U.S. Renegade History, Psychiatric Survivors, and the Price of Acceptance

The historic divide between the “respectable” vs. the “renegades” is the subject of historian Thaddeus Russell’s 2011 book A Renegade History of the United States, which argues that when renegade groups gain civil rights and social acceptability, they lose their renegade culture. At least one group of American outsiders, not discussed by Russell, continues to be socially unacceptable, making it easier for them to retain a renegade culture.

Normies is a term you might hear at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) twelve-step meeting to describe the non-addict world. The non-normie tent also includes others who may not be substance abusers but who are behaviorally noncompliant, do not take most authorities seriously, and have been labeled as “mental ill.”

Twelve-steppers routinely poke fun at their experiences in non-normie culture, and for many of them, “recovery” means trying to fit into the normie world. However, many ex-mental patients who have become “psychiatric survivors” and “mad priders” question the value of normie culture and see value in their own—this an outlook which puts them in the tradition of Russell’s historic renegades.

A Renegade History of the United States

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States championed the idea that American history is not just the story of rich people, presidents, and generals but also includes class conflict and ordinary Americans trying to gain economic and social justice. For Thaddeus Russell—“Bad Thad” to his students—American history also includes the conflict between those who seek power to either maintain or reform society vs. freedom-loving, pleasure seekers.

The American mainstream has long been an oppressive culture, valuing alienating work and conformity over pleasure and freedom. For Russell, prohibitions against entry into the American mainstream have historically allowed outsider groups to develop and maintain cultures that had far more pleasure and freedom. So, for example, racism and bigotry toward African-Americans’ and their exclusion from the mainstream resulted in a renegade culture that could celebrate pleasure and freedom, and that could create the blues and jazz.

A Renegade History of the United States has two narratives, one uplifting and one depressing.

Russell’s uplifting narrative is advertised on the book jacket: “Russell demonstrates that it was those on the fringes of society whose subversive ways of life helped legitimize the taboo and made America the land of the free.” These renegades include drunken workers who helped create the weekend, African-American slaves who saved America from Puritanism, financially astute prostitutes and madams who set the precedent for women’s liberation, unassimilated immigrants who ushered in birth control, and a bold gay culture that helped break open sexuality.

The depressing narrative of A Renegade History of the United States is how America has become less of a renegade nation since the American Revolution, which ushered in increasingly more moral and legal proscriptions against alcohol use, sexual pleasures, and other personal freedoms that had been far more tolerated in colonial America.

Perhaps even more depressing is Russell’s description of how once renegade groups have become less so with social acceptance, which resulted in them buying into the work ethic, sexual restraint and repression, and less interesting lives. Specifically, in chapters on African-Americans, Jews, Irish, Italian, and gay American, Russell describes their great cultural contributions to pleasure and freedom when prohibited from entry into mainstream society, but how their gaining acceptance resulted in an end of their renegade cultural contributions.

In Russell’s chapter, “Gay Liberation, American Liberation,” he describes the historic clash between gay people who enjoyed the pleasures and freedom of being outside mainstream America vs. gay people who sought to gain mainstream respectability and social acceptance. Russell argues that, ironically, the respectable homosexual civil rights movement in the 1950s failed to end police harassment, but what worked was the Stonewall uprising in 1969—for Russell, “one of the great renegade moments in American history,” where gays couldn’t care less about mainstream respectability as they flaunted their sexuality and physically terrified the police.

And a year after Stonewall in 1970, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) infiltrated a conference of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) where a film was demonstrating the use of electroshock treatment to decrease same-sex attraction. GLF members, again caring little about notions of acceptable behavior, shouted “torture” and seized microphones to scold psychiatrists. Gay activists effectively intimidated the APA into abolishing homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973.

The post-Stonewall gay pride movement with annual marches that included semi-naked people celebrating sexual openness was, for Russell, a truly renegade culture. But he argues that as homosexuality has become more socially acceptable, gay activism has come to primarily be about the right to have the same lifestyles as exist in mainstream culture—e.g., marriage, monogamy, and the nuclear family. For Russell, this is one of many examples of how mainstream acceptance results in a loss of freedom-loving, pleasure-seeking renegade values.

While those attempting to maintain the status quo try to limit personal liberties for the sake of their notion of social order, Russell argues that so too do reformers attempt to limit personal liberties of their group for the sake of greater social acceptability for their cause. He argues that all groups that have sought social control—to either maintain or reform society—have strongly promoted the work ethic, condemned sexual freedom, and decried the decadence of consumerism.

Russell’s general argument—that the respectable vs. renegade divide is an ignored and hugely significant part of American history, and that with social acceptance comes a loss of a renegade culture—is such a valuable contribution that I hesitate to quibble about his renegade categorizations and correlates. But I don’t know how one could not define anarchists such as Emma Goldman and her buddies as renegades, yet Emma and her friends and lovers fought for both social reform and sexual freedom, practicing sexual freedom in their own lives. And there is another renegade culture that today exists which also doesn’t fit so neatly into Russell’s categorizations and correlates.

Psychiatric Survivors: America’s Last Renegades?

Twelve-steppers at AA or NA meetings, attempting to recover from alcohol or drug abuse, routinely offer funny stories about the destructive craziness of their lives before recovery, though one often senses that there remains some attraction for the freedom, pleasure, and excitement of their non-normie past.

In contrast, there is a non-normie culture—in the tradition of renegade cultures that Russell describes—who pokes fun at normie culture, seeing their own culture as life-affirming. This non-normie group is comprised of ex-mental patients who refer to themselves as “psychiatric survivors” or having had “lived experience of altered states of consciousness.” For them, psychiatric treatment was dehumanizing and oppressive.

Similar to the historic conflict within persecuted gay culture, there is conflict among psychiatric survivors as well. While all fight against psychiatric oppression, some want their behaviors depathologized so they can fit into the mainstream, but others want to hold on their renegade culture.

MindFreedom is a coalition of psychiatric survivor organizations from around the world and has championed Mad Pride. As the New York Times reported in 2008 (‘Mad Pride’ Fights a Stigma), “Just as gay-rights activists reclaimed the word queer as a badge of honor rather than a slur, these advocates proudly call themselves mad.”

Janet Foner, psychiatric survivor and MindFreedom Board Member who leads Mental Health Liberation workshops, describes “The 10 Warning Signs of Normality,” jokingly describing normality as achronic mental illness afflicting much of the general population.” Some of these “normality warning signs” include:

COOL: Holding everything in and always putting “a good face on it.”

SERIOUS: Always doing the proper thing—never anything unusual, playful, spontaneous, wild, or creative.

NICE: Always acting nice even if you can’t stand the other person.

RIGHT: Always doing everything right— wear the “right clothes,” saying the “right thing,” and associating with only with the “right people,” and believing there is only one right way.

BORING: Conversations, life, and living space are dull and boring.

OBEDIENT: Always trying not to offend, especially those in authority.

In this renegade culture, life affirming non-normality includes even hearing voices (what mainstream psychiatrist call “auditory hallucinations” and consider a hallmark symptom of psychoses such as schizophrenia). This culture asks, “So, What’s Wrong with Hearing Voices?” (Behavioral Healthcare, 2011), and have developed the Hearing Voices Network.

This renegade culture share the anarchist beliefs of non-hierarchical organization, personal liberty, mutual aid, and resistance to illegitimate authority. While they might not fit neatly into Russell’s renegade characteristics and correlates—as individuals vary on their commitment to social reform, the work ethic, consumption, and sexual freedom—they share an opposition to coercion and to the control orientation of normie psychiatrists and normie society.  This and their belief in fun makes them renegades, one of the last renegade groups who together are having some good times in bad-times America.