Shocked into Action: How Electroshock Created a Rebel

"Leonard Roy Frank is the Gandhi of the psychiatric survivors' movement. He's really helped bring a powerful spiritual discipline to this movement, similar to the work of Martin Luther King. Certainly in the 20th century, Leonard would be one of the foremost challengers of psychiatry, especially electroshock." -- David Oaks

 by Terry Messman

Leonard Roy Frank’s name is spoken with something approaching reverence by those movement activists, journalists, psychiatrists and psychiatric survivors who have come to know his work in exposing the abuses of psychiatry over the past 30 years. He has the bearing and intensity of an Old Testament prophet as he speaks gently and thoughtfully, yet with a deep urgency, of the countless lives that have been destroyed or irreparably damaged by what he describes as “psychiatric atrocities.”

Key activists who have built a human rights movement to resist psychiatric abuses compare Leonard to inspiring figures in the history of nonviolent resistance. David Oaks, executive director of MindFreedom and a leading activist in the national movement of psychiatric survivors, says flatly, “Leonard Roy Frank is the Gandhi of the psychiatric survivors’ movement. He’s really helped bring a powerful spiritual discipline to this movement, similar to the work of Martin Luther King. Certainly in the 20th century, Leonard would be one of the foremost challengers of psychiatry, especially electroshock.”

In fact, as we trace Leonard’s life journey, it becomes tempting to blame his reading of Gandhi for his incarceration in a psychiatric facility and the torturous, life-endangering mistreatment he underwent there. But it was also Gandhi who supplied him with all the vital clues needed to later stage an uprising against the forces of psychiatric oppression.

Leonard Roy Frank was a very conventional young man when he moved to San Francisco in 1959. A business graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an Army veteran, he went to work selling real estate for a downtown San Francisco firm.

What happened next also was not that unusual for a young man in San Francisco. While employed as a realtor, a businessman without any interest in spirituality or activism, he innocently opened up Gandhi’s autobiography, and found something deeply stirring and meaningful in the Hindu activist’s reverence for all life, his spiritual depth, and his dedication to nonviolent social change.

Leonard immersed himself in studying the spiritual teachers that Gandhi described in his autobiography. For the next three years, Leonard virtually dropped out of mainstream society, and spent his days voraciously reading Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, depth psychologist Carl G. Jung, historian Arnold Toynbee and the mythology scholar Joseph Campbell.

While reflecting on these newly discovered insights, Leonard became a vegetarian, grew a beard, left his job selling real estate, and devoted himself exclusively to these spiritual pursuits. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of youth followed this very path in the later 1960s and 1970s. Leonard Roy Frank’s mistake was to do it a few years ahead of his time.

He paid a very serious price for taking Gandhi so seriously. His parents had him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, and Leonard was confined for a season in hell. For the next seven months, he was imprisoned and forced to undergo what can only be characterized as psychiatric torture – 50 insulin-induced comas and 35 electroshock procedures.

Many years later, Leonard was able to obtain his medical records. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the author, former psychoanalyst and critic of Freud, described the content of his medical records.

Masson wrote: “Leonard Roy Frank, who has been very active in the movement, managed to get his ‘medical’ files from the ‘hospital’ where he was incarcerated…. The documents reveal clearly that Frank’s five major symptoms, in the eyes of the doctors who examined him, were: he was not working; he had grown a large, full beard; he had piercing eyes; he was a vegetarian; and, in the words of the medical examiners, he ‘lived the life of a beatnik – to a certain extent.’ When he was taken, involuntarily, to a psychiatric institution, he developed a sixth symptom: he did not recognize that he was ill. Therapy consisted of artificially induced insulin comas and electroconvulsive shocks. The psychoanalyst who diagnosed Frank as a ‘paranoid schizophrenic’ also suggested removing his beard as part of the therapy….

“The doctor who actually gave the shock treatments wrote to Frank’s parents: ‘We have increased the frequency of the shock treatments this week to a total of five treatments, namely one daily, as I wanted to have him a little more confused and clouded at this time if we are to remove the beard so that he would not be too acutely aware and distressed by this procedure.’ ”

It was all to no avail. Their torture-disguised-as-therapy failed to turn Leonard Roy Frank back into an obedient, conformist, real-estate salesman. Forty years later, he still is a vegetarian, still has the piercing eyes, and long ago grew back the beard. He still reads Gandhi, Thoreau and Jung in search of spiritual and political wisdom. In that sense, he still “lives the life of a beatnik – to a certain extent.”

In every sense, Leonard became even more of a rebel after these horrific experiences. He grew into a dedicated nonviolent activist, helping to build the movement of psychiatric survivors and leading prophetic protests against electroshock, forced drugging, and psychosurgery.

But it would falsify the picture to understate the amount of devastation that psychiatrists did to his brain with the insulin coma/electroshock procedures. California psychiatrists deliberately put Leonard and many other patients into brain-damaging comas by injecting large doses of insulin to reduce blood sugar and trigger a “physiological crisis” marked by irregularities in blood pressure, breathing, pulse and heart rates. Patients underwent an excruciating ordeal, manifested by what Leonard described as “incontinence and vomiting; moans and screams (referred to in the professional literature as ‘noisy excitement’); sobbing, salivation, and sweating; severe restlessness; shaking, spasms, and sometimes convulsions.”

The crisis intensified for hours until the patient was plunged into a life-endangering coma. Brain cell destruction occurred as the “sugar-starved brain” began feeding on itself for nourishment. Patients were left in the coma for an hour, then revived by the administration of glucose and sugar.

Leonard Roy Frank is arrested in Toronto during a sit-in at the American Psychiatric Association convention on May 17, 1982. Photo by Wood, The Globe and Mail

Leonard Roy Frank is arrested in Toronto during a sit-in at the American Psychiatric Association convention on May 17, 1982. Photo by Wood, The Globe and Mail

 

Sometimes subjects could not be restored to consciousness and would go into prolonged comas, resulting in more severe brain damage and sometimes death.

The insulin coma treatments could have ended Leonard’s life. Years later, he was stunned to learn that Max Fink, a doctor who headed the insulin treatment ward at a Long Island hospital, reported that the death rate from insulin coma was anywhere from one to ten percent.

The staggering total of 50 insulin comas and 35 electroshock procedures he was forced to undergo literally erased his memory for the past few years, thus eliminating all of what he had learned from Gandhi, Thoreau, Jung, et al. during what he called his “conversion period.” The memory loss stretched back even further. He soon found that his entire college and high school education was gone.

Even worse, he was left with a serious learning disability. “I also had to relearn much of the English language,” he said. “I had forgotten the meaning of many once-familiar words and had difficulty using correctly the words I understood.”

Since insulin comas had erased his political and spiritual studies in a process he today denounces as “electroconvulsive brainwashing,” the first act of resistance Leonard committed was to re-read all his books and retrieve those insights from the oblivion of insulin coma.

The second act of resistance to psychiatric abuse was to join the editorial group that produced the legendary publication, Madness Network News, in the 1970s and ’80s. Madness Network News was a beautifully designed publication that gave voice to psychiatric survivors and featured investigative reporting on electroshock, neuroleptic drugs, tardive dyskinesia and other psychiatric abuses.

The third step in overcoming the injustices he had suffered was helping to organize the Network Against Psychiatric Abuse (NAPA). NAPA activists used the philosophy of Gandhian nonviolence to build a movement that used civil disobedience and colorful protests to resist electroshock, forced drugging and slave labor in California psychiatric facilities. NAPA achieved significant reforms through these nonviolent campaigns that helped protect the rights of mental-health consumers.

Leonard also became a formidable scholar on psychiatric issues. He helped edit and publish two highly influential books and many magazine articles on the subject of psychiatric abuses. He edited The History of Shock Treatment, and was co-editor of The Madness Network News Reader. To read those two books today is to be amazed at the wealth of scholarly information and far-seeing insights that have been influential in educating a new generation of authors on these issues.

Beginning with Random House Webster’s Quotationary in 1998, Leonard Roy Frank has created a series of books published by Random House that gather together some of the wisest quotations and axioms from the world’s most profound scholars, authors, activists, historians, philosophers and spiritual thinkers. Every month, Leonard publishes an anthology of those quotations in Street Spirit, entitled “Poor Leonard’s Almanack.”

It’s a highly ironic turn of events that he has become a successful editor publishing the very same kinds of spiritual and political insights that psychiatry once tried to eradicate from his brain. His life is living testimony to the truth that full recovery from psychiatric abuse is indeed possible. You simply can’t keep a good mind down, not even with 85 insulin comas and electroshocks.

Leonard Roy Frank’s dedication to nonviolence, peacemaking and spirituality makes it all the more outrageous that such a gentle thinker was taken captive, silenced, electroshocked and purposely sent into life-threatening comas. But his first-hand experience of psychiatric torture pushed him to begin organizing for the rights of psychiatric survivors. Oppression can beget liberation in spirits strong enough to take the worst punishment and survive.

“Truth crushed to earth will rise again,” as Martin Luther King reminded us. If his psychiatrists had ever bothered to read Gandhi and King, they might have realized that Leonard would survive his soul-crushing captivity, and rise again in the struggle for justice.

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