French slang for, “Are you crazy, or what?” Also, the title of a 1982 comedy, ads for which were plastered all over the Metro station walls that winter [the coldest on record, at the time]. It became my lingua franca catchphrase during our Eurail Pass honeymoon, as effective in Milan and Vienna as it was in Paris, to back off street hasslers without giving offense. It conveyed the power subtext, “I am not your victim, nor am I your enemy,” in a way that the more common but histrionic “Laissez-moi!” [“Leave me alone!”] just misses.
As effective as the phrase is, after 40 years of close, professional encounters with Those Who May Be Crazy, I don’t like its implication. Now, for a bit of Attribution Theory. Do you imagine that what I object to is the use of a derogatory term for those suffering from Mental Illness? Not me. Sticks & stones and all that. I object, Ladies & Gents, to the overuse of the Insanity Defense, to excuse wolfish behavior, nar’mean?
In March of 1981, you may recall or have read, one John Hinckley, Jr. fired 6 exploding bullets at President Reagan, hoping to win the admiration & love of the actress Jodie Foster. He was a lousy shot, and managed to kill and maim several people; but only one ricocheting bullet entered the armpit of the President, who survived. The shooter copped an Insanity Plea [which a DC jury bought] and remains to this day an inpatient @ St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC [which advertises monthly for clinical staff, if you’re interested in a job opportunity]. For years, he has been granted weekend passes to visit his parents.
I’m no fortune teller, but I bet the Tucson shooter’s defense team are pouring over the transcripts of the Hinckley trial, to unearth bits of jury-swaying gold dust. A spate of articles, both in the popular and scientific press, have addressed the thorny “T’es folle ou quoi?” question, in hopes of being better able to identify and forestall future pistol-packin’ werewolves from acting out. Presciently, in the 24 July 09 issue of the Schizophrenia Bulletin, William T. Carpenter wrote a pros & cons think piece, “Anticipating DSM-V: Should Psychosis Risk Become a Diagnostic Class?” Under “cons,” he notes that the proposed criteria for a diagnosis of Psychosis Risk Syndrome [PRS] or Attenuated Psychotic Symptoms Syndrome [APS], are commonly found in “non-ill” young people; and so the risk of needless stigmatisation and overtreatment is high.
Even if the Syndrome makes it into the next edition of the so-called “Book of Broken Things,” the last people who are going to be able to inform the authorities about a perceived loose cannon will be Mental Health providers. Unless HIPAA is amended or repealed, that is. Back in the day, in pre-HIPAA times, one of my jobs as an active duty Navy Psychologist was to do annual assessments of veterans receiving disability pensions for service-connected Mental Illness. It was a Hobson’s Choice the vet faced in his interview. Too sane, and he would lose his benefits. Too crazy, and he might get rehospitalized on the spot. In the summer of 1981 a vet told me that it was his ambition, “to become another Hinckley.” Without fear of litigation or loss of my license to practice psychology, I informed my Department Head, who called the FBI, who arrived promptly, to “continue the interview process” with the vet.
Couldn’t get away with that nowadays. Not even sure if I could get away with remarking, to a weird-acting, in-my-face pavement artist on the streets of Paris, “T’es folle ou quoi?” But I bet he could get away with murder.