While not as well-known as “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day,” and not one of the classics he wrote for the Velvet Underground (such as “Heroin” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”), Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons,” about his electroconvulsive “therapy” (ECT) as a 17-year-old, gives voice to an event that majorly radicalized him to distrust authorities. That is the conclusion of Aidan Levy in Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed, one of several recent biographies about Lou Reed (1942-2013).
“All your two-bit psychiatrists are giving you electroshock,” is how Reed begins “Kill Your Sons,” and though in Lou’s case, ECT trauma would fuel his art, such trauma often only destroys; as the ECT that Ernest Hemingway and William Styron received late in their lives only served to hasten their end. And even in Reed’s case, his ECT fueled not just his art but his rage, which sometimes hurt people who cared about him.
As a teenager living in suburban Freeport, Long Island, Lou felt alienated. He became increasingly anxious and “resistant to most socializing, unless it was on his terms,” according to his sister Merrill Reed Weiner, whose parents were overwhelmed by her brother’s behaviors and by his disregard of them, and so they sought treatment for Lou. They would comply with a psychiatrist’s recommendation.
In the summer of 1959, Lou was administered 24 ECT sessions at two-day intervals at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens, New York. Weiner recalls, “I watched my brother as my parents assisted him coming back into our home afterwards, unable to walk, stupor-like. It damaged his short term memory horribly and throughout his life he struggled with memory retention, probably directly as a result of those treatments.”
Lou Reed loved evocative lyrics—his own and others—and my guess is that he would have appreciated the description of his ECT by Aidan Levy:
The doctor paced back to the machine, then the two trembling orderlies, barely out of high school and only a year older than Lou was, laid across his chest and knees to brace him for the shock to come. He had read Frankenstein;now he was living it. The doctor flipped the switch on the metal box, the size of a small amplifier, and Lou Reed, who had up to that moment in his life been an acoustic being, became quite literally electrified.
Weiner continues to be pained by her brother’s ECT, and she feels sorry for their parents who, she tells us, may have been guilty of much poor parenting but not, as some have suggested, of seeking treatment for Lou’s homosexual urges.
Weiner remains angered by doctors for destroying her family, concluding that “the ‘help’ they received from the medical community set into motion the dissolution of my family of origin for the rest of our lives. . . . My parents were like lambs being led to the slaughter — confused, terrified, and conditioned to follow the advice of doctors. . . . Our family was torn apart the day they began those wretched treatments.”
Levy concludes about Lou’s ECT, “The punishment solidified Lou’s unflappable spirit of rebellion.” While psychiatry rejects Levy’s view of ECT as “punishment,” Lou himself would likely have agreed with this Levy analysis: “His parents and by extension civilized society objected to his defiance—even then, he refused to play by anyone else’s rules, and as punishment for breaking them, he faced an adolescent’s worst nightmare.”
Prior to his ECT, Levy notes, “Lou had already embraced the counterculture, but electroshock secured his allegiance to the underground. If he wanted to escape, he would have to do it himself. No one, not anyone in mainstream society at least, would do it for him. He would later dedicate his life to exposing the seamy underbelly beneath the sanitized reality presented by the mainstream, eternally distrustful of any authority figure, especially any record executive, after he had seen authority be so wrong.”
Lou’s talents enabled his rage over his ECT to be transformed into the kind of art that deeply touched society’s outcasts and victims of illegitimate authority. But while Lou found artistic fuel from his ECT, it scarred him with an unpleasant defensiveness. Throughout much of his life, Lou would protect himself by attacking, and he was often viewed, even by his friends and lovers, as a “jerk” and an “asshole.”
Psychiatry would prefer the general public hear ECT testimonials from advocates such as Kitty Dukakis rather than the ECT realities of Lou Reed as well as of other public figures for whom ECT was a disaster, a lengthy list including Ernest Hemingway and William Styron.
A seriously depressed Hemingway was treated with ECT as many as 15 times in December 1960, then in January 1961, he was “released in ruins,” according to one biographer Jeffrey Meyers. Another biographer and close friend, A. E. Hotchner reported in Papa Hemingway that Hemingway’s loss of memory caused by the ECT made him even more depressed and hopeless, as Hemingway had stated, “Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business?” In July 1961, shortly before his 62nd birthday and soon after Hemingway had been given still another series of shock treatments, his end came by suicide with a shotgun.
William Styron is another ECT casualty. In a 2019 article “William Styron: His Struggles with Psychiatry and Its Pills,” journalist Joshua Kendall reports that in early 2000, when Styron became even more depressed while on the antidepressant Wellbutrin, he became desperate and vulnerable to quick fix recommendations. Kendall reports:
“The quick fix that Styron settled on was ECT. ‘One of the reasons that he wanted to try ECT was that he had had such a bad experience with drugs, and he didn’t want to take another one,” Rose [Styron’s wife] says. . . . Once when Rose accompanied him to an ECT treatment, he yelled at her, ‘You’re killing me!’ . . . .The ECT was then abandoned, but not before possibly causing the Parkinsonian symptoms that emerged that summer, as Alexandra [Styron’s daughter] notes in her memoir.”
Many Americans are surprised to discover that ECT continues to be used as a psychiatric treatment. Psychiatry is well aware of ECT’s negative public image, so in recent years, its administration is not as painful to observe as it once was. Unlike Lou, patients today are given an anesthetic and oxygen along with a muscle relaxant drug to prevent fractures. However, while ECT no longer appears quite as torturous to observers as it appeared prior to these procedure changes, ECT’s effects on the brain are as damaging as ever. Moreover, as I detailed in 2017 (The Electrical Abuse of Women: Does Anyone Care?), a recent comprehensive review of the research on ECT effectiveness concluded that there is “no evidence that ECT is more effective than placebo for depression reduction or suicide prevention.”
For Lou, it is likely that in addition to his ECT at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens, simply being a patient there cemented his strong reciprocal connection with society’s “untouchables.” I grew up in Rockaway, Queens, and telling another kid that “you belong in Creedmoor” was one of the greatest of insults that we hurled at one another. And so Lou was handed the choice of either being shamed by his outcast status or to celebrate it. He had the courage to celebrate it.
I also spent some time in Creedmoor, but under very different circumstances than Lou. In 1976, a locked ward at Creedmoor served as my first trainee internship, and it was here that I began to be embarrassed by my chosen mental health profession, especially by its dehumanizing attempts to control people. While psychiatrists utilized drugs and ECT to control patients, psychologists’ arsenal of control included “behavior modification,” which included the “token economy.”
During my internship at Creedmoor, I recall one severely depressed man who refused to talk to staff but who chose me for some reason to shoot pool with. Spotting my interaction with him, a clinical psychologist, my boss, told me that I should give him a token—a cigarette—to reward his “prosocial behavior.” I fought it, trying to explain that I was 20 and this man was 50, and that it was humiliating to treat the man in the manner of training a dog. But the psychologist threatened to kick me off the ward. So with staff watching—but not hearing—from behind the nurse’s station window (similar to what I had just seen in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), I asked the man what I should do. Fighting the zombifying effects of his heavy medication, he grinned and said, “We’ll win. . . let me have the cigarette.” In full view of staff, he took the cigarette and then placed it into the shirt pocket of another patient. Next, he shot a look at the staff which clearly expressed: “I may be a patient in Creedmoor but you staff are the truly sick ones.”
While most students training to become mental health professionals are initially jarred by their observations of dehumanizing chemical-electrical-behavioral controls, many of them become numb to these experiences and go on to become professionals who repeat these practices. For other students, these upsetting experiences kill their interest in a career in psychiatry, psychology, and the mental health profession. But for a small handful who do not exit the profession, these observations radicalize them and compel them to resist and speak out.