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5 of 5
3 ratings
list price: $22.95
also available: eBook
category: Fiction
published: Oct 2017

The Other Mrs. Smith

by Bonnie Burstow

reviews: 3
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medical, contemporary women, jewish
5 of 5
3 ratings
list price: $22.95
also available: eBook
category: Fiction
published: Oct 2017

This novel traces the life experiences of a once highly successful woman who falls prey to electroshock and subsequently struggles to piece back together her life. Naomi suffers enormous memory loss; additionally, an estrangement from her family of origin that she has no way to wrap her mind around. The novel begins with her wandering the corridor of St. Patricks-St Andrews Mental Health Centre (St. Pukes) faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of coming to terms with the damage done her, as well uncovering the hidden details of her life. It moves back and forth between a relatively happy childhood in the legendary north-end Winnipeg of the mid-1900s and post-ECT adulthood in Toronto. An exceptionally kind man named Ger who befriends Naomi comes to suspect that important pieces of the puzzle of what befell her lurk beneath the surface of writing in a binder of hers, which comes to be known as Black Binder Number Three. What Naomi progressively comes to do, often with Ger's help and just as often with the help of a very different and eerily similar sister named Rose, is find ways to do justice to her life and to the various people in it. Filled with a vast array of colourful and insightful characters from a variety of communities--Toronto¹s Kensington Market of the 1970s, the 1970's trans community, north-end Winnipeg Jewry, and the ingenious and frequently hilarious mad community--this novel sensitizes us to the horror of electroshock, takes us to new levels in our understanding of what it means to be human, and, in the process, leads us to question the very concept of normalcy.

  • Short-listed, Vine Awards for Jewish Canadian Literature
Editorial Review

"Bonnie Burstow's The Other Mrs. Smith is a first rate, emotionally powerful novel. Her writing is vivid and personal, spiced with pungent Jewish expressions. The scenes with Winnipeg's North End have a life-like, photographic intensity, also important social history. The portrayal of Jewish family relatives is very personally involving, and some of the psychiatric inmates are so sharply sketched, they bring back my own early memories."
--Don Weitz , Toronto psychiatric survivor, social justice activist, and co-editor of Shrink-Resistant

"Forced electroshock left me bereft of my life's purpose, until I spoke out. Though the testimonial facts of the struggle up from brain damage are mine and those of other survivors, this powerful story and the sheer artistry of its handling is all Bonnie. A gem of a novel and a "must-read.""
--Connie Neil, author of Aftershock: Raised Consciousness Crumbles SHAM Psychiatric System

"Burstow's writing style is clear, stark, and informative, allowing the abundance of characters the space to become fully animated. She moves the reader back and forth in time metaphorically strengthening our ability to consider the history of electroshock. Read it to meet the characters and be in these rich Canadian locales. I encourage you to read it to consider how we can better the human condition."
--Spencer J. Harrison, artist, activist, educator at OCAD University

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Reader Reviews

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The Other Mrs Smith

Review of The Other Mrs Smith
By Connie Neil

Read The Other Mrs Smith by Bonnie Burstow and find another well-portrayed world. The first inhabitant is a man cleaning house while minding his nine-year-old son Les; and this trans gender could be The Other Mrs Smith. You’ll see within these well-written pages several characters who might be The Other Mrs Smith.
And where in the world do we find Nomi, the lead character of this novel? She does not know where or who she is or what has become of her. Nomi is lost: locked in a shock ward, unable to find where she belongs. They say her husband has visited. Who could that be?
As a Shock Survivor I can witness that the feel of the locked shock ward portrayed and the frustration of never being sure who you are and what you have done to deserve torture and brain damage is accurate. The reality of our difficult journey towards mental balance after being treated to frightening forced intervention is also correctly handled in The Other Mrs Smith. That is just what it is like.
At mealtime with fellow survivors, Nomi briefly becomes aware:
“’Naomi, pass the fuckin’ butter already,’ a voice was bellowing. ‘Jesus!
Some people.’ If you can imagine suddenly coming to in the middle of a
busy intersection, cars piled up behind you, all of them blasting their
horns, you are on your way to understanding my predicament. There was
a clinking of dishes all around me, loud chewing in my ear, and voices
everywhere, one on top of another –declaring, demanding, objecting.
‘The butter, you’re holding onto the butter,’ a high-pitched voice insisted.’”

Here, Burstow’s writing style features the unreliable narrator, as Nomi tries to comply with the environment of the mental facility. She does not know what she does not know. As the chief story of a brain-damaged survivor of electroshock Nomi harks back to her life history and her attempt to recover meaningful consciousness with growing success. Her most harrowing difficulty is the loss of memory, and finally the ability to let go of the importance is accepted when, years later, Nomi must leave home:
“I walk through every room of this house where I’ve lived these many
years, bidding each a final farewell. The photo lab. The study where
once my tiny daughter slept. The gallery where once . . . Ah well, I
remind myself, it’s not the end of the world if I don’t remember.” Pg414

And if it was only to tell of Nomi’s journey to recovery, this would be an important novel. But Burstow’s writing also includes the major battles that thousands have gathered to protest the control of psychiatry. At one such gathering place, generations of down-trodden flourish:
“The DCC as we call it, is that rambling red building near Dufferin and
Queen—the one with the purple roof and tinted windows. Open 24/7, it
has been home to many a progressive program, serving people with
addictions, ex-inmates, refugees. Decades ago, psych survivors formed
the bulk of the clientele. . .—helped people stripped to the bone organize,
fight back. And my colleagues and I, we were a modest part of that.”Pg330

Including the battle of related victimized groups gives the social context that anti-psychiatry targets when natural life events are viewed as disease. The common enemy of vulnerable people can be confronted when groups are able to ban together. The great skill Bonnie Burstow brings to this essential journey to that of protest activist from quivering shattered victim is what makes The Other Mrs Smith into a classic.
It is difficult to tell of my feelings this novel produced as the major feeling engendered is fear. It is how we are controlled. It is the whole point of the “treatment”. And there can be no doubt that I became the threatened lead character as I became easily enmeshed in Nomi’s dilemma –how to find herself given the paltry mental tools left her, how to become useful as an anti-psychiatry activist.
The emotional reactions are deeply felt.
In the case of this dynamic novel fear covers anger, and carries the urge in me to speak in protest against the damaging issues of hidebound psychiatric protocols that will not deviate from DSM directives, despite the evidence of human senses in relating to a suffering being. These reality-based issues I published in 2016 in my memoir Aftershock. It took thirty years to find courage to put my feelings on being badly damaged into print.
Despite the horror of bereft struggle on the part of Nomi and all shock survivors, we are pulled skilfully through chapters portraying the first glimmer of awareness of the damages to her courage to recover a useful place in the world. Finally there is reconciliation with her separated twin Rose, who arrives unannounced, and is able to fill in needed information from before the shock treatment:
“Earl followed her part way, then leaned against the doorjamb, muttering
under his breath. Ignoring Earl, she eyed Gerald curiously. Then she
beheld me, and her jaw dropped. She could see at a glance that I was a
poor imitation of the sister she had once tried so hard to emulate. Torn,
I stood there, unable to budge, barely able to breathe.”Pg180

As I found in my own recovery, help comes in the compassionate advice of fellow sufferers, from commonsense knowledge of trusted experience, from the courage to express that hard won knowledge in an artistic form. For Nomi the way back into life is in her photography; for me it is creative writing; and your action will be what you can do to further the causes of life and death (to the psychiatric system).
Read it and weep. I did. And then I spoke out in protest. In The Other Mrs Smith you will connect to your own personal struggle for useful independence and your urge to right the entrenched wrong of this system.

A Great Contemporary Feminist Canadian Novel

As a reader, I want to be moved and changed by a piece of writing, by complex characters that offer me a new understanding about life. As a writer, I look to be offered examples of writing that help me become a better one. With the book, I wasn’t disappointed. It offered both.

To be honest, I am pretty amazed at how an accomplished academic professional such as Bonnie Burstow can shift gears into such rich and poetic prose that draws the reader into a collection of complex, original characters that unfold through a mysterious evolving plot that has all kinds of twists and turns. Without giving too much away here, the novel offers us a beautiful and tragic view of one brilliant woman’s life story shifting between her time living in two diverse Canadian cities; Winnipeg and Toronto. She moves us back and forth through time, offering readers a sobering account with grace, humour, dignity, and tenderness.

It is a beautifully crafted feminist novel-- a real page-turner that takes the reader on an emotional ride through the protagonist’s experience as an electroshock survivor. Naively, like so many of us, I had no idea people were even still be treated with it, never mind how damaging it is for one’s memory.

Besides its feminist theme, it also holds space for issues of various marginalized Canadian communities from Indigenous peoples and the homeless, to the trans community. However, the underlying lesson the author offers here goes beyond the labels and categories we’ve created among us and down into to the bones of what it means to be human. Yes, we fight for what we believe in, we do our own work, we follow our passion and we stand up for injustice but also--ultimately, this book reminds us about acceptance too. It offers us a message about the great paradox of life we all must recognize sooner or later; we all experience great suffering and great joy. Life is tragic and beautiful. We will shed big tears of both kind and it’s all ok. Perhaps it is when we come to truly allow a space for both, when we don’t cling to our ideas about how things should be for us-- we find our peace.

The Other Mrs. Smith - A Great Novel!

Bonnie Burstow’s beautiful novel, “The Other Mrs. Smith,” continues to resonate with me.

We follow Naomi, who has been deeply impacted by memory loss, caused by Electroshock (ECT). This captivating character, gives us a lively and very human portrayal, of living in the world with memory impairments. Relying on index cards to make sense of things, Naomi develops a sophisticated system of self-accommodation, as she negotiates the expectations of ‘normalcy’ imposed by people around her. We come to understand her lived reality, and to love those characters, who just take her where she is at.

The novel brings us a perspective on supporting those who are psychiatrized. Naomi’s husband Earl, was counting on ‘being in the right,’ when he had Naomi committed. The Novel has us question the ‘ordinary story.’ What if the place we turn to for help, actually-causes serious harm? Like Naomi’s friend Gerald, perhaps it is better to tell our loved ones to get as far away as possible. Although Naomi’s life, is at times fragmented and disoriented, over time, she comes to ‘perceive the world,’ more insightfully than ever.

I appreciate this rare glimpse behind ‘Asylum’ walls, where Naomi finds humanity and solidarity amongst inmates, within an institution they call “St. Pukes.” A diverse group of people gather there. Jack an Aboriginal man, becomes a leading ally, as they are caught together, within the institution walls. His strength and insight, guide her throughout. The characters she finds there, provide a roadmap, giving clues about how to navigate the Institution. It also brings unforgettably amusing moments of inmate resistance.

At a time where psychiatric institutions, have become normalized as the common singular solution, to all our existential-dilemmas and traumas, this modern-day version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” provides a refreshing and lively new perspective. Naomi is profoundly impacted by Electroshock. ECT is at once an old story, and a present day one. “The Other Mrs. Smith,” gives us a feminist view of psychiatry, where women are given ECT, at much higher rates, contextualizing this within patriarchal power-relations. In a poetic moment, Naomi turns her gaze back on the doctors at “St. Pukes,” seeing it with renewed insight.

The novel has memorable LGBTQ, Aboriginal, and homeless characters. Gerald, a trans-person, is a solid Ally, and an important character, in the novel. He gives us missing clues about her history and story, which have been erased by ECT. His lovely warmth and humour gives solid ground, in the midst, of the chaos. A modern-day family is forged, to support Naomi as she raises her child, (together with Gerald’s child, Les). It has insightful scenes, conceptualizing family, and community differently. The Novel inspires a hopeful image, giving a rich space where marginalized people continually re-invent themselves, and resist institutional oppression.

Naomi shares vivid childhood memories, growing up Jewish in North-End Winnipeg in the midst, of labour and class-struggles. We are brought close to Naomi’s family, as they pull together, to understand anew, their daughter’s (new) way of being in the world. In a reversal of fortunes, in contrast to the life of her childhood, where Naomi excelled academically, (i.e. on her way to becoming a film director or critic), her twin sister Rose, (always academically slow) now becomes an affectionate source of support and wisdom. The novel includes a beautiful portrayal of the strong connection between twin sisters. These siblings, aware of each other, intuitively ‘feel’ each other’s pains; the bonds between them are at times severed, but also healed.

The Other Mrs. Smith, also gives us a bit of a mystery to be solved, which becomes a theme throughout. This creates an intriguing element in the novel. Towards the end, we gain insight into a troubling truth about Naomi, and the institution, which caused her brain damage. Her daughter Ruth, plays a vital role in this discovery. This portrayal shows that the impacts of the damage caused by ECT are multi-generational and cause devastating harm. Ruth eventually gains a new connection with her mother, and finally also heals.

This novel is poetic, poignantly powerful, and very human! It is ever-hopeful that people can come together to understand and appreciate each other differently. It made me cry and laugh, through the intimate connections with Naomi, and her lovely community of friends and family! A portion of the novel takes place in Toronto, which makes this novel feel, all-the-more personal to me. This special novel, has a compassionate connection, giving humanity to Naomi’s lived reality; it is a wonderful, insightful literary work.

Read and enjoy!!

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