Bad parents

21 May 2015 15:31

Back to list of posts

In the United States, many psych and substance abuse services have been pushed to become more trauma-informed as a result of the profoundly influential Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. Advocates push this discursive shift: do not ask "What is wrong?" Ask "What happened?"

In the midst of this discursive turmoil, tidy categories like "serious mental illness" leak and rupture and are called into question. I wonder about the usefulness of such categories and classifications. Do they allow more effective government of disabled personalities, or do they co-produce these personalities? Most likely, they accomplish many contradictory things at once.

First, a caveat: Mental illness is not a predictor of violence. It's a predictor of victimization. People diagnosed with mental illness are five times more likely to be murdered and significantly more likely to be assaulted, raped, mugged, and arrested than controls. They die 25 years earlier than people without psych diagnoses.1 Now, on to the show.

Foucault and his students looked into the discursive turmoil around a famous case of parricide 150 years ago, at the beginning of the construction of categories that trauma-informed critiques now challenge. That conversation is documented in the book I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century.2 The debate around modern Pierre Rivieres revolves around whether they are mentally ill, terrorists, or common criminals. The terms in 1835 were very different. By resurrecting the case of Riviere, Foucault showed how our categories are not eternal; how they have an outside.

More recently, Mark Ames covered Michael McLendon's 2009 workplace killing spree in Alabama, which included what Ames called a "mercy killing" of McLendon's mother and her dogs. Ames needs an editor, but his courageous take on parricide and workplace violence also seeks an outside to the classification of McLendon's character. By investigating the scene as well as the killer, Ames highlights the legitimate desperation caused by horrific everyday violence of chicken factory workplace conditions, routine wage theft, lack of legal recourse against local oligarchies, and the costs of municipal bankruptcy due to unpunished white-collar crime. This context clarifies the cognitive dissonance when someone — who believes that free, white, male, 21, and American entitles them to something — finds that they are in fact fungible. Is it serious mental illness? Terrorism? Common crime? Desperate, pointless guerrilla resistance by isolated individuals?

The conversation about adverse childhood experiences has begun, but the presence of routine social violence in lives like Riviere's and McLendon's curiously drops out of court, media, and scholarly narratives of massacre. When the righteous suffer, they can cling to stories like Job of the Bible, the Catholic saints, or Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad. But when those who were born unrighteous and will always be considered guilty suffer, attempt to resist, try to breathe, what is their narrative? That they had bad parents?

Comments: 0

Add a New Comment

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License