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Sunday, July 22, 2012

This is probably a bad idea, but I have to say something.


A terrible thing happened in Aurora, Colorado. A gut-twisting, mind-shattering, terrible thing. Innocent people were massacred by a 24-year-old man.

It was horrifying to hear the news. I read the circumstances and felt real goosebumps of fear, imagining myself in a dark theater being terrorized by a masked gunman. I was confused and angry about how and why this had taken place.

Then I started reading some of the reactions to this terrible thing, and they made me feel even worse. These were reactions from people I look up to or consider friends.

It's hard for me not to take this a bit personally. A few times on this blog, I've spoken about my mother, who has bipolar disorder, and has had countless psychotic breaks since 1987 (I gave up counting how many times she has been committed to psychiatric institutions for extended stays after the number hit 15 sometime in my teens). I try not to be utterly defined by the fact that I grew up with a mentally ill parent, but there's no doubt that it has done its part in shaping who I am and how I react to certain tragedies. A few years ago, I came to the decision that I was sick and tired of feeling uncomfortable talking about it, and I started opening my eyes to the way the stigma and silence and ignorance surrounding mental illness make the whole situation significantly worse for my mother, my family, and everyone else in the world who is touched by mental illness in some way. I want to do what little I can to change that, so I try and talk about mental illness frankly and openly and often publicly. It might be a futile endeavor, because the more you realize how easy it is for most people to dehumanize the mentally ill, the more overwhelmed you become by the enormity of the problem.

We don't really know anything about the perpetrator of this horrific deed. For all I know, this was the act of a (somehow) sane person with a (somehow) sane but awful rationalization. Or he could be experiencing the onset of schizophrenia. But the way online spectators have instantly tried to dehumanize this person, without knowing anything for certain, makes me think about the mentally ill people I know, including my mother. When she has psychotic breaks, she sometimes does really terrible things, things that, despite my best efforts, I am still uncomfortable talking about publicly, things that make my throat close up and my eyes burn just remembering them. If my mother had done these things while she were sane, they would be unforgivable. I guess it never occurred to me before now that, when she did those things in public (which happened occasionally), a lot of bystanders probably instantly thought of her as an attention-hungry monster or animal.

Believe me, I know how easy it is to think about a mentally ill person as less than human. It's far, far too easy. Despite my contact with the mentally ill, I've struggled with it myself; like most people, I find it difficult to even acknowledge the presence of a homeless person in the grips of an obvious delusion. I've seen the way some psychiatrists who have been practicing for a long time look at their patients with thinly veiled contempt, and treat them the way they might treat a vicious dog with rabies.

Maybe I sound like a soft-brained bleeding-heart idiot when I criticize people who start using words like these to discuss the shooter. But thinking of someone as human does not mean I condone or forgive the deed. It just means that I'm trying not to forget that there is a person under that label, a person for whom something went terribly wrong at some point - and we don't know what that something is yet. If there's one thing my upbringing taught me, it's that the complex human brain is sometimes so unpredictable, each of us should never take sanity for granted. Utterly normal, strong, good people lose their grip on reality every day, and when it happens, they have no idea because what they're experiencing feels completely real. It could happen to you. It could happen to someone you love.

It's also extremely easy to throw around the word "evil." "Evil" is probably the most dehumanizing word in the English language. As a result, it has been used throughout history to justify everything from discrimination, theft, torture, rape, and murder, to terrorism, war, and full-on genocide. When you start thinking of someone as "evil," you give yourself permission to stop meaningfully thinking about them. It reminds me of when particularly closed-minded or intellectually lazy people see something they don't understand, and instead of trying to understand it, they dismiss it as supernatural or something God did that shouldn't be questioned.

So when I see people calling the shooter evil, or talking about taking away his name and giving him a number, I am reminded of other terrible deeds that began exactly that way.

Like I said, maybe he's not mentally ill. My first suspicion will be that he is because my outlook is colored by my experiences. But even if he is not, even if he did this terrible thing of his own free will, in perfect knowledge of the trauma and heartbreak it would cause, it does nobody any favors to dehumanize him. Because if he's sane, he was able to kill those people by doing exactly the same thing to them.

I got preachy. Sorry. Well, no, not actually sorry, because I think this needed to be said, for my own sake if not for anyone else's.
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