Monday, May 26, 2014

Further thoughts on "off"

There is, on the one hand, mental illness, which is an umbrella term for various illnesses. These are unfairly stigmatized; physical illnesses, too, are unfairly stigmatized, something that seems to get lost in these conversations, but mental ones could well be more so, so the calls to stop the stigmatization of mental illness are reasonable. There's on the other hand "mental illness," which is the retroactive determination that anyone who commits a terrible crime is (or, if the crime, as they so often do, involves their own death, was) suffering from a condition of some kind. I don't even mean the 'to kill a bunch of people, you'd have to be crazy!' line, let alone 'people who do such things are sick', where "crazy" and "sick" aren't used medically/sympathetically. I mean that we're meant to grasp for any trace of a reason (apart from: guns, and yes, I'm aware that this latest incident included knife violence) that any such incident has occurred, and to provide a retroactive rounded-up diagnosis.

So here's my question: Isn't it further stigmatizing mental illness to cry "let's talk about mental illness!" every time someone commits a massacre? As in, further associating mental illness with murderousness or a kind of off-ness that may be exhibited by someone with a diagnosis, but that's altogether its own thing? And in this particular case, not only was the guy from a rich and well-connected family and being thoroughly looked-after psychologically, but the diagnosis they'd come up with was... high-functioning Asperger's and (although this may be redundant) trouble making friends. Gosh. Him and who knows how many millions of other young men, men who aren't particularly violent.

But this is all there is to cling to, right? The other purported non-illness factors floating around are each one more ridiculous than the next: divorced parents, the trauma of being biracial, and having made it to the ripe old age of 19 (he was 22 when he committed this crime, but apparently began planning it three years prior) without finding a girlfriend. These are none of them reasons someone would go and kill a bunch of people. Surely if these are the reasons, his violent reaction to ordinary life circumstances (coupled with what seems to have been extraordinary socioeconomic advantage) suggests insanity of some kind. But insanity-as-in-illness, or insanity in the colloquial sense of "off"? Or have we now decided that these are one and the same, and that everything once thought "evil" is merely an illness same as any other, and our sadness should be as much over the lack of a proper diagnosis as over the tragedy that ensued?


Moebius Stripper said...

Your broader point is well-taken, but Rodger did have a diagnosis other than Asperger's - he had been prescribed antipsychotics for paranoia and refused to take them. For some reason the Asperger's (a condition not correlated with violence against strangers) is getting a lot of play in the media, whereas the other condition (which I don't think has been named by a credible source, but the nature of the treatment indicates highly delusional and disordered thinking, something that *is* correlated with such violence, particularly when unmedicated) hasn't.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I think I'm missing where it says he had another diagnosis - according to the article you've linked to, the medicine he wouldn't take is, among other things, used to treat "irritable or disruptive behavior associated with autism." That could still just be Asperger's, and seems to refer to acting out-type violence, not the plotting of an ideological massacre. Then, later in the piece, comes the after-the-fact speculation: "As this story unfolds, it appears Rodger may have been grappling with mental illness well beyond the problems of Asperger's." In retrospect, yes, it does look like there was something up with him apart from Asperger's, whether whatever it was would be properly termed an illness or terrible-person-ness. But was this known? And can it be "disordered thinking" if it matches up with an odious but popular ideology?

Moebius Stripper said...

Hmm, it was probably in a different article - apparently he was prescribed medication specifically to deal with "extreme paranoia", something quite apart from autism/Asperger's.

As for "is it disordered thinking if it matches up with an odious but popular ideology" - possibly, yes. The way different mental illnesses manifest themselves is highly dependent on culture, and gender; Rodger's seems to have found expression in organized misogyny. As you said in a different post, the vast majority of mentally ill people don't go on murderous rampages, but neither do the vast majority men's rights activists, harmful as they are.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I don't think I've been explaining exactly what my issue with invoking "mental illness" is as well as I might have. One objection I have is, as I suppose is obvious, that it's often used to mean 'let's not talk about guns.' Also that there seems to be a great deal of after-the-fact diagnosis.

But it's also that I'm not sure what calling the off-ness "mental illness" accomplishes in terms of preventing such murders. The families and acquaintances of these young men generally seem to have been well aware that they were off, and to have looked into psychiatric explanations/treatment for them. Given that "mental illness" is - as has been amply discussed elsewhere - the reason given when the killer is, as they say, privileged, as unfortunate as it is that there isn't adequate mental or physical health care across the board in the U.S., it doesn't appear that that's the issue in these cases.

So it starts to look as if what's desired, what's meant by 'think of mental illness,' is basically chucking civil liberties. Adults who demonstrate no particular danger forced to take their medicine or institutionalized, because you never know. All young men who write fiction about violence, or fail to be sufficiently gregarious, subject to house-searches by the police once a classmate or neighbor points out that there's something not quite right... even if that something is likely of no consequence. While there may be a case for revamping how the state deals with the severely mentally ill who have the sort of illnesses most likely to lead to violence, I don't see what reasonable approach could be taken to deal with weirdo loner types who function well enough until they don't.

Moebius Stripper said...

Yes, completely agree with your second paragraph - what perplexes me the most right now about "we need to talk about mental illness" is that mental illness was talked about a great deal in the case of Rodger (and Lanza before him). Yes, many mentally ill people and their families lack access to the treatment and resources they need, but it's less clear how that applies to this particular case.

And yes, committing people who are determined to pose a danger to themselves is something that happens, but the relevant authorities decided not to apply it here, so. I do think there's a case to be made that the cops fell down on the job here, though - his parents reported him making public threats, and they asked him some questions and determined he was a polite young man - huh?

And, there's also the...fact? rumour? that he was never even diagnosed with Asperger's, so in conclusion, I have no clue.

Miss Self-Important said...

A parallel but less fatal type (and one which interests me more than mass murderers) is self-inventors - the people who serially lie about themselves for advancement. Whenever these cases are uncovered, you can bet that within a week, there will be comments that the self-inventor must be suffering from some undefined mental illness and deserves therapy and hugs instead of a fraud conviction. The logic of this argument as far as I can tell is something close to what you describe as the denial that evil is possible: all possible evil, even of a banal sort like self-inventing fraud, is transposed into illness. People are either good or they're diseased, but no one is evil or even capable of purposefully bad action and responsible for it. It's very Platonic that all evil is really ignorance (in this case, ignorance by way of mental derangement), but that was a part of Plato that always seemed hardest to work into law.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I do think there's a case to be made that the cops fell down on the job here, though - his parents reported him making public threats, and they asked him some questions and determined he was a polite young man - huh?"

Yes, that, plus no actual diagnosis, complicate things.


Agreed that self-inventors are more interesting than mass-murderers. Although there's some overlap - the recent-ish fake Rothschild guy murdered at least one person, I think. Anyway. Re: mental illness, evil, and "hugs," I suppose I'm not all that attached to the idea that we must hang onto the category of evil for its own sake. It's more that calling evil 'untreated disease' doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything.

And yes, what to do with punishment? The current thinking (at least as per some NPR story I listened to while poodle-walking) seems to imply that for every crime, there's either a known diagnosis or medical science just hasn't gotten there yet. Which... if this meant criminality could be identified before crimes occurred, without subjecting the entire population (or the entire population of weird sorts) to tremendous privacy invasion, that murderousness could be somehow 'cured' before the fact, fantastic. I guess I have my doubts.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Looks like an expert agrees.

caryatis said...

I share Phoebe's concern about psychiatric abuse. The people most at risk, though, are not upper to middle class young men. Money, involved and resourceful parents, and some sort of reassuring social role like school or a job, tend to insulate people from the criminal justice system.

And the criminal justice system is the main way people end up institutionalized or forcibly medicated, because a criminal conviction (even for the minor offenses which homeless mentally ill people typically commit) can be used to support a finding that a person is dangerous.

To me it doesn't make a difference whether we blame these events on mental illness or "evil"--either way, there's not much to be done about it. Although maybe it would help for the media to stop plastering this guy's photos and name all over the internet, and urging us to watch his videos? This is the last person who deserves to become a celebrity and to gain an audience for his opinions.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Agreed and agreed. The only thing I'd say, though, is that while I'm not keen on seeing the face or name, and haven't so much as clicked on these videos (could do without the nightmares), it *is* useful to discuss the ideas that apparently motivated this. Many women (thus the YesAllWomen hashtag) have experienced smaller-scale versions of what that ideology can lead to, and are trying to sort out what to do about it.