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Julie Mannell Headshot

There's No Murder Gene in Mental Illness

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Have you heard the tale of "The Pied Piper?" There is an ancient Germanic myth that tells of the happenings in the village of Hamlin. Legend has it that a piper dressed in foreign attire, entered the town with his magical pipe only to find the village indifferent to his musical services. To demonstrate his power, the mastery of his vocation, he then used his music to entice the attention of the town's children and lured them away, and into the forest, never to return.

On Friday, December 14, 2012 -- in startling parallels -- Adam Lanza entered into a small elementary school, in a quiet Connecticut township, and swallowed the lives of babes before, ultimately, taking his own life with theirs.

It was a horror that redefined horror and the public hysteria was imminent. As journalists from all major news channels descended on Newtown, so did their probing questions: "Can you describe the scene in the school?" "What are the names of the dead children?" "Why would anyone do this?"

The startling need to fit this tragedy into some sort of simplistic narrative with a singular motivation was played out on televisions everywhere. In the advent of 24-hour news, speculation is utilized as a means of filling airspace: how many talking heads and pseudo-experts and organization representatives can we get, how long can they talk, what new imagined accounts for Newtown can we employ as channels for this hysteria? How can we keep people watching?

Almost immediately President Obama addressed gun control. He vowed to begin the process of meaningful action with regard to the sale and purchase of assault rifles. The response, on the part of gun owners, was to find a way to distinguish themselves as not only followers of a different mantra, but members of an entirely different species from murderers like Lanza and his predecessors. Yet, on what grounds could they valorize this distinction?

The term "mental illness" has been thrown around as a quick and easy solution for gun enthusiasts and media alike. The parameters by which it has been defined in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre is nearly always contingent upon the predicate of threat. Over and over again, in defence of gun ownership, gun enthusiasts have delineated their identities as those of the "stable" while the shooters are then disposed to the realm of "the mentally ill." Mental illness, in turn, is conflated with violence through a process of loaded renaming. Mentally ill people are "disturbed," "threatening," "bad people," and ultimately counter-cultural figments of fear induced imaginations.

On Piers Morgan Tonight, Larry Pratt, the ex-director of Gun Owners of America, tried to draw a line between himself and Lanza through an intentionally ablest take on bad guy/good guy rhetoric:

"If you believe and understand that there is evil in the world then you don't try, as your first line of defence, to solve it psychiatrically you protect yourself with a gun." Essentially what this means, in the world of Pratt and his followers, is that there are those who need psychiatric treatment and then there is the rest of the world that needs to protect themselves from those people.

In a well-intended rebuttal, Piers Morgan then unconsciously affirms the sentiment: "firearms which can be used by mentally unstable people." Without elaborating as to what qualities or characteristics might render one "mentally ill," both Morgan and Pratt allude to mental illness being on one end of a static binary that dictates who is capable of killing and who is not.

The truth of mental illness is it is not a static concept, an ailment reducible to genetic rhetoric, there is no "murderer gene," no physical property that can dictate an identity or predict individual morality. This lack of visible qualifiers is precisely why those diagnosed as "mentally other" are amongst the most vulnerable in society.

Historically we have created categories for those individuals who exist outside the realm of normative societal expectation. These racist, sexist and homophobic categories are then used to depict populations of vastly unique individuals as a singular homogenous portrait that is then employed as a justification for mass oppression.

The swift and broad diagnosis of mental disability has been particularly instrumental in the rectification of systemic subjugation. Was it not that long ago that we treated unsatisfied housewives for "hysteria," or sent gay youth to camps, or employed developmentally delayed kids in labour camps or published reports of racial minorities as intellectually insufficient? Was this not a means of rectifying violence? It seems that anytime society wants to disallow certain kinds of people from participating in the public sphere we can justify their exclusion through the allusive renaming of individuals as "mentally ill."

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So what separates the "mentally ill" or "disabled" from those who are "capable?" For me, the root of disability is indicative of the way contemporary societies have constructed their public sphere, specifically with regard to space. Accessibility has long been a factor that designates the qualities by which one is able to partake in cultural practices and those who are not. If disability was as simple as a definitive mutation of the body, separating it from natural or normative bodies, then wouldn't individuals with glasses be subjected to the same domain as the paraplegics, the blind or the deaf? Disability is dictated by the way in which we construct space to purposefully include and exclude individuals. This is then indicative of the kinds of people a society designates as worthy of tolerance.

Of course, the body is vulnerable and the imperative of age necessarily indicates that eventually each of us will occupy that othered sphere of the disabled. We are, ironically, the hegemonic force that ensures our own eventual oppression.

I would like to put forth that mental illness is not static but is transitory and variant. That, like the body, the mind is vulnerable and the term "mentally ill" has been ascribed to states that we all occupy at some point. With a stroke of discourse, we have painted a multiplicity of unique and entirely individual personal challenges -- the challenge of mitigating the internal dialectic of the mind with the external obligations of societal participation -- within a singular term.

The media has now taken this inadequate and dubious term, "mentally ill," and in the style of our ancestors, rendered individuals as a singular homogeneous public threat. This is counter-factual and serves as a means to find in "the mentally ill" a cheap scapegoat for the atrocities in Newtown. Such ablest propaganda does a disservice to both the citizens of Newtown, the victims of Sandy Hook, and the larger public.

Laughably employed as the president of the world's biology is Dr. Oz. Right now he is arguing, "serial killers have different brains than us." He talks about the frontal cortex, never addressing who or what he means by the allusive and abstract "us." Compounding his rhetoric are the lower-screen banners: "Where Mental Illness meets Violence," "Genetic Clues Sought in Massacre Probe." Let's envision a world where our brains can be monitored, can we determine serial killers by examining people's frontal cortex? What do we do with these brains as we branch biology with assumptions that free-will is phantasmatic, the emotional capacity for love and hate is not complex or interpersonal, it is predetermined by the speed of neurons orbiting around our brains.

Of course people are more complex than this, and such "research" is insulting and beckons back to offensive diagrams of the woman's, the African's, the homosexual's brain. All of which exist as symbols to remind us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The wide scope and chronic differentiation within the label "mental illness" makes it problematic as a point of intellectual reference. If an individual who must have their depression medicated is the same as a child with autism is the same as the elder dealing with dementia then -- who is then left "able" under such vague parameters, and how do you not compromise the validity of individual identities or experiences? Furthermore, such a term encompasses those who have suffered extreme trauma. This means laws that exclude or stigmatize mental illness then stand to exclude victims of violence: soldiers, rape victims, and ironically witnesses to violent crimes -- like the surviving staff and students of Sandy Hook.

As stated previous, the mind is transitory and such rhetoric, like that featured on CNN and spoken by gun enthusiasts, serves to silence the public instead of encourage conversation. The unfortunate aspect of employing any sort of overly-simplistic scapegoat is that it creates an illusory self-confidence and fuels the mirage of control. The scapegoat is a mirage and as long as we feel comforted by false explanations these tragedies will continue to repeat themselves.

Similarly, the legend of the pied piper has served an allegorical function of delineating consequences for not subscribing to polemical concerns. In the 13th century the pied piper served as a metonym for broader hysteria around the consequences of paganism or widespread emigration. In 18th and 19th century it addressed the rat infestation in metropolitan areas.

Who would the pied piper be today? How would we utilize his narrative? On what grounds could they take away the pied piper's instrument and would it have made a difference anyhow? Maybe his multi-coloured attire was emblematic of anti-social behaviour, maybe it symbolized his mental illness. Would they then bring fashion experts and musicians to provide quickly assembled accounts for how his appearance and artistry was not indicative of most other people, of normal people?

In short, as easy as it is to whittle complex tragedies down to a sole political issue and then champion it as a quick solution, the reality is that these tragedies arise from a complex interplay of a multitude of pressures. Gun control is an important topic but there is also the issue of mental health inaccessibility, the quality of mental health research and quantity of support, the organization of space for young people leaving controlled environments to enter into the "real world," how we have organized that space to address our generation's unique stresses, and how the mind responds to cultural fetishization of violence. These are issues.

Also, on Friday 20 children died, a horror that redefines horror, and hysteria won't excuse that and a simple token political point could never fully encapsulate the vast expanse of all that comes with such unjustifiable loss. Tragedies are not questions, hence there are never any answers.