June 23, 1995


by Andrew Phelps

Our leadership with the support of our Annual Meeting has invested you, the members of the Presidential Committee, with the task of resolving the complaints stemming from the conflict in our organization. As a principal in this conflict, let me lay out for you my perspective and my concerns.

The complaints of which I'm aware are from the Berkeley M.H.C., dated June 2, 1995, and a (possible) letter from the Riverside County M.H.B., which was called for in a motion at the March 22, 1995, meeting, as follows:

"M/S/C Bander/Juarez: Move that David Fraser send a letter to the President of the CALMH Board protesting the treatment of Margaret Johnson at the February CALMH Board meeting."

It is further reported in those minutes that "what Margaret had endured at the meeting was tantamount to abuse" and that the "celebratory tone" (of my letter of February 5th) "was inappropriate." I would like to address this conflict and its history and try to remove some of the over-wrought quality that it has now developed. In your charge as a Presidential Committee, you will have to determine the causes of this conflict, which are presumably rooted in the structural problems of CALM Board organization. You will also have to determine what, if anything, is to be done about these letters which member M.H.B./C.'s have taken the trouble to bring forth. My order of exposition is thus (1) what is the root of the problem, (2) what form has this taken under the present structure, (3) a detailed history of the development of this conflict, as seen from my perspective, (4) a proposal for a line of resolution for it.

The root of the problem.

In brief, there is an underlying conflict regarding how to understanding the issues of mental health, and what to do about them. Democracy is supposed to provide a forum for resolving such differences in practice. However, the history of this dispute is that the conflict has tended to become embittered and that agreeable resolutions have lagged or been a long time in coming. Of course, the creation of this Presidential Commission is intended to make the CALM Boards more adapted to procedures which will ameliorate the resolution of this core constituency-based disagreement.

At present, the dispute centers on the social relations of mental health clients to the other constituencies. Should the clients be judged as productive beings, that is, reasonably in terms of what work they do, or should they be judged as compliant beings, which is to say, whether they meet certain performance standards as role-players conforming to pre-defined (often medical) expectations. In the first instance, the clients expect to be treated with that personal respect accorded rational beings. In the second instance, however, the clients expect to be measured by their ability to master the intricacy of their diagnoses. In short, do we deal with clients as people (making reasonable accommodations for disability) or do we deal with clients as diagnoses (having charity for them as afflicted people).

I submit that cast in this form the human choice is unequivocal. So another, more pragmatic way to put it is, given the proclivity to treat clients as diagnoses, how much leeway should we give to those who do so? Where is the balance of feelings, when a client finds this treatment abusive and the other party finds it hurtful not to be welcome to express freely its attitudes? It is that concern which must be regulated in terms of procedures and safeguards, when the structure of the organization is recast.

The form of the problem at present.

Under O.M.H.A.B., this problem had a different face. Because professional competence was what challenged the leadership, because the law as written favored such a focus, the empowerment problem was generally treated as a side issue. For instance, at the October 12-13, 1990, Santa Rosa meeting of O.M.H.A.B., I was seriously personally abused and intimidated by the representative from Alameda County, based precisely on our profound differences over the problem of respect. But this was only a trifling affair to that organization, the attitude being that this was a "personal difference." Of course, the dispute resurfaced in the minutes of our respective M.H.A.B.'s, among places.

What AB 14 does is provide for "client-family empowerment," that is, it makes such disputes as the one above important issues for the functioning of the organization. The issues include, who is empowered, what ways are they empowered, what dignities can they expect. Consequently the structure of the organization should reflect the usual nature of such disputes, and should be oriented toward making them productive. (See for instance my letter, Harassment and productivity [1].)

However, the formation of the CALM Boards was done in a reactive mode relative to a power play designed to perpetuate the old O.M.H.A.B. system. (By the way, note this, many Bylaws provisions were imaginatively written precisely to curb the abuses of the old system: You should identify these and retain them.) While attention was paid to the old system of abuses, little thought was given to the difficulties inherent in "client-family empowerment." The reason the dispute today is so infected and full of psychological pus is that we are still habituated to old patterns of conflict and argumentation. Just as I am scarred by what happened in Santa Rosa in 1990, so are others in the habit of practicing disputational modes that prevailed formerly.

I and others have made suggestions for structural adjustments, such as a Client Liaison Committee which would give the clients a support structure, and a Grievance Committee to which disputes could be brought for focus and negotiation. For the purposes of the special complaints which are your charge, as I know them, you would be ill taken to push them forward into these structural adjustments. Instead, you must consider the grief and the pain and the contribution that was invested in these habituated forms of conflict. That is the only way to be respectful. In particular, the equities of those who have made contributions should be bequeathed to the new time, not untimely stolen from people due to their having been done impurely and in part according to the old forms.

A detailed account of the present problem.

This problem was essentially inevitable given the way our organization developed in reaction to its predecessor. Moreover, the problem was exacerbated by the manipulations of the previous leadership, which knew it would be playing to a weakness by so doing. Notably, I was put on the Transitional Training Plan Committee by Alex Aloia, and later on I was pressured to take up the Chair of the CALM Training Committee, each time creating a dynamic of precipitous empowerment. Such a dynamic made me excessively vulnerable to personal assault based on nothing more than imperfections in the CALM Boards' process of learning to deal with empowerment issues with equanimity. Similarly, the forces least interested in client empowerment were problematized by abusive power plays by the old leadership, leading up to the dramatic events of the 1994 Annual Meeting. That dynamic pressured them to respond to client empowerment by reflex, by destructive habituated responses, as no way had they the psychological space to adapt.

You who are new to this situation may not readily imagine the quality of personal interactions that first year, but there was an atmosphere of trying to be respectful and the leadership made many efforts to attend to disrespectful events. I was not treated as the "adversarial demon" that I am now cast to be, rather I was gracious and went to lengths to find ways to be respectful. For as long as was humanly possible, I "turned the other cheek" in the face of egregious abuse and insults.

The problem however festered as higher priority power issues kept it out of focus. Let me start this "detailed" description with the contretemps of Lavonne Snyder's Board Training Workshop on Saturday, June 18th, 1994. That's where the hostility first came out in the open. But you should understand that there are things that go back.

I was as I said the Chair of the CALM Training Committee without having intended it. I was willing to do it only if the members of the committee were desirous of being cooperative. Soon however it became evident such was not the case. More, I had learned that - despite my intention of stepping down - there was a move afoot to carry a hostile takeover of the committee. They were mad about the Sonoma Client Empowerment Training that was my special project, especially about the Consumer Speaks Conference that took place on May 18th. Lea Christensen said "the CALM Training Committee is out of control" and moved to control it (she eventually manipulated the Annual Meeting Committee process to turn Lavonne's workshop into a put-down for my work) [2]. I pleaded with Jean Liechty and Judie Bradley to help me resolve this situation in a non-adversarial way, but they were (I think) overwhelmed by circumstance. Joyce Ott prevailed on some members of the Executive Committee to change the script for Lavonne's Workshop. The direct collision required of me by the CALM Training Committee conference call was to be removed and a modus vivendi worked out. Unfortunately, nobody informed me. The collision happened [3] and Lavonne said the inflammatory things which served to humiliate me and the die was cast.

I had the choice at that time of creating an adequate resistance to her provocation or to eat crow. Believing that the leadership wanted a "good workshop" and that they would appreciate my sacrifice and find a healing later, I ate crow. In retrospect this was a disastrous choice. It must be understood that the delicacy of the situation was related to my being Training Committee Chair and invested with the responsibilities of office, not to a simple personal question at all.

In the aftermath of this, I was humiliated and my personal circumstances suffered. I did two things. I initiated a complaint process directed at the new Executive Committee on behalf of the old one [4]. And I initiated an organizing effort to protect clients who serve on the CALM Boards, focused on networking the clients on M.H.B./C.'s across the state. I reasoned that the leadership ought to find a simple and graceful way to back off the power play that had gratuitously humiliated me. And irrespective of this, the organized independent client's movement (especially, the California Network) should develop a responsible relationship with the CALM Boards. I made three appeals [4], on June 30th, October 5th, and November 14th. The first was ignored, and I went to a grim and humiliating July meeting in L.A. Because of that, I wrote the next one in a more urgent manner. I was eventually told by Edith Lockman that the Executive Committee had decided to write me a letter, but the days went by and the October meeting came and no letter arrived. I went to the October Burlingame meeting with great trepidation and suffering badly the effects of four months of humiliation and non-responsiveness. So I participated in a limited way in that meeting, trusting to the expressed intentions of the E.C. (Later I learned they had "changed their mind" and decided not to respond.) As a result, the program that was being developed for "year 2" was put forward without my getting adequate input. I walked away from the meeting screaming because of the reinforcement from the humiliation by the program that had been adopted while my voice was stilled. Patrick Risser had to hear my hurt and screaming all the way back to Oakland. The third appeal was a last-ditch affair, I said, "just respond, be polite." My only expectation of the response was that it allow me the grace of a way out of this process of reinforcing humiliations. The outcome will be described below in the discussion on the L.A. February meeting.

It should be understood that the impact (which was altogether intentional) of Lavonne's and Lea's manipulation and the subsequent inaction of the Executive Committee was to promote a "behavioral adjustment" program directed against myself. It seems I "won't listen." But from my point of view they were treating me as a diagnosis, and they would not address the rationality of my not listening at all! Of course I wouldn't listen to a transparent effort to control me. And the humiliation from the June meeting was just my punishment for not listening! And I am very stubborn about not being treated as a diagnosis and not being available as a "behavior mod object." Ladies and gentlemen, if you want me to listen, you must treat me as a reasonable being. You can't have a patronizing discussion with me, trying to get me to acknowledge my psychiatric incapacity, and then complain that I won't listen! For me, that is not business, that is abuse.

As bellwether for the clients who take leadership roles on the CALM Boards, I got it the fiercest. But I knew that the policy of abuse known as "tokenization" was the issue which would make or break the partnership that is to be the CALM Boards. While my position was widely regarded as defective, I believed that what I was standing for was the sine qua non of our future. The second point there is that I was obsequiously polite about it. Following more than a year of bending over backwards to be accommodating, I then endured eight months of direct humiliation following the June 18th contretemps, as I attempted to reason with folks. Was I wise to do so? Today I have to wonder! But anyone could see that eventually I had to disengage [resign]. Yet I also felt that it was more wholesome to leave from a position of strength, having done my best, and not from within the ambiguity of eating crow for no visible reason except the apparent defective nature of my being. And I saw that the Executive Committee didn't value worth a whit my sacrifice at the June meeting, so I yielded to their more instrumental view of CALM Boards activity. And I chose to be prepared for the best in February, but to expect the worst and be prepared to protect myself and my principles.

My survival motive was what later was memorialized by the Riverside County M.H.B. minutes as a "congratulatory tone" in my letter. It was technically very difficult to survive the broadsided attack on my character and being that had become now commonplace and habitual and ingrained in various organizational developments. I do congratulate myself and my friends for our good work in promoting survival. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing related to the "pride of successful assault" to be inferred from that other, pejorative position. How people do misread things!

This disingenuous assault on my attitude in the name of how "bad" I am is, I think, motivated not by anything especially personal but by an effort of some to build a power base around a politics where there is no real client empowerment. Where clients are nothing more than diagnostic objects and the purpose is to gratify the supporting parties. Ed Shuck in his Southern Region report [5] says "we cannot forget that virtually the entire effort supporting the needs and public attention accorded the mentally ill throughout the country and state is a product of 'family members' volunteering time and energy." Further, "`empowerment of clients' is a nice phrase, but it should be used with a little modesty by those directly benefitting from the larger scheme." His remarks sum up better than anything I can say the depth of the gulf between us.

At any rate, on January 8, 1995, the Executive Committee met and decided to write a (belated) response to my complaint. I learned of this the next week in a conversation with Charles Swift. In the meantime I had been working as hard as I could to network with the client activists in Southern California. There the culture of treating clients as diagnoses is especially well established. And it was plain that the absurdities that were being put on me rested on the illusion that there was no independent clients' movement to speak of there, that it was strictly a Bay Area or Northern California thing. So I thought to bring some individuals to the L.A. meeting who would be the 'Dodo birds' thought hitherto to be extinct, and so change the quality of the discussion. At this point there was no thought of conflict emerging, only to insert the issue into the discussion and to make initial contacts for client networking in L.A. and the Southern Region.

Of course I did not reckon right away on the volatility of Charles' response, nor did I guess the tensions inherent in this simple act of communication. The people were there, but they weren't interested. Why? They had written the CALM Boards off as a lost cause, they had not really grasped the import of client empowerment as called for under AB 14. So finally I recruited one person with whom I had become acquainted, but had not met, Maxine Hayden, who was then well known in client circles for her powerful advocacy against the Riverside confidentiality initiative. I raised money to cover her costs. And I also got some of the "local" L.A. clients interested. And I developed serious conversations with the California Network regarding the policy implications of client participation in the CALM Boards in the Southland. (And, see the upshot of this [9].)

Suddenly things shifted dramatically for the worse. Charles informed me, a week or two prior to the meeting, that the letter was off. I told him of my preparations and further advised him that I was thinking of challenging the Southern Region delegation, on the grounds that there were no (evident) clients. Some see this as adversarial, I guess, but for me, being concerned for adhering to the Bylaws was a democratic and reasonable place to express questions and disagreements. I went to the February meeting in a state of great worry, because it seemed that the leadership was bound and determined to provoke a confrontation. That there was no room in their hearts to treat me or other clients with personal respect. And I prepared as carefully as I could to survive this seemingly unaccountable threat. A few kind words in early July would have made peace, made a healing, but this one had all the ponderousness of punishment, the crackle of control.

At this point, a word about myself, my alleged "personal agenda." I am serving on my M.H.C. basically for the purpose of training. I do things, like the Sonoma Client Empowerment Training or the JOBS NOW! Conference, or local Berkeley things previously, because I discern they are the things people want done. My particular "disability," if you want to call it that, is that I was severely psychologically abused as a child; the hospitalization merely reinforced the problem. So at the point of the February L.A. meeting, I did not come relishing the possibility of confrontation, I came dreading it. But the Executive Committee in its lack of insight did not see that eight months of humiliation was pushing my limit as to toleration of psychological abuse. They did not understand that without some sort of "reasonable accommodation," they were pushing things to the point of open conflict. (At least, I wish to think that they did not understand - God help us, that there would be an exception to this.)

I came to L.A. with copies of my letter of resignation in my hand. "Shame!" it read, and went from there. But I did not resign, and I did not resign precisely because there was an effort on the part of the Executive Committee to rise to the occasion. Only an effort, a very poorly managed effort it turned out, but there was no doubt of the sincere intent of the three E.C. members there.

After learning from Charles that the E.C. was going back on its commitment, I had told my friends about the complaint and asked for their support. When we got to L.A., Patrick, Maxine, and I went to the Executive Committee meeting and presented our "demands." [8] These were mainly related to a resolution to my complaint as described above, and also to a problem Patrick had with his appointment to the State Training Plan Committee. We had an equable exchange, with however no particular response from the Committee. Diana Clayton and Marylon Fielding were also present at this exchange. We were then asked to leave due to a closed session for a "personnel matter." When we left, Charles promised to consult with us regarding the agenda for the meeting prior to the 7:00 opening of the meeting. Mark this well, for this was the straw that broke the camel's back. I have this promise on tape, I have that E.C. meeting on tape. We had been backed up against the wall and they had no sense of the delicacy of that moment. They had romantic ideas that people make demands for fun and glory and not with extreme reluctance because they are cornered. At least, this gives a charitable interpretation to their adversarial slip.

So 7:00 came and the meeting started. They presented the (hitherto secret) letter from the Executive Committee in response to my complaints, and perhaps some others not specified [7]. This response was a whitewash and amounted to a call for the status quo ante of the conflict which in this letter is known as the "problem." As such, it was disagreeable, but expectable. If it had been delivered in a propitious way, it would have been a bitter pill but swallowed with a smile. Delivered as it was, with the weeks of challenge and the disturbing presentation, it appeared as a put-down meant to reinforce the original put-down of the June 18th workshop. This impression was further strengthened when at the end of Saturday's meeting Charles qualified the import of the letter of apology with a comment from the Chair that, even so, I had been "very bad." And of course subsequent events, especially Charles' letter of February 18th [5], show that indeed he was addressing diagnosis rather than dignity.

In the face of this carping apology, we could see "good intentions" but we also saw a dysfunctional practicum. The status quo ante of "open season on clients" stared us in the face. I have reported in my letter of February 5th [5] as to our response, but from a rhetorical stance that obscures our purpose and business. The best information is from the tape itself, of which I have the Friday evening session [10]. John Brunges has the only recording of the Saturday sessions extant, and he won't release it to me. Presumably he will release it to the Presidential Committee upon request.

In general, and contrary to some reports from the minutes of the Riverside County M.H.B., little or no hostility was directed at Margaret Johnson. Certainly there was none whatever from me. Patrick criticized her and Lavonne and Marylon for her behavior at the meeting, but he did so properly by addressing the Chair. On Saturday, Maxine challenged in writing Margaret's participation, but she says her attitude was one of astonishment rather than one of hostility. In this regard, it should be noted that the minutes of the Riverside County M.H.B. of January 25, 1995, read in part:

"Maxine Hayden asked if there is client member of the Southern Region CALMH Board; Margaret said no clients are on that board, but consumer representatives are present. David [Fraser, the Chair] explained that while the State CALMH Board must be made up of 50 percent clients and family members, each specific region is not required to have a client member. However, the CALMH Board in its entirety does have client representatives."

In my opinion, and I have reflected on this quite a bit, Maxine was unfamiliar with previous practices on O.M.H.A.B. regarding the use of "client" designations, and she was taken aback by the contradiction between what Margaret had said ten days before at the M.H.B. meeting and what she was saying now. I think Maxine was concerned about her ideals of justice and I do not think she was ever personally hostile toward Margaret. In this regard I must add parenthetically that the L.A. clients informed us that in their understanding there were no clients at all on the L.A. M.H.C. It must be understood that the contradiction between AB 14 and what is actually happening is quite disturbing to many thoughtful clients, and is naturally the occasion of some distress. The current involvement of the M.H. Planning Council in this issue also speaks to its significance (and see also John Hood's letter to the Planning Council [9]).

Following the meeting, I wrote the controversial letter of February 5th. This letter was one of a series [6] to the CALM Client Mailing List, written for the purpose of getting M.H.B./C. oriented clients around the state interested in networking. It was written from the voice of survival, in the rhetoric of madness. Some have called it "inflammatory," and to a limited extent it was. Of course one person's `inflammatory' is not necessarily another's, especially when the subject is matters of opinion rather than matters of substance. For who accounts talking to a person like a diagnosis an inflammatory act? In any case I believe the letter was appropriate for the audience and the purpose intended. I am deeply gratified that the California Network saw fit to reprint this letter in the April issue of Network News, and I interpret this as acknowledgment of the felt propriety of my letter. As is well known now, the remarks I made regarding Margaret Johnson caused a severe and widespread response. Since I felt my hurtful remarks were inadvertent, I sought to apologize, but Margaret said to me in a phone conversation (elsewhere reported) that "she had no need to talk to me" and refused to hear it. So I apologized in my letter of April 3rd [6] to Margaret, as that was the best forum available. But really this was not to the point of this "severe and widespread response."

You know, they could have called me up and asked me what I thought I was doing, had they but thought I was a subject for respect. Maxine was the only person who called me up re this letter, and she told me in no uncertain terms I had made a major gaffe which was a big-time issue in Riverside County. But the clients activists there and around Southern California were able to understand that I had goofed and that I admitted it. And eventually the letter itself was reprinted by the Network, and the editor was a Riverside client herself.

The real issue here goes back to the "problem," as stated previously in this letter. What is an absurd, harsh, and a priori disrespectful response becomes comprehensible if we recognize that the offensive personal aspect is a minor matter to the responders. Their real concern is clearly that the letter is "inflammatory" and challenges their habitual tokenization of clients, challenges their proclivity to treat clients as diagnoses rather than as people. If I would rather not have sullied my letter with an inadvertently hurtful remark directed at Margaret, still clearly I am proud that I spoke strongly to the felt need of the clients for personal respect on the CALM Boards. I hope some day the people who are put out with me around this will come to appreciate the poetry of my expression, of my reaching out to a better future for the clients of California and for the CALM Boards. I will keep saying, in different circumstances and in different rhetorical styles, this message which I feel is very important for upgrading the morality of mental health service delivery.

Clearly, the Presidential Committee must decide one of two things. Either we want a "prettified" CALM Boards where all disagreement is behind closed doors and perforce the clients are compliant, or we want to have the space to have public disagreements and to air them without tearing apart the fabric of the organization. It is this latter option that I mean to address in the remaining section of this letter.

Proposal for a line of resolution

No doubt there are complaints of which I am unaware, for there are a lot of upset folks among us. But I shall address this question in terms of the two complaints which are visible and well-known. If the Committee sees fit to attach special importance to any other complaints to which I am a party, I trust they will bring the matter to my attention in a timely manner. But specious things of which I've heard rumors, such as individuals complaining that I called them and they didn't like something I said, that Sharon Jackson has been telling people about, should in my opinion be scotched. I have a file of complaints about her behavior, too. But such matters seem rather petty and beneath the proper gaze of the Committee.

I believe that the complaint of the Berkeley M.H.C. regarding disrespect shown to it due to violation of process [5] should be strongly supported. This admission being made, there is no reason to "go after" the perpetrators, and no political good sense in so doing. This organization can't expect to function if it can't police anarchic and disorderly quarreling involving the Supervisors (City Councils) and M.H. Directors. If such a drastic mode as Lea Christensen's hit piece to the Berkeley City Council must some time be done, then let it be done by decision of the full CALM Board of Directors. If such a drastic mode as the policing of a client based on his/her diagnosis, such as Charles Swift's and Lavonne Snyder's letters copied to the Berkeley M.H. Director, must be done, again let it be done by decision of the full CALM Board of Directors.

You should acknowledge the letter of the Berkeley M.H.C. and uphold its claims as to appropriate procedure, in writing, to the Commission itself. And you should set in motion the development of procedural standards that will channel such concerns appropriately.

With regard to the concerns of the Riverside County M.H.B. regarding the treatment of Margaret Johnson, you should find a fair response. I have written (see my letter of April 3rd [6]) my apology. If that is not sufficient, perhaps something can be negotiated. But if they need for you to go much farther than this, then you should study carefully the events of February 3-4 and listen carefully to the tapes.

It should be noted that there are other parties, some of whom are mentioned in my letter of February 5th [6], who have complained to me regarding feeling adversely impacted by the fallout from this letter. I am very sorry for any such impact. But it must also be noted that the above-mentioned "severe and widespread response" is the direct agent of this adverse impact.

You should also note that the creation of this adversarial atmosphere is the basic complaint that I (and likely my Commission) and others have. It would be quite a healing thing if the leadership were willing to back off of their vilification program and admit that they have overplayed their hand and gone confrontation-happy. But I won't hold my breath. If indeed they remain adamant, then as I say in my present letter (6-23-95 [6]), the clients will simply concentrate more on parallel organizing, and wait for when things improve.

The final appeal here is to the timing of your work. I've been "on trial" for a great long time now, and explicitly since June, 1994. This takes its toll, and the psychological abuse is burdensome, to say the least. Do be mindful of the matter of "reasonable accommodation" and move expeditiously to finish up this accounting procedure. Thank you very much for your kind attention in this regard.

Andrew Phelps

NOTES Refer to the following attachments:

  1. Harassment and Productivity;
  3. Training Workshop Contretemps 6-18-94;
  4. Complaint Package;
  5. Letters Package;
  6. CALM Clients Mailings Package;
  7. Executive Committee Letter of 2-2-95;
  8. L.A. Demands List;
  9. John Hood III Letter 4-15-95;
  10. L.A. CALM Meeting Tape