A pioneer in the psychiatric survivors' movement, Judi Chamberlin spent four decades as an activist for the civil rights of mental patients. Following horrific experiences as a patient in the mental health system, Chamberlin was galvanized to take action on patients' rights, helping to found the Mental Patients' Liberation Front in 1971. Taking cues from the struggle for civil rights, she helped build a movement that privileged the patient's perspective and that demanded choice in treatment. Through her writing, organizing, and international advocacy, she contributed to a number of disability rights organizations that have had a profound influence on public policy. Her tireless efforts have been recognized with the Distinguished Service Award of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in 1992 and many other honors. Chamberlin died of pulmonary disease at home in Arlington, Mass., in January 2010.
An important record of the development of the psychiatric survivors' movement from its earliest days, the Chamberlin Papers include rich correspondence between Chamberlin, fellow activists, survivors, and medical professionals; records of her work with the MPLF and other rights organizations, conferences and meetings, and her efforts to build the movement internationally.
The collection is open for research.
Background on Judi Chamberlin
No, anger is not 'nice,' but it's real, it comes from the gut, and not to be angry at being shit upon is being dead -- which is exactly what shrinks and their kind want us all to become. That's why they lock us up, drug us, cut into our brains with electricity and with knives if they possibly can. . .
But anger is exhausting, and being put down for our anger is destructive. What we need is to be able to turn to one another for strength, for support, for understanding. There is a group in Boston called Mental Patients' Liberation Front that does this.
-- (MS 768 Series 2 Organization: Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric oppression, third, 1975)
Judi Chamberlin was a psychiatric survivor. Influenced by the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation, mental patients organized their own advocacy groups in the early 1970s. By referring to themselves not as "mental patients" but as "ex-patients," "ex-inmates," or "psychiatric survivors," they emphasized that their goal was to gain respect for their human rights just as their peers in other movements had before them. Why do "sane" people draw boundaries between "Us" and "Them?" Why is it ok to involuntarily commit those labeled "them" to psychiatric hospitals, to conduct forced drugging, electroshock, and psychosurgery, and to label "them" as "mental patients?" The Psychiatric Survivors Movement, the fourth wave of social change in America, challenged the power of psychiatry, the definition of madness, and the unquestioned bias against mental patients to seek true liberation and social justice.
Through her thirty nine years of advocacy work, Chamberlin questioned the medical model based explanation of mental illness. Instead she argued societal pressures caused her emotional distress that lead her to voluntary and involuntary commitments to psychiatric hospitals in the late 1960s. She published On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System in 1978 where she described the dehumanizing care she received in psychiatric hospitals and exposed how the "treatment" stripped patients of the ability to determine their own lives. Based on her experience, she proposed an alternative environment for ex-patients where they operated their own support system without the oversight of mental health professionals. After moving to Boston in 1975, she became a key-member of the Mental Patients Liberation Front, the Ruby Rogers Advocacy and Drop-in Center, and the National Empowerment Center in order to bring her objectives into practice. From the 1990s onwards, Chamberlin actively participated in the cross-disability advocacy work by joining the American Association of People with Disabilities founded by Justin Dart.
Chamberlin was born in Manhattan in 1944 and raised in Brooklyn as an only child of a lower middle class Jewish family. Like many women who grew up in the 1950s, she did not question the expectation that she would marry young, become a homemaker, and start a family. However, when she experienced a miscarriage at the age of twenty one, she became severely depressed. She spent days in bed crying, mourning for her loss. Her obstetrician became concerned and referred her to a psychiatrist who prescribed Thorazine and Stelazine after her first outpatient visit.
After a few months with no improvement, the psychiatrist suggested she should be hospitalized. Somewhat naively, Chamberlin never questioned that psychiatry would free her from her distress. She first committed herself to a psychiatric hospital on a voluntary basis in 1966. Over the next seven months, she went back and forth between half a dozen hospitals in New York. In the end, she was involuntarily sent to Rockland State Hospital where she ingested undiluted liquid Thorazine that burnt her mouth and throat. Her diagnosis was that of chronic schizophrenia with homicidal and suicidal tendencies who required a life-long custodial care. After being discharged, she decided that psychiatry did not provide a solution to her distress.
Through seeing a skillful psychologist and participating in the women's liberation movement, she gradually rebuilt her confidence. In 1971, Chamberlin joined the newly formed Mental Patients Liberation Project (MPLP) in New York. One of the first patient-run advocacy groups, the MPLP gave Chamberlin a sense of liberation and empowerment. Through this involvement, Chamberlin and Ted Chabasinski, a child survivor of electroconvulsive therapy who became her spouse and remained a lifelong, close friend of Chamberlin's, formed the Mental Patients Resistance.
Leaving New York for Vancouver, British Columbia in 1974, Chamberlin began to experience a sense of overwhelming distress again. After a turbulent but powerful transformational experience at the Vancouver Emotional Emergency Center, she moved to Bellingham, Washington. While her effort in establishing an ex-patients group in Bellingham did not take off, she testified as an ex-patient for the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency chaired by Birch Bayh in 1975. With other survivors such as Janet Gotkin, Wade Hudson, and Anthony Brandt, she spoke to the public about how neuroleptics like Thorazine gave her an overwhelming sense of fear, anxiety, and jitteriness. She concluded that the vicious cycle of drug dependency she experienced during the hospitalization made her less determined to improve her life situation.
1975 was a transformational year for her. Based on her own experiences in psychiatric hospitals and at the Vancouver Emotional Emergency Center, she began writing On Our Own to promote the ex-patient controlled alternative to psychiatry. The American public was also undergoing a transformation; the 1975 release of the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest helped raise awareness about abuse in psychiatric hospitals to a broader audience. At the end of 1975, she moved to Boston, where she resided until her death in 2010, to join the Mental Patients Liberation Front (MPLF). She would later call the MPLF "the purest, clear, radical group." 1 The organization had a practical, effective strategy backed up with the philosophy of the civil rights movement. When Chamberlin joined the group, they were focusing on in-hospital organizing by distributing a booklet called Your Rights as a Mental Patient in Massachusetts to the patients at the Boston State Hospital. The MPLF sponsored the Fourth Annual Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression in 1976, marching around the Massachusetts Mental Health Center and the Harvard Medical School with a sign bearing the slogan: "Smash Psychiatric Oppression!!!"
During the 1980s, Chamberlin became more involved with public speaking engagements. Allied with psychiatrists like Thomas Szasz, Loren Mosher, and Peter Breggin who questioned the practice of psychiatry from their discipline, she became a key figure of the movement. However, when the first Alternative conference was held in 1985, the psychiatric survivor movement began to transform. While some continued calling themselves survivors, some began to identify themselves as consumers of mental health services. When Chamberlin, Rae Unzicker, and other survivors decided to diverge from the National Mental Health Consumer's Association to form the National Alliance of Mental Patients (later the National Association of Psychiatric Survivors), the split became apparent. The survivors like Ted Chabasinski felt now they were conducting advocacy work to gain funding from a governmental organization like the National Institute of Mental Health, not to communicate to the general public the oppression and assault they had experienced in psychiatric hospitals nor the ignorance and indifference they received in their everyday life.
Shortly after the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, Chamberlin became actively involved with the cross-disability advocacy work. She was pleasantly surprised by finding parallels between her and people with physical disabilities; like psychiatric survivors, they had been rebelling against the systematic medical control over their everyday lives. As she learned how the American Association of People with Disabilities established by Justin Dart was successfully receiving support and grants from multiple sources, she became attracted to the possibility of merging those two separate movements into one. Her contribution to the 2000 federal report of the National Council of Disability, From Privileges to Rights was a benchmark in cross-disability activism.
Throughout her long and successful advocacy work, she and her colleagues questioned the dominance of medical explanations of mental illness, arguing that the etiology of human distress is far more mufti-faceted than the medical model would like to present as an organic, biological imbalance of brain chemical activity. Like many social critics in the late 1960s, she questioned the very concept of "mental illness," challenging that it could come from a socially constructed concept systematizing what is normal and abnormal, what behavior is acceptable or not acceptable; she thought her emotional distress in 1966 came from various social pressures that she was unaware of.
On the other hand, she also believed every person had a right to choose whether or not to be treated by psychiatry. What a consumer/ survivor/ ex-patient needs is self-determination, the power to make his/ her own decision by themselves, not by someone else. She was an activist with two sides. Certainly she was a pragmatic activist who was not carried over by dogmatic factionalism; the true objective of her advocacy work was building an alternative to conventional psychiatry where ex-patients could support each other in a mutually empowering environment. However, she was also a passionate activist who did not forget the anger that came from her involuntary commitment. She had an ability to mobilize anger to a meaningful collective action for social justice. Her emotional reaction to injustice and her pragmatic goal of building a patient-controlled alternative were two qualities that made Judi Chamberlin an outstanding civil rights activist.
The Chamberlin Papers chronicle 39-years of an activist's experience in the Psychiatric Survivors Movement. Based on the original order created by Judi, the collection is divided into 5 series to illustrate her advocacy work and her personal life. What characterizes the series organization is the way she saw herself as an independent activist approaching her work through her multiple relational knots to individuals and organizations.
Gift of National Empowerment Center, 2012.
Collection not fully processed; unprocessed boxes are open for research.
Processed by Shuko Tamao, August 2013.
Cite as: Judi Chamberlin Papers (MS 768). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.