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.
Danaher said the episode persuaded her and others that “we needed to get psychiatric help for Kate.”
Her family and friends, getting Millett into the car on a pretense, took her to Highland Hospital in Oakland. She was diagnosed as manic-depressive, a cyclic condition marked by periods of frenzied activity and deep depression. Millett was rushed to Herrick Hospital in Berkeley, then Napa State Hospital. There, she said, doctors treated her wild mood swings with Thorazine and lithium. Millett says she drank instant coffee to fight the medication, but the drugs seized her mind and gave her diarrhea and tremors.
California law since 1969 permits mental patients to be involuntarily held and observed for 72 hours if they are a danger to themselves or others, or if they cannot feed, clothe or shelter themselves. They can be kept against their will for 14 more days if an administrative judge finds no improvement in their health during a hearing.
According to Millett, her involuntary stay stretched to 10 days. She says she was released after she reluctantly signed a paper stating she was a voluntary patient who recognized she needed more treatment. “I had no choice but to perjure myself,” she said.
Later that summer, Millett visited her worried mother, who committed her daughter to a mental clinic in Minnesota.
Millett was freed in two weeks when a civil rights lawyer, Donald Heffernan, won a hearing for her. The test case helped reform that state’s law on mental patients by making it a requirement that patients have a commitment hearing.
Shortly before the publication of “Flying” in 1974, suicidal thoughts flooded Millett’s mind, according to her book. At one point, a drunk Millett tried to kill herself in her run-down New York Bowery loft by opening the pipes to a gas stove. The loft was so drafty, the gas did not build up and she awoke, groggy but alive. Her family learned of this later.
In 1980, after seven years, Millett stopped taking lithium, a drug commonly prescribed for manic- depressive patients. Her friends and family, worried about her health, went to her Manhattan home to try to persuade her to voluntarily go into a hospital.
Ignoring their pleas, she traveled that fall to Ireland to support Irish hunger strikers in British prisons and speak out against the torture of political prisoners. (The year before Millett was deported from Iran, where she had gone to support Iranian feminists on the eve of the Islamic revolution.)
Police picked up Millett in the Shannon airport. It is not clear what Millett did that caused the police to detain her and take her to Our Lady of Clare, a mental hospital outside Dublin. Millett says she was arrested because of her political activities, not manic behavior.
Millett wrote that she tried to escape but was caught outside the hospital grounds. According to her book, three weeks later, under pressure from Irish feminists and a local politician, the authorities released the American author.
Throughout “The Looney-Bin Trip,” Millett questions her family and others close to her. She feels they betrayed her by blindly obeying psychiatrists.
Millett suggests her family attempted to get her to seek help through the late 1970s because they were upset by the memoir “Flying” and were punishing her for her outspokenness and bisexuality. Mental illness became “an easy scapegoat” she said. “They were very proud of ‘Sexual Politics,’ but they were terribly insecure about ‘Flying,’ ” Millett said.
“Balderdash,” said Sally Rau, Millett’s sister and a lawyer in Bellevue, Neb. “Kate was ill, and we did what we felt was necessary. I do not feel we ever betrayed Kate in attempting to help her.
“Whenever you see a family member ill or hurting, you’ve got to help--and she was definitely hurting. Kate was living in her own hell.”
Mallory Millett Danaher share’s Rau’s opinion of “The Loony-Bin Trip” and her famed sister’s mental condition in the 1970s.
“There’s no question the entire book is a denial,” she said. “Kate very clearly was a danger to herself and others. She just isn’t willing to admit it. She perceived us as her punishers, her accusers, when it wasn’t that way at all.”
Danaher believes the burden of fame pushed her sister over the edge, much as it did John Belushi and Marilyn Monroe. The pressure of feminist politics, drinking, chain-smoking, heavy travel and a poor diet also took its toll, she said.
“Overnight fame came crashing down on her,” Danaher said. “Kate tried to live up to some incredible standard that nobody can live up to. Everyone saw her as a savior of all women, which she never was, and never wanted to be.”
When asked about the comments of her family--whose names and telephone numbers she had provided--Kate Millett fell quiet for a long second or two. “I’m sorry they feel that way,” she said. “I’m sorry they’re still reaching for a definition of my being strange.”
Still, Millett calls “The Loony-Bin Trip” a book of reconciliation. She says she has resolved the issues with her family and a former lover, who is now a close friend.
In 1988, Millett again stopped taking the lithium she had ingested for most of 13 years. To test the reactions of others, she says she kept it a secret. She felt the power of suggestion induced others to view her as mad. “No one noticed a single thing,” she said.
Phyllis Chesler, the feminist psychologist and author of “Women and Madness,” said Millett’s book is the tale of “a great intellect and artist who, in the middle of her life, fell apart and lost her way, like Dante.”
Chesler disagrees with her good friend’s condemnation of the mental health field. While deeply flawed, psychiatry helps many people, Chesler said. Drugs, when properly monitored, can cure mental patients. And Chesler said, “there is such a thing as mental illness.”
Chesler suggests that Millett, like artists throughout history, may be “a true literary eccentric who fights for the right of the individual against the might of the state.” The pressures of fame, drinking and loneliness also wore her down, she added.
“Society drives us to being misdiagnosed and mistreated, especially women and minorities,” Chesler said. “She should not have been locked up. She should have been given help.”
Back at her home in New York, Millett said by telephone that she has just scanned two book reviews that labeled her as mentally ill.
People are missing the point, she said. Her book is a plea for understanding, a radical call for a new tolerance toward mental states that are “at the margin"--from flights of artistic inspiration to states of altered consciousness.
“Please read it again,” she told the journalist. “I put a lot of thought into it.”