Law and Conversation

December 17, 2012

Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, guns, and mental health

Seen through my 21st-century eyes, the late 18th-century German Romantic classic, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is the tale of a deeply depressed, obsessive young man who needs some serious therapy. But even before the horrific school shooting in Connecticut a few days ago, I also read it as a case study of why the availability of guns needs to be limited.

**Spoiler alert: Predictable though the novel is, go read it and then come back if you don’t want to find out here how it turns out.**

The first two-thirds or so of the story is structured as a series of letters by Werther to his best friend, Wilhelm, interspersed with diary entries; it’s not always clear which is a letter and which is a diary entry. Werther appears to be somewhere between 19 and 24, in between the stage of living at home, dependent on his family, and out on his own and supporting himself for the first time. In the course of taking care of some family business, Werther decides to take an extended break in first one charming rural village, then another, Wahlheim, that truly enchants him. There he meets a young woman, Lotte, who he learns early on (though not before some pretty clear flirting on both of their parts) is engaged to be married to her longtime sweetheart, Albert.

It didn’t take long for Werther to annoy me. He rhapsodizes to Wilhelm about the pastoral landscape and the simple life that the peasants lead. “A wonderful serenity fills my whole being….I am quite alone, and pleased with life in this countryside, which seems to have been created for souls like me.” His letter about the pastoral inhabitants reeks of condescension: “The simple folk here already know me and have taken to me, especially the children.” It’s not surprising that Werther finds the Wahlheim area so idyllic: he’s a child of privilege, on holiday, with money in his pockets and time on his hands to play with the children. The hard work the “simple folk” must spend their lives doing to keep body and soul together doesn’t really register with him.

Far more serious than Werther’s juvenile romanticism is the progression of his crush on Lotte. He prolongs his visit and spends all the time he can with her, and also, necessarily, with Albert, who is always gracious to him even though Werther must be a bit of a chore to be around. For her part, Lotte does so little to discourage Werther that it seems quite possible that she’s thoroughly enjoying having two swains at once and has no idea of the ultimate depth Werther’s obsession will reach.

To the reader, though, Goethe’s foreshadowing makes the danger clear early on: Werther asks Albert if he can borrow his pistols for a trip, Albert freely delivers them to him, and Werther starts playing around with them, actually holding one to his head and joking about suicide. Though in this scene Albert doesn’t seem to get that there might be a problem, the narrative reveals much later that Werther talks about suicide more than once and that Albert and Lotte are concerned enough to talk about it with each other privately—and do nothing.

Werther leaves, continues to ruminate about Lotte, and drifts back after she and Albert are married. He eventually does start to get on Albert’s nerves, and no wonder: Werther is ALWAYS THERE, mooning around Lotte, who still doesn’t do a whole lot to discourage him. Only when Werther visits her when she’s alone, breaks down with her into tears over a romantic poem, and then ardently embraces her (which she gives every sign of wanting him to do) does she finally seem to realize that There’s A Problem Here. And even then—even though we learn that she and Albert have acknowledged more than once to each other their doubts about Werther’s stability—she voices no concern at all but helps Albert loan Werther his guns again. The only part of the ending that you might not be able to guess until you read it is whether the deeply depressed Werther kills only himself or takes Albert with him.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Much as Werther’s immature, melodramatic point of view annoyed me, he actually seemed fairly typically twentysomething to me. He thinks he has all the answers, but he’s kind and idealistic. He’s naive and unrealistic–yes, romantic–but he has a good heart and wants to make the world better. He’s wrapped up in himself, but the narrative reveals that he has many friends who love him. Albert, a stable and kind man, must have found him engaging and seen his fundamentally good qualities despite Werther’s wearing his attraction to Albert’s wife on his sleeve. I had no doubt that if Werther had talked to a therapist (OK, they didn’t have therapists in 18th-century Germany) or a more mature friend in person, or at least in real time (OK, no phones and no texting in the 18th century) about his crush and maybe taken some short-term anti-depressants (no Prozac in the 18th century, either), and if Albert and Lotte hadn’t so irresponsibly first encouraged his obsession and then gone into denial and given him a gun, his character would have emerged from his depression, stopped idealizing and hanging around an obviously unavailable woman, grown up, become a solid citizen (and, probably, a fairly responsible gun owner), and acquired some perspective and wisdom, as most of us do. But take an immature, narcissistic personality, provide him with lots of time but no meaningful outlet for his emotions apart from rumination, do nothing to discourage his obsessions, have everyone else deny that anything could be wrong, and give him a gun when he wants it with no questions asked, and we have excellent odds of at least one wasted life, whether an imaginary 18th-century German or a real 21st-century American.

Werther’s fictional problems in 18th-century Germany, like real life matters in 21st-century USA, are not simple and do not have just one cause or solution. It seems clear to me, though, that we need to stop the madness of unregulated, unquestioned, easy access to firearms in this country. And, though I don’t understand why Liza Long tosses off “it’s easy to talk about guns,” her essay on the challenges and heartache of parenting a disturbed or different child eloquently shows why it’s also necessary to address mental health. She doesn’t mention national health care, but her reference to having given up freelancing for benefits illustrates why that, too, is imperative. Until we make all three a priority, more lives will be wasted. Some may be ours; some will be people we love.

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December 26, 2011

Peter Kocan’s “Fresh Fields:” mental illness and the law

Challenge ButtonNews from the Mental Health Summit at the University of Chicago as well as the Chicago News Cooperative’s excellent coverage of mental health services cuts in Illinois in the pages of The New York Times coincided with my reading Australian writer Peter Kocan’s autobiographical novel, “Fresh Fields.”

In 1966, as a teenager, Kocan tried and, fortunately, failed, to assassinate Australian labor leader Arthur Calwell. Though he was found to be a borderline schizophrenic and sentenced to life in prison, most of which he spent in a mental hospital, he was pronounced cured and released from custody after ten years. He began writing in prison and is now an acclaimed writer, having received a number of literary awards as well as obtaining advanced degrees.

In “Fresh Fields,” Kocan depicts the descent of a fourteen-year-old loner into insanity. The youth, as the author refers to him throughout, didn’t seem fundamentally abnormal to me (though I’m no mental health expert). Rather, his mental unhinging seems to occur as a gradual result of his extremely limited socialization.

Kocan makes the dysfunctionality of the youth’s family clear in his first few paragraphs. The youth, his mother, and his younger brother are fleeing their home and the abusive Vladimir, who is his mother’s husband or partner and may or may not be the youth’s father. Kocan refers to the youth’s mother only as “the woman,” and she has no more than minimal dialogue and interaction with him. Though the youth is only around 15, his mother apparently doesn’t think it important for him to go to school. She pushes him to get a job and support himself, since she evidently can’t. He gets and loses a series of jobs due to his complete lack of experience and missteps that a more experienced and wiser person would never make. The hard knocks he’s gotten, coupled with the absence of any meaningful human relationship or social interaction, cause him to retreat into himself. He becomes increasingly obsessed and identifies with Diestl, a soldier character in a German movie about the aftermath of World War II who is alone, wounded, and bitter. By the end of the book, it’s clear that he’s going to explode.

“Fresh Fields” is the prequel to Kocan’s two novellas, “The Treatment” and “The Cure,” which I reviewed earlier on The Europa Challenge website. His stories and personal history, together with a number of articles I’ve written for the Illinois Bar Journal on mental health law, make me wonder to what extent isolation causes people to develop mental illness, or dementia. (From there, it’s a short step to wondering whether solitary confinement for misbehaving prisoners is ever a good idea.) If only more positive socialization were the answer for all who suffer; unfortunately, it’s clear that there are many other factors that cause or contribute to mental problems, some (but not all) of which can be alleviated by counseling, some (but not all) of which can be alleviated by drugs, and some (but not all) of which may be alleviated by more socialization.

You can read more about Kocan in Patrick Bryson’s paper, “Lunatics and the Asylum: Representations of ‘The Loner.’” We in the U.S. are not alone in having difficulty in funding and framing our mental health care system; see Inside Story for more about Australia’s mental health care problems. And NPR had a story recently about how to hold violent psychiatric patients accountable without punishing them for being sick.

Though it still carries a stigma, mental illness has touched most people’s lives. I admire Kocan and all those who are bringing their experiences out of the closet.

September 23, 2011

Mental health and criminal justice: The Treatment and The Cure

Challenge ButtonI posted a review of Australian writer Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” over on The Europa Challenge Blog this week. Kocan’s work is a worthy addition to the canon of literature dealing with the treatment of mental illness – the criminally insane, in particular. He knows what he’s writing about: he himself was sentenced to life in prison for attempting to assassinate the Australian Labor Party leader in 1966, when he was 19. After spending around ten years in a prison asylum, he was released. Since then, he’s made a career as a writer and has won major literary awards in Australia. Hope you’ll click on over and have a look at my review. Even better, read Kocan’s autobiographical book for yourself. It’s a compelling, and chilling, story.

Treatment of the mentally ill has a long and sordid history. In recent years, some judicial systems have tried addressing offenders with mental illnesses through setting up specialty courts, which I wrote about in the April 2008 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal. Kocan’s narrator doesn’t appear to be mentally ill at all; he describes a system in which, from his point of view, treatment in the form of medication or electroshock sessions is administered more for punishment, or on whim, than for therapy.

Other memorable stories of mental illness include Joanne Greenberg’s “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” and the movie based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nobel laureate John Nash, “A Beautiful Mind.” Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” of course, is a classic novel about a prison mental hospital made into an equally classic movie with a superb performance by Jack Nicholson.

What are you reading this weekend?

September 3, 2010

Jane Eyre and mental illness

Earlier this week I urged readers to read or reread Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  In that post, I referenced two totally delightful articles analyzing the book and Mr. Rochester in particular that I came across while surfing the Bronte Blog

As both articles indicate, Jean Rhys wrote Bertha Rochester’s backstory in “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” which won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006 for the year 1966.  Rhys’s sympathetic treatment of the first Mrs. Rochester, whom Bronte portrayed as an inconvenient, crazy hag whose death was a relief for all, highlights how far we’ve come in attitude towards and treatment for the mentally ill since Mr. Rochester locked his wife up in her attic room. 

Present-day advocates for the mentally ill, though, will point out that treatment resources are still woefully inadequate, as I’ve noted in articles such as “Involuntary administration of psychotropic drugs: Does Illinois need new standards?” and “Bill would make involuntary commitment easier” in the January 2003 and August 2007 issues, respectively, of the Illinois Bar Journal.  (In the forthcoming October 2010 issue of the same publication I discuss the recent changes in the standard for involuntary commitment in Illinois’s  Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code and quote University of Chicago clinical professor of law Mark J. Heyrman, whose lucid commentary always gets to the heart of the matter.)  And, of course, mental illness or the hint of it still carries a strong stigma, though, unlike Charlotte Bronte, we no longer generally refer to someone who’s mentally ill as a “lunatic,” a “maniac,” or using the pronoun “it.”  For those who are interested, the website of Mental Health America of Illinois is a good starting point.  

What are your favorite 19th century novels?  How about your favorite novels that deal with mental illness?

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