Category Archives: aggression happens

Chiaroscuro


(Quoted from The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1934 ed.) “[Italian: “light-dark”] noun: Treatment of light & shade in painting; light & shade effects in nature; variation, relief, handling of transitions, use of contrast, in literature, etc. adjective: half-revealed.”

On certain Projective [as opposed to Objective] psychological tests–where there supposedly aren’t any “right or wrong” answers, only “revealing” ones–the subject’s use of chiaroscuro [attention to the shading of an inkblot or an ambiguous drawing] has been interpreted in various ways, over the decades. The earliest developers of such tests [seeming to regard their own free associations to “light & dark” imagery as the norm] came up with: “anxiety about shadowy situations,” “fear of the dark,” and “hypervigilance.” I’m sure Carravaggio and his buddies in the artistic school of tenebrism would be amused to know that they were all Nervous Nellies.

By the time I was in grad school, the received wisdom was that use of chiaroscuro–a tendency to go beyond Black & White perceptions of an ambiguous situation, and instead to take into consideration the nuanced gray areas–reflected a capacity for abstract reasoning and empathy.

Like most things in psychology and real life, it could be both, ya know. Lili is most likely to react with alarm to suspected “intruders into her territory” when the light is tenebrous–at dawn & dusk. Like the lads in the lamppost anecdote, most scientific researchers trope to the light, rather than trolling through the dark alleys of half-revealed clues–even if that’s where the keys to understanding emotions and behavior lie. If we can be brave enough to tolerate the tenebrous subjunctive mood–“Well, I can’t say for sure, but it might be this…”–we can often stumble upon a useful truth.

Something seems to be troubling you. You are snapping at others, and shedding more tears than usual, and what a headache you just got! Oy, veh! Could you maybe be angry at someone or some situation? A little something up your nose? Rather than assume you are coming down with a Clinical Depression or “The Dreadful Lurgy” [aka the ‘flu], why not try a little poking around in the shadows of you mind, to see if you can get some instant relief? The “Always? Not always!” prof I told you about had a simple remedy for sudden-onset headache. “Say the name of the guy whose head you want to bash in!” [“Always a guy? Not always.”] Either the headache will go away right then, or you may be having an intra-cranial event. Are you willing to try it, before setting off for the ER? Maybe you could try it on the way. Just to see.

My favorite source of humor on weekday mornings is The Chris Moyles Show on BBC Radio One. The other day Chris was mildly mocking their light-weight, female sports reporter, who had apparently gotten “high as a kite” on one glass of wine at a Karaoke event they were hosting in a provincial pub. “When Carrie’s drunk, she could pick a fight with her own shadow: ‘Stop following me around, and falling at my feet!'”

Feel free to use it. And the possible headache cure, as well.

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, black and white thinking, gets right up my nose, semiotics

Bronx Cheer


When my father got back from the Korean War and we moved to New York, I was 5 [and my sister was 6]. In what would be called these days, an effort to “bond” with us, he made up for 3 years of lost parenting time by teaching us to play chess and cribbage, and to use a logarithmic slide rule. [Look it up, you Young Ones; and keep the Internet handy, cuz more historical references will follow.] We also got into [radio broadcasts of] baseball. My mother & sister [both Cleveland natives] were Indians fans, while Rosie & I were all about the Brooklyn Dodgers. My enthusiasm outstripped my accuracy, as I raced around the apartment shouting, “Come quick! It’s ‘Dike Snooder’ at bat!” [Also a big fan of “Pee Wee Weese,” I was.] Our parents were fairly ecumenical about whom we could support: Anyone but the Yankees.

My father’s motto was: “Rooting for the Yankees is like hoping for King Faroukh to win at roulette.” At the time Rosie coined this bon mot, the penultimate King of Egypt [aka “The Thief of Cairo”] was reckoned to be the world’s richest man, yet notorious for pilfering valuable artifacts from other heads of state whom he visited [including Winston Churchill]. Thus, our contempt for the Yankees was based, even in the 50s, on the egregiously “uneven playing field” that overpayment of their players created. Baseball, after all, was supposed to be a metaphor for the American Dream: a meritocracy, not a plutocracy.

When we moved to the UK, and the British tried to label me a “Yank[ee],” I would [rather cryptically] respond, “How dare you! I was always a Dodgers fan, until dey left Brooklyn, da bums!” The only part of this they grasped was “bums,” which was rather a rude word for a 12-year-old girl to be using, in those days. When I went to Duke, and a “Magnolia Honey” would remark, “Whah, you mus’ be a Yankee!” I would give her the same retort, leaving her baffled, as well. Ah, the power of the Poetic Speech function! Keeps ’em guessing.

So, anyway, why do we sports fans [even those of us who don’t have a wager on the outcome], get so worked up when our team loses? The Manifest reason is, “Cuz we was robbed!” [The umpire was sight-challenged or corrupt. Add your own conspiracy theory here.] But the Latent reason [as in, “What gets up our nose” about the loss] is often humiliation as the victors litter Broadway with mountains of “ticker tape” [which long-forsaken paper product is as passe as the slide rule]; but also the intrusion of Farouhk-like wealth on one side, to “buy” the outcome. [A casual glance at the jubilant NYTimes headlines this week might have you wondering, were they talking sports or politics?]

There’s nothing more infuriating than a fixed contest [especially when it doesn’t go in your favor]. Rosie always used to stomp around the house in mock indignation while watching the Miss Universe Pageant. “It’s all rigged, I tell you! It always goes to an Earthling!” [Talk about da bums…]

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, power subtext, secret code, sharks and jets

"In hindsight…"


I am somewhat reluctant to pick on her, maybe because of her team’s name, but today’s quotation in the NYTimes from a suddenly notorious college soccer player is exactly what I am on about, in this blog: “I look at it [the replay of her controversial, but mostly un-carded game] and I’m like, ‘That is not me.’ I have so much regret. I can’t believe I did that.”

Remember, way back in one of my earliest posts, I recounted the retrospective musings of two female college applicants, who had been caught doing the same antisocial deed. One made a sincere attempt to understand “what got into her,” to provoke her to violate her own [and society’s] code of conduct. The other simply offered the Werewolf Defense: in so many words, “I have no idea. That is not me.”

To which I would reply, were I speaking to either that long-ago applicant or to today’s Girl Gone Wild, “That is, potentially, all of us, kiddo. Especially if we are unwilling to ‘do the wolf-work’ of reviewing the regrettable event, until we come to understand what got into us [up our nose].” If you look up accounts of that fateful game, you will see several clues, as to what “got up the nose” of this young athlete. In one instance, which led to her most aggressive response, her opponent executed a crafty “crotch grab” [as one sports reporter terms it]. Let’s do the wolf-work, shall we? Ya got yer intrusion, possibly yer pain, and I would guess some humiliation goin’ on. Three precursors to anger, delivered in one, surreptitious movement, probably not visible to the ref. Maybe not even illegal, if seen. The point of this exercise in wolf-work is not to justify the player’s angry reaction, but to understand what prompted it. Not for you or me to understand it, sportsfans. For the suspended player to understand it, herself. So she doesn’t have to go through the rest of her life like a werewolf, crying “That is not me.”

How many of us find it totemic, that she was playing for the Lobos?

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, jekyll and hyde

Laissez-passer


In NYC in the 70s I had not one, but two, reference groups so devoted to the 1942 film Casablanca, that they [we] had memorized every line of dialogue. Start me anywhere. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the storyline, you will recall that it’s all about which two lucky people in the Nazi-controlled city of Casablanca will ultimately get to use these travel documents [les deux laissez-passers], permitting them to hop a DC-2 to Lisbon [and thence, escape to America, which was still officially a neutral country during the filming of this movie, which is regarded by some historians as the most persuasive piece of anti-Nazi propaganda ever made].

So, anyway, all these decades on, laissez-passer [literally, “Let (to) pass.”] means a “guarantee” of a safe passage, through a perilous time or place. A get-out-of-jail-free-card, as it were. Or, in my case [I hope], a respite from the freakish weather that has made trekking through the woods “highly inconvenient.” I know, I keep banging on about this as if it were as onerous as this season’s earthquakes, tsunamis and lethal flooding elsewhere in the world. It’s just a metaphor. A synecdoche, even. The Poetic use of a small, particular thing to represent the bigger thing. Nar’mean?

And now, to my point. With regard to the weather, or tectonics, or “unexpected” acts of aggression carried out by individuals who were [inevitably, reportedly] held in high esteem by their neighbors and/or colleagues, there are no guarantees. Some major irritant seems of have gotten up Mother Nature’s nose, and she is smacking Earthlings on the snout, Big Time. Also, as you know, civil servants, just trying to do their lawfully mandated duties, have come under attack. Talk about synecdoche! The [attributed] on-line ramblings of these domestic terrorists seek to justify their lethal assaults on individuals, who, they believed, represented disagreed-with government policies. In a much milder form, as a Naval officer in the 70s, I experienced this part-whole confusion at the hands of brick- and bottle-hurling young Townies, when walking the the streets of Annapolis in uniform. The ridiculously simple laissez-passer that I “wrote” for myself was to change into civvies and take my hair down, as soon as I got home [2 whole blocks outside of Gate 1, big whoop]. It taught me to resist judging human “books” by their “covers,” as well as to be hyper-aware of the semiotics [subtext] of my dress and behavior, as perceived by others.

So, what gauntlets do you have to run this week, without the guarantee of a safe passage? I’m not trying to scare anyone. I’m giving you credit for your bravery; and encouraging you to notice what steps you take, to “write” yourself your own “laissez-passer,” that increases your sense of security.

I find, prosaically, that practical footwear helps me feel safer. Note the state-of-the-art “Bogs” boots, plus “Yak-Trax.” I only slipped once Saturday [the day this photo was taken]. To paraphrase Casablanca, “I came here [to Annapolis] for the [mild winters]. I was misinformed.”

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, semiotics

Snakes & Ladders


David Lodge [one of my fave English authors] begins his 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? with a 1950s university student weighing the pros & cons of attending a mid-week evening church service. Aside from the expenditure of Therbligs, and forgoing more frivolous diversions with less conscientious college friends, there is the danger that holier-than-thou self-congratulation will result in a Net Guilt Gain! The author likens this hazard to the children’s game of Snakes & Ladders. Just when you think you’re ascending to the Moral High Ground, oopsie-daisy, your Pride occasions a Fall from Grace. Nar’mean?

When he chose this metaphor, I wonder, did David Lodge know that Snakes & Ladders is based on the 11th-century Hindu game Moksha-Patamu, devised to teach children how to express the 5 Virtues (while avoiding the 12 Vices), in order to reach Nirvana? [No, not the band.] Note that in the original game, there are more than twice as many “snakes” [ways to fall] as “ladders”; whereas in the UK and American versions, the ratio of “snakes[or “chutes”] to “ladders” is 1:1. [Think 7 Virtues & 7 Deadly Sins.] Wanna know the Vices the Hindu version features? [They are listed in this order in several sources. Could it be, from venial to mortal?] “Disobedience, Vanity, Vulgarity, Theft, Lying, Drunkenness, Debt, Rage, Greed, Pride, Murder, Lust.” Guess you wanna hear the Virtues now, innit? “Faith, Reliability, Generosity, Knowledge, Asceticism.” [Reminiscent, somehow, of Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Moral Spheres model, from the post, “Crime & Punishment.”]

Now, back to real snakes. In the Fall of 1984 we were living in Holden, Massachusetts [near Worcester, about which, don’t get me started; talk about ambivalence (mine), talk about a sense of moral superiority (theirs)]. “We” being self, husband Chris, 9-month-old Baby Girl, and the gifted hunters, Stella [Ciotogach-looking one] & Stanley [with the white goatee]. Chris was off being a [jolly good] Fellow @ UMass Med Center; Baby Girl was napping; and I was doing laundry in the basement on a rainy day, with Nobody’s Fool Stella keeping me company. I gathered that Sodden Stanley had popped through the catflap, because I heard a dong! as he landed on the dryer. Also, I felt his wet tail wrapping around my bare ankles. Hang on. There he sat, staring into middle distance, on the dryer…while the black snake he had brought in ascended my leg.

So, limbic system on Full Alert, I screamed, shook the serpent off, ran upstairs and donned my Wellies, ran back downstairs brandishing a golf club [no, I am not Swedish], onto which I “charmed” the snake, and thence threw it into a wicker basket, which I deftly flipped over, thereby trapping it. Unabashed Stanley was clawing at the basket, wanting to play with his “prey,” so I grabbed him and ran back upstairs to call Chris, “insisting” that he come home “right then” and “deal with” the snake. “But, you’ve already dealt with it,” he quibbled. “Just keep the cats out of the basement, and you’ll be fine.” “Nooo!” I wailed. “I’m afraid the snake is going to get out, climb up the stairs, and hurt [the baby]!” [I may be part horse.]

Having clearly exceeded the speed limit, Chris arrived shortly, flipped the basket over, bashed the snake with the golf club, saying “There!”; hopped back in his car, and returned to the hospital.

Poor old snake! Wrong place at the wrong time. [In Stanley’s line of sight on a wet Wednesday.]

Chris and I both lost many karmic points that day. Yet, search as I may, I can’t find my crime on the Hindu list of 12 Vices. I can identify what Got Up My Nose, though. Intrusion of an unexpected creature [not even a furry one] into my home and onto my person. Fairly far-fetched fear, that the snake would glide up the basement stairs and under a closed door, to strike at my baby [even though it had been so gentle with me, that I mistook it for my cat]. But, most shame-making, the humiliation of not being taken seriously by my husband. As if I were some [gasp!] Drama Queen, or something.

Chris would no doubt say that he displaced his Rage [at my intrusion on his workday, and possibly the humiliation of being regarded as a hen-pecked husband by his fellow Fellows] from me, onto the hapless snake. No wonder, 25 years later, he helped the young snake on our driveway to live another day. After all, if reincarnation is true, that could be you or I, Next Time.

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, lesser of two evils, limbic system

"Keep a Civil Tongue in Your Head!"


Did you hear about the [latest] set-to between the Australian actor Russell Crowe and a member of the media [Mark Lawson of BBC 4]? There’s an audio clip, if you’re interested, with expletives prissily deleted. During an interview @ the Cannes Film Festival, the mercurial actor took great umbrage at Lawson’s [repeated] observation that he heard “a hint of an Irish accent” in Crowe’s Robin Hood, and ultimately walked out, in medias res. Apart from mild [Poetic] sarcasm, when Lawson asked him if the accent had been “more northern English,” [to which Crowe retorted, “No. I was going for an Italian, yeah. Missed it? F@#k me. Anyway…”], he used the Referential speech function. Nothing went airborne except a few Emotive phrases. Wolf held in check, compared to past form.

More to the point, what do we think got up Crowe’s nose, about the attribution that he sounded slightly Irish? Humiliation of some sort, one gathers. His bio says he spent his youth pinging between New Zealand & Oz; and that apart from one indigenous ancestor, his heritage is [like most Anglo-Antipodeans] Welsh, Scottish, English and (ahem) Irish. Much was made of the film’s efforts to be more historically accurate than previous versions, and a dialect coach was mentioned. Was there an implied slur on that person’s accuracy or efficacy? Or on Crowe’s capacity for mimicry? Or was the presenter insinuating that the actor was playing Robin Hood as a crypto-Fenian [out to overthrow the English monarchy]? I’d go see that film, now.

“Anyway…” [to quote Crowe], here’s the point of this post. Which would you prefer: to be told something offensive, or to be told a lie? The Indigenous American expression for the latter, is [for a European incomer] “to speak with forked tongue.” After several incidents in which East Coast tribes of Indians were schmized into “peace talks” with colonists, only to be massacred, they came to fear them, having before only resented their intrusion.

For my part, as much as it angers [humiliates] me to “get panned by the critics,” it is far more infuriating [as in, frightening] to be deceived. When a dog is barking at you, or a horse is pinning its ears, you know just where you stand with them [if possible, out of strike range, until their limbic system has chilled]. When poor old Russell was being interviewed by a presenter “notorious for being oleaginous and obsequious,” how could he tell if the guy loved the movie or hated it? Especially if, rather than just giving him a thumbs up or down, Lawson made himself obscure, with a forked-tongued, passive-aggressive. a propos of nothing “question” about “a hint of Irish.” Like Lili would have, Crowe rose to the bait and barked. But he didn’t bite. He chose to disengage, to leave the field; but as he departed he was still trying to clarify whether Lawson had intentionally dissed him or not: “I don’t get the Irish thing, by the way,” he murmured, as he left the room. Now, that was civil enough, wasn’t it?

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, lesser of two evils, limbic system

Feeling Threatened?


Back in the day, before the advent of the Homeland Security Advisory System [as in “A day without Orange is like a day without sunshine.”], there were other semiotics for indicating that it was time to “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” There were the DefCon levels, whereby [counter-intuitively], DefConOne betokened Doomsday, whereas DefConFive was the Peaceable Kingdom. Since most non-combatants thought it was the other way round, it wasn’t all that useful as a civil defense advisory. In my Naval family of origin, we used the traditional “Go to General Quarters” to signify that we were in crisis mode.

But, whatever you call it, your limbic system usually gets there way ahead of your pre-frontal cortex; and you are already engaging in a [possibly ill-advised] Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, “before you can say knife” [as the English measure it, as compared to the American “say Jack Robinson” unit of time]. Absent an airport Tannoy announcement, what cues the threat response? For most of us warmblooded creatures [including, as usual, Lili the dog], it’s the fur on the back of our neck standing on end. This is most amusingly obvious with cats’ tails puffing out, of course. Yeah, yeah. That’s what I’m saying. In the dualistic parlance of the Mind/Body dance of anxiety, it’s usually the body that leads. [You can search-engine iconic studies from the 60s involving the IV administration of adrenaline, the physical effects of which “undergraduate volunteers” (an oxymoron) were “contextually manipulated” to interpret as either fear or excitement.]

Other physical changes include pulse and respiration rate, as well as increased muscle tension. Those of us in the business of devising ways to “smooth ruffled feathers” often resort to reverse-engineering tactics. Big Pharma, and brewers before them, recommend skeletal muscle relaxants: “How dire can things be, if I’m feeling this loosey-goosey?” Despite the risk of inconvenient side-effects [DUIs, addiction, or respiratory collapse], ya gotta admit, the euphoria that comes with chemically-induced muscle relaxation really beats being told, “Oh, relax!” by an unsympathetic companion. We Mental Health providers try to suggest alternative routes to tranquility: yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, hypnotic trance induction… “Too New Age-y” complain the uptight. “I can never remember my mantra in a crisis.” So, I try to reverse-engineer the shallow breathing: “Sing!” I command. “Whistle, if you know how!” [Remember my post on Bridge on the River Kwai? The ditty the POWs whistled in the face of their implacable captors, “Colonel Bogey’s March”?] Besides sublimating fear with an inside joke against the enemy, whistling (like singing and humming) normalizes breathing. It is what Behaviorists call an Incompatible Behavior (with the panting that accompanies anxiety).

Recently I have found that singing to Lili is as effective for “standing her down from General Quarters” as the Freeze commands to “Lie down” and “Stay down” are. She just can’t resist coming over and singing along. [It may have to do with the overtones I produce.] Another explanation is that my carefree singing lowers her level of perceived threat: “How dire can things be, if my Pack Leader is so loosey-goosey?”

So, in this picture, is Lili a threat, or threatened? [Well, in the event, neither, since the shadow is cast by her trusted Pack Leader.] But if she were confronting a stranger, the correct answer would be “both.” Next time you encounter a dog who’s “going to General Quarters” [or find that the Wolf in Your Head is howling], you might try a little musical reverse-engineering, yourself.

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, limbic system, semiotics

"A cat may look on a king, ye know."


The earliest citation for this egalitarian proverb is 1546 [Oxford English Dictionary], when the king in question was Henry VIII. I was going to apply it to the case, a couple of weeks ago, of the Bishop of Willesden’s snarky Twitter response to the engagement of Prince William [heir to the throne and therefore this cleric’s eventual boss]: to paraphrase,”I give it seven years. The Royal Family are all philanderers. When the wedding date is announced, I’ll be booking my republican day trip to France.” The next day, the Bishop issued a pro forma “No offense intended” statement; but by the end of the week he had been relieved of his public duties.

But that puny piece of lese majesty has since been overshadowed by last week’s riotous assault [by disgruntled students] on Prince Charles’ official car and his current wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, who may actually have been “poked with a stick” through the broken window of their Rolls. [All of us curious cats may look at the now-famous photo of Camilla and the future king, wearing matching WTF facial expressions, under siege.] 182 protesters had been arrested by the following Tuesday, on the basis of CCTV footage.

Can you hear the hoofbeats of my hobbyhorse approaching? Det. Chief Superintendent Horne had this to say about the alleged perpetrators: “There was a stark contrast between scenes in Westminster and homes with crying parents and shocked young people when the police turned up. When they are shown footage of their actions that day some are shocked by the impact of their behavior.” Or to put words in their slack-jawed mouths, “I have no idea what got into me! I’m just not like that!”

To use another of my favorite Mancunian expressions, then “What are you like?” [It means “Your behavior is so bad, that similes fail me.”]

My own answer, to the Bishop and to the revolting students, is “You are like anyone else who ever got a snootfull of one or more of the Big Four Precursors: angry.” Was it intrusion? The tuition fees are set to treble in the next few years, meaning that almost all “Uni” grads will incur significant debt. Fear? “How will I ever find a job, if I can’t afford an education?” Pain & suffering? “If the government cuts back on ‘the dole,’ [unemployment benefits], I may not even be able to afford food & shelter!”

But consider the targets of their [and the Bishop’s] anger: the Royals. The ostentatiously wealthy, “Bow-to-me-when-you-address-me,” unelected, Ruling Class.

I’m thinking it was humiliation, that got up their noses. It usually is, when revolution is in the air.

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, power subtext, understanding shenanigans

Buffalo Springfield Redux


Stick around 3 score years or so, and you’re likely to have a certain number of deja vu moments. Cue Stephen Stills’ 1967 hit, For What It’s Worth. [“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”] It became the anthem of the anti-Vietnam War movement, although he wrote it in response to a scuffle between rowdy clubbers and policemen in NYC [4 years before the student deaths @ Kent State, mind you, as mourned in his former bandmate Neil Young’s song, Tin Soldiers.]

[Music trivia note: The band’s name, Buffalo Springfield, has nothing to do with the Wild West, where endangered species roam, play, etc. It was inspired by a steamroller parked in the street outside their LA house, manufactured by the Buffalo-Springfield Roller Company.]

For me [who took to playing it on “infinite repeat” during those anarchic, all-bets-are-off days of the late 60s], the song had the power to transform my overwhelming fear (for myself, for my classmates who were facing the nightmarish fight [in Nam] or flight [to Canada] dilemma, and for my going-to-the-dogs country) into something less primal. Like all works of art (and this one earned the band induction into the Roll & Roll Hall of Fame, ya know), it imposed some order on the chaos, partly by making the general particular: “There’s a man with a gun over there.” As the song implies, it doesn’t much matter if he’s a public servant or a vigilante. Either way, it lights up our limbic system.

Good ol’ Stephen Stills channels his pre-frontal cortex, and advises, “I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”

There you have it. That’s the whole, sane, soothing message of his song. Not an empty promise of “Everything is going to be all right.” Not the braggadocio of “We will rock you.” Just, “Stop. Everybody look what’s going down.”

Cuz, as he said in another song, with another band, “We have all been here before…”

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, limbic system, reference group

"T’es folle ou quoi?"


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.

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, power subtext, suicide and murder