The Other Mrs. Smith
a novel by Bonnie Burstow

Print: 978-1-77133-421-1
ePUB: 978-1-77133-422-8
PDF: 978-1-77133-424-2

440 Pages
October 23, 2017
New Fiction All Titles Novel


The Other Mrs. Smith a novel by Bonnie Burstow

This novel traces the life experiences of a once highly successful woman who falls prey to electroshock and subsequently struggles to piece back together her life. Naomi suffers enormous memory loss; additionally, an estrangement from her family of origin that she has no way to wrap her mind around. The novel begins with her wandering the corridor of St. Patricks-St Andrews Mental Health Centre (St. Pukes) faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of coming to terms with the damage done her, as well uncovering the hidden details of her life. It moves back and forth between a relatively happy childhood in the legendary north-end Winnipeg of the mid-1900s and post-ECT adulthood in Toronto. An exceptionally kind man named Ger who befriends Naomi comes to suspect that important pieces of the puzzle of what befell her lurk beneath the surface of writing in a binder of hers, which comes to be known as Black Binder Number Three. What Naomi progressively comes to do, often with Ger's help and just as often with the help of a very different and eerily similar sister named Rose, is find ways to do justice to her life and to the various people in it. Filled with a vast array of colourful and insightful characters from a variety of communities—Toronto¹s Kensington Market of the 1970s, the 1970's trans community, north-end Winnipeg Jewry, and the ingenious and frequently hilarious mad community—this novel sensitizes us to the horror of electroshock, takes us to new levels in our understanding of what it means to be human, and, in the process, leads us to question the very concept of normalcy. 

"Bonnie Burstow's The Other Mrs. Smith is a first rate, emotionally powerful novel.  Her writing is vivid and personal, spiced with pungent Jewish expressions. The scenes with Winnipeg's North End have a life-like, photographic intensity, also important social history. The portrayal of Jewish family relatives is very personally involving, and some of the psychiatric inmates are so sharply sketched, they bring back my own early memories."

—Don Weitz , Toronto psychiatric survivor, social justice activist, and co-editor of Shrink-Resistant

"Forced electroshock left me bereft of my life's purpose, until I spoke out. Though the testimonial facts of the struggle up from brain damage are mine and those of other survivors, this powerful story and the sheer artistry of its handling is all Bonnie. A gem of a novel and a "must-read.""

—Connie Neil, author of Aftershock: Raised Consciousness Crumbles SHAM Psychiatric System

"Burstow's writing style is clear, stark, and informative, allowing the abundance of characters the space to become fully animated. She moves the reader back and forth in time metaphorically strengthening our ability to consider the history of electroshock. Read it to meet the characters and be in these rich Canadian locales. I encourage you to read it to consider how we can better the human condition."

—Spencer J. Harrison, artist, activist, educator at OCAD University

Bonnie Burstow is a professor at the University of Toronto; she is a prolific author, an activist, and one of the world’s leading antipsychiatry theorists. Published books include: Psychiatry and the Business of Madness; Radical Feminist Therapy; and the novel The House on Lippincott. She lives and works in Toronto.

The Other Mrs. Smith Will Shock and Move You
The Other Mrs. Smith by Bonnie Burstow
reviewed by Tom Sandborn
Vancouver Sun - February 9, 2018

Talk about beginning your story “in medias res!”

“An eerie smell in the air, as if a tin plate had been accidentally left on a red hot burner. Bloated bodies dressed in white floating over me. Something cold and sticky on my temples. Something rubbery in my mouth. A band pressing in around my head …. Straps wrapped around my legs, shoulders, torso. … Can’t move a muscle. No way to breathe.”

This painful passage occurs in the opening pages of Bonnie Burstow’s The Other Mrs. Smith. Her protagonist, Naomi, is experiencing ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) in a Toronto mental hospital, and Burstow employs the classic narrative strategy of beginning her story “in the middle of things.”

Burstow, an academic and activist based at the University of Toronto, has been a prominent critic of medical model psychiatry and ECT for years.

This could, at first blush, seem like unpromising material for a novel. Whatever their position on the public debates about ECT, the average reader might be forgiven if she thought an anti-ECT polemic told from the perspective of someone whose memory has been hollowed out by the controversial procedure would not work as fiction. Such a reader would be wrong.

The Other Mrs. Smith is a compelling novel that invites the reader to join Naomi in her efforts to recover from the harms done to her by ECT and to reclaim the life, family and memories that had been effectively burn out by the bolts of electricity shot through her brain during this treatment. (Many readers will be surprised to learn that ECT is still being used in Canada, but by one estimate over 15,000 Canadians every year endure this questionable “therapy.”)

Unlike many who try to use prose fiction to make a political/sociological point, Burstow never makes her characters  stand-ins for abstractions. My particular favourite among the book’s richly imagined cast of characters is Gerald, a kind and generous trans man who was, as “the other Mrs. Smith,” the first wife of Naomi’s husband before coming out as trans. In many ways, Gerald is the moral centre of this complex novel, but he is not the only nuanced and memorable character.

Like Mordecai Richler’s classic, Barney’s Version, The Other Mrs. Smith succeeds in telling a long and complex narrative through the lens of a damaged mind and memory. This book is a literary tour de force and a persuasive call on readers to consider the ethical implications of ECT. Highly recommended.


Women face life-altering challenges in these new reads
The Other Mrs. Smith by Bonnie Burstow
reviewed by Sarah Murdoch
Toronto Star - January 12, 2018

Noni’s three journals tell the story of her life – growing up in the 1940s and ’50s in Winnipeg’s north-end Jewish community; enduring, barely, memory-zapping electroshock therapy and dulling medication in Toronto in the 1970s; concluding around 2010 when Noni finds comfort and a degree of reconciliation within a community of survivors. The Other Mrs. Smith shimmers with outrage. Bonnie Burstow, whose non-fiction titles include Psychiatry and the Business of Madness and Radical Feminist Therapy, established an “antipsychiatry” scholarship at OISE in late 2016.


A Great Contemporary Feminist Canadian Novel
The Other Mrs. Smith by Bonnie Burstow
reviewed by QuietCourage
49th Shelf - January 2018

As a reader, I want to be moved and changed by a piece of writing, by complex characters that offer me a new understanding about life. As a writer, I look to be offered examples of writing that help me become a better one. With the book, I wasn’t disappointed. It offered both.

To be honest, I am pretty amazed at how an accomplished academic professional such as Bonnie Burstow can shift gears into such rich and poetic prose that draws the reader into a collection of complex, original characters that unfold through a mysterious evolving plot that has all kinds of twists and turns. Without giving too much away here, the novel offers us a beautiful and tragic view of one brilliant woman’s life story shifting between her time living in two diverse Canadian cities; Winnipeg and Toronto. She moves us back and forth through time, offering readers a sobering account with grace, humour, dignity, and tenderness.

It is a beautifully crafted feminist novel-- a real page-turner that takes the reader on an emotional ride through the protagonist’s experience as an electroshock survivor. Naively, like so many of us, I had no idea people were even still be treated with it, never mind how damaging it is for one’s memory.

Besides its feminist theme, it also holds space for issues of various marginalized Canadian communities from Indigenous peoples and the homeless, to the trans community. However, the underlying lesson the author offers here goes beyond the labels and categories we’ve created among us and down into to the bones of what it means to be human. Yes, we fight for what we believe in, we do our own work, we follow our passion and we stand up for injustice but also--ultimately, this book reminds us about acceptance too. It offers us a message about the great paradox of life we all must recognize sooner or later; we all experience great suffering and great joy. Life is tragic and beautiful. We will shed big tears of both kind and it’s all ok. Perhaps it is when we come to truly allow a space for both, when we don’t cling to our ideas about how things should be for us-- we find our peace.


The Other Mrs. Smith by Bonnie Burstow
reviewed by Carla Gillis
Now Magazine -
December 22, 2017

(excerpt from the review)

Burstow’s views on the efficacy of psychiatry, diagnosis and treatment are worth paying attention to. It’s hard to deny that we live in an overmedicated society. That many psychiatrists take a short view rather than a long view of mental health, and wield an unhealthy amount of power. That psychiatry is big business, and treatment often doesn’t get to the source of a patient’s anguish. That far too many women, people of colour and queer folks have been unfairly pathologized.

It’s worth noting that Burstow made the news last year after successfully establishing the Bonnie Burstow Scholarship in Antipsychiatry, given to an OISE thesis student doing research in that field. It’s the world’s first such award. She told NOW that she hoped the scholarship would “spur alternative ways of arranging society so that we aren’t inventing diseases or brain-damaging people, and there is a greater acceptance of difference.”

     My name is Naomi, Nomi for short. Not two years ago I was
at a public meeting in Toronto where an aged woman looked
everyone straight in the eye and asked, “After all our years of
service, is this what we have to look forward to?” Two months
later, a far younger woman who is ever so precious to me called
with an urgent request. “Write about everything,” she pleaded.
“Do it for whoever—yourself, me, others at risk. Just do it.”
Hence this curious journey on which we are embarking.
     Now in the sweep of literature, there have been many unusual,
one might even say “oddball” narrators—corpses, the cross on
which Jesus Christ hung, even—and I kid you not—a fish. By
these standards, I am a fairly everyday narrator, for as best I can
make out, I am neither the holy rood nor any kind of fish—well,
leastways not since I last checked. What I am is a sixty-five-yearold
activist with holes in my head and a whopper of a memory
problem. And that is the crux of the matter. But enough said.
     This is one of those stories, you see, best left to unfold on its
own. Like a surprise autumn sunset. Like a murder at dawn. I
would only point out that there are depths here to plumb, truths
to probe. Step into my world, additionally, and you will quickly
find yourself rubbing shoulders with a vast array of some of the
most endearing and fascinating souls that a person could hope
to meet—some housed like Gerald, some from the streets like
my buddy Jack who could always roll the meanest cigarette in
Turtle Island. Ah, but all in good time.
     Now I could begin almost anywhere—when I discovered the
films of Ingmar Bergman, when I fuckin’ rediscovered the films
of Ingmar Bergman—but if I am to trust in that old Spenser
formula, “where it most concerneth me,” there is really only one
place to begin: When I first started crawling out of the void.
When those glimmers of consciousness first came upon me in
the opening days of March 1973:

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