D. Patrick Miller’s essay “A Brutal Sadness” [August 1993] challenges the often-heard but indefensible view that vengeance is justice. When we think about it, most of us know that vengeance isn’t justice, because justice is what we want for ourselves and vengeance is what we wish on people we think don’t deserve justice: criminals, homosexuals, the homeless, people of other races, people who have AIDS.
We know what justice is, unless we are philosophers or lawyers. It is access to the means to a full and meaningful life. We know we must still work for such a life and that we may not obtain it owing to our own failures, misfortunes, and sins. In these cases we think it just that we suffer reasonable consequences and then be allowed to earn another chance. The problem is that we think there are lots of people who don’t deserve the chance to create a meaningful life for themselves. But by denying them justice, we affect our own access to it. By denying criminals justice, we live with a growing underclass of violent, hopeless people. By denying blacks justice, we live with an uneasy armed peace in our inner cities.
A person with mature faith can live a full life under any circumstances, as David Magris’s transformation shows. But the endless crisis of American criminal justice is a social and political problem, requiring a collective response. What are the reasonable consequences of a crime — for criminals, for victims, for society? What are the obligations of each? We cannot even raise these questions as long as we feel vengeful.
While I agree with D. Patrick Miller wholeheartedly that prisons should exist solely for the positive transformation of their inmates into contributing members of society, I believe he totally misses the point of the death penalty. The death penalty exists so that we may know with absolute certainty that a criminal will never inflict pain and suffering on any other family ever again. For this reason alone, not for vengeance or punishment, the death penalty will continue to be demanded until prison reforms have been so perfected that a criminal is no longer dangerous once his sentence is served.
I feel so sorry for Sonny Stone in John Baird’s story “Uncle Ruff” [August 1993]. His father, Frank, courteous and cordial to customers and to Uncle Ruff, never once gives his own son the same consideration. He never requests that Sonny help; he “snaps,” “demands,” and rages at Sonny, never once peppering his orders with a please or a thank you. When Frank is angry with Sonny, he further humiliates him by shaming him before others, calling him “simple-minded” and a “loud-mouthed little son-of-a-bitch.”
It’s no wonder Sonny is such a despicable character. He’s hurt and jealous. He says, “The hell with you, Daddy, you and your precious old nigger.” It’s clear that Sonny is not precious to anyone. As his choices narrow, he becomes even more glum; he’s caught in a world where no one respects him.
If anyone needs guidance in this story, it’s Frank. He needs to treat his son with respect so the son is respectful. “We’re all victims of victims,” as Louise Hay pointed out, and I say the buck stops here. Kindness and consideration to our children at all ages will be returned in kind. It’s never too late to begin.
Elizabeth O’Connor does justice to our rejected mentally ill in “Our Rag-Bone Hearts” [September 1993]. She senses their pain and articulates it beautifully.
In our rationalistic, production-oriented society, there is no place for people whose thoughts may ramble, who talk to themselves and hear voices, so they go live on the garbage heaps like rats. Subconsciously, isn’t this where the rest of the community wants them?
But in tribal cultures, people whom we now call psychotic, epileptic, and hysterical were believed to have access to the spirit world. Many became shamans, healers of their tribes. They were respected, revered, and probably a little feared. Certainly, they held a higher status than our schizophrenics. They usually experienced their first encounter with the spirit world in their late teens. (This is when schizophrenics in our culture begin to show symptoms.) Through a long, arduous, and sometimes terrifying initiation, they learned to discipline and control their powers so they could use them for the benefit of the tribe.
I know that creating a holy space in our culture for these afflicted people is impossible, and I do not want to romanticize their suffering. But given that other cultures have conferred special status on the mentally ill, surely we must question our need to assign them to the garbage heap. Maybe we should stop and listen carefully to what they are saying. Perhaps we’d all be better off if we hallucinated once in a while, talked a little nonsense, conversed with our imaginary friends. Maybe we wouldn’t be so brutally, rationally logical with one another. Maybe we’d be less sensible but more sensitive.
We survivors of the psychiatric system are seldom consulted about our own diverse points of view. Unfortunately, Elizabeth O’Connor’s essay makes the same mistake.
Homeless people vote with their feet. If the only “help” available is a clinic with highly paid professionals dishing out degrading psychiatric labels and coerced injections of powerful neuroleptic drugs (which double as animal tranquilizers and can cause addiction, brain damage, and death), homeless people tend to avoid it. But there are alternatives offering housing, basic necessities, and empowering peer support. The best of these even employ former homeless psychiatric survivors. Homeless people are seeking out these alternatives. Meanwhile, the competing psychiatric drug clinics are turning to new Involuntary Outpatient Commitment (IOC) laws in more than half the states, which court-order their customers to report regularly for mind-control chemical injections.
O’Connor movingly praises the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. However, this is a group of friends and family, who can speak only for themselves. Psychiatric survivors tend to have an opposing viewpoint. For example, NAMI members should know that their leadership throughout the United States has been responsible for many of the IOC laws.
I am the co-coordinator of an alliance of psychiatric-survivor advocacy groups called Support Coalition International. Our message is “Stop murdering us. Provide basic human needs.” For a copy of our newspaper, Dendron, write to P.O. Box 11284, Eugene, Oregon 97440.
Elizabeth O’Connor’s essay about society’s rejection of the mentally ill reminded me of the custom of infanticide, the killing, or at least abandonment in the forest, of babies born deformed or unhealthy. It has been an accepted practice in some societies we call primitive (the Mundugamor of New Guinea) and in some we call civilized (the ancient Greeks). They generally share some belief that such a child is cursed or is a demon that entered the womb attempting to gain incarnation; its evil nature is shown by its inability to properly form a human body. But this belief, anthropologists tell us, is mere facilitation, designed to ensure compliance before the killing and to ease consciences afterward. The real reason for the practice is that a low-technology society with only physical work and lots of it cannot afford people who may never be able to do their share.
In a high-technology society, work may be mental, so we are more inclined to be generous toward the physically disabled. If they prove themselves useful, we will extend ourselves in all sorts of ways to keep them productive. For instance, the array of machines and attendants needed to keep the crippled but brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking at work can be imported to the United States (along with the professor himself) at a cost of about ten thousand dollars for one week of lectures and conferences. But for those who cannot do mind work we have nothing to spare.
English-speaking nations are reported to be the worst about this. Maybe this is because historically we have given relatively little importance to the extended family. Historians have often pointed to weak kinship ties and the consequent mobility of individuals and nuclear families as a major reason that England was the first nation in Europe to industrialize. We are held together as a society by our communications, our exchanges of potentially productive ideas, our mind work, more than by any institution of common heritage. It is, you might say, the secret of our success.
Moreover, we derive our personal and social identities from those relationships we create far more than from those we are born into. Whereas Greek and Zulu and Chinese individuals know they have a place in the immutable extended family, we are made or broken by the opinion of others, by a consensus that can shift at any time. We need constant reassurance from the people around us, and we don’t want anyone around us who cannot be counted on to give that reassurance.
Elizabeth O’Connor discovered her own fear of the mentally ill to be fear of rejection. She’s got it on the nose. Rejection is a big deal to us because we have so little to fall back on. We suffer from a constant scarcity of acceptance that all our material abundance cannot mitigate. Therefore we have little acceptance to extend to those who might not give any back.
Sally Bellerose’s story “The GirlsClub” [September 1993] was not up to the standards of your magazine. What was it that made you choose it for publication? My impression: “See how open-minded and liberal we are to print a very mediocre story about a lesbian with a colostomy bag.” Try as I could, I could not see literary merit in this story. I hardly think that a story about a lesbian who is recovering from a broken heart and a recent ostomy and who finally goes out to a bar is worth printing in a college literary magazine, let alone a magazine of your quality. Would you have printed the same story had it been about a heterosexual woman? I don’t think so.
Does the fact that I didn’t like this story make me homophobic? Heaven help us if it does, but that is a subject for another day. I just know a good story when I read one, and this story had none of the necessary ingredients.
Where do you find people like Jim Nollman? Or do they find The Sun? “Wild Heart” [September 1993] was wildly heartbreaking. Made me want to fly to Alaska or at least send the guy some bucks to support his dreamlike research. Essays like his make it easier for me to bother recycling plastic bags and to be kind to my students.