The Loony Bin Trip

Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN-10: 1853813265
ISBN-13: 978-1853813269

Review by Rachel Schofield

Mental health tales, we all have them and yes I know that the ‘up’ phase of bipolar disorder is tripping without the acid (my words not hers). However Kate Millett, a feminist who first came to fame in 1970 after the publication of her book of feminist literary theory ‘Sexual Politics’ hit the media zeitgeist, has a narrative skill that is almost impossible to tear oneself away from.

Fame sent her head flying,…

in fact ‘Flying’, (1974) is the title of her second, and in my view best book, although all ten of her books are good. It describes what it feels like to become a media superstar overnight, thrust at random into TV talkshows and asked to explain what a revolution in every bedroom meant to her and not to be shy. And how was she to juggle her personal life, (as well as being bipolar Kate is bisexual), and remain academically serious, holding her own as a radical academic with a PHD who preferred the lecture circuit to the media circus. Then there was running the Women’s Farm she had recently bought, trying to make everyone equal when they weren’t and trying to balance the books. And how was Kate to mend fences with her close knit but often judgemental immediate family, who were shocked and disturbed when she outed herself publicly as a lesbian?

All a pretty big ask, and in 1973 she was sectioned when ‘up’. The suicidal experience of coming down meant that she would do anything that might just, maybe make her feel a little better (yes, I’ve been there myself). Lithium was the medication on offer and she complied. Seven years later and not a particularly compliant character when well, she stopped.

I do not want to give away what happened. Quite a lot and extremely well written. Kate has a sharp awareness of how one person’s struggle is never theirs alone. As John Donne said ‘No man is an island’ and as second wave feminists say, ‘the personal is political’. In 1981 she is imprisoned in a mental institution a few miles away from Dublin airport and it takes her friends in Ireland too many months to figure out why she never arrived to make a film and where she is. The regime is barbaric and she is forcibly given Prolixin, a medication that makes her feel paralysed and gives her nightmares ‘like a white club…I am totally conscious, horribly awake and yet rigid, locked in the dream’. It was also given to political prisoners in the North of Ireland during this time in order to subdue them so they were less likely to riot and escape.

Depression inevitably follows her release. The ups and downs of bipolar do not make obvious sense; they are simply a wheel of misadventure where depression is too dead and numb even for the pain to hurt or cause anger. Being a resilient soul after a while she gets back on her feet and continues being Kate; author, campaigner against injustice, lover and a role model for this reviewer who has far too good an understanding of what she is talking about! Eventually she comes off her meds safely.

In 1990, nine years after her worst times, she writes ‘The Loony Bin Trip’ and dedicates it, ‘to those who’ve been there’.

Read it.

Rachel’s other work
More of Rachel’s work is to be found on the online writing site under her writing name of Elsie Katz. She has 48 pieces of writing on this site, poems, short stories, biography, opinion pieces – a varied selection of mainly recent work.