Newtown

I wasn’t going to blog about Newtown. “Mud of the place” and all that: my feet aren’t in the mud of that place, and I’m trying to watch where my mouth is.

On the other hand, I do have my feet in the mud of some of the issues involved, and have been occasionally spattered with the mud of some others. Whenever the news media descend on a place en masse and start talking when their feet have barely touched the ground — I’ve been there.

Whenever people start jumping to conclusions and misperceptions based on the reporting and commentating of people who have deadlines to meet and ratings to worry about and precious little mud on their shoes — Welcome to Martha’s Vineyard.

Last week I blogged about living in a place where I can leave my door unlocked and my keys in the car and walk in the woods alone after dark without fear. Earlier this year there was a shooting in my town. A man armed with a rifle and a pistol, Kenneth Bloomquist, broke into the home of his estranged wife, Cynthia Bloomquist. He wounded her. She shot and killed him, apparently with one of his own guns. The incident happened a mile or so up the road from me, but it didn’t affect my perception of my own safety, not then, and not now, almost nine months later.

I’m thinking about it now, though. The man was described by those who knew him as “volatile” in the aftermath of his marital breakup. He had threatened his wife in the past. She was worried enough to seek a restraining order. She didn’t get one. So — was this guy “mentally ill”?

In the coverage of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and in the discussions I’ve read, listened in on, and occasionally participated in, “mental illness” has loomed large. The shooter, Adam Lanza, had Asperger’s syndrome. Connection between the shooting and the syndrome? Possibly, but let’s not let mental illness overwhelm the other significant factors: the availability of firearms, the mother’s apparent survivalist proclivities, the possible influence of violent video games, and so on.

Many have called for improved access to mental health care, and for removing the stigma attached to mental illness. Yes and yes. But in one story I read, a medical professional estimated that the number of mentally ill people in the U.S. could be as high as 25 percent. 25 percent? With a figure that high, could we possibly be talking about the most serious forms of mental illness, the ones with chemical and/or physiological causes that can be treated, at least to some extent, with medication?

How about the “volatile” Mr. Bloomquist? How about the person who’s pleasant and soft-spoken when sober but a screaming banshee when drunk? (My mother was like that.) How about the person who’s thrown into a tailspin by the death of a loved one or a financial disaster? I’ve had times in my life when I was so low I wouldn’t have dared keep pills in the house, never mind a gun. Am I, or was I, “mentally ill”?

I just looked up “psychosis” on MedLine Plus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Psychosis,” it says, “is a loss of contact with reality that usually includes:

  • False beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions)
  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations).”

It can indeed be caused by “alcohol and certain illegal drugs, both during use and during withdrawal,” as well as by several diseases and infections that affect the brain, and by certain prescription drugs.

Mental illness and psychosis are not synonymous: I understand that. I also suspect that someone who suffers from delusions and/or hallucinations, given the right (or wrong) conditions plus access to firearms, might snap and start shooting. And this condition is not necessarily the result of a long-term or permanent abnormal brain chemistry. It can be brought on by, among other things, alcohol or various other drugs. How to identify people who might snap? If it’s even possible, the number would probably be huge.

In the aftermath of Newtown, much attention has been focused on mass shootings by lone gunmen. (And they are, overwhelmingly, men.) I’ve heard them called “rampage killings,” as if the killer lost control, went nuts. But how about, say, Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik? They didn’t lose control. On the contrary: they were scarily in control. Each had a political purpose in mind and believed that killing a large number of people would serve that purpose. Were they “mentally ill”? What distinguishes them from the Ann Coulters, Rush Limbaughs, and others whose politics are just as hateful but who don’t act them out with guns?

How about people who take the Bible for the literal, historical truth, in the face of much empirical evidence that it isn’t? Are they “mentally ill”? How about members of the military, who kill when they are commanded to do so? How about the officers who issue the commands?

I’m thinking too of atrocities committed by ordinary, “normal” people: Srebrenica, Rwanda, My Lai, the Holocaust. In college I read Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–45, about the ordinary people without whose participation Nazi Germany could not have become the horror that it was. I’ve carried that book in my head ever since. Standing outside the situation, we recognize those things as appalling. To them, though, those things were literally “normal” — what everyone around them was doing.

Slavery was once “normal” in this country. Now it isn’t. Now denying people health care because they can’t pay for it is “normal.” Maybe someday people will look back at us and wonder how we could have sanctioned such injustice.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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6 Responses to Newtown

  1. Susan Robinson says:

    I think all of us are mentally ill by someone else’s definition–someone who wants to feel superior to us, to feel clean of acts they fear and of the contraditions inside each of us that none of us understands. This is bullying, scapegoating. How are children not to identify with, be confused by all our “fathers” (commanders in chieferg) who especially honor people who have been killed or maimed in the process of killing and maiming others–a process many got involved in for financial survival for them and their families–misnamed as a desire to serve.
    In the 1940’s an American psychoanalyst, Selma Fraiberg studied and experimented with ways to help babies born blind to learn they had a midline,, two fairly matching sides to their bodies (two arms, etc.). She did this by putting a bell on a baby’s midllne and sooner or later the baby would knock the bell and when this happened over and ir
    over, got the picture and could use their body in a more nearly coordinated fashion and thereby walk and do the other miraculous things that sighted babies learn with the help of visual observation.
    All that hearkened back to the fact that babies like to make an impact, to hit a bell and hear a sound. For those children and adults who have no way in their immediate environment to make an impact, or know that they have, slaughter is one of the really ree slaliable ways to do that–and the bigger the slaughter, the more people we have impacted longer. We make an im. pact, we are
    –and are spared the hell of not knowing our relationship to anyone or anything.
    And–follow the leader and you know where you are, in line with the guy who knocks the biggest bell the loudest and is himself a great hero, has the biggest muscle, so he is lauded for this and tells us he makes us safe, our daddy. The implicit promise that it will be the same for us fails us and those we use for the bell.

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  2. Rachel Rice says:

    Very excellent article.

    Like

  3. Hal Davis says:

    Am semi brain-dead after a heavy day of editing stories about guns and dead people. So this will be brief and perhaps semi-coherent.

    I’m more comfortable discussing behavior than mental diagnoses. What little I’ve read of Adam Lanza and his mother suggests that she liked to shoot guns for the mental concentration it provided (a semi-automatic rifle?), that she was divorced, had problems raising Adam and that he was withdrawn and liked computers. Whatever else motivated him to kill his mother, take her guns and shoot up the school is a mystery to me.

    The key here is the easy availability in the home of a semi-automatic weapon. I also edited a three-part series this week about the easy availability in the home of legally prescribed opiates. I see similarities in the dangers to kids. Other issues — atomizing of families — I’m sure will be discussed.

    Answers have I few.

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    • Hal Davis says:

      OK. Fox News is reporting that she planned to have him committed, and he took offense. She also volunteered with first-graders at the school. So the availability of the weapons in her home seems to be key.

      In an article tonight on pistol permit applications in Minnesota, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis had this:

      ==Minnesota law allows counties up to 30 days to review gun-permit applications, Sommer said. That process includes background checks by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, local police and county human-services agencies.

      The background-check process does not include an intensive inquiry into the applicant’s mental health, [Anoka County Sheriff Dave] Bellows said.

      Only about 1 percent of applications are rejected, while statistics show that 20 percent to 25 percent of the population has some form of mental illness, and 6 percent to 10 percent have more severe forms, he said.

      The broader question, he said, is whether authorities should have more access to mental-health records of applicants. Right now, the form only asks applicants to disclose whether they have been court-ordered to undergo a psychological or chemical-dependency evaluation. A private or voluntary hospitalization for mental-health or chemical-dependency issues is protected under data-privacy laws and does not have to be disclosed. Nor can authorities access those records.

      “Just looking at the sheer number of applications that come in is only telling a small portion of the story,” Bellows said. “If we’re truly serious about wanting to keep guns out of the people’s hands that shouldn’t have them, there’s a bigger question here.”==

      http://www.startribune.com/local/north/184051221.html?page=all&prepage=1&c=y#continue

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      • Hal, thanks. This is interesting — plus it confirms my memory on that 25% figure, for people with some form of mental illness. One problem with relying on mental-health records is that it’ll only snag people who’ve been treated for mental illness. I’m guessing there are many potentially loose cannons who haven’t. Keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them is probably impossible. Making guns, esp. the kinds that aren’t used for hunting or target shooting, less accessible seems like a more realistic goal.

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  4. Betty Burton says:

    Whew.! Very thoughtful piece. Thank you.

    Like

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