My newest book, Torch, is historical fiction set in a frightening dystopian place—communist Czechoslovakia, in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion and occupation that crushed a short-lived democracy movement known as the Prague Spring. Under the occupation regime, young people lost access to the books, newspapers, and music that they’d enjoyed. Many were expelled from school or imprisoned because they spoke out or were found in possession of banned items. Most people kept silent to save themselves and their loved ones from punishment.
In January 1969, a 20-year-old university student named Jan Palach set himself on fire in front of the National Museum to protest the Soviet occupation and the Czechoslovak people’s silence in the face of it. The regime portrayed his act not as political resistance but as evidence of mental illness. It was an early example of how the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe would abuse diagnoses of mental illness to discredit, terrorize, and in many cases institutionalize their opponents. In 1977 the World Psychiatric Association condemned “the systematic abuse of psychiatry for political purposes in the U.S.S.R.,” but the practice accelerated until the fall of communism in 1989-1990.
Jan Palach’s self-immolation, and that of high school student Jan Zajíc one month later, inspired the opening of Torch. In my novel, 17-year-old Pavol sets himself on fire in Prague, leaving behind three teens who considered him their best friend. One of them, Štěpán, is gay and outed by the secret police as “deviant” following his arrest for traveling with Pavol from their town to Prague. Another, Lída, is the daughter of a former WWII resistance fighter who suffers from PTSD, and she is held responsible for her father’s alcoholism-related work absences. The third, Tomáš, would be considered autistic today. His father, a high ranking Party official who supports the occupation, has protected him against official sanction because of his “anti-social” behavior but is now requiring him to testify that the brilliant, kind, and popular Pavol was mentally ill – or face the consequences:
"Consequences? They can’t send me to prison because of Pavol, can they?”
“We don’t send people to prison for psychopathy. There are hospitals for that purpose.”
The words were a knife twisting in Tomáš’s gut. His father would describe people sent away for their own good, as a warning. The kids in school and youth camp talked about it to taunt him. He wanted to crawl under his table, wrap himself into a tight ball, rock himself until he calmed down, but it would only prove his unfitness to live in society. (p.38)
Pavol’s reality is more complicated, though. At the time of the invasion, he joins hundreds of other young Czechs and Slovaks in destroying road signs to keep Soviet tanks from reaching Prague. For this, he’s arrested but released, “a lucky break” until the authorities reject his university application and order him to work in the mines instead. This exceptional young man struggles with depression, exacerbated by the loss of his dreams for his country and himself, but the stigma of mental illness and its political manipulation in this dour dictatorship prevents him from telling his friends or getting the help that he needs. His death is a tragedy that emerges from the lack of freedom, honesty, and trust at the core of a totalitarian regime.
The unfreedom of their society deeply affects autistic Tomáš as well. In some ways, he’s suited to the highly structured routines and detailed intellectual inquiry that takes place in communist youth groups and camps. But he has a keen eye for hypocrisy, the ways that the reality of communism doesn’t match the ideals, and he’s reluctant to take part in group activities. When he leaves for summer camp, he wishes he could bring an easy-to-transport one-person tent rather than have to round up multiple people to carry – and then share – a large tent. His creativity means nothing to those in charge, who assign him to an engineering specialty based on where they need warm bodies. Ultimately, the communist authorities pay for their unwillingness to accept those who think differently.
Across the border from communist Czechoslovakia – so close but yet so far – is Austria, where Sigmund Freud developed the practice of psychoanalysis, and Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger conducted early research into the autism spectrum. Ironically, the first psychiatrist to describe the characteristics of autism was Grunya Efimovna Sukhareva (1891-1981), who began publishing her work in 1925 in the Soviet Union. Locked inside a closed society from the 1930s on, her work didn’t reach the west until 1990, after the fall of communism.
For the most part, though, neurodiversity and mental illness were seen as sources of shame under communist regimes, and that shame extended to the entire family. Authorities attributed nonconformity to mental illness and often punished not only that person, but also the rest of the family, because they believed mental illness and neurodivergence were inherited conditions. This belief fed into the existing tendency of these regimes to punish entire families for one person’s dissent, in the belief that families would move to control (or failing that, inform on) the errant member for their own self-preservation.
Why is this history important to us today? The national and worldwide turn away from democracy and toward authoritarianism goes hand in hand with efforts to further marginalize those with mental illness and neurological differences. Nowhere is this clearer than in the schools, where the same people who ban books and persecute queer kids also seek to exclude disabled students from mainstream classrooms. As Štěpán tells Tomáš in Torch, “They don’t want us to be different here. They want us to be the same.”
For a punitive authoritarian regime, the stigmatizing of neurodivergence and mental illness and the abuse of psychiatry serve to enforce conformity, unquestioning obedience, and a tyrant’s perpetual rule.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of the YA historical novel Torch (Carolrhoda Lab, 2022) and co-author (with Zetta Elliott) of the middle grade verse novel Moonwalking (FSG, 2022), both of which are Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections and recipients of multiple starred reviews. Her recent nonfiction includes a biography of Temple Grandin in the She Persisted chapter book series from Philomel and Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors (co-authored with Tanisia “Tee” Moore) from Chicago Review Press. She also translates children’s and YA books from Portuguese to English, with YA graphic novel Pardalita by Joana Estrela, due out in April 2023 from Levine Querido.