Archive for December, 2012

Mental Health Care, Mass Murder, and So On

Monday, December 17th, 2012

When I went on tour with THE HOLLOW CITY this summer, a book about schizophrenia, I started each signing and event with my personal feelings on the current state of mental illness care and treatment in the US. I won’t repeat the whole speech here, but I’ll give you the short version: it sucks. Mental illness in American culture is stigmatized, poorly diagnosed, and inadequately treated. This needs to change.

Caveat: In this blog post I’ll be talking primarily about dangerous mental conditions, and I want to say up front that it is not my intention to stigmatize mental illness further. The vast majority of mental disorders are not inherently violent, and the people who suffer from them need help, not fear or mistrust. Statistically speaking, everyone reading this post has at least one person with a mental disorder in their immediate family–it is a part of our lives that we need to embrace and study and deal with instead of sweeping under the rug. That said, some mental conditions, when untreated, do result in violence and danger, and we need to deal with those in the same open-minded, positive way.

A person in prison is five times more likely to be mentally ill than someone on the outside. This suggests one of two things: first, that people with mental illness find it difficult to live within the standard template of American society and end up breaking rules and laws. This is true, in the sense that we have built a society designed for people whose brains work in a certain way, with very little wiggle room for anyone else, and very little help offered to those who don’t fit the mold. Second, it suggests that people in prison are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness now that someone is paying close attention to them. This is also true, and suggests a further, much more important point: diagnosing and treating mental illness before it becomes a problem will help to keep these people out of prison in the first place. It will help them feel comfortable in, and function productively in, the society at large.

The most damning part of this situation is that it’s not accidental. Most mental illnesses, properly dealt with, won’t require legal intervention at all, but the dangerous ones will–and the treatment process for dangerous mental disorders in America literally relies on the prison system as a standard step in the procedure. Countless parents and spouses and children, trying to get a dangerously unstable loved one the treatment they need, are told the same thing: “we can’t do anything until he or she commits a crime.” Worried that your father might be sliding into violent dementia or psychosis? If he refuses treatment–and he will, because denying the problem is one of the common symptoms of dementia and psychosis–then there’s nothing you can do until he actually becomes violent and hurts somebody, at which point it might very well be too late. Worried that your spouse is becoming dangerously erratic and paranoid? Worried that your child might take his own life? My family dealt with a loved one (whom I will not identify) a few years ago who had become clinically depressed and suicidal, to the point where he needed constant care, but he literally could not get it–we had to wait until he tried to kill himself, hope that he failed, and THEN we could get him help. In our case we never had to go that far because his depression developed into an eating disorder, and we were able to get him committed to the hospital for malnutrition. But not every family has that luxury, and even then, we were only able to get him the help he needed when his life had been physically threatened. All of the mental threats, all of the underlying causes, were completely meaningless from a legal standpoint.

On one hand, you can see where the law is coming from: our legal system stands proudly on the principle that we are innocent until proven guilty, which expands into the principle that we can only be convicted of crimes we’ve actually committed, not crimes we think about committing. The same people who won’t throw you in jail just for talking about killing your boss also won’t throw you in a treatment facility just for talking about killing yourself. This system works for crime because it gives us the freedom to choose, and then holds us accountable for our choices; this doesn’t work for mental illness because mental illnesses very specifically attack–and often destroy–your ability to make informed choices. We’ve created a system that refuses to deal with the more dangerous facets of mental illness until they’ve already caused problems, when we should be focused on trying to prevent those problems in the first place. Worse still, once those problems have been caused, the people who caused them are more likely to be lost in the criminal and prison system than to receive any of the counseling and treatment they need. For a country that calls itself the greatest nation on Earth, that’s a pretty damning spot on our collective conscience.

My brother has been struggling with mental illness for a few years now, and wrote a very powerful piece in reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings that you should all read. It’s important to point out that Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Sandy Hook incident, did not have (at the time of this writing) a publicly announced mental disorder, but the signs are clear that he probably had clinical depression at the very least. Testimonials from his father and his school counselor show a long history, of joyless, friendless, lifeless life. We can talk about gun control all we want, and that’s definitely a conversation that needs to happen, but banning guns wouldn’t have prevented this massacre anymore than access to guns caused it. Guns certainly made the massacre more effective and deadly, but they didn’t cause it; it was caused by a severely disturbed mind who had nowhere to go and no one to help him, who made a very bad decision that could have been avoided with the right care and attention. My heart breaks for the children and teachers who died, and for all of their families and friends, but it also breaks for Adam.

I might be losing some of you here, because nobody wants to sympathize with a man who murders children, but I can’t help it. The more we learn about his life, the more tragic he becomes–and no, this does not excuse his choices. I’m not trying to excuse him, I’m trying to understand him, and why he did what he did, and figure out how similar events can be prevented in the future. America has a mass murder about every six months, on average, which makes this one horrific and shocking but, sadly, right on schedule. Sometime in the next five to eight months we will have another. Tightening our security standards for gun ownership might help reduce the body count of future massacres, but it won’t stop them from happening; without semiautomatic weapons close at hand, Adam Lanza might not have moved on to the school, but he most likely still would have killed his mother and himself. We should not consider that an acceptable alternative.

If we want to stop this kind of thing we need to look at the root causes–not just at the weapons or the decisions to use them but the people who make those decisions in the first place. We need mental health care to be available, accessible, and unstigmatized, so that Adam’s school counselor has some resources to work with the next time he identifies a teen with obvious pain and trauma. We need somewhere people can go when they know they have a problem, and we need some way of dealing effectively with people who refuse treatment even though everyone around them can tell they have a problem. We need some way for people like my brother–a successful, well-intentioned family man who recognizes his problem and does everything he can to treat it–to be able to afford the treatments that help him and every one of us live normal, happy, healthy lives.

Do we really want to call ourselves the greatest country on Earth? Then let’s start acting like it. Support mental health care. Support people with mental illnesses. Spread the word, share your love, open your hearts. Find someone struggling and help them. We can do this.

My Troubled Relationship With The Lone Ranger Trailer

Friday, December 14th, 2012

I love westerns. I love them dearly. Some of my favorite movies of all time are westerns, pointing specifically at The Searchers and the modern remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and then down among the “movies I love but aren’t top 10″ there are too many to list. There’s something very powerful to me about westerns, possibly because I grew up in the American West, but also because they are perfect venues for stories about morality. The Old West was a unique situation in world history, where modern, civilized people were thrown together in a barbaric and uncivilized place–the same open emptiness that gave them freedom also took them away from law and society, and the best Westerns deal with this contradiction head-on. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presents Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne as opposite sides of this coin–one representing law and the other representing violence–and makes the very complex, even tragic point that while law may be better, it can’t exist without violence. Out on the plains and miles away from civilization you can have as many laws as you want, but they’re not going to matter unless your local police have more guns than your local criminals. This is true everywhere, and at the end of the day all law extends from the threat of violence, but westerns are an almost perfect venue for exploring that concept in detail. In a western the social pressures are different: people are good or bad not because society is forcing them to be, but because they are making the conscious choice to be so.

I love westerns so much that I am often tempted to write one, and in fact I have several westerns in the back of my mind, waiting for the day that I have enough time in my schedule to write something I probably won’t get a lot of money out of. Western movies are on the rise, but western books, as a market, are still incredibly hard to sell. When I contributed to the Monsters and Mormons anthology I wrote a western novella (albeit with zombies and superpowers), which was fun, but it didn’t really sate my appetite so much as whet it. I want to write more. But there’s another big reason I haven’t taken the plunge, much more important than the money, and it’s this: I don’t know how to properly portray the Indians.

Even that word is bad–Indians–but the trouble is that I don’t even have a really solid fix on a sensitive alternative. I’ve been told, by a Native American, that we should say “Native American” because “Indian” is insulting, but I’ve also been told, by a different man from a different tribe, that we should say “American Indian” because “Native” is insulting. My research online suggests that the second guy’s opinion is far less common, and “Native American” or just plain “Native” is the accepted terminology, but the mere fact that there’s a difference of opinion makes this a very hard question to answer. And this isn’t even the problem with writing a book–if I were to write one I would just use the specific tribal names and be done with it. The bigger problem is how to present them as characters and a culture. I don’t want to use the old excuse that “everyone thought of them as savages, so it’s okay to portray them that way,” but I also don’t want to get so involved with showing their side of things that it takes over the story, but I also don’t want to just ignore them. They were a huge part of life in the old west, and their story deserves to be told, but it deserves to be told properly, and I’m just very leery about my ability to do that.

Which brings us to the new Lone Ranger movie. The trailer looks cool–the ideal mix of action and justice and heroism that a Lone Ranger story should have–and, yes, it looks like the movie is making Tonto a bigger character and trying to make the two leads a little more equal than they have been in the past. But on the other hand, the movie trailer really screams “a bunch of white people made this movie without actually talking to anyone from the Native culture they’re attempting to portray.” Despite my complaints about not knowing much about Native American culture, I at least know enough to recognize that Tonto’s costume in the movie is a weird mish-mash of different tribes and some crazy made-up crap that looks good on camera. Tonto’s breastplate, for example, is clearly from a plains culture, but the headband is very southwest. The do-rag, of course, is pure Captain Jack Sparrow, and the bird on his head is classic “hollywood production designer” with no basis in any Native culture I’m familiar with. And, of course, Johnny Depp himself is not Native–he has said in interviews that “I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line…Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian,” but that’s like hiring me to play a Norwegian guy: sure, my great-grandma was Norwegian, but that doesn’t mean I look, speak, or act Norwegian in any way, and have nothing to contribute to a Norwegian role that an actual Norwegian guy couldn’t do better. I suppose the point could be made that a modern Native American is so culturally removed from an 1860s-ish Native American that they wouldn’t really have anything to add in the role either, especially considering that Tonto isn’t based on an existing tribe anyway, but at that point you’re using the movie’s inaccuracy to justify its own inaccuracy, which is fairly useless ground to walk on.

I’ve written before about race-bending in movie casting, and my opinions of it are layered but generally very solidly on the “don’t do it” side. Last summer at Comic-Con I had a meeting with a big-name production company about a potential PARTIALS movie (and no, I can’t yet tell you who it was), and one of the biggest questions I asked them was if they were prepared to actually cast an Indian girl as Kira (not Native American, but actual Indian). It’s very important to me to get this right. One of the best movies I saw in 2012 was Argo, a based-on-real-life story about a CIA expert extracting hostages from Iran; it was excellent, and I loved every minute, and I think Ben Affleck deserves a Best Director Oscar for it, but Affleck also played the CIA guy, who in real life was Latino. The closing credits showed a fascinating slide show of side-by-side photos, comparing the movie characters and sets and images to their real-life counterparts, and I wanted to stand up and cheer for their amazing attention to detail…but then we got to the shot of the very white Ben Affleck, followed by a shot of the very Mexican Tony Mendez, and it felt jarring and wrong. Yes, Affleck did a good job in the role–his acting wasn’t as stellar as his directing, but it was good. But how cool would it have been to give that same role to a Mexican actor? Someone who’s sick of playing drug dealers on Breaking Bad, or gangsters in Southland, and would absolutely nail a role as a handsome, dashing, Mexican-American hero? And how cool would it have been–and this is the much bigger point for me–for a Latino kid or teen or even adult to be able to go to the theater and see this amazing movie and be presented with a hero who looks like them, someone they can identify with, someone who lets them see themselves in a leading role? I didn’t understand the real importance of this–of kids who want to see themselves as their heroes–until my daughters started asking me for more books and movies about girls. Growing up white and male I could always see myself as the heroes of my favorite stories, but it isn’t that easy for everyone else, and a movie like Argo, or PARTIALS, or even The Lone Ranger is an amazing chance to do that. I don’t believe that casting the wrong race is inherently evil, but I do think it’s a tragic missed opportunity. We should be going out of our way to find and create those opportunities, and then do the very best we can with them. And The Lone Ranger, instead of taking that opportunity, appears to have run the other direction.

I’m not saying the movie will be horrible, or even that the character of Tonto will be horrible–all I’ve seen is a two-minute trailer, and for all I know Tonto is presented as a culturally-empowering, three-dimensional hero. But I am saying that I doubt it greatly. I want to love this movie because I love westerns, and I want people to make more of them, and I love the things they can say about humanity and the exciting, iconic ways they can say them. But I have grave doubts about Tonto, and I wanted to put them out there.