Analyzing the colorful language of two of the right's loudest voices is Jonathan M. Metzl, author of The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease. Metzl is associate professor of psychiatry and women's studies and director of the Culture, Health, and Medicine Program at the University of Michigan.
Has addiction become the new rhetoric of the right?
Glenn Beck suggested as much in his in his recent keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference when he parlayed his own history of substance abuse into a critique of so-called big government. "I'm a recovering alcoholic," Beck explained. "I screwed up my life six ways to Sunday." Beck argued that his experiences as an alcoholic privileged him to critique the seemingly different "addictions" to government perpetuated by progressives and liberals. "It is still morning in America," he decried. "It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding-hung-over-vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America."
For much of the following week, Rush Limbaugh used his own, well-publicized addiction to prescription painkillers—"Have you ever had a genuine addiction to something? Well I have and let me tell you about it"—as a jumping off point into full-throated damnation of President Obama and his "liberal" followers. "Liberals," Limbaugh told his radio listeners, "their lives are basically meaningless, their addiction to power and dominance and control is what drives them."
Such language is, of course, a savvy political construction. Beck and Limbaugh paint the fight against addiction, and by extension against liberalism, as a redemption narrative in which the fallen overindulge earthly sin and then disavow it in what Beck calls "come to Jesus" moments. Beck literally dropped to his knees during his CPAC speech to demonstrate how "I was completely out of control," then rose to show how "I'm going to stand up on my own two feet, figure it out, and because of that failure I can stand here today." Addiction testimonials do the dual work of appealing to a presumed base of religious conservatives and placing the ex-addict, like the convert, on higher moral ground. Former President George W. Bush, who to his credit would never dream of using his own substance issues to critique others, employed such salvation to enhance his evangelical credentials. Riding Bush's coattails, Beck and Limbaugh craft the angry, white, male addict in remission as the embodiment of a new American conservative ideal.
Jonathan Metzl discusses schizophrenia, the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and how the disease moved from being thought of as a ailment of housewives to a diagnosis of violent behavior among African-American men.
Today's post is an excerpt from The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease by Jonathan M. Metzl. Metzl is associate professor of psychiatry and women's studies and director of the Culture, Health, and Medicine Program at the University of Michigan. A 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Metzl has written extensively for medical, psychiatry, and popular publications. His books include Prozac on the Couch and Difference and Identity in Medicine.
Reading the medical charts of the patients of Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, I felt a mixture of responsibility and deep sadness. For better and largely for worse, the Ionia charts documented the lives of the marginalized and the forgotten in novel-like detail, and in ways that made the medical records of today seem impersonal and flat. This was because the charts recorded people in two conflicting ways: in their roles as patients and convicts, as defined by interactions with the state hospital complex and the courts, and in their roles as sons, daughters, fathers, husbands, wives, or loners, as defined by letters, cards, and other texts. The charts also documented in minute detail the tragedy of what it meant to be warehoused in a state asylum at midcentury -- and in particular, in an asylum where short sentences devolved into lifelong incarceration. A number of charts contained yearly notes from patients to their doctors voicing such sentiments as "Doc, I really think I am cured," or "Dear Doctor, I believe I am ready to go home," or "You have no right to keep me here after my sentence is over." These letters stacked thirty deep in some charts, signifying years of pleading and longing and anger, together with thirty years' of responses from clinicians urging, "You are almost there" or "Perhaps next year." Invariably, the last note in each stack was a death certificate from the Ionia coroner.
I visited the archive regularly over the next four years. With the help of my research assistant, I analyzed and catalogued hospital administrative records and the charts of nearly six hundred randomly selected patients admitted to the hospital between the late 1920s and the early 1970s, under the agreement that I significantly alter all personal identifying information about patients, as I have done in the case descriptions that appear in this book. Names, dates, and places have been changed, and vignettes represent condensed and extrapolated aggregates drawn from the rich case materials. All doctor-patient dialogue and text in quotation marks is reproduced verbatim. I also visited Ionia on numerous occasions and conducted a series of oral histories with surviving members of the hospital staff, though, perhaps tellingly, I located no surviving patients despite numerous attempts.
What stories boxes tell. Ionia was its own planet, walled off, orbiting, a place where real people worked and lived and died. Then came a series of public scandals, the advent of psychopharmaceuticals, and changes in legal systems and penal codes. Decreased public funding followed, along with encroachment by regional forensic centers. Finally, the transformation. The boxes were but light-years of this implosion, vapor trails, found poems, measurable heat. Disembodied voices that told silent stories of what it meant to be incarcerated, or neglected, or entrenched, or immured.