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.