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In a Mind Field : Books: Kate Millett attacks psychiatry in 'The Loony-Bin Trip,' an account of her fight to stay out of 'nightmarish' mental wards.

June 13, 1990|EDWARD IWATA | Iwata is a San Francisco writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Kate Millett, the feminist author and maverick intellect, sips her coffee in the plush hotel bar and considers a question: Were you truly insane?

"No," she said. "I think I've had unusual experiences, happy and unhappy ones. But I was not mad. Madness is manufactured when psychiatry intervenes."

Millett's new book, "The Loony-Bin Trip" (Simon & Schuster), is a dramatic account of her little-known fights against hospitalization for manic depression, a diagnosis she denies. The book is also a fierce indictment of the psychiatric system as Millett views it.

Aiming her pen like Joan of Arc's lance, Millett has challenged sexism and racism since the publication in 1970 of her groundbreaking bestseller, "Sexual Politics," which took on Sigmund Freud, Norman Mailer and other male cultural icons. The book helped define the issues of the women's movement and made Millett famous. Time magazine put her on its cover in August, 1970.

Four years later, Millett shattered taboos in "Flying," her stream-of-consciousness memoir about her bisexuality. Her work inspired many, but also angered militant feminists who felt her sexuality and her marriage were rejections of lesbianism.

Now the 55-year-old writer has embarked on her most tortuous crusade: the struggle to free herself from the stigma of mental illness.

Earlier this month, Millett jetted from her Manhattan home to the Bay Area where overflow crowds greeted her at a reading at Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley, and at benefits for mental health groups.

"In the remembering lies reason, even hope and a saving faith in the integrity of the mind," she wrote in "The Loony-Bin" and read to the crowd at Berkeley. "It is the integrity of the mind I wish to affirm, its sanctity and inviolability."

Echoing the theories of psychiatrists whose works she has read, including R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, Millett said that mental illness is a myth. Many healthy people, she said, are "driven to mental illness" by society's disapproval and by the "authoritarian institution of psychiatry."

Millett believes that "socially unacceptable behavior is taken as a symptom, even proof, of pathology." If people stray from "acceptable" behavior, she contends, they're quickly stigmatized as crazy and labeled with mental "diseases such as paranoia, schizophrenia and manic depression."

"Throughout history," she said, "they could imprison your body, but they could never touch your soul and your mind. They have now found ways to do that. The assault of psychiatry breaks your life in half."

Despite her fame, Millett had trouble finding a publisher. Her 600-page manuscript made the rounds for five years before Simon & Schuster bought it. Millett thinks the topic scared away publishing houses.

The stigma of mental illness also worried the author's New York literary agent, Anne Borchardt. "Her first reaction over lunch was, 'Kate, do you really want to do this?' " said Millett, laughing.

Why did she choose to go public with her private hell, to write another bold confessional?

"I'm not confessing for anybody--confession implies sin," she said. "I prefer the French autobiographical term, memoire , which means 'to witness.' We would call it reportage."

Much of Millett's book covers what she describes as nightmarish experiences in mental wards in Minnesota, the Bay Area and Ireland.

Psychiatry is portrayed as "a terrifying form of social control," and Millett describes her loved ones--who twice put her in mental hospital--as having little concern for her health.

"My God, they are going to turn me in. . . ." Millett wrote. "This is the labyrinth I am entering. For the rest of my life, I will wear this mark on my forehead."

Her "first bust," as she calls it, took place in 1973 when Millett was teaching at UC Berkeley. Her marriage was disintegrating. She was seeing a lesbian lover. And she was working all hours to free a civil rights activist in Trinidad accused of murder.

Millett denies that she had a mental problem. Family members say Millett lost touch with reality. They say she talked to radios and babbled for hours. She went four or five nights straight without sleep. They say she often couldn't recognize her sisters and friends.

During a speech that year after a screening at UC Berkeley of a film she had made, Millett appeared to fall apart on stage before an auditorium crowded with admirers. She began talking incoherently, according to her sister, Mallory Millett Danaher, who was standing with Millett at the lectern.

"There were pained looks of confusion in the audience, then people whispered and slowly got up to leave," said Danaher, a Los Angeles actress. "I nodded and pretended every word she said made perfect sense. I could not betray her in public like that."

Kate Millett says that nervousness over a broken projector caused her to run on in her talk. "I was stuck up there like a stand-up comedian," she said.

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