Sunday, 29 August 2010

Review: The Most Revolutionary Act, Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall (2010)

While self-published in the US, this interesting memoir opens and ends in New Zealand, the country Bramhall chose to reside in after experiencing decades of what she understood - and understands - to be a sustained and potentially lethal campaign of harrassment by shadowy US secret services. Intriguingly subtitled 'Memoir of an American Refugee', this is a fascinating account of struggle on the part of an activist in the face of perceived interference by forces unknown, unnamed and, unfortunately, possibly somewhat imaginary.

I received the review copy in the mail from New Zealand after Bramhall identified this blog as a potentially sympathetic vehicle for her book. When I asked why she chose it, she said it was due to what she perceived as my politics, which is something that may on occasion be perceptible in the writings here. I have never declared my preferred voting intentions, however. But you know that you can fool some of the people only some of the time... .

What Bramhall describes is of interest to those who, like me, do not participate in activism. Bramhall's activism targeted a number of causes in her home town of Seattle, the capital of the Pacific north-west state possibly best known for producing the Starbucks coffee chain, Microsoft Corp. and the late-90s 'grunge' style of rock'n'roll. But the white, middle-class image the city enjoys is not globally applicable. Bramhall chose to support the establishment of an African American museum and cultural centre, for example, after a fellow citizen decided to occupy a disused school building in an inner-city suburb. Then there was the "single-payer" health insurance scheme she yearned for - as a practicing psychologist Bramhall saw first-hand how some US social elements are disenfranchised by dominant private health-care providers. For the record, "single-payer" means that there is a single pool of funds - donated, say, by individuals, the government, or private companies - from which reimbursements are made after health care services are delivered.

Because of her participation in these causes, Bramhall says she had to cope with agents trying to infiltrate and destabilise the movements, but also crank calls (for years), theft of property, break-ins, poisoning, and attempts to kill her while she was driving her car in the streets.

Most interestingly, Bramhall chronicles what appears to have been a psychotic episode as a result of which she was briefly hospitalised. As a medical professional she has an obligation to ensure that her mental state does not adversely affect her patients, as ill health would certainly do. She was strongly encouraged to commit herself into the care of a psychiatric unit by a colleague, who threatened to have her struck off as a practitioner if she didn't comply with his request. Bramhall fiercely resents this action, and attributes it to the same malevolent causes as the other meddlings in her life.

But what is so interesting for the reader is that she recounts the process leading up to her hospitalisation in enormous detail, and the prognosis is strongly in favour of psychosis. Why? The level of "interference" she describes could not have been orchestrated by any government body as it was too unlikely that it was so. She describes receiving messages from her television while watching cable news, for example. After leaving the house, she describes receiving messages from homeless people in the street. A particular visual input would "suggest" to her to behave in a particular way.

What Bramhall describes are "ideas of reference". During psychosis, the subject remains mentally fixed on a certain idea, or complex of ideas. All sensory inputs begin to reference this in some way. So that a TV advertisement, if it is shown, say, several times in quick succession, can make the subject feel that she has to do something in order to avert some sort of disaster. The universe, as it were, "speaks" to the subject. It "comes alive". This can be by turns pleasurable or frightening, as published accounts have clearly shown. Bramhall's book contains a particularly vivid account of psychosis, and she talks about the pleasure she felt as she wandered about the city following the indications expressed by her world.

Going to hospital to get emergency help was, without doubt, the best thing she could have done under the circumstances she found herself in. Of those who don't do so, a number die when their ideas of reference bring them into violent physical contact with civil authorities. We know this, because it gets reported in the news with depressing regularity.

Other interference was probably true rather than imagined. It is not surprising to read that an activist group becomes infiltrated by an agent who is bent on defeating its aims. What Bramhall describes in this case is a sustained campaign to create chaos in the groups she worked for, and prevent them from reaching their goals. As for the crank calls and break-ins, these are even more sinister. They may be tied to the same cause. For the single mother of a young child, they must have been frightening to experience. What is striking about Bramhall's account, however, is that it is so detailed and complete.

It is also rapid and unrelenting. The drawback of this style - though the prose is admirable and eminently coherent - is that conclusions the author makes are not necessarily shared by the reader, who is occasionally confused due to the rapidity with which the narrative proceeds. While Bramhall could have been kinder to her readers, she is without doubt a skilled prose stylist, and one able to sustain a complex story over hundreds of pages. Because the implications of the book are so compelling - secret government agents meddling in the life of a law-abiding individual - the reader is drawn to complete the book.

Before being allowed to board the flight to New Zealand, Bramhall describes being personally searched by an airport official. In tears, she leaves her country to embark upon her new life in a kinder, more liberal place.

Bramhall's suspicions about the US government are complex and broad-ranging. They include, for example, the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, which she chose to become expert in and to teach at a community college in Seattle. Then she ascribes initial interest on the part of the secret services in her case to her involvement in the notion that AIDS cures were already available in the 1980s and that they were prevented from being dispensed to carriers of the virus by malevolent elements in government. But also, she suspects that AIDS was developed in a military laboratory in Maryland.

So she also has a low opinion of the mainstream press, which she accuses of being a dupe. She is an indefatigable questioner, a seeker, a square peg. And, she says, she had always been like this. It wasn't until she decided to become involved in activism that she began to realise her true potential as an individual. As such, the book charts the psychology of activism. Why do some people find it necessary to question the very foundations of society? Why is it that the only way they can be happy is by participating, with others akin to them, in activities that reach far beyond their own, individual interests? It is a fascinating area of enquiry, and this extraordinary book gives the reader much to think about and ponder.

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