Ruth Ruth Stackhouse is a proud member of the psychiatric survivor community. She studied theatre in New York City and is currently Theatre Director of the Friendly Spike Theatre Band. A long-standing activist, she has protested against institutional confinement and the exploitation of patient labour. That passion drives her installation.
On August 11th 1993 I tied myself to the sign post at the front door of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (formerly the Toronto Hospital for the Insane), 999 Queen Street West. A group of us, psychiatric survivors and activists, had gathered together to protest the brutality often committed in the name of psychiatry. Fourteen years later, I’m still demanding that attention be paid to the unjust treatment that occurs within institutional walls, both past and present. I am a Disability Studies student and community theatre director at the Friendly Spike Theatre Band, a playhouse that is made up of psychiatric survivors and people with disabilities. I wanted to explore the history of labour exploitation that three women psychiatric patients at the then-Toronto Hospital for the Insane suffered through, because it was something that spoke to me. It spoke of dominance: of the power of medicine, patriarchy, and total institutions. But it also spoke to me of resistance: of women resisting the “norms” of misogyny, social exploitation, and gender submission. It also spoke to me of community: of women working to build a sense of purpose and a life of substance even in the abject environment of an asylum. I felt really connected to these women in their struggles to find meaning in work, something that psychiatric survivors are often excluded from. I also felt that it was important to recognize that they were exploited by not being paid for work just because they were labelled by psychiatry.
Ruth Ruth Stackhouse
View a short interview with Ruth Ruth Stackhouse, creator of Labouring.
Q: The Digging installation referred to “Vocational programming” and “Forced institutional labour.” This installation refers to “Moral therapy” and “Labour exploitation”. Are these all the same thing?
A: They are all related. In Europe before the Enlightenment, people deemed to be insane were considered to be less than human and subjected to horrifying indignities and abuse. Enlightenment thinkers argued for recognition of the humanity of these individuals, and as a result of this shift in thinking, custodial “asylums” were constructed to provide safety and refuge. However, soon these facilities became over-crowded and dominated by the old ideas once again. “Moral therapy” was supposed to provide training for meaningful work in a structured environment, leading to useful employment in the community. Mathilda might have been able to work in a public cafeteria; May might have worked as a housemaid in any wealthy citizen’s home; and Audrey might have made a living sewing and repairing clothes in a little shop of her own. However, as this installation argues, it became very convenient and “cost-effective” for institutions to use the free labour of patients to run their day-to-day operations, with no community role ever emerging.
Q: Does this kind of exploitation still occur?
A: It would be naïve to think that it does not, although North American institutions may be more careful to remunerate labour now, at least minimally. However, do “sheltered workshops” still exist in your community? Do people who work there earn as much as others to perform comparable work outside of institutions?
Q: Why did families lock people up for 40 years or more? Had they committed crimes ?
A: No, usually admission to an institution was not punitive, and was not intended to be a life sentence, but often it turned out that way. If there was no family member or friend out in the community advocating release, people would easily be forgotten.
Q: I couldn’t help but notice that men dug holes for moral therapy, and women sewed, did laundry, cooked and cleaned. Have other people noticed this?
A: Yes, many scholars, such as Geoffrey Reaume, have noticed the gendered nature of forced labour and have commented upon the ways in which institutional labour practices perpetuated gendered roles for male and female patients.