Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Robert M Pirsig actually benefited from electroshock - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance misrepresented ECT for fictional purposes

*

Electroshock in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Fictional, not factual


David Healy and Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses; 2009: 72: 485-6.



***

Summary

Electro-convulsive therapy (ECT/electroshock) features in a number of books and movies, but always unfavourably. ECT plays a major role in Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (‘ZAMM’). This has sold more than five million copies; making Pirsig perhaps the most widely read philosopher alive. ZAMM is apparently autobiographical, and describes the author suffering a psychotic breakdown which was treated by ECT. ECT led to a ‘cure’ but supposedly by deleting all memories of the author’s earlier self, producing a lost personality called Phaedrus. The presentation of ECT in ZAMM is chilling: ‘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 0.5–1.5 s had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as ‘Annihilation ECS’. A whole personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically faultless act ....’. Yet newly published biographical information on Pirsig from Mark Richardson (Zen and now: on the trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Knopf; 2008) has documented that the role of ECT in ZAMM is a ‘literary device’, added at a late stage in drafting the book. In reality the ECT had erased some short-term memory, but Pirsig’s long-term memory had quickly returned. Richardson obtained this information from Robert Pirsig’s (then) wife, from his sister, and also from his friend John Sutherland (who appears as a character in ZAMM). It seems that one of the most famous depictions of ECT, one that had appeared factual, was actually fictional.

***

Electro-convulsive therapy (ECT/electroshock) features in a number of books and movies. Never favourably.

Van Atta [1], Abbott [2], and Freeman [3] while starting with mental illness portray a treatment that seems based largely on imagined imagery. Gotkin and Gotkin [4], Thomas [5], Frame [6] and Helfgott [7] have an autobiographical core with a possibly fictional overlay, but portray ECT in more realistic terms. In general, all these books view ECT as a punishment. Where recovery happens after ECT, it is put down to a loving relationship or other factors that enables the person to survive this treatment among other things.

The best known portrayal of ECT appears in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest [8]. In book and movie, an older unmodified ECT is portrayed relatively realistically but ECT is used punitively as a device to move the plot along rather than as a treatment. Kesey’s own views of ECT may have been somewhat at odds with the use to which treatment is put in the book, in that he appears to have rigged up a device at his home in an effort to induce a convulsion, probably to explore whether it might have a consciousness expanding effect [9]. The use of ECT in Cuckoo’s Nest is well-known, but Kesey’s own experiments with ECT are almost unknown.

Another book in which ECT features is Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel [10] B. Charlton, A Philosophical Novel: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, Durham Univ J 84 (1992), pp. 111–117.[10] Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (‘ZAMM’; [11]). This has sold more than five million copies; making Pirsig perhaps the most widely read philosopher alive [12].

The book is apparently autobiographical, and describes the author suffering a psychotic breakdown which was treated by ECT. ECT led to a ‘cure’ but supposedly by deleting all memories of the author’s earlier self, producing a lost personality called Phaedrus.

The presentation of ECT in ZAMM is chilling. ‘[The personality of Phaedrus was d]estroyed 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 0.5–1.5 s had been applied on twenty-eight consecutive occasions, in a process known technologically as ‘Annihilation ECS’. A whole personality had been liquidated without a trace in a technologically faultless act ...’ [11]; pp. 84.

Yet newly published biographical information on Pirsig from Mark Richardson [13] has documented that the role of ECT in ZAMM, as in Cuckoo’s nest, is a ‘literary device’, added at a late stage in drafting the book: ‘in truth the shock treatments had erased some short-term memory, but his long-term memory had quickly returned. Robert Pirsig the author could recall everything about Phaedrus just fine: it was Robert Pirsig the narrator who was still delusional’. ([13]; pp. 188–189). Richardson obtained this information from Robert Pirsig’s (then) wife, from his sister, and also from his friend John Sutherland (who appears as a character in ZAMM) [14].

It would appear therefore that yet another of the most famous depictions of ECT, one that had appeared factual, was fictional. While ZAMM is prefaced with the disclaimer that ‘much has been changed for rhetorical purposes’ [11]; pp. iii, Pirzig has never given any indication that the side effects ascribed to ECT were fictional.


References

[1] W. Van Atta, Shock treatment, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, NY (1961).

[2] J.H. Abbott, In the belly of the beast: letters from prison, Random House, NY (1981).

[3] H. Freeman, Judge, jury and executioner, Talking Leaves Publishing Co., Urbana IL (1986).

[4] J. Gotkin and P. Gotkin, Too much anger, too many tears. A personal triumph over psychiatry, Quadrangle Books, NY (1975).

[5] M. Thomas, Home from 7-North: a psychological journey, Libra Publishers, NY (1984).

[6] J. Frame, An angel at my table, Flamingo, Hammersmith London (1987).

[7] G. Helfgott, Love you to bits and pieces, Penguin Books, Australia (1996).

[8] K. Kesey, One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest, Viking Press, NY (1962).

[9] E. Shorter and D. Healy, Electroshock: a history of electroconvulsive treatment in mental illness, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, USA (2007).

[10] B. Charlton, A Philosophical Novel: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, Durham Univ J 84 (1992), pp. 111–117.

[11] M. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Corgi, London (1976) [Originally published 1974].

[12] Tim Adams. The interview: Robert Pirsig, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/nov/19/fiction; 2008 [Accessed 8 12 2008].

[13] Richardson Mark, Zen and now: on the trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Knopf, New York (2008).

[14] Mark Richardson – Personal communication with BG Charlton by e-mail. 8th Dec 2008.