Back in the day, America took care to ensure certifiable head cases were properly sequestered. Back in Minnesota, I knew of such mental institutions as I had the one at Moose Lake as a customer.
Back then, there were sufficient beds to accommodate all and the law let you commit people for as little as crapping in their pants at the dinner table. It also let the sheriff, a headshrinker or some government agent, put you away. Everyone around town knew who the odd folks were: Someone with that certain odd stare. Someone talking about blowing up the world. Someone talking about using an axe to part her father’s hair. Or someone giving suspicion that running amok was clearly in the cards.
In these cases, the men with the net were summoned and off you went. Safely in the booby hatch, you’d get a nice dose of Thorazine before breakfast so you could spend the rest of the day watching the soaps, feeding the squirrels and twiddling your dick. The rooms were quiet (thought the occasional shriek could be heard), the food not too bad (better than what you’d get in prison), the grounds were pleasant, the beds were comfortable and the companionship was docile.
The goal was to keep you in the institution until you learned your lesson, until you had achieved normality and became disabused of your strange and frightening thoughts. This could take years.
Then, in the mid-1960s, the do-gooders and budget hawks got religion. Two camps normally at odds, they conspired to turn loose almost all the patients and close the mental institutions. Presto-chango, the nuts were back among us and the state’s budget was balanced. This was unfortunate for there was a frightful — but useful — stigma attached to mental illness. Back then, we referred to penitentiaries as The Big House, The Joint, Stir, and so on. Names that invoked the thumping of hairy manly chests. Ah, but look at the names by which mental hospitals were known: Nut house, booby hatch, funny farm, screw factory. . . Names dripping with mockery and derision.
Even today we venerate criminals as heroes; Al Capone or Raj Rajaratnam, for example. Ah, but what right thinking person would present Ed Guien as a role model for our youth? Though they may have accommodated John Dillinger, what public-spirited citizens would shelter Jeffery Dahmer from the law? The stigma of mental illness was — and still is — awful. I mean, in which would you rather be led away from your home? Handcuffs or a straight jacket? See what I mean?
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the mere threat by being branded a nut was sufficient to stop untoward behavior. An uncle would take the teen out to the barn, sit him down and tell him that he’s acting weird. “Son”, he’d say, “folks are starting to think you’ve got a raccoon in the attic. You don’t knock this shit off, the men in the white shirts a a-commin for you and, bingo, off you go to the insane asylum!” So awful was the stigma of mental illness that in all but the worst cases, the kid shaped up and that was that. Threaten the odd teenager with prison and all you’d get is the finger. Threaten confinement to a mental hospital and you’ll get a model citizen.
That this is so is demonstrated by the case of Colin Ferguson, New York’s subway shooter. One day, Colin shot a bunch of people on their ways to work and he was subdued when he had trouble reloading his gun. His lawyer told Colin there was no chance of escaping conviction so there were two options. One, the lawyer could plead for leniency, hoping Colin could avoid the needle. Two, pleading Colin as criminally insane so he could spend the rest of days in relative ease and comfort. Colin lept to his feet thundering “I’m not crazy. I want my trial!” His lawyer replied, “Colin, think man! If convicted you could be put to death.” “I don’t care,” Ferguson replied, “I’m not crazy!” Well, Colin Ferguson got his conviction and is spending his days, not in a nice hospital with clean sheets where the birds sing and small animals scamper around the lawn, but in a filthy, rude and brutal prison.
It must be understood that the creatures who do run amok and shoot up malls, theaters and schools, don’t do so on sudden impulse. You don’t have some fellow who has a lover, a fulfilling job, a happy family and a wide circle of friends suddenly awake one morning and decide to murder. No, this kind of mental pathology takes a long time to brew. And while it’s brewing, the brewing is obvious to almost everyone who has truck with the man. If this were the 1950s, at least one person would call the cops telling them of the man’s strange and disturbing manifestations. Officers would be dispatched and the man would be held for observation. The shock of that “interview” was often all it took to break the spell. Horrified at the prospect of suffering the life-long stigma mental illness, such men often forced sanity on themselves and the malls, the theaters and the schools would never be shot up.
Of course, in those cases where the stigma was not a sufficient deterrent, the law let a judge squint at the man for a few seconds them pronounce him incompetent and toss his ass in the nut house until whenever.
I believe returning to the way things were in the 1950s is a good idea. When it comes to mass-murderers, proactive intervention early on would be a lot more effective then locked school doors, heavily policed shopping malls or theaters with snipers in the balconies while the nut still skulks about looking for victims.
Let’s re-tighten the laws on both civil and criminal commitment and reopen the hospitals. We can’t afford not to.