Tuesday, November 29, 2016

REALITY POLICE: November 29, 2016

REALITY POLICE: November 29, 2016

          The story continued....

          This is basically a story from the annals of writing, and for all those who think being a writer is a really cool way to live. I had told my editor that I would do what I did, spend some time in a mental hospital as a patient and report on the experience in the book that was to come out of my investigation, and he thought that meant I would do it more than once, in different parts of the country. But once was enough. I did indeed go to different areas of the country to visit mental hospitals, talk to psychiatrists about the systems they ran, check out what was at the time the take people out of mental hospitals and put them into community mental health centers, and otherwise do the thorough job that needed to be done on a subject that was then, and remains, almost universally ignored. I even went to Esalen, in California, new age mecca, to speak with a psychologist there about new ideas in mental health care. That was interesting; you walked onto the grounds and scattered around were people doing yoga in the nude. But at bottom it was what I should have expected--at a remove from the gritty intractable reality of the lives of the mad. I drove across country in an old Ford Econoline van with the engine mounted between the van's two front seats. I slept in the back. Research on the cheap. America on the cheap. A story for another time.

          And on the way I stopped in Kansas for a few days, camping in a state park near Topeka populated mostly by mosquitoes. I have nothing good to say about Kansas. There Topeka State Hospital had set up a series of interviews for me, among them one with a Dr. Rinsley, who ran their children's unit. He was a queer bird, fixated on his theory about childhood schizophrenia; he had, in fact, diagnosed every child who entered his unit as being schizophrenic,regardless of their symptoms, and it was his opinion that his  job was to take each child apart and rebuild him or her in a healthier manner. To put it another way, he was playing God with every child on his unit. At one point during the interview, I remember, he looked at me and said, you've looked into the abyss, haven't you. Well what do you say to that? Deny it, and you seem shallow. Affirm it, and you'd have to explain. In fact, as I said in the first part of the story, I was quite sane, and always had been. As it says over the entrance to the oracle's cave at Delphi, know thyself. And I did.

          Anyway, I went on, finished the research, wrote the book, it was published, the publisher did its job and got me on various TV shows, I testified before a Senate subcommittee chaired by Birch Bayh about drugs in institutions, the nightly news showed a clip, I thought I would make some money from this book. I was a hero to mental patients for exposing the evils and insufficiencies of a system designed, like most institutions, not to serve its clients, but itself. But I neglected to foresee the obvious--that mental patients can't afford, for the most part, to buy books. As for the reading public generally, the whole subject is a downer. They don't want to know about it. The publisher printed 7,000 copies, sold 3,500. Lesson No. 1. When it went into bookstores as a remainder, at $0.49 a copy, I was too broke to buy more than one.

          Lesson No. 2. A year later a stranger knocked on the door of my apartment in Ossining, New York, asked me if I was Anthony Brandt, and when I said yes handed me a piece of paper. Dr. Rinsley was suing me and my publisher for invasion of privacy, libel, and other things, asking $3,750,000 in damages. How about that. At the time I was going through a rancorous divorce from my first wife, living on credit cards, still driving that old van around, my father had recently died, my mother was settling into the early stages of Alzheimer's. I remember taking one of those stress tests that showed up in magazines once in a while in those days and scoring at a level where you were supposed to have heart attacks and breakdowns and a host of other ills, but as I said, I'm sane, none of those things happened. What happened instead was that my publishers asked me into their offices and told me that I should get my own lawyer, and they would get theirs. They were abandoning me. As it turned out, they hired a local lawyer in Topeka who had never tried a libel case. Through a friend, I hired the libel lawyer for the Kansas City Star. He carried the case, not the publisher's lawyer.

          I had indeed written about Dr. Rinsley. Shortly before I finished the book, I got a call from Kansas that I had to come back. A child had died on Rinsley's unit, thanks to what appeared to be a misdiagnosis that was particularly egregious. She was a little girl, eleven years old, and skin and bones at the time. She died tied down to a crib, alone, being tube fed, choking to death on her food. When she was very young she was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy, one symptom of which was tongue thrust, where the tongue pushes food out of the mouth involuntarily instead of swallowing it. She never really got better, even on medication, and at some point doctors at a state hospital decided she was being uncooperative, and they took custody away from the parents, who were fundamentalist Christians, and who said they were going to take her home and pray for her. After that she wound up on Rinsley's unit. I went back to Kansas, talked to the parents, talked to some other people (including a Holocaust survivor out of Bergen Belsen) about Rinsley and his theories, and added this story to the book. Rinsley had decided in this case that the little girl could swallow her food but was defiant and refused to swallow her food. At the time of her death her parents were allowed to see her only half an hour a week, in a supervised visit. It was a particularly striking example of unregulated psychiatric power to play with people's lives. And I was definitely outspoken about it. "How many more children must die before men like Rinsley are stopped?" Rhetorically, I've always had a tendency to go over the top.

          It took nearly eight years to resolve this case, with something the courts laughably call summary judgement. That means that it never went to trial. After depositions, document searches and all the other stuff that goes on, it was clear that I had made only one small mistake of fact in the body of the book, which I had corrected in a footnote, and that everything else was factually true. My lawyer moved for summary judgment and won--that took maybe two years--and Rinsley appealed. The case then went to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Another five or six years. In the end the three-man court ruled unanimously that Rinsley had no case. He was both a public official and a public figure and had to prove actual malice, all the facts were true except for the one, and that had been corrected. He just didn't like being criticized. I still have a copy of the judgment.

          And me? I'm still sane, but the whole episode came close to wrecking my career, such as it was. When it was over I owed my lawyer $45,000. It soured me on writing books for a long time, and I turned to magazines to make a living. I can't really complain. I had a great success in magazines, and I still write for them in a small way, made smaller all the time as magazines disappear. But when you talk about the romance of writing, don't talk to me.

          I found out later, by the way, that my publisher had never given the book a libel reading. It was a muckraking book, it needed a libel reading, I assumed it would get one. But my editor had decided on his own, without telling me, that he didn't want to limit his authors' abilities to express their views. Maybe I'll forgive him in hell. As for Dr. Rinsley, he's already there. And yes, Dr., I have looked into the abyss. That little girl weighted 29 lbs. when she died on your watch.



Monday, November 28, 2016



          People always look at me a little strangely when I mention that I spent eleven days in the state mental hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. I hasten to explain to them that I was doing research for a book I wrote on the mental health system, that I wasn't a real patient but had faked my way in with the help of a friend, and had barely escaped the locked ward where they keep the violent people but had been sent instead to a ward where they let you out in the morning and left the door open all day. I used to walk over to the store on the grounds in the morning, buy a Times, and do the crossword puzzle on a bench just to get out of the ward. Which turned out, naturally, to be full of unbalanced people.

          Adventures in writing. Anything for a story. This came to mind today when I was thinking about my career, all the things I've covered for magazines and the places I've been, and the loony bin was a highlight of sorts, possibly the most dangerous story I did, since they might well have tried to keep me there against my will if I had in their presence actually done something crazy. I was careful not to. Except for not having a job since I was 35 and living by my wits, I'm quite sane.

          But I think about that place once in a while. The people. They were a motley bunch, all of them on drugs of one sort or another, mostly thorazine, which I also took--you had to, they gave it to you, you put it in your mouth and swallowed it, and then they looked in your mouth to make sure you had--that were supposed to keep you passive and quiet, and indeed they were not violent in any way. One I remember, a young man who complained that his parents had committed him because he'd taken his stuff out to the garage to lay it out on the floor and arrange it. He was manic depressive, had a portable cassette player he took everywhere with a bunch of tapes, and he would jam a tape in, play it for thirty seconds, then jam another one in and drive the entire ward crazy with the noise. He was restless. He also had his own room, where he brought women in off the female wards at night, paying the attendants off for the privilege. Plus he had access to other drugs, the illegal kind. A resourceful young man, in a manic phase.

          Others gave little impression of being insane, but only pathetic. Unable to handle everyday life; they were taken every day to a nearby IBM plant where they put cardboard boxes together, in a program designed to make them useful to society, and thereby to themselves. I remember at lunchtime, which was served on a cafeteria basis, one man would go up to the table and take ten or eleven pieces of bread, and nothing else. Another was catatonic, did not speak, walked around in a trance. I saw him one day drop a turd from under his hospital gown, reach down to the floor, pick it up, and try to put it into his mouth. The whole ward groaned at that, and the attendant rushed over and prevented him from completing this grossness. Yes, there were people there who were quite seriously mad.

          I learned a lot in those eleven days. For one, madness is not literary. You do not find characters out of Dostoevsky, say, or Baudelaire, passionate to the point of unreason, in mental hospitals. It is also for the most part not violent. The culture characterizes the insane as killers, but they actually commit less violence, statistically, than the general population. Mostly it is their ineptness that impresses you. They have not mastered the simple art of living. Something going on in their heads prevents them for focusing on the ordinary.

          After a week it started to get to me. The ward had a large TV set and it went 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that the place was always full of noise. I don't do noise well. The food, not surprisingly, was execrable. They put me in a therapy group and that was a joke. And being surrounded all day and all night by people who were seriously troubled was difficult. We slept in dormitories at night, on beds that had rubber sheets under the cotton ones. My first night I was given a shot of Thorazine, which made me thirsty, but when I tried to get to the water fountain I could barely walk, had to hold onto the wall to get anywhere. I had it all planned, knew the law, and went through the formalities of leaving, which entailed writing a letter announcing my intention of leaving. They had three days to commit me against my will, but didn't bother. My wife drove out and picked me up--I had checked in with a story about our separation, and hearing her voice over the radio when it was turned off--and drove me home. I lay down in the back seat and cried, not for myself but for all those people who couldn't leave so easily. It was so sad. I'll never forget the really bad cases, patients with tardive dyskinesia, which is a permanent side-effect of taking drugs like Thorazine. It affects the brain in such a way that their tongues, their faces, their limbs move uncontrollably, their tongues in and out of their mouths, their faces in constant distortion, their limbs jerkily, in every direction. Thorazine tames the hallucinations, but it also destroys the life.

          I'm told, by the way, by people whose experience of the mental health system is way more recent than mine--the book, Reality Police, came out forty years ago--and have read the book that very little has changed. The mental health system still relies almost exclusively on drugs to control the behavior of the people it serves, and psychiatrists are really no closer to understanding what mental illness is or where it originates. For some people, life is tragic every day.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016



          Trump won, against all expectations, and those who thought he was as bad a candidate as the country has ever seen are upset and baffled. The American people ignored the criminality, the narcississm, the sexism, the racism, the frauds, the abuses, indeed embraced it all, as if it were nothing to them, as apparently it was. In favor of what? Climate change? Coziness with Russia? Reckless foreign policy? Who can understand this?
          Those at the bottom, apparently. Not the desperate poor at the very bottom who gave up hoping for anything better a long time ago. Not the disenfranchised, the immigrants, the refugees, blacks, Moslems, the chronically ill, the old, and all the other people stuck in the glue of killing defeat. I'm speaking of the adult whites who have lost not just jobs but futures to globalization, automation, and all the other economic forces that beset us, who are watching their lives drift away on the unfavorable tide of history. These are the people, apparently, who turned to Trump to save them, with his border wall and his promise to deport all illegal immigrants, all eleven million of them, and to keep Moslems out of the country, and to bring back American jobs. And in the processs of making those promises he ignored all the Constitutional protections that individuals enjoy in the United States and all the institutional traditions that have proven as well to protect the orderly processes of government, plus he ignored the impossibility of bringing back what has been lost. There was never any mention of how he was going to do these things, never a program, a plan, a strategy.  Jobs have in fact been lost to macro-economic forces that nobody has the power to stop. Some of the Constititional protections he said he would destroy, others he simply acted as if he would ignore--in short laying an authoritarian hand over government as if it belonged to him. But it has never belonged to any President, however strong. There are fundamental checks and balances built in, and traditional ways of working in government as well, that are designed to keep situations, and governments, under control. It remains to be seen whether this system will continue to work.
          But given the man's record, I'm quite nervous. Not only does he have no actual policy positions, no programs, only bankruptcies and bad behavior behind him, nobody knows what will happen next. His closest advisors are fools and buffoons like Gingrich and Giuliani. His own wife is an illegal immigrant. And this is the "people's choice."
          So if this is what the people preferred, it's time to look at the people. Hillary Clinton called them, half of them anyway, a "basket of deplorables." It's a general rule that people get the governments they deserve. The Founders understood this; when Franklin was asked when he walked out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 what kind of government they were making, he famously replied, "A republic, Madam, if you can keep it."
          If you can keep it.
          And Jefferson saw the import of that, he understood that to be a citizen at all required a level of attention and knowledge on the part of  the individual that went well beyond the ordinary, that people needed to be informed, and understand how government worked and to an extent how the world itself worked, in order to be responsible citizens. That citizenship came with responsibilities. That a citizen needed to be involved not only in his professional life, his working life, but in the life of the community and the country, that his opinions had to be as versed in the complexities of issues, in the pros and cons of different courses of action, as time would allow. Jefferson was superbly informed himself; he went out of his way to educate his own family, he founded a University to educate his state, Virgihnia.
          That's the ideal, that's what makes a republic work, makes it viable. An informed citizenry. But we have failed, miserably, to make this happen. Our public educational systems no longer require courses in civics that explain the mechanics of government, how laws are passed and the like. Newspapers, even the best, continue to shrink and shrink and lose readership. Other sources of news have lost their sense of public responsibility, of public mission; and news increasingly passes over into entertainment. One consequence is that the whole public realm weakens, a sense of unity, of being part of one people, dissipates, and what divides us does so more and more strongly, more permanently, and we no longer feel like we have one purpose, one identity. As citizens of a particular place and a particular country.
          When that goes, we get what we got yesterday. A demagogue for a President.
          Republics, to put it another way, are hard work. To keep them going takes a cerrtain amount of wisdom, and that in turn takes an education, it takes knowledge, and not just in school. It takes keeping up with events and their meamings, it means reading about events and their meanings, not just in the papers but in news magazines and even books. It means developing your curiosity. It means in the end getting involved. Especially at the local level, where it's possible to be unusually effective.
          For starters, we would have to go back to teaching civics. To teaching history, political history, diplomatic history, all the old-fashioned kinds of history, which educated people like Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and most of the modern Presidents as well. This is what Lincoln read, picking up his education when he could. Now srtudents take something called Social Studies, an umbrella term for intellectual volleyball; toss it, teach the classics. When the country was being created it was reading Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Diderot--the Enlightenment philosophers, and their thoughts thread through the Constitution. It was Voltaire who said, "If you believe absurdities, you will commit atrocities." Right now our own citizens believe the most amazing absurdities, because they don't have the knowledge or even just the information to know better. Thus Donald Trump. He is no better just because he's been elected President. He's only more dangerous.
          The idea should be not to dumb down, but to smarten up. The whole culture has to bend its efforts to make this happen, or we are permanently lost.