The Gendered Representation of Electroconvulsive Therapy

cw: for images of the depiction of medical torture


Mental illness is rarely depicted in a sensitive way in film, and I can think of few examples of films that are both accurate and ethical, especially in terms of gender.  As a broad category, it is treated poorly in cinema.  A more specific sub-genre or -trope of mental illness in film is the depiction of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).  Supposedly it is so misrepresented in cinema that it necessitates articles such as About To Have ECT? Fine, but Don’t Watch It in the Movies: The Sorry Portrayal of ECT in Film.  Though it seems unanimous that the process is represented as a barbaric, violent, and ineffective one, the way this plays out can be categorized differently often by gender.  After viewing a large number of films which depict ECT, here are the basic tropes which seem to occur.

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Victim as Oppressed Man

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In these films, the victim of ECT is an intelligent, active man, often transgressive or radical in some way.  This type would be exemplified by Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963), Chattahoochee (Mick Johnson, 1989) or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Foreman, 1975).  In these films we have masculine protagonists who could be characterized by their near-hypermasculinity: displaying ambition, initiative, aggression, strong sexual appetite, rebellion, and so forth,  mental illness (if present at all), is associated more with either men other than the protagonist or criminality — in Chattahoochee, for instance, there are numerous comments on how many of the inpatients are overflow from prison.  Care is then feminized: either explicitly (such as in the case of Nurse Ratchet) or through generalization: care is something which is a feminine occupation, distributed by women nurses or by ineffective, relatively impotent men (they are often older, wear glasses, rarely seen doing anything but sitting and hiding behind a desk, with little knowledge of the ‘real’ world or the human/masculine pursuits of the victimized protagonist, and contrast strongly with the hypermasculine protagonist’s vitality), or care is attempted to be distributed by other women (such as the girlfriend in Shock Corridor or sister in Chattahoochee) – in all cases, care is given by a woman or someone without the virility of the victimized man, regardless of if this care is positive or negative.


These films can be read as poisonously feminized institutions targeting a victimized masculinity, a masculinity which is threatened and threatening to encroaching femininity and feminine power.  When care is seen as positive, such as the love of the girlfriend in Shock Corridor, it is softer than that of the more powerful institution, and weaker as well.  Visually, these depictions will often focus on the face during ECT distorted in pain, violence, disdain, and anger, rather than fear.  In these films, the protagonist is almost never sick, it is society that is sick instead.

Victim as Girl/Child


In these films, the ECT victim is either a fragile woman, a child, or a man so ‘emasculated’ that he becomes childlike.  In The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948), the protagonist’s neuroses stem from trauma relating to her childhood, which drives her back to a childlike state wherein she cannot accept adult responsibility (namely, married life).  In Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1986), the protagonist is a literal girl whose continued fantasies are at odds with her coming of age, and return her continuously to a childlike state where fantasy trumps reality and thus must be attacked through a form of ‘electric healing.’  In Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996), the protagonist’s mental illness renders him to be little more than a child in a man’s body, with almost no agency or coherence of his own, save flashes of brilliance which stem from his past, sane life and can only come to fruition under the hand of mother-figures.  His problems are attributed in part to issues with his father (so, childhood, and the already feminized ‘daddy-issues’ are present), and as an adult, post-ECT, he turns to the care of women who take of near-maternal roles, even when they are supposed to be romantic interests.


ECT is used as an entirely ineffective treatment for people who have been rendered childlike through their mental illness, which emasculates them if they are men, or emphasizes girlishness if they are women or nearing womanhood.  The focus is more on the mental illness or perceived mental illness rendering the fragile protagonist a child, rather than the ECT which will never work and is simply a source of terror that cannot stop rampant illness’ mental regression: ECT is only part of the ineffective process which further fractures the broken person, but not necessarily a major focus of the treatment, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Whether the regression of the ill protagonist is seen as positive or negative (the exploration of the inner child’s fun and whimsy such as in Return to Oz or the emasculation of the adult man who cannot live in adult society without a mother-figure’s help as in Shine), ECT is without fail simply a torturous and misguided attempt to delay the regression, which will not work.  Usually these films will promote a different treatment as both more humane or more effective, treatments which can range from the more ‘scientific’ (such as nurturing and semi-romantic talk therapy in The Snake Pit), to love full-stop (as in Shine).  Depictions often place visual emphasis on the fear in the face or the mechanical apparatus which administers the shock, making the process inhumane in a scientific or mechanical emphasis, rather than focusing on the specifically malicious doctor who administers shocks as near-personal attack.  Additionally, in these films the protagonist is most definitely sick (even Dorothy Gale must learn to forget Oz in Return to Oz) but ECT is never a treatment that will help: the need is for something more nurturing.

Victim as Sexy


The patient in these films will usually have an illness which is based around rebellion, but a feminized one: anti-authoritarianism, alcohol or drug abuse, even political challenge, is added to a rampant sexuality, which is fetishized on screen, and often portrayed by sex-symbol actresses.  In Frances, Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) endures her first course of ECT after her numerous sexual affairs, nude scenes, and generally inappropriate desires for love and affection, while the depiction of the treatment itself focuses on her shaved, arched legs rather than the face distorted in pain or fear.  The usual distortion of facial features is avoided by the skillful placing of nurses around her body, so that un-beautiful look of pain is hidden, and the fragmented body is the focus.


Another example of this would be Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted: playing the sexy Lisa who is institutionalized for her wildness and lack of restraint, she is given shock treatments off-screen which are the catalyst for her escape with Winona Ryder’s protagonist Susanna: an escape which involves a kiss between the two women as well as a party where each girl has a hook up, thus attaching the mental illness (and punishment by ECT) to both casual sex and queer feminine sexuality.  In From Beyond, an incident with a machine which excites human sexuality leaves an incapacitated Dr. Katharine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) in the hands of a less sexy woman doctor who threatens her with ECT.  This happens, of course, after the effect of the machine influences her to don bondage gear and red lipstick, and attempt to initiate sex with her co-worker, so the grotesqueness and horror of her treatment is balanced by the previous eroticization of her character, while the emphasis on leather, gag, and straps in the ECT sequence become mirrors of her bondage gear.   In these films additionally, despite an element of rebellion or transgression, the characters are most definitely sick, but again, ECT will not cure them.  In the cases Frances and Girl, Interrupted, this is perhaps because nothing will cure those who receive shocks, while even the insanity-characterized-by-nymphomania in From Beyond is a confirmed insanity which simply could not be changed by ECT as it is derived from an outside source (the villain/monster’s machine): which is to say, that again, her illness would not be curable by medicine.

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When looking into ECT in film, the basic message seems to be that the procedure is presented as a torturous one, which is vastly different from reality.  Doctors don’t distribute it as personalized punishment, muscle relaxants and anesthesia are administered with care to attempt to create the most comfortable experience possible, the treatments are generally done with patient consent, and there are no leather straps or gags jammed into the victim’s mouth.  But a lot of this rhetoric is about saving the image of the doctors and nurses who administer ECT, and the process itself, with little concern to how it involves the patients, especially in terms of gender.  In these examples of ECT in film, one can see that ECT is used to characterize the worst way to treat mental illness, and so can tell us more about mental illness in these films than the ECT itself.  And it tells us that: only white people are really mentally ill.  There might be one or two men of colour present, but they are never the focus, or are much more ‘insane’ than their white counterparts, suggesting a hierarchy where the white man is least deserving of ECT as he is the most sane.  White men who are mentally ill are either castrated children in need of a mother, or just not actually ill, because illness is emasculating, it is stupid, it is weak, and men are not these things.  And women who are mentally ill are also either children, often in need of daddy to save them, or they are nymphomaniacs, with an insanity that leads to sexual inhibition and visual pleasure.  It will not lead to anything truly transgressive, like the non-ill men are capable of, and even sexually it will be strict: interracial relationships never happen, queer relationships are chaste kisses when compared to wilder sex scenes.

The problem with the representation of ECT in film is that it becomes a marker of severity in illness and ‘treatment.’  Rather than focusing on only how this impacts doctors, nurses, and treatments, it is important to look to how these markers are attached to mental illness and that which it attempts to cure, and the gendered ways this manifests itself.  In this manner, ECT films become a microcosm of how mental illness is depicted on-screen, and should be given more attention as such, rather than just for deterring patients from seeking ECT in real life, for this is a basis for general stigma which must be abolished.



5 thoughts on “The Gendered Representation of Electroconvulsive Therapy

  1. Nice essay; thank you for posting. Where might Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” fit in the schema (if it fits at all)? It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but: based on a real person’s life (I suppose to the extent that “Frances” is based on a real person’s life), the victim has been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, and the director seems to regard what happens to the protag merely as phenomena. With these things in mind, I imagine that it’s -in an indirect way- a relatively balanced depiction of mental illness…?


    • I Think An Angel at my Table is a bit of an anomaly, but it’s closer, to my mind, to what most articles object over in the representation of ECT: that it’s a part of a barbaric, violent psychiatric process. So the film itself is much more balanced in it’s depiction of a woman’s mental illness, but ECT is depicted as nurses holding down the protagonist after jamming a cotton gag in her mouth, and associated with other abuses/degradations (like being forced to use a toilet while others watch, being locked in a cell, being put up for a lobotomy). But in terms of representing a woman’s mental illness it doesn’t fall into making her a little girl and she’s given a lot of agency, while she isn’t eroticized. There are other exceptions too (I just watched Fear Strikes Out, which again depicts ECT as ineffetive, but doesn’t necessarily present it as violently as it usually is in films when the mentally ill man goes through the process).

      Also to my knowledge, both Frances and Girl, Interrupted were rejected by the real-life people involved, while I haven’t seen anything (yet?) about anyone rejected An Angel at my Table.


  2. Once again I’m saddened that a seemingly intelligent feminist capable of thinking critically of all aspects fo women’s lives refuses to think critically about psychiatry. I am a woman and a feminist and psychiatric survivor that has been greatly harmed by psychiatry. My life is not fiction or an evil anti psychiatry plot to “stigmatize” anyone. It’s my story and my truth. Telling women like me and the late Janet Frame that our lives are “problematic” is absurd and insulting. Erasing women’s experiences is not feminism. It doesn’t matter that they use anesthesia now. Electro shock “Therapy” is still inducing seizures in the brain for a “Therapeutic” reasons that have never been scientifically proven. Many women and men have experienced horrible brain damage from this procedure. If you care about women why not read about some of them below?
    Comments by Shock Survivors and Their Loved Ones
    “Electroshock treatment has ruined my life. I had 30 rounds of ect for severe depression at 21 years old. Now 27 years old, I’m scared about my future as its been over 5 years and I’m still left with severe disabilities from it. It wiped out the majority of my autobiographical memories, and caused severe short term memory problems, apathy, eye movement disorder, spontaneous seizures, headaches, nightmares, ptsd. Not only did ect make my life worse and wipe out much of who I am, I’m unsure of the future. Had neuro testing 6 months after ect and my iq dropped 50 points, was a former honor student in high school. I measured at 78 which is almost borderline retardation. Have seen 2 neurologist now too. This is a very dangerous treatment and in talking to hundreds of people now, I’m convinced ect causes permanent disability and people can no longer go back to their former jobs. Downclassing shock let alone keeping this as a practice, is a crime against humanity.“

    “A close friend of mine of more than 30 years no longer recognized me after ECT.”

    “I am AGAINST reclassifying shock. They had five years since the 2011 ruling to prove it was safe and effective, and they didn’t bother. Or they couldn’t produce the data. Either way, it IS NOT safe and effective. Shock causes brain injury. I know. It happened to me.
    When I was in grad school I had an existential crisis related to my career choice, a bad marriage, drug use, and a spiritual emergency. Of course this earned me a mental health label because that’s the way it works, right? No one ever talked to me about those four root causes, just the “symptoms.” So I got on all kind of psych drugs that made it hard to work and then I started losing jobs and failing out of grad school. I felt hopeless and useless. I made a few suicide attempts and then ended up in the shock jock hospital in town.
    I had good insurance so they offered me shock treatment. I googled it and found some NAMI blog about “safe and effective,” and I didn’t research further because I trusted the medical industry in those days. They said, “You’ve tried everything else, right?”
    So the hospital starting giving me these treatments and I lost the ability to speak. I had memory problems, trouble sleeping. problems with confusion, fatigue, and anger issues. All symptoms of a brain injury. I had an IQ test in this time frame and my IQ had gone from 142 to 99.Years later I met a mental health tech who used to work at that hospital. She said, ‘They shocked everyone there. Anyone at all who had good insurance. I don’t think it helped anyone at all. But it sure made a lot of money for the doctor.’“ Electroshock is Brain Trauma “ The Irish Times reports that a judge has ordered ECT for a 16-year-old with depression and an eating disorder. “ “A woman from the audience asks: ‘Why were there so few women among the Beat writers?’ and [Gregory] Corso, suddenly utterly serious, leans forward and says: “There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the ’50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up.”
    1938 — Italian psychiatrists Ugo Cerletti and Lucino Bini introduced electroconvulsive treatment (ECT, EST, electric shock treatment, shock treatment, electroshock, and convulsive therapy) at the University of Rome in April 1938. The subject of the first experiment with the procedure was a vagrant identified only as “S. E.” He had been picked up by the police who had found him wandering about in a railway station. The Police Commissioner of Rome turned him over to Cerletti’s institute, where “a diagnosis of schizophrenic syndrome was made based on his passive behavior, incoherence, low affective reserves, hallucinations, deliriant ideas of being influenced, neologisms.” The first attempt to induce a convulsion with electricity on S. E. failed because insufficient current was applied. According to Cerletti, “It was proposed that we should allow the patient to have some rest and repeat the experiment the next day. All at once, the patient, who evidently had been following the conversation, said clearly and solemnly, without his usual gibberish: ‘Not another one! It’s deadly!’” Despite the subject’s demand, Cerletti administered a second and stronger shock, this time triggering the seizure. Thus, the first ECT was carried out against the subject’s will, without his or anyone else’s permission. Earlier in Rome, Cerletti had experimented with pigs and later wrote, “Having obtained authorization for experimenting from the director of the slaughterhouse, Professor Torti, I carried out tests, not only subjecting the pigs to the current for ever-increasing periods of time, but also applying the current in various ways across the head, across the neck, and across the chest.” Referring to the first use of electroshock on a human being, Cerletti wrote, “When I saw the patient’s reaction, I thought to myself: This ought to be abolished” [Editor’s summary based on Frank J. Ayd Jr., “Guest Editorial: Ugo Cerletti (1877-1963),” Psychosomatics, November-December 1963 and Cerletti, “Old and New Information About Electroshock,” American Journal of Psychiatry, August 1950].

    1940 — These sundry procedures [i.e., lobotomy and several forms of shock treatment] produce “beneficial” results by reducing the patient’s capacity for being human. The philosophy is something to the effect that it is better to be a contented imbecile than a schizophrenic. HARRY STACK SULLIVAN (U.S. psychiatrist), referring to lobotomy and shock treatment (in his phrase psychiatry’s “decortication treatments”), “Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry,” Psychiatry, February 1940

    1942 — Case 1. M.C. Philadelphia State Hospital. Reg. No. 51103. Paranoid dementia praecox in a woman of 45. Electrical convulsion treatments, 62 [in 16 of which no convulsion was produced], over a period of 5½ months. Numerous punctate hemorrhages in the cerebral cortex, medulla, cerebellum and basal ganglia. Areas of perivascular edema and necrosis….Comment. The foregoing case is the first reported instance, so far as we know, of hemorrhages in the brain attributable to electrical convulsion treatment…. BERNARD J. ALPERS and JOSEPH HUGHES (U.S. physicians), “The Brain Changes in Electrically Induced Convulsions in the Human,” Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, April 1942

    1942 — The disturbance in memory [caused by ECT] is probably an integral part of the recovery process. I think it may be true that these people have for the time being at any rate more intelligence than they can handle and that the reduction of intelligence is an important factor in the curative process.

    ABRAHAM MYERSON (U.S. psychiatrist), in discussion of Franklin G. Ebaugh et al., “Fatalities Following Electric Convulsive Therapy: A Report of 2 Cases with Autopsy Findings,” Transactions of the American Neurological Association, June 1942

    1948 — We started by inducing two to four grand mal convulsions daily until the desired degree of regression was reached…. We considered a patient had regressed sufficiently when he wet and soiled, or acted and talked like a child of four….

    Sometimes the confusion passes rapidly and patients act as if they had awakened from dreaming; their minds seem like clean slates upon which we can write.

    CYRIL J. C. KENNEDY and DAVID ANCHEL (U.S. psychiatrists), “Regressive Electric-Shock in Schizophrenics Refractory to Other Shock Therapies.” Psychiatric Quarterly, vol. 22, p. 317-320,

    1949 — [While filming Annie Get Your Gun in 1949, Judy Garland] began to arrive at the studio late or not at all, often staying home, unable to rise from her bed. Her weight dropped to 90 pounds, and her hair began to fall out, a side effect, most likely, of her profligate use of amphetamines. In an effort to lift her out of her depression, a new doctor, Fred Pobirs, persuaded her to undergo a series of six electroshock treatments.
    GERALD CLARKE (U.S. writer), Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, 2000. Garland returned to the set after undergoing ECT, but, as she recalled later, “I couldn’t learn anything. I couldn’t retain anything; I was just up there making strange noises. Here I was in the middle of a million-dollar property, with a million-dollar wardrobe, with a million eyes on me, and I was in a complete daze. I knew it, and everyone around me knew it.” The studio soon suspended her from the film.

    1951 — Shock therapy never builds. It only destroys, and its work of destruction is beyond control. It is not new. The only new thing about it is the method of delivering the shock. A hundred and fifty years ago a well-recognized shock-treatment method was to flog or frighten the patient, and in some instances the results were excellent. Now we “do it electrically,” and we get about the same percentage of good results, but with some breaking of bones, and memory losses which frightening and flogging never produced.

    Memory losses in modern shock therapy may be passed off as infrequent, limited, and temporary, but they are really frequent, they cannot be limited, and they are usually permanent. I have heard doctors laugh about them as they laugh about other things in mental patients, but the losses are serious to the patients themselves. And along with such losses go changes in general intelligence and personality, but when these changes are too obvious to be overlooked they are ascribed to the mental illness with no mention at all of the treatment. JOHN MAURICE GRIMES (U.S psychiatrist), When Minds Go Wrong, 2nd ed., 20, 1954 (1951)

    1956 — One of us (J. A. E.) has collected these statements over a period of eight years in Britain and the United States. Most of them have been heard on many occasions. Colleagues who have seen the list of comments have confirmed our findings that many affect-laden colloquialisms are regularly used by shock therapists in referring to their therapy….
    l. “Let’s give him the works.”
    2. “Hit him with all we’ve got.”
    3. “Why don’t you throw the book at him?”
    4. “Knock him out with EST [i.e., ECT].”
    5. “Let’s see if a few shocks will knock him out of it.”
    6. “Why don’t you put him on the assembly line?”
    7. “If he would not get better with one course, give him a double-sized course now.”
    8. “The patient was noisy and resistive so I put him on intensive EST three times a day.”
    9. One shock therapist told the husband of a woman who was about to be shocked that it would prove beneficial to her by virtue of its effect as “a mental spanking.”
    10. “I’m going to gas him.”
    11. “Why don’t you give him the gas?”
    12. “I spend my entire mornings looking after the insulin therapy patients.”
    13. “I take my insulin therapy patients to the doors of death, and when they are knocking on the doors, I snatch them back.”
    14. “She’s too nice a patient for us to give her EST.”
    DAVID WILFRED ABSE and JOHN A. EWING (British-born U.S. psychiatrists), “Transference and Countertransference in Somatic Therapies,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, January 1956

    1961 — Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime.

    JANET FRAME (New Zealand electroshock survivor and writer), Faces in the Water, 1.1, 1961

    1961 — Suddenly the inevitable cry or scream sounds from behind the closed doors which after a few minutes swing open and Molly or Goldie or Mrs. Gregg, convulsed and snorting, is wheeled out. I close my eyes tight as the bed passes me, yet I cannot escape seeing it, or the other beds where people are lying, perhaps heavily asleep, or whimperingly awake, their faces flushed, their eyes bloodshot. I can hear someone moaning and weeping; it is someone who has woken up in the wrong time and place, for I know that the treatment snatches these things from you, leaves you alone and blind in a nothingness of being, and you try to fumble your way like a newborn animal to the flowing of first comforts; then you wake, small and frightened, and tears keep falling in a grief that you cannot name. JANET FRAME, Faces in the Water, 1.1, 1961

    JANET FRAME, Faces in the Water, 2.1, 1961

    1961 — I tried to forget my still-growing disquiet and dread and the haunting smell of the other ward, as I became to all appearances one of the gentle contented patients of Ward Seven, that the E.S.T. which happened three times a week, and the succession of screams heard as the machine advanced along the corridor, were a nightmare that one suffered for one’s own “good.” “For your own good” is a persuasive argument that will eventually make man agree to his own destruction.
    JANET FRAME, Faces in the Water, 2.1, 1961

    1963 — The name on my admission chart at the Allan Memorial reads “Linda Helen Cowan (nee Macdonald).” It was March 28, 1963. A young wife and mother, I was to become one of the last victims of Dr. Ewen Cameron’s experiments on the human brain. I am 49 years old today. I accept my age only because my birth certificate validates the time, day, and the place of my birth. In reality, my reality, I am 23. I have no memory of existing prior to October 1963, and the recollections I do have of events of the following years until 1966 are fuzzy and few….
    Dr. Cameron’s “brainwashing” experiments wiped my brain clean of every experience I had ever known….
    My parents were introduced to me that winter of 1963/64. Of course, I did not know them. The children came back from wherever they had been living. I had no idea who they were, and I certainly had no sense of what a ‘mother’ was. They were all “older” than I; the oldest could read and write—their mother could not….
    A woman robbed of her life. I had decided to share my life with you. If sharing my personal experience can help to educate the public so that such abusive experimentation will not, for any reason, with or without consent, be performed on human beings ever again, indeed something positive will have emerged from a living hell.
    LINDA MACDONALD (Canadian electroshock survivor), “Breakthrough” (1986), in Bonnie Burstow and Don Weitz, eds., Shrink Resistant: The Struggle Against Psychiatry in Canada, 1988

    1964 — A person who does not have a memory is not able to perform as an actress. I’m still able to do things—that is, I’m able to do them in a very limited way as a kind of hobby. I have to work terribly hard to do it. Recently, I did a public theater appearance. I had to drive around with the tape on saying the lines over and over and over and over. Previously, I’d just do a couple of readings… and that would be enough. I don’t have this quick ability anymore. I don’t like to appeal to emotionalism, but I’m furious about the whole thing. I mean my life changed radically….
    Since the shock treatment [in 1964] I’m missing between eight and fifteen years of memory and skills, and this includes most of my education. I was a trained classical pianist…. Well, the piano’s in my house, but I mean it’s mostly just a sentimental symbol. It just sits there. I don’t have that kind of ability any longer….
    I lost people by losing those eight to fifteen years. People come up to me and they speak to me and they know me and they tell me about things that we’ve done. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what they’re talking about although obviously I have been friendly with them….
    [The shock treatment] diminished me…. I am certainly nothing like I was, and my life is nothing like it would have been.
    CONNIE NEIL (Canadian electroshock survivor), testifying at electroshock hearings conducted by Toronto’s Board of Health, January 1984, in Phoenix Rising (Electroshock Supplement), April 1984

    1974 — The day after I was discharged, my hospital roommate, Ruth, escaped and jumped from the University of Texas tower. She died on impact—a heap of broken bones to go with her broken spirit. Only three days previous she had told me that she was tired of walking around like a zombie. She blamed this zombiness on a series of shock treatments she had recently received.
    JIMMIE BREWER (U.S. psychiatric survivor), in “NAPA News,” Madness Network News, June 1974

    1974 — He [the old personality] was dead. Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain. Approximately 800 mills of amperage at durations of 0.5 to 1.5 seconds had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as “Annihilation ECS” [i.e., ECT]. A whole personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically faultless act that has defined our relationship ever since. I have never met him. Never will.
    ROBERT M. PIRSIG (U.S. electroshock survivor and writer), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 7, 1974

    1974 — Interviewer: You say you’d rather have a lobotomy than electroconvulsive shock? Do you have some pretty solid ideas about what electroconvulsive shock does?
    Pribram: No—I just know what the brain looks like after a series of shocks—and it’s not very pleasant to look at.
    KARL PRIBRAM (U.S. psychologist and neurosurgeon), “From Lobotomy to Physics to Freud… an Interview with Karl Pribram,” APA Monitor (American Psychological Association), September-October 1974

    1974 — I came home from the office after that first day back feeling panicky. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know what to do. I was terrified. I’ve never been a crying person, but all my beloved knowledge, everything I had learned in my field during twenty years or more, was gone. I’d lost everything that professionals take for granted. I’d lost my experience, my knowing. But it was worse than that. I felt that I’d lost my self. I fell on the bed and cried and cried and cried.
    MARILYN RICE (U.S. electroshock survivor and government official), describing her return to work following a series of 8 ECTs in the early 1970s, in Berton Roueché, “As Empty as Eve,” New Yorker, 9 September 1974. Rice was cited as Natalie Parker, a pseudonym, in the article.

    1977 — [Electrically induced seizures] are an iatrogenic injury to the brain. Even if they could be proved to relieve mental anguish more often than they cause it, and even if some patients ask for ECT and are pleased with its effects, the question of whether to pursue happiness through brain damage cannot be decided scientifically. This is a value judgment, which, in the interest of freedom and dignity, must be left to the fully informed individual.
    JOHN FRIEDBERG (U.S. neurologist), “ECT as a Neurologic Injury,” Psychiatric Opinion, 14:18, 1977

    1977-1978 — Between February 1977 and October 1978 Freeman and Kendell interviewed 166 patients who had ECT during either 1971 or 1976 in Edinburgh. Of this group, 64% reported “memory impairment” (25% “thought symptom severe,” 39% “thought symptom mild”). Twenty-eight percent agreed with the statement that “ECT causes permanent changes to memory.” Squire reported findings of his three-year follow-up study of 35 people who had received an average of 11 bilateral ECTs. Of the 31 people available for interview, 18 (58%) answered “no” to the question, “Do you think your memory now is as good as it is for most people your age?” All but one of the 18 attributed their memory difficulties to ECT.
    LEONARD ROY FRANK (U.S. electroshock survivor and editor), “Electroshock: Death, Brain Damage, Memory Loss, and Brainwashing,” Journal of Mind and Behavior, Summer-Autumn 1990. The article by psychiatrists C. P. L. Freeman and R. E. Kendell was published under the title of “ECT: I. Patients’ Experiences and Attitudes” in the British Journal of Psychiatry, July 1980; psychologist Larry Squire’s study was summarized in his letter to American Journal of Psychiatry, September 1982

    1980 — One advantage in the use of this treatment as far as hospital staff is concerned is that the effect of successive shock treatments makes the patient more and more confused, regressed, compliant, and—above all—forgetful, until the patient no longer remembers that he is fighting his hospitalization and the use of electroshock treatment. If there is any question whether the patient meets the criteria for commitment, several shocks later all doubts will have disappeared as the patient becomes increasingly more disoriented and confused.
    JONAS ROBITSCHER (U.S. psychiatrist), The Powers of Psychiatry, 16, 1980

    1984 — It’s a matter of losing skills, losing learning that I had accumulated…. My entire college education has been completely wiped out and besides that all the reading and learning that I did on my own in the past three years…. I guess the doctors would consider [that ECT] had beneficial effects because it has “cured my depression,” but it’s cured my depression by ruining my life, by taking away everything that made it worth having in the first place…. It’s really important to point out what [ECT] does to the emotions. It’s like I exist in this kind of nowhere world right now. I don’t feel depressed. On the other hand I don’t feel happy. I just kind of feel nothing at all.
    LINDA ANDRE (U.S. electroshock survivor, director of the Committee for Truth in Psychiatry, and writer), after undergoing 15 ECTs at New York’s Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in 1984 at the age of 24, radio interview, WBAI (New York), 1985

    1984 — My behavior [following ECT in 1984] was greatly changed; in a brain-damaged stupor, I smiled, cooperated, agreed that I had been a very sick girl and thanked the doctor for curing me. I was released from the hospital like a child just born. I knew where I lived, but I didn’t recognize the person I lived with. I didn’t know where I had gotten the unfamiliar clothes in the closet. I didn’t know if I had any money or where it was. I didn’t know the people calling me on the phone…. Very, very gradually—I realized that three years of my life were missing. Four years after shock, they are still missing.
    LINDA ANDRE, “The Politics of Experience,” testimony before the Quality of Care Conference, Albany (New York), 13 May 1988, in Leonard Roy Frank, “Electroshock: Death, Brain Damage, Memory Loss, and Brainwashing,” Journal of Mind and Behavior, Summer-Autumn 1990

    1985 — I told my shrink I didn’t want to be cured of being a lesbian. He said that just proved how sick I was. He said I needed shock treatment.
    SHEILA GILHOOLY (Canadian electroshock survivor and writer), in Persimmon Blackbridge and Gilhooly, “Still Sane,” Still Sane, 1985

    1989 — We were unable to confirm earlier reports that treatment with ECT or adequate amounts of antidepressants are associated with lower mortality in depressed persons. In fact, neither general (all cause) mortality rates nor suicide rates varied significantly among treatment groups.
    DONALD W. BLACK, GEORGE WINOKUR (U.S. psychiatrists) et al., among conclusions in “Does Treatment Influence Mortality in Depressives? A Follow-up of 1076 Patients with Major Affective Disorders,” Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, September 1989. This follow-up study conducted at the University of Iowa Psychiatric Hospital in Iowa City divided 1076 inpatients admitted between 1970 and 1981 into four “treatment groups”: ECT (372 patients), adequate antidepressants (180), inadequate antidepressants (317), and neither ECT nor antidepressants (207).

    1989 — [Gary] Aden was a founder and first President of the International Psychiatric Association for the Advancement of Electrotherapy (now the Association for Convulsive Therapy)… A newspaper account dated September 27, 1989, in the San Diego Union [reported]: “Dr. Gary Carl Aden, 53, of La Jolla gave up his medical license effective September 8 after allegations that he had sex with patients, beat them and branded two of the women with heated metal devices, including an iron that bore his initials.”
    In another story a patient describes Aden as drugging her with a hypodermic before sexually abusing her and beating her with a riding crop [San Diego Union, 1 January 1989].
    Aden was permitted to forfeit his license without admitting guilt. He was not subjected to being psychiatrically diagnosed or treated involuntarily, nor was he criminally charged.
    PETER R. BREGGIN, Toxic Psychiatry, 9, 1991. Aden was Medical Director of the San Diego Neuropsychiatric Clinic for Human Relations Center in addition to being the plaintiff in Aden v. Younger, which challenged the 1976 law regulating the use of ECT and psychosurgery in California.

    1992 — There is an extensive literature on brain damage from ECT as demonstrated in large animal studies, human autopsy studies, brain wave studies, and an occasional CT scan study. Animal and human autopsy studies show that shock routinely causes widespread pinpoint hemorrhages and scattered cell death.
    PETER R. BREGGIN, “The Return of ECT,” Readings (a publication of the American Orthopsychiatric Association), March 1992. Glen Peterson, a major ECT proponent and a former Executive Director of the International Psychiatric Association for the Advancement of Electrotherapy, sees the brain-damage issue differently: “The possibility of brain damage is absolutely refuted by brain scans, by neuropsychological studies, by autopsies, by animal studies, and by analysis of cerebrospinal fluid and blood chemicals that leak from damaged cells that aren’t detected in ECT patients.” (in Russ Rymer, “Electroshock,” Hippocrates, March-April 1989)

    1993 — ECT may effectively silence people about their problems, and even convince some people that they are cured by numbing their faculties and destroying their memories. It may fulfill a socially-valued function in reinforcing social norms and returning people to unhappy or abusive situations, or to isolation and poverty without any expenditure on better services or community development. It is easier to numb people and induce forgetfulness than to try to eradicate poverty, provide worthwhile jobs and deal with people’s demands to be listened to, understood, loved and valued as part of the community.
    JAN WALLCRAFT (British electroshock survivor and writer), “ECT: Effective, But for Whom?” OPENMIND (British journal), April-May 1993

    1994 — One may see in the faces of patients condemned to electroconvulsive therapy an expectation that they are scheduled for torture; the casual order—”No breakfast for you, you’re getting shock this morning”—can produce hysteria and panic. Even were it beneficial, which it is not, the patient’s
    conviction that he or she is subjected to torture makes it such. As arms and legs are held down and the body thrashes under the force of the electrical charge, one is observing torture under the guise of “treatment.”
    KATE MILLETT (U.S. psychiatric survivor and writer), The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment, pp. 89-90, 1994

    1995 — Psychiatrists don’t make much money, and by practicing ECT they can bring their income almost up to the level of the family practitioner or internist.
    CONRAD SWARTZ (U.S. psychiatrist), in Dennis Cauchon, “Shock Therapy,” USA Today, 6 December 1995. Swartz is co-owner of Somatics, Inc., manufacturer of the Thymatron ECT device. Cauchon reported that, according to the American Medical Association, psychiatrists earned an average of $131,300 in 1993.

    1996 — Among the small fraternity of electroshock experts, psychiatrist Richard Abrams is widely regarded as one of the most prominent.
    Abrams, 59, who retired recently as a professor at the University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School, is the author of psychiatry’s standard textbook on ECT. He is a member of the editorial board of several psychiatric journals. The American Psychiatric Association’s 1990 task force report on ECT is studded with references to more than 60 articles he has authored….
    Yet Abrams’s 340-page textbook [Electroconvulsive Therapy, 2nd ed., 1992] never mentions his financial interest in Somatics, the company he [co-]founded in 1983….
    Financial ties between device manufacturers, drug companies and biotech firms “are a growing reality of health care and a growing problem,” said Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
    For doctors “the questions that such financial conflicts of interest generate are, do patients get adequate full disclosure of options or are you skewing how you present the facts because you have a financial stake in the treatment and you personally profit from it every time it’s used?” Caplan asked.
    “It’s especially disturbing with ECT because it’s so controversial” and public mistrust of the treatment is so great, he added….
    Abrams declined to say how much he has earned from Somatics. Approximately 1,250 machines, priced at nearly $10,000, have been sold to hospitals worldwide, he said. Between 150 and 200 machines are sold annually, according to Abrams. Somatics also sells reusable mouthguards for $29, which are designed to minimize the risk of chipped teeth or a lacerated tongue.
    SANDRA G. BOODMAN, “Shock Therapy: It’s Back,” Washington Post (Health, p. 18), 24 September 1996. Responding to the same failure-to-disclose issue raised in Dennis Cauchon’s two-part series on ECT (“Shock Therapy,” USA Today, 6-7 December 1995), Abrams concluded his letter to the editor (11 December 1995) as follows: “If there is any shame attached to ECT, it is that it has too often been given by inexperienced and poorly trained doctors with unsafe and obsolete equipment. A copy of my book, and one of my ECT devices, placed in each hospital offering this treatment should go along way toward correcting this problem.” Abrams, in the 3rd edition of Electroconvulsive Therapy (1997), disclosed that he is “President of Somatics, Inc., a firm that manufactures and distributes the Thymatron ECT device” not in the book’s text but on the back flap of the book jacket.

    1996 — One moment that I remember clearly from my hospital stay for ECT in 1996 is the horror I felt when after one of my treatments I couldn’t remember how old my children were. Not only did the ECT not work for me, but my suffering was compounded when I realized that approximately 2 years of my life prior to the ECT had been erased. My retention of new information is also severely impaired. If anyone had told me that this could happen, even a remote chance, I never would have consented to ECT. I would much rather have lost a limb or 2 than to have lost my memory — my “self.”
    JACKIE MISHRA (U.S. electroshock survivor), in Loren R. Mosher and David Cohen, “The Ethics of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT),” Virtual Mentor (Ethics Journal of the American Medical Association), October 2003

    2000 — My long-term memory deficits far exceed anything my doctors anticipated, I was advised about, or that are validated by research. To the contrary, either I am one in a thousand, a complete anomaly, to be able to document memory loss still remaining after three years and extending as far back as incidences eight to nine years ago, or the profession in general, after all these years of treatment with ECT, has still failed to identify and come to grips with the true potential risks.
    While the more distant incidents may be random events, they are hardly insignificant ones: hosting and driving Mother Teresa for a full-day visit to Los Angeles in 1989; the dinner reception for my National Jefferson Award in Washington, D.C. in 1990, where I met and sat beside my co-honoree, General Colin Powell; my brother’s wedding in 1991—the list goes on, and keeps growing as people bring up references to the past in casual conversations.
    Human memory seems to me to be one of the most precious aspects of our personality, since our memories are so critical to who we are and how we see ourselves and others. The memories of our past give us an understanding of where we fit in the world. I have experienced more than a “cognitive deficit.” I have lost a part of myself.
    ANNE B. DONAHUE (U.S. electroshock survivor and attorney), referring to the memory loss she experienced following two ECT series in 1995 and 1996, 33 treatments in all, which she reports saved her life, “Electroconvulsive Therapy and Memory Loss: A Personal Journey,” Journal of ECT (“Official Journal of the Association for Convulsive Therapy”), July 2000


    • My last post had a lot of typos and I couldn’t edit-
      Once again I’m saddened that a seemingly intelligent feminist capable of thinking critically about all aspects of women’s lives refuses to think critically about psychiatry. I am a woman and a feminist and psychiatric survivor that has been greatly harmed by psychiatry. My life is not fiction or an evil anti psychiatry plot to “stigmatize” anyone. It’s my story and my truth. Telling women like me and the late Janet Frame that our lives are “problematic” is absurd and insulting. Erasing women’s experiences is not feminism. It doesn’t matter that they use anesthesia now. Electro shock “Therapy” is still inducing seizures in the brain for a “Therapeutic” reason that has never been scientifically proven. Many women and men have experienced horrible brain damage from this procedure. If you care about women why not read about some of them below?


      • Hi Hannah, I think you’ve mis-understood my post. I was looking at solely the way ECT is depicted in film, not necessarily what it’s like in real life. I’ve personally gone through a course of ECT which was a horrible and traumatic experience, so I’m definitely not trying to depict it as a miracle cure that cinema is trying to attack. Instead, my purpose was to just look at the representation, outside of the medical/scientific reality of ECT. This was maybe insensitive of me, but because this was inspired by my own experiences of wanting to see representation of what I was going through, and reacting to these representations in the face of my real life experience, I felt like I had a bit of reason to take on the topic. I think that the depiction of ECT by medical professionals as a totally successful and safe treatment is dangerous, while the treatment of it as a totally frightening thing in cinema is also bad, as it’s more about how we demonize the people who need ECT and stigmatizing severe mental illness/its treatments than a discourse on mental healthcare. I’m very aware of how damaging ECT can be from reading the accounts of others as well as going through it first-hand, and perhaps that should have come through in my post more.


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