What a bunch of garbage; liberal, Democrat, conservative, Republican. It's all there to control you! … I'm sick of it.” – from Jared Lee Loughner's reportedly favorite movie, ‘Waking Life,’ about a man trapped in dreams
How many of us are Jared Lee Loughner? The media now delightedly jump on a statistic from the Department of Health and Human Services that one in every five of us adult Americans — or 45 million people — “has experienced mental illness in the past year.” Talk about spreading the guilt. I'm not sure how helpful those numbers are when, despite Oprah, Dr. Phil and all those “intervention” TV-reality programs, it's almost impossible to get effective help in America for a depressed or suicidal or seriously mentally disturbed person.
But we “normals” didn't pull the trigger. It was done by a mentally unbalanced loner, a loser, weirdo, paranoid schizophrenic — choose your word-weapon — armed with a Glock 9mm pistol he had recently bought in a Tucson sporting goods store, loaded with discounted bullets bought from Wal-Mart. The debate will go on endlessly about whether his crescendoing rage was incited in any way by Rush, Sarah, Glenn and Fox News. It may be just as relevant to blame it on his weakness for the books of Philip K. Dick, or parallel-universe movies like Matrix and Inception, or on tastes I share with him for jazz artists John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and obsessively keeping a dream journal.
Today, we're all mental health experts. There's usually somebody, in our family or neighborhood, or at school or at work, a little or a lot like Jared Lee, with off-the-wall opinions and out-of-kilter behavior. Everybody, including his ex-girlfriends and a magenta-haired school buddy and a former best friend and a raft of “expert” psychologists, wants a piece of him. How useful are their insights? The first thing he did on being handcuffed was demand his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Before the massacre, he's also reported to have told a friend that the only way to get attention as a celebrity is “either be a politician or a serial killer.” A rational act, and a rational view? Media-wise, this guy knows his onions.
For several years, after myself having been labeled “schizophrenic,” I worked with young people not unlike Jared at Shenley Hospital, in Hertfordshire, England, and at Kingsley Hall, a therapeutic community I helped found in London's east end. Many of them were quite mad — hallucinating, bizarre behaviors, voices-in-their-heads, the full menu of psychotic symptoms. Some were fractious, at times, too — except that their violence was strictly limited to what they could do with a fist, a boot or, at worst, a knife: no guns (after all, this was England).
So, there is a huge cultural — and political — gap between my British experience and Jared Lee's trajectory in Arizona. At Shenley and Kingsley Hall, and other British mental hospitals I observed, doctors and nurses could be quite paranoid about the possibility of being hurt by patients. But what struck me, again and again, in dealing face to face, sometimes nose to nose, with schizophrenics (rightly or wrongly diagnosed), was how terrified they were of what was happening inside them. After all, they had not asked Jesus to sit down to breakfast with them or lured the Queen Mother into sending them personal messages via the radio.
But even the maddest patients were political. They couldn't help it because their strangely-angled antennae picked up all sorts of verbal, visual and physical signals about what was happening in the world at large. These prompts and cues, found in newspaper headlines or on TV, might involve a parliamentary debate or a murder story, or celebrity marriages or archaeological finds of Roman coins. News from nowhere and everywhere became, for them, a mishmash of stimuli, which was then retransmitted as “messages” via poetically skewed psyches — and predictably were diagnosed as symptoms of delusion and schizophrenia.
Overlooked in much of this was their very angry, mocking and self-mocking sense of humor, sometimes macabre, but often piercingly acute. They put things together, and connected dots, in ways we're not used to.
Yet, as anyone who has spent time with psychotic people knows, it can be incredibly grueling and boring, and demands extremely steady nerves and saint-like patience to be with angry, babbling people, especially if they're young and strong, as well as demented. Let's not even mention the suffering that mental disability causes to their families.
One “expert” psychiatrist claims Jared is a “textbook case of schizophrenia.” Then again, there is the ex-girl-friend, Ashley Figueroa, who insists, “He's faking everything.” My hunch (for whatever that is worth) is that he may well be schizophrenic — but that he's also per-forming schizophrenia. Along with other cues, the mad are often drawn into an elaborate theater-of-the-absurd, where, helpless or otherwise against their demons, they play up to frantic expectations of their authority figures: parents, teachers, police, therapists. “You think I'm crazy? I'll show you crazy!”
The bitter irony is that the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, who just last week was offering prayers of sup-port to bereaved relatives in Tucson, has this week announced the suspension of Medicaid in Arizona in order to balance the budget. This will cut off health care, including mental health care, to more than a quarter of a million low-income Arizonans — people whose personal economic circumstances may look much as Jared Lee Loughner's did. It would be disrespectful to people with mental illness to call this policy mad, it's just very, very stupid.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.