When I was a "disaffected youth," it was an unspoken article of faith that young people were nonconformist, rebellious individuals who hadn't yet been completely socialized by society, but that most of them would settle down or "sell out" and end up being more or less like every other adult. The fact that I could hold such a preposterous belief at all should shed some light on the sheltered nature of my suburban upbringing. When life and work finally exposed me to the great diversity of the human experience, I was somewhat shocked to learn that the opposite appears to be true. People start out more or less the same, but the things they experience and the choices they make carry them to very different places and make them very different people.
I have also discovered that as the years go by, many of us slowly go mad.
I spent Thanksgiving at my father's in Decatur, Illinois, which is actually quite an interesting place. Labor strife, racial tensions stemming from a brawl at a high school football game and exacerbated by a neo-Nazi violinist, the Firestone tire plant that manufactured all those exploding SUV tires, the giant agribusiness firm behind that massive price-fixing scandal a few years back . . . the town is flat out fascinating. It's also got a couple great Frank Lloyd Wright prarie style houses if you're into that sort of thing. (I will have quite a bit to say about the local housing authority, and soon, but I don't have time to get into that tonight.)
One example of people who seemed to slowly go mad occured right in my father's neighborhood in Decatur. Call them the Klopeks. We did, although it's not their real name. They reminded us of the family in The Burbs with Tom Hanks, the family that everyone believed was up to no good even though they didn't have a shred of evidence. They lived here:
Although when they lived in that house, there was a fence and a hedge blocking the view from the street. Keep in mind that these were longtime productive members of the community. They had raised five children, all of whom have gone on to happy, productive lives as far as I know. Mr. Klopek had a decent job in the public sector for years. But gradually the neighbors began to suspect something was amiss.
It was the little eccentricities: I personally watched Mr. K drive up his driveway to the locked gate, get out of the car and lock it, open the gate, get back in the car and drive it through the gate, and lock it behind him. No one else in the neighborhood had a fence or a gate at all. And then there was the smell. On hot summer days when neighbors would cook out, they would notice it. In fact, if the wind shifted the wrong way, they would consider going back inside to eat. This in a town that routinely smells like roasting soybeans from the Archer Daniels Midland plant ("it smells like money," the locals tell me). Mr. K himself was moved to a position at work that involved less contact with the public after complaints surfaced about the way he smelled.
The work crew that that trimmed the neighbors' trees complained that working on the side of the house nearest the Klopek's made them want to retch. Residents of the Millikin University fraternity and sorority houses on the block began to make nuisance reports to the police, especially after a sorority sister counted more than fifteen cats peering from the windows one day.
The response has gone down in local mythology. One day in early fall, 1998, animal control was dispatched, followed by the police and an ambulance. The authorities had discovered over 250 cats in the home. Apparently they had been inbreeding for years, because certain genetic defects had become apparent, including a few cats born with three legs or no eyes or other deformities. An entire room had been turned into a litterbox, the source of the smell plaguing the neighborhood; filled with litter, it was simply raked a few times a day.
The Klopeks refused to go quietly. Mrs. K gather 20 or so cats with her and barricaded herself in the bathroom. Eventually both of them were taken away in restraints, strapped to gurneys. The house was condemned and has been unoccupied for the past six years. (For those of you who have been following this page but wondering whether I'm just making all this up, the evidence is here, although it costs $2.95 to read the whole article.)
Now, I like cats, too. We have two cats, Fat Man and Little Boy, as destructive as their names imply. I clean out the litter box on a daily basis - in spite of which, the house sometimes has a slight odor of cat poop. So this is a matter of degree: the Klopeks are carted away and confined, while I am left free, for behavior similar in kind if different in degree. Society or its representatives have drawn a line, and crossing it can get you dragged from your home strapped to a gurney.
To say that such a line is socially constructed and arbitrary is not necessarily to say that it is illigitimate. The cultural right basically argues that such lines should be drawn wherever our great-grandparents drew them, while some on the left still argue that social rules regulating behavior are inherently fascist and illigitimate. Both positions are lunacy. Rules must be drawn up which are appropriate to the current social situation without unduly trampling on the dignity and autonomy of the individual. If you live in a shack in the woods you may disagree with me, but anybody with neighbors would agree that they should't be allowed to hold week-long coke orgies, at least not during the school year. I also believe they shouldn't be able to tear down a 110 year old house to put up ugly condos - property rights be damned, it's my neighborhood too and I deserve a say in what happens to it. But an offensive odor? Are we going to start telling people how many kids they can have, too?
I watched an annoying episode of Boston Legal last night. One lawyer's shrink asked for her help because he had a client who was threatening to strangle his wife. The lawyer pretended to be a psychiatrist consulting for a second opinion - the TV shrink had said that no one was willing to do this for real for "liability" reasons. There were questions about "doctor-patient privilege." Wackiness ensued. The whole thing was depressing and bogus. In the real world professionals have a "duty to warn," meaning that they are required to report certain things to the appropriate authority immediately - including child abuse and threats to harm oneself or others. Most states have a law that spells out this duty, including Massachusetts (although I'm told the rules aren't laid out with the same specificity as in Ohio or Illinois). These laws were put in place after the murder of Tatiana Tarasoff in the 1970s - the California Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the killer's therapist had a "duty to warn' when he'd made threats. I took action in such situations more than once in social work practice. Such a rule does not interfere with a therapeutic relationship. The professional should be up front about this duty from the beginning, and tell the client under what circumstances a report will be made. This becomes simply one of the ground rules of the relationship. Without such rules it would be much more difficult to treat potentially dangerous people.
I am thinking about such issues because my grandmother is slowly losing her ability to care for herself. A few words about my grandmother. She has been functioning as an adult since she was 12 years old, back in the Depression. She raised four children, served as a local elected official, and cared for my grandfather for several years after he suffered from a debilitating stroke. So she has been perfectly capable of making her own decisions and running her own life for the past 70 years, and if she was eccentric in some ways, it was certainly nobody else's business.
But now that she's in a dependant position, we're drawing lines again. Her disruptive behavior is being discussed. Her paranoia. If she continues to behave in a certain way, she can't stay at a certain facility, she needs to be moved to a "more restrictive" environment. I'm very uncomfortable with all of this. As I said, I do believe society has a right to draw a line beyond which an individuals autonomy can be restricted by society. And perhaps my grandmother has begun crossing some of these lines. Certainly the involvment of law enforcement on more than one occasion in which she felt "threatened" by people or situations that nobody else could detect is cause for concern. But fear of strangers, outsiders and the unknown is positively rampant in this country. Doesn't it strike you as odd that a certain amount of defiance and paranoia is tolerated, often celebrated, among independant "radical individualists" (people with the money and wherewithall to control their own lives), while among people who depend on others (the old and the sick, welfare moms and low-wage employess) the expected behavior - polite, subserviant, cooperative, grateful - is precisely the behavior that makes life easiest for the people with the power and control? What's good for the gander is very inappropriate for the goose, it seems.
Someday I'll be old and have more difficulty functioning independantly than I do now. This bothers me more today than it did a week ago. Which of my eccentricities will be regarded as symptoms? Political convictions of my grandmother's that I used to find disturbing I now simply ignore. Will my beliefs and values be as irrelevant to the people who care for me in my doddery? She's still a person, even if she doesn't remember that she just saw you yesterday. So I wrestle with this. I don't know whether my grandmother should be placed in a nursing home or not. I agree that society needs to set standards and boundaries, and limit the freedom of people who represent a threat to themselves or others. But whether or not you are annoying to those with power over you is not the right standard to set.