Monday, January 10, 2011

The Real Lesson From Arizona

When I first heard about the shootings in Arizona, like every good liberal American, I gladly pointed a finger at Sarah Palin. "See what your 'reload' and your crosshairs and your anti-'hopey, changey' speech has wrought! Now crawl back to whatever rock John McCain pulled you out from under and keep your hateful rhetoric and your malapropisms to yourself."

And then I stopped reading my Twitter feed and thought about Vincent van Gogh.

I just finished a soon-to-be-published novel about the artist, so it's not as random as it might seem to have Vincent on the brain, nor is his connection to Gabrielle Giffords. While this book has much to say about van Gogh's genius as a painter and the way he revolutionized the medium, it's also a profoundly compassionate story about mental illness. And isn't mental illness really what this weekend in Arizona was all about?

Growing up in suburban Ohio, I didn't have a whole lot of contact with flat-out crazy people. Since moving to Chicago, though, I encounter them on a regular basis. Near my old apartment, there was the shell-shocked man who would wrap himself in a blanket and huddle under whatever doorway would shelter him. Or the guy on the train who kept shouting "I've had it" and started banging his head against the window of the rail car until CTA personnel were notified and he was removed from the train. Once, I was walking home from the bus and an elderly man approached from the opposite direction. Too late I noticed he was ranting and raving--either at voices inside his head or invisible demons accompanying him on the sidewalk. I didn't have time to cross to the other side of the street, and as we passed each other, he swung his arm out to hit me. He missed, just barely, but I can still feel the whoosh of air his fist displaced near the side of my head, and the power and anger behind the blow, which, I've no doubt, had it landed, would have knocked me to the ground.

In van Gogh's time, such people would have been straight-jacked, locked up in asylums, labled lunatics or insane, or, by the more enlightened, deemed "hysterics" or "melancholiacs." No matter the nomenclature, the prognosis was poor. Van Gogh understood there was no stopping the violent episodes that gripped him without warning. We all remember that he cut off his ear in the midst of one of these spells, less known is that he later shot himself in the chest to ward off future anguish.

Today, we have kinder, gentler terms of diagnosis. Bi-polar, depressive, OCD. We don't say "mad," we say "mentally ill." We've developed therapies and drugs. Yet it's fair to say that we have no better understanding in 2011 of what it's like to lose control of one's mind than we did in van Gogh's time, more than 100 years ago. Often we can't predict what causes mental illness and, perhaps most frightening, typically we can't cure it.

Former classmates of the Arizona shooter have come forward in recent days. They confess they all but predicted just the sort of deadly rampage that ultimately occurred. So where was the help for this young man? If you saw a fellow student with an open, gaping wound, surely you would notify someone. We would rush to his aid, we would rally around. But when that wound is of the mind, when the fix is not a matter of a simple bandage, we turn away, not out of callousness, but more out of helplessness and fear.

We don't know what to do. It's not like cancer or heart disease. We don't know how to begin to try to offer assistance, and if we do, we don't know whether our efforts will meet with resistance or worse, violence. And the upshot is that while we no longer confine the mentally ill to asylums, they are just as isolated today as they were in centuries past, having scared away family, friends and neighbors with their erratic, volatile behavior. Only now they walk among us, sometimes with automatic weapons.

I've heard much in the past few days about the need to tamp down the hate speech our pundits have favored of late. I've even heard a few quiet rumblings about gun control. You can modulate the former, you can legislate the latter. But what to do about the mentally ill?

I've been thinking about Vincent van Gogh, and how we still don't have the answer.


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