gps  or smart phone.   Running today, I reflected directly on a specific  small museum in LeRoy, New York called the Jello  Gallery.   Run by the LeRoy Historical Society,  the Jello Gallery, as the name suggests, is  a museum dedicated to preserving the history of Jello, which was invented in Le Roy.   The museum website is useful as it includes a history of Jello, recipes, and links to local lodging.   Taking it a step further, googling  “Jello Museum”  shows that the museum has a presence on  websites such as Trip Advisor, Roadside America, etc .which is a a good start,  but what about other ways to connect with audience?  Why not a mobile app?    Under my role as director of the Center for Public History at Nazareth College, I recently shared on Twitter and LinkedIn the app Historical Mobility which came out of an NEH funded study of best practices on historical sites.  Another good app  is Next Exit History, a mobile App that might  fit with the museum’s existing website.  Such apps could be a push for content and possible draw from visitors.

However, I imagine the best app  would provide content such as historical images, specific histories, and links to social or cultural references that tie into Jello (caveat:  I am thinking Jello shots is a non-starter for a family museum), but also games and activities.   The apps might not even have to be about the food.  For example, there is a strong tie in  between Jello and  Old Time Radio fans, as  the “J-E-L-L-O” jingle was synonymous with the Jack Benny radio program.  Jack Benny owned Sunday nights from the the ’30s through the 1950s.  People who are fans of OTR might find an app that provides them with interesting trivia questions or games .   There is also a strong tie in between the entertainer Bill Cosby and Jello, as Cosby was the Spokesperson for Jello for two decades.      How about a tie in that includes a  trivia game on Cosby’s career?   Even more exciting would be a  Jell0-based strategy  game  —  one of the top free apps is Candy Crush Saga.   How about apps that tie into Food History?  Cookbooks, etc?   How about an app  that ties in the history of jello molds, which once adorned nearly every middle class house in America. How about direct marketing between Kraft Foods, the apps, and the museum?    I think you see the possibilities as much as I do, so I will not belabor them.

Obviously, these are not things that would happen overnight.  Small museums have small budgets, rely on volunteers, and most would not have the human resource personnel to keep the apps up to date across different mobile devices.   However younger volunteers, with a handle on the technology, might well provided the necessary skills to monitor these.    An internship program drawing on the model of  AmeriCorps  could enhance both the museum and the professional skills of post-high school and college graduates  and would be another form of community service.      Worth thinking about anyway…

Reflections on NCPH 2013

The annual NCPH meeting in Ottawa, Ont. Canada was an opportunity for scholars across Europe and the United States to engage in dialogue and to find both commonalities and differences.  CPH was delighted with the chance to discuss Public History with other North Americans and Europeans.  Ottawa was a delightful destination.  The people were friendly, the government buildings accessible, the museums rich and thick.  CPH will have to make more forays into Canada’s capital region to further explore the tremendous cultural resources.

At the NCPH 2013 the Naz_CPH tried an experimental form of public history which seemed to fall short of its mark.  Bringing together non-historian undergraduates students to find what  level of engagement might exist with graduate students and the broader array of “public historians.”    CPH at Naz is still assessing whether we bridged the gap between these communities.  Indeed, since the theme was audience, CPH slyly was wondering at how the non-historian audience would respond to the community which is engaged with a segment of the public, but a “public ” that only constitutes a fraction of the whole.  CPH was disappointed with the results.  Further work needs to be done, but the overall response was that the non-historian participant observers nor the public historians knew what to make of each other.   There is much to consider and unpack but it is clear we still need to define what we mean by “public” when talking about public history.