Madzines as Restorative Objects  

In this blog post, Hel Spandler reflects on the power of zines as a potential medium for a restorative justice approach to psychiatric harm (illustrations by Jac Batey)

At the outset of this project, I thought that zines might have agency.  Rather than seeing them as inert passive objects, I wanted to see what difference they could make in the world, and how they might even contribute to social change.   Whilst I hadn’t initially made an explicit link with restorative justice, I’ve been thinking about the need the need for this kind of approach to mental health care for many years.

Back in 2010, I heard the late Jan Wallcraft, a prominent UK survivor activist and scholar, speak about the need for a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process for mental health service users.  The UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities had just been published which included people with what they called psychosocial disabilities. This convention was heralded by some people in the international survivor movement as a major step forward to achieving long-awaited civil rights recognition.  Initially, I wasn’t sure about applying a legal human rights process, developed in the aftermath of Apartheid in South Africa, to mental health services. However, I was inspired by radical mental health initiatives in the US which were experimenting with the idea of a bottom-up grassroots form of transitional justice which involved facilitating ‘healing circles’ where patients and staff could really listen to each other perspectives.

Investigating this idea in more detail resulted in a co-authored article exploring the case for truth and reconciliation in mental health services.  In short, it concluded that a bottom-up truth and reconciliation process might indeed be a worthwhile initiative.  Other survivors and scholars seemed to agree, although  some thought it signalled that we’d ‘given up’ on the possibility of wider social change.  On the contrary, I thought the approach we advocated in the article was a good example of a prefigurative politics which recognises that the harms that survivors have experienced need to be fully heard and acknowledged, before any wider social justice can be achieved.  That is, the truth and reconciliation process was itself intrinsic to the social change we sought (not a substitute for it).

Since then, after researching the experiences of lesbians and bisexual women who were subjected to aversion therapy in the 1960’s in the UK, I’ve been advocating for a ‘truth and reconciliation’ type process in relation to the harms experienced by LGBTQI+ people, by these kinds of conversion therapies. As a result, some survivors of aversion therapy have given personal testimonies in order  that their experiences are recognised by professional bodies, and practitioners have come forward to reflect on their motivations and apologise. In addition, some professional bodies and universities have started to investigate their role in endorsing these practices. Having recently connected with Intersex activism and scholarship I’ve also started to appreciate how a restorative approach might be helpful to acknowledge the harm done to people born with innate variations in sex characteristics. For example, at the recent Intersex: New Interdisciplinary Approaches conference, the legal scholar Benjamim Moron-Puech stressed the importance of a restorative component to transitional justice in this field.

So, what’s all this got to do with zines? Well, firstly, I’ve started to connect my work editing Asylum, the radical mental health magazine with transitional justice.  After all, the founding mission of the magazine was to include, value and amplify the experiences of service users and survivors in various formats, as well as to hear the perspectives of mental health workers and put them into dialogue with each other.

Without necessarily agreeing with everything we publish in Asylum, it’s always been important for survivors’ experiences to be heard, believed and taken seriously, not only by our imagined readers, but ourselves as editors too.  Indeed, my work with Asylum continually challenges my own perspectives, often quite profoundly.  This has been an on-going transitional and restorative project which has always been part of the wider change I’ve sought. If we can’t deeply and respectfully listen to survivors, what hope is there for wider social change?

Asylum is a kind of a zine, albeit not in the purist sense of the word. It’s on the more formal end of the zine spectrum as it’s edited and professionally printed.  However, like a zine, it’s also self-published, not-for-profit and still (even after all these years) has a low circulation.  During the madzines project, I’ve been getting to know zines at the other end of the spectrum, notably mini-zines and perzines. I’ve taken a similar approach to these zines in our research. For example, our criteria for a zine being a madzine is partly whether it deepens or unsettles our own knowledge and understanding, rather than just reflecting it.

I really started to appreciate the power of these zines as restorative objects when I met Tam Martin Fowles, a psychiatric survivor and founder of Hope in the Heart CIC.   During our Madzines research we’ve co-hosted zine workshops, and invited psychiatric survivors to read, make and circulate zines.  Tam attended one of these workshops and has since become a prolific zine maker, integrating zine-making into her work with Hope in the HeArt. This project runs creative workshops for marginalised people who use mental health services and hosts exhibitions of their work. Their recent exhibition, ‘Messages from the Heart displayed various art works – including zines – as ‘messages to people in power’.

The idea of restorative justice is usually applied to programmes within the criminal justice system where victims and perpetuators come together to listen and try to understand each other.  It is usually contrasted to the retributive justice approach that is based on punishment. There have been a few attempts at developing restorative justice interventions in the mental health context, mostly with ‘mentally disordered offenders’ in forensic settings (for example, where patients have committed a crime or assaulted staff).

Notwithstanding the value of these initiatives, they focus on people with mental health problems as the perpetrators, rather than victims of, harm. Yet it is well-evidenced, and under-recognised, that people with mental health problems are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of harm. What is perhaps even less recognised is the existence of harm that is caused by mental health services themselves.  Such instances of systemic harm explain why people choose to refer to themselves as psychiatric ‘survivors’, rather than as service ‘users’ or ‘consumers’ (the latter assuming a benign or even helpful relationship with services).

This is the kind restorative justice I meant when we wrote about a truth and reconciliation process in psychiatry. It has started to dawn on me that zines might be able to work as a medium to facilitate a deeper recognition, and understanding,  of the harms that survivors and service users experience.  In other words, zines might form part of a restorative justice approach to working with systemic harm.

It turns out that this is exactly what Tam and colleagues have been trying to do with projects like Hope in the HeArt.  Indeed some of her own zines are a beautiful examples of the potential of zines as restorative objects (for example, Hey Mr Psychiatrist). Having made this connection, Tam & I decided to do a restorative justice training course together at the University of Strathclyde to deepen and refresh our knowledge of these practices (Tam did a similar course ten years ago, which has informed her work since)

We started the course with great enthusiasm, and we weren’t disappointed. The course tutor, Tim Chapman, spent the whole of the first session on the importance of ‘presence’ and being present. We each had so many positive associations with this idea.  Being fully present with someone else, he said, is like a gift to them (and us).  Many people we’ve spoken to have referred to receiving a zine as being like a ‘gift’ from another person – and we’ve certainly experienced receiving a zine in that way ourselves.

Tim also referred to the contrast between an ‘aesthetic’ and an ‘anaesthetic’ presence. When we are aesthetically present, we experience another person or situation creatively, using our senses, and this enables us to hear, learn and reflect.  In contrast, when our presence is ‘anaesthetised’ we hardly feel at all, we are numbed out and this stops us hearing, learning and reflecting.  This, I thought, is exactly what survivors often say is the difference between positive and negative experiences of mental health services, the difference between a warm and open and a cold and closed response.

This idea also relates to notion of ‘being with’ another person through their madness or distress, which is central to the alternative mental health programmes that survivors say that they prefer (like Soteria-type crisis houses). We have applied this idea throughout the Madzines project, to describe the way we’ve been relating to zines.  Rather than studying zines as inert objects to be analysed, we have tried to ‘be with’ and ‘think with’ them (in a similar way to how Arthur Frank describes ‘being with’ stories, in his work on illness narratives).  Zines, because of their ability to more directly communicate experiences, can facilitate the telling of difficult stories, what Carolyn Chernoff calls ‘tough talk’ (like “see, this is what happened to me”).   People have probably always used things like zines (although they might not have been called that) to tell difficult stories.

Much of the rest of the restorative justice course centred around the importance of holding and containment, to enable listening, thinking and reflection, rather than retreating from difficult emotions into defensiveness.  Again, we thought, that is exactly what needs to happen in mental health services, where professionals tend to retreat into defensive practice when they are criticised or challenged.  Maybe zines can also act as a container for these difficult experiences to be heard and processed.

In this project, we’ve often reflected on what it feels like to hold a zine, especially a per-zine. We have noted that it sometimes feels (a bit) like gently holding another person’s experience, but also (somehow) our own too.  This is very similar to what can happen in restorative justice processes – at its best. If we can really ‘be with’ another person’s experience of harm, even if we’ve been complicit in it, we can be both transformed.  At the very least, perhaps zines can be a proxy for that.

For various reasons, not everyone is able to directly express the impact of the harm they experienced to the person, people or system they feel harmed by. However, it is possible that zines can operate as a kind indirect form of restorative practice. For example, creating a zine about an experience of harm, and seeing, believing, or even hoping that it has been respectfully held and read. Or being (and staying) with a zine, about an experience of harm perhaps, but not necessarily, in the physical absence of the person who crafted it, can be profoundly moving.  We witnessed this when we’ve shown zines to health and social care students or mental health professionals. As Tam reflected when I shared with her an early draft of this blog:

“I really relate to the healing power of trusting that a zine will fall into the right hands and possibly make a difference to unknown strangers. The responses I’ve seen first-hand at events [where I’ve shown my zines] has given me that sense of trust.”

If ‘being with’ another person’s experience of harm can result in profound transformation, perhaps zines can be more than a proxy too.   Creating a zine about an experience of harm, and knowing its being read by, or even being present while it’s being read by, a person who might be involved in the system that’s been implicated in that harm – can be one step towards restorative justice.  Reading a zine about an experience of harm that one has been (either directly or indirectly) complicit in – could be another.  It is our hope that, both directly and indirectly, zines can be a small, but significant, step towards social justice.

Hel Spandler is the Principal Investigator of the Madzines project, Professor of mental health at the University of Central Lancashire and editor of Asylum magazine.

Illustrations by Jac Batey curator of Zineopolis-Art-Zine collection at the University of Portsmouth,

Leave a comment


email* (not published)