Ode and Tribute to Mel Starkman
by Don Weitz
The body of Mel Starkman was buried on March 6 but his spirit and legacy will not and should not be buried – his spirit is alive today. Mel was not only a close friend for over 35 years but a brother; he frequently called me “my brother.” We shared a few life-changing traumas and victories. As for traumas, we both had dysfunctional rejecting families, we both were shock survivors – Mel was assaulted and traumatized with 38 electroshocks; I was assaulted and traumatized with 110 subcoma insulin shocks – we both were psychiatric survivors, we both self-identified as proud antipsychiatry activists, we both participated in conferences of the Psychiatric Inmates Liberation Movement.
I want to discuss some highlights of Mel’s activism in the survivor antipsychiatry movement shared by many of us since the 1980s. I first met Mel in Toronto in 1981 when he walked into the On Our Own drop-in, then located near Queen and Bathurst. He told us he was a UofT archivist and survivor. Mel soon volunteered and became involved in some of the group’s activities, and started writing for the On Our Own newsletter and magazine Phoenix Rising. In 1982, Mel was a major organizer or coordinator of the 10th Annual International Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression, the first time the conference was held outside the United States, in Toronto, sponsored by On Our Own. He worked tirelessly making all the necessary arrangements for housing and food and conference rooms for approximately 125 participants and liaising with and contacting staff at the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, including Innis College. That work took a heavy toll on Mel; shortly after the conference he became very stressed out and was hospitalized for several years. His article on the psychiatric survivor liberation movement was published in the 1981 Movement issue of Phoenix Rising and later revised as a chapter in the 2013 Canadian anthology Mad Matters.
Shortly after he was finally released from Queen Street Mental Health Centre in 1995, following years of forced drugging, degradation, humiliation and isolation, Mel became active again. In 2001, with Geoffrey Reaume and myself, Mel co-founded the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto, the only Canadian archive controlled by psychiatric survivors. As PSAT’s archivist, Mel worked long and countless hours at the Gerstein Crisis Centre, cataloguing and sorting hundreds of historic survivor and professional documents, including survivor stories and books, newsletter and journal articles, videocassette tapes and other materials. With psychiatric survivor and author Erick Fabris, Mel also trained a number of college and university students who volunteered as assistant archivists. PSAT is currently housed in the basement of the Gerstein Crisis Centre, at 100 Charles Street East.
Many years after his release from Queen Street, Mel started speaking out against electroshock and the psychiatrists and attended meetings and shock protests organized by the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA). In the 2005 public event titled Enquiry into Psychiatry, organized by CAPA, Mel gave riveting and graphic personal testimony on the shock procedure and its many devastating, permanent effects, including the permanent memory loss and other intellectual disabilities that he and many other shock survivors suffered. He rightly blamed the shock doctors for having caused, and continuing to cause, memory loss, brain damage, disability, and trauma. In his many private and public criticisms of shock doctors and psychiatry, Mel was understandably emotional, totally credible, and compelling. As a valued member of CAPA, Mel’s frequent criticisms and denunciations of electroshock, forced drugging, and psychiatry, and support of CAPA generally, were and are valued and respected.
A few weeks before he died in Cedarvale Terrace nursing home, Mel and I briefly talked on the phone. He said he was “very sick” but would not explain or elaborate. Sometimes he would complain about the institutional food and medical care, other times he praised the care. However, his relatives never visited him in the nursing home and, for decades earlier, his daughter rarely called. Mel’s family had rejected, ostracized and stigmatized him, even in death, when there was no service, only a gravesite burial, officiated by a rabbi who never met or knew Mel. Some of us, including street health worker Danielle Koyama, mental health worker Brian McKinnon and myself, cared, called, and visited Mel in his Sherbourne Street bachelor apartment and later at the nursing home; we offered him whatever support we could, especially during his last years.
For me, Mel was not only a close friend and brother but a fellow antipsychiatry activist who resisted, spoke out, and protested against electroshock while he was tormented daily by voices and physical pain. Mel was a mensch who courageously and publicly denounced psychiatric lies, assaults, and crimes. The psychiatric survivor/antipsychiatry movement has lost a valued and respected fighter for human rights. I have lost a brother. In the words of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”