Madness is a rational response to a crazy world. It’s not uncommon to hear academically-informed detractors of psychiatry utter this or a similar phrase. According to some medical anthropologists, mental illness is not so much a product of genetic inheritance as it is a result of social and cultural pressures. For example, what explains the fact that depression is one of the most common mental disorders today? Given today’s world, with its incessant discord, its crippling anomie, its precarious brinkmanship, what’s there not to be depressed about? I’ve spent the last fifteen years trying to defend the mentally ill in courts of law by utilizing the deconstructionist argument with varying degrees of success. By “deconstructionist” I refer to those legal approaches that seek to delegitimize the authority of unforgiving psychiatric professionals, downplay the individual responsibility of the psychologically and emotionally afflicted, and place the bulk of blame for errant behavior on social context.
When I took on Foley Gaspers as a client, I did it as a favor to a colleague, Monica Darby, who was leaving the public defender’s office for the greener, and vocationally more risky pastures of private practice. “Daniel,” she said, as she handed me a paper cup of decaffeinated coffee from the courthouse cafeteria, “do a good job on this one,” referring to Foley’s case. “He’s educated, he has strong family support, and he wants to be a writer.” Knowing Monica, and her weakness for clients who possessed a modicum of culture or gallantry, Foley was also most likely a charmer. Many criminal defendants are known to flirt with their public defenders. Monica insisted this wasn’t the case with Foley. She maintained Foley was “different.” He had taken his mother’s boyfriend’s Porsche for a joyride after stealing it from the boyfriend’s garage in the early evening. After driving several miles and speeding through a series of red lights, he had crashed through the security gate of his mother’s private community, and chatted with her about “the problem with modern women” while they drank beers. After he was finished with his diatribe, he got back into the Porsche and ended up checking into a motel in Compton where he stayed until 4 a.m., having conversations with random other lodgers about how white people were justified in fearing a black planet. Narrowly escaping that hairy situation without getting into fisticuffs with one of the motel’s less racially understanding customers, Foley sped back to Orange County believing that his pregnant sister was going to be raped by an unidentified assailant. Before he arrived at the sister’s Irvine residence, he wrecked the Porsche, nearly killing a cyclist, and had to be extracted from the car by an emergency response crew whom he verbally abused and physically assaulted while they were trying to do their job.
Given the circumstances of Foley’s follies, I was not particularly enthused taking the job from Monica’s caseload. I firmly believe “modern women” should have rights and privileges they have not historically possessed and that their sexual and professional empowerment is a net plus for society. I am a light-skinned black man who is concerned with the cause of social justice, and knowing full well the discrimination I have faced, am aware that darker-complected, less educated, and less advantaged black men have more to fear from the system than the average white person does. As far as I’m concerned, black people don’t have designs on the planet and therefore shouldn’t be feared the way power-hungry whites should. After all, people of European derivation invented colonialism and imperialism, Cold War and nuclear weapons. Brothas and sistas haven’t had a hand in devising anything as nefarious as those geopolitical exploits and instruments of destruction, so I’m skeptical of Foley Gaspers’ negrophobic claims. Lastly, I’m a public servant, and I know firsthand how underappreciated and thankless work in the public sector can be. Although ambulance services are privately-owned, I feel a comradery with paramedics because they are obligated to deliver services to members of the public who are in oftentimes perilous need. Even though he was in the throes of a paranoid episode, for Foley to have spit on an emergency services employee trying to be of assistance just doesn’t sit right with me.
“Monica, from what I’ve garnered this guy’s a sexist, a racist, and more generally a misanthrope. Why exactly should I like him?” I asked my soon-to-be privately employed colleague. “Trust me. You’ll know when you meet him, Daniel,” she replied. “He’s been institutionalized for nearly a decade. The judge gave him an indeterminate sentence for reckless driving, assault, and attempted murder of the guy on the bike who told the judge Foley said, ‘You’re lucky I didn’t kill you, because I sure as hell wanted to,’ as he was extracted from the wrecked Porsche. He’s changed a lot since he pled not guilty by reason of insanity.”
Skeptical of her claim, I tell Monica, “Well, given that he’s waived the right to postpone his court date until further preparations could be made for his case, I will be meeting with him tonight since his trial starts tomorrow morning. I have to prove he’s recovered enough of his sanity to merit release and he hasn’t exactly been a model patient at the State Hospital he was sent to.”
“No, not a model patient,” says Monica, “but he firmly believes that much of the trouble that he got into while hospitalized was for a good cause.”
“He assaulted a psychiatrist,” I say, knowing that this will be the hardest of Foley’s actions to defend in court.
“A psychiatrist who had issues and punitively medicated one of Foley’s friends who died of what are arguably medication-induced side effects.” Monica and I have to part ways to tend to our morning court schedules.
“All I ask is that you do your best for him, Daniel,” says Monica in parting. A nod of the head while looking askance is the only reply I can muster. As she walks away in fashionable high heels on the courthouse’s granite floors, I cannot help but admire her petite yet shapely figure. For some reason I think Gaspers held his former attorney in similar esteem.
After the work day is over, I drive my Lexus coupe to the gym, where I hit the treadmill for an hour. My body isn’t what it used to be. I’m 45 and had knee surgery last year. I preferred intercollegiate sports to studying throughout my time as an undergraduate. Had I been given the choice I would have preferred a life in professional sports, but where would that have left me at my age? I enrolled in law school uncertain as to where I wanted to end up. I initially found work in a private firm, but I soon was sickened by the outrageous bills my clients would receive from the partners who owned the firm. I was also disturbed by the motives of many of our clients who were not as concerned with justice as they were with jackpot settlements. After hearing of my quandary in for-profit law, an acquaintance from law school got me in the door of the public defender’s office. Never did I think I’d find a calling representing crazies against hawkish district attorneys. But I knew what feeling crazy felt like. For a short time during my legal studies, I suffered from anxiety. I couldn’t say why. I just know there were moments I felt the world was imploding and the only thing I could do to combat the discomfort I experienced was act on impulse. I drank. I erupted in fits of screaming that unsettled my neighbors. In one instance, I even shoplifted a semester’s worth of books for classes in the Spring. With a little medication and therapy, I got over the anxiety, but after three months at the public defender’s my firsthand knowledge of what it felt like to succumb to the dark side allowed me to make the choice to specialize in mental health-related cases. I guess having compassion for myself allowed me to have compassion for others. Perhaps there’s something profoundly narcissistic about having a helper’s vocation. If you don’t have what it takes to care for yourself, how can you possibly take care of others? So, having successfully sought help that worked for my anxiety, I came to the conclusion that just because someone had been through some crazy times or had a crazy episode didn’t mean they were hopelessly or irreversibly unhinged. My experience taught me that mental illness is manageable and I’m a firm believer that if a lackluster guy like me can manage their symptoms and come out on top, it’s also possible for the average anyone.
After I shower, I have a peanut butter banana smoothie at the gym’s mindful drink and snack counter. My knee is acting up. I’ve got to stop using the treadmill in preparation for my weekend matches of pick-up basketball and start swimming or riding the stationary bicycles. I can’t imagine giving up my competitive Saturday hoops games, but it’s either that or subject myself to another grueling surgery or, even worse, end up hobbling from courthouse to public defender’s office and back using a cane. I’m not sure I could live serenely with that. To me, an infirm body often reflects an infirm character. Relying on a prosthesis means someone didn’t have the willpower necessary to tackle a problem when it was still possible to address and remedy.
An infirm mind, though is another matter entirely. That’s the argument I make for my clients all the time. Usually, you have a choice to ameliorate a physical problem. Mental problems often come out of left field. Many, if not most of my clients, couldn’t control the onset of their psychological afflictions. And even when they’re drug-induced psychoses, the onset of mental woes is unpredictable and insurmountable. Not everyone who gets high goes off the deep end. With a bum knee, I have a choice. Eliminate the activities that aggravate the knee. When someone’s hearing voices, it’s inescapable. There’s nothing you can do to stop hearing the voices. You don’t know where they’re coming from. Medication often doesn’t make voices cease. And take depression or bipolarity. Even switching a person’s environment often doesn’t make a difference. The problem is inside. In that mysterious mass of interconnected neurons located behind the eyes and between the ears. Seeking help for ailments of the mind is completely different from seeking treatment for diseases of the body. My aching knee is never going to tell me, “You don’t need help, what you’re feeling is right.” No, the knee hurts, and if I don’t get help, it’s going to get worse. A sick mind often believes it’s in the right. “The voices you’re hearing,” it says, “are guiding you. It’s the so-called ‘normal’ people who don’t hear voices who are delusional for believing that voices are abnormal.” The mind of someone with a mood disorder will say, “The depressive or manic feelings you’re having are justified, it’s abnormal for neurotypicals to not respond to disappointment with depression and to joy with mania.”
I slurp the dredges of my smoothie and drive home. Once in the door I greet my wife, Helen, and my two boys and tell Helen that I have a lot of material to review before I meet a new client at the jail tonight.
“So, I take it you won’t be having dinner with your family. I’ve made eggplant parmesan.” she says.
It’s my favorite dish, but I resist. “No, I’ll forego dinner tonight. I have a lot to do and a lot on my mind,” I say.
“What you should have done is pass on going to the gym, Daniel Hampton. Don’t think I don’t see that slight limp in your step. Do you really want to risk having to get your knee replaced?”
“I’m going to stop using the treadmill,” I say as I start up the stairs, heading for my office.
I accurately predict her next question. “What about basketball?” she says.
“We can have this talk another time, Helen,” I say, almost whining. “Don’t let the boys eat all the eggplant. I’ll have a portion when I get back from meeting with this client.” I enter my office and close the door. By 10:30 p.m. I’m back in my car headed for the county jail to meet with Foley Gaspers.
I don’t know how they do it. How inmates who aren’t already crazy don’t become crazy in the boring, stifling, and threatening environment that is jail.
I’ve been sitting with Foley Gaspers for the past hour and a half going over details of his psychiatric and institutional history. Gaspers has a black eye and tells me the other guy got the worse of it.
“You realize, that fight will make its way into the district attorney’s file. It’ll make it harder to argue that you’re ready to be released,” I say.
“It was self-defense,” says Gaspers. “My cellmate was trying to punk me for my commissary.” He’s referring to the food, stationary, and hygiene items bought from the for-profit jail store. It’s hard to imagine jailbirds eating properly without the benefits of having money on their “books”—their commissary accounts—to purchase ramen soups, honey buns, summer sausages, and chocolate bars. It’s also difficult to imagine them keeping properly groomed without buying shampoo, razor blades, and lotion from the jail store.
“The other inmate claims you used a racial slur when you attacked him. The D.A. will argue for a hate crime,” I say.
“Just because I used the N-word in anger, doesn’t mean I feel hatred. Blacks say ‘Nigga’ all the time—often in anger. I’ve seen blacks get into fights and use the same word, perhaps hatefully. I don’t’ think they’re getting charged with hate crimes,” says Gaspers.
“Blacks have cultural ownership of the N-word,” I respond, irked by Gaspers’ logic.
“I don’t know what planet you got your law degree on, but as far as I’m concerned no one can ‘own’ a word. Spoken words are free. Any word can be uttered legally. That’s the basis of free speech, the first amendment. Words can’t be made illegal because there’s an emotion attached to them. You can’t force people to use ‘love speech’ because it’s inoffensive, and you can’t deny that people use ‘hate speech’ because it offends,” says Gaspers, logically—and unpleasantly to my ears—again.
It's close to midnight, and although we have covered a lot of ground as far as the trial is concerned, I’ve had enough of Gaspers’ self-righteous logic. I want to go home and eat some of my wife’s eggplant parmesan.
“Wait. Before you go,” says Gaspers, “let me recite you something I’ve memorized. It’s a performance poem I wrote honoring my friend at the hospital who died after that nutjob shrink didn’t take him off those meds that led to water intoxication. Its title is ‘No End.’”
I’m tired and don’t think I have the resolve to listen to poetry, especially after missing dinner and Monday night football to review my notes on Foley’s case, but against what my conservative self says is better judgement, I say, “Let’s hear it.”
Gaspers and I are separated by plate glass, but the look on his face as he begins to recite the poem is one of earnestness. The timbre of his voice bridges the chasm he has created between us with talk of the N-word and assaultive behavior.
“Gazing at the sign of hospital ward 77 where I am confined,
I remember a friend who claimed the number seven divine.
Iridescent green fly,” here he waves his hand as if batting at an airborne insect, then makes an overhead gesture with his free hand—the one not holding the phone receiver. “Blanched cerulean sky,”
“Fence of hospital grounds crowned by razor wire,
Yet in my savage mind,” he mimics a gun to the head, “the poetry abounds.
I believe Osama beards aren’t what Obama feared.
Rather what he faced without trepidation
Is a fight against a country tilting right.
Character assassination, global warming of a world, negro-phobia of a nation.
And we don’t need to read Marx, Mao or Freud
To understand that every dream is possibly a revolution,
Every revolution possibly a dream.
Bloody upheavals provide no solutions for the dilemmas daily faced
By the five billion souls who live in poverty on the planet.
Just because you were born a certain way
Doesn’t mean you’ll remain that way for the duration of your ephemeral stay.
Change is perpetual.
One day you’re ingenuously young,
The next you’ve grown uncomfortably old,
Unable to bear the skin you’re in.
But appreciating every one of life’s vanishing moments,
And recognizing that they are quickly passing,
You can comprehend
The true you is forever lasting,
Living on memories borrowed from the past and lent to a future,
Where once again we’ll be welcome to face our fears and honor our hopes,
Find the age we live in transiently familiar and consistently strange.
Our times beg we cease pursuing pleasure, gain, praise and fame
Because these are bound to become pain, loss, blame and disgrace.
The world sees you looking,
Hears you listening,
And knows you’re thinking,
So why think you can prevent the unavoidable certainty that we all…
Be you stranger, acquaintance, foe or friend…
Will in another life meet once again,
That while all is temporary
Our finite selves know no end."
I want to clap, but my right hand holds the phone receiver. Then, my watch’s alarm goes off. It is midnight. “Time for me to go,” I say as I think, this nigga might have moments of insensitivity, but he’s definitely human. He hasn’t exactly confessed his true feelings by reading me the poem, but he is a poet, and winning his trial doesn’t seem as impossible as it did a minute and a half ago.