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BookAddicts: "Cruelty exists because of abusive power structures directed by banality and boredom. Cruelty is, therefore, the more devastating for its sheer disinterest."

Date: Sep 9 2008


“You’re not feeling so cheerful now, with this talk of shock treatment. You start to think how it was all too good to be true. Now you’re finding out about the bad thing, the thing you knew had to be here though you didn’t know exactly what it would be. Shock treatment! It had a very bad ring to it. Especially the word ‘treatment.’ When they biffed you it was pretty bad, but at least you knew they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing. They knew it too. There was always a chance they’d get into trouble for biffing. Not much of a chance, but a chance. Also some screws didn’t agree with biffing, and they’d try to stop other screws who did it. But ‘treatment’ was different … they could do it with a clean conscience because they were trying to help you."

In 1966, nineteen-year-old Peter Kocan attempted to assassinate politician Arthur Calwell. Kocan failed and was subsequently tried and found guilty of attempted murder. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was first sent to Long Bay Correctional Centre and then transferred to the Criminally Insane Ward of the Morisset Psychiatric Hospital. The novel The Treatment and The Cure (originally published as two separate novellas) is an autobiographical but fictionalized account of Kocan’s experiences told through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Len Tarbutt.

When the novel begins, Len, confused and disoriented, is freshly transferred from a prison to a mental asylum. At first the hospital seems a great improvement over Long Bay prison, but Len very soon discovers that the insane asylum has its own minefields to be avoided at all costs: medications that reduce the powerless patient to a zombie-like state and electric shock ‘therapy’ administered by the forgetful but enthusiastic doctor known as “Electric Ned.”

Len mingles with an assortment of patients with a range of problems–murderers, child molesters, and even peeping Toms. Lonely and withdrawn, Len soon learns the asylum system–where the number one rule is not to draw attention to yourself. But surviving in this system is easier said than done–especially when bored and sadistic guards often set up scenarios in which patients are guaranteed to be dragged off to shock therapy. Len witnesses many patients who were functional reduced to cretinism by the over-eagerness of Electric Ned.

The very best parts of this excellent novel describe how Len tries desperately to appear normal and rational, yet this is a game in which the inmates don’t make the rules. Even Len’s attraction to poetry becomes suspect at one point as it causes him to read and meditate in solitude–an activity that’s largely frowned upon. Sometimes when inmates come to the attention of the guards and the doctors, they’re questioned and boxed in with circular logic, and there’s always shock treatment as the inevitable outcome awaiting them. For example, a particularly sadistic guard named Smiler continuously persecutes one inmate named Sam. When the inmate complains about the persecution, it’s becomes a signal that he’s ‘paranoid’:

“Everyone knows that mentally ill people think they’re being persecuted, so Sam is sealing his own fate by accusing Smiler. Smiler is pleased at how beautifully it’s working out.”

In spite of the dark subject matter, Kocan manages to write with a humour that’s refreshingly innocent. Although Kocan writes in the first person, Kocan’s protagonist describes his environment by using the second person ‘you.’ This creates a numbing depersonalized distance between the narrator and his difficult experiences.

There are some wonderful passages that describe patients who appear cured, but they’ve simply learnt the game well enough to give the ‘authorities’ exactly what they want to hear. Zurka, for example, doesn’t seem like the sort of person who chopped up several passengers on a train, but that’s exactly what he did. After spending several years at the asylum, he appears ‘cured,’ but there are some instances in which Len retains nagging doubts about some of the inmates’ preparedness to be returned to society:

“Zurka is obviously very sorry and sad when he’s telling you about the last bit, about the train. You are quite sure he’d never do anything like that again. You’d bet your bones on it. If it was up to you, you’d let Zurka go to the open section. Yet when he’s talking about the psychiatrists who took all his money for pills and fees, or about his Polish countrymen who wouldn’t help him, you get a faint cold feeling of worry. There’s an edge in his voice that makes you think he’s spent the years here remembering the wrong they did him. It’s probably nothing. You’d still let him go to the open section if the decision was up to you. Yet, you’re glad somehow, that it’s someone else’s decision.”

Those who learn the rules and a superficial degree of conformity are judged ‘normal’–and as long as the inmates pay satisfactory attention to these rules, those in charge are happy with the inmates’ progress. It doesn’t seem to occur to those rule-makers that perhaps the inmates have learned to mimic the behaviour the doctors, nurses and guards want to see:

“You’re talking to Zurka about what he did to the people with his butcher’s chopper. He doesn’t mind talking about it now. He’s pretty sure he’s to be transferred to the open section and he wants to show that he understands about his crime and why he did it and that it was a dreadful act. The screws say that being able to talk calmly about your crime shows you’ve gained insight. Of course, you mustn’t talk about it too much, or too calmly, or they’ll say you’re dwelling on it or that you aren’t showing a healthy remorse.”

Strangely enough, some of Len’s hardest times are when he’s transferred out of maximum security. He falls under the ‘care’ of a sadistic nurse nicknamed Blue–a woman who torments some of those who fall under her jurisdiction. One of the ubiquitous ideas in the novel is the degree of mental illness inside the asylum. Whereas the patients are diagnosed and labeled with terms, some of the more sadistic employees are able to mentally torture inmates and twist reality with impunity to such a degree that the more fragile inmates escape the only way they can–through suicide.

There are escapes, the moments of joy, and small but powerful acts of human kindness, and the few people who reach out to Len makes all the difference in the world. There’s the overwhelming idea that no one really gets ‘cured’–even though that’s supposedly the goal held for all the inmates, and the system recreated here in these pages would most likely push anyone in a fragile mental state over the edge. Since this is basically a coming-of-age novel, this is not only a fictionalized memoir of asylum life but also an account of Len’s gradual ability to self-heal when given the fragments of opportunity.

All of the employees at the asylum inherently believe in different approaches to mental well-being. For example, the librarian believes reading provides healing, Electric Ned believes a cure can be found in shock treatment, and the therapy supervisor, Mr. Trowbridge believes that work is therapy. Although Trowbridge is a thoughtful man, one of Len’s few advocates, his dogmatic belief has little flexibility. To Trowbridge, the road to mental health is found through employment and functionality, and the ability to work is the measure of mental health. Similarly, the sadistic nurses and guards use the systems they embody (medications and rules) and create ways to subvert and sabotage any progress made towards mental health, and as in any closed system (school, for example) there are favourites and there are those who are picked on unmercifully. Institutional corruption is not included in this tale because for Len it doesn’t seem to exist; instead cruelty exists because of abusive power structures directed by banality and boredom. Cruelty is, therefore, the more devastating for its sheer disinterest.

On one last note, Kocan has published several books and has won awards for his fiction.

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