“He’s crazy”–Mental Illness, Power, and Transgressions

[CN: Discussion of violence against women, racism]

There are a few courses I took in undergrad and grad school that have especially stuck with me through the years. One that I think about often was an upper-level Women’s Studies course called Monstrous Women which looked at the ways we frame women who transgress the bounds that society places before them. And how women who fail to perform “womanhood” adequately (whether through eschewing motherhood, being overtly aggressive, responding to male violence with violence) are transformed into “monsters”–both as a control mechanism and because we don’t know how to reconcile women who don’t perform mainstream womanhood in our brains.

I also think about a class I took in grad school that was, in theory, about mental health policy, but that spent much more time interrogating the construct of mental illness. How it’s been used as a control mechanism through the years, especially against women and people of colour.

What I’ve been thinking about lately, informed by the thinking done in and about those three classes (and a larger body of feminist and critical theory, along with front-line experience working with people labeled with a variety of mental health diagnoses often used as a reason to dismiss their complaints rather than attend to their needs) is how the construct of mental illness works in another, almost opposite, way to exercise control and maintain power.

See, we  often think about the use of mental health diagnoses as ways to keep certain people quiet–see “hysterical” women through the ages, see the ways we gaslight people of colour when they relate their experiences of racism. Suggesting, both subtly and not, that they’re overly sensitive, that they’re making things up, that maybe there’s something wrong with the way they see the world.

22705008-mental-illness-red-rubber-stamp-vector-for-mental-health-concept-stock-vectorBut we also use mental health diagnoses (generally armchair) to obscure the power relations that maintain certain people in power (patriarchy, white supremacy, colonization, ableism, capitalism).

What I’ve realized is that we call people “crazy” when they make existing power relationships explicit. We accept routine misogyny and violence against women up to a point–and that point is apparently taking a gun and perpetrating a mass shooting. Elliott Rodger? Clearly he’s mentally ill. His history of misogyny, patriarchal entitlement, and fucking manifesto about why he’s targeting women can’t be the explanation. Why? Because it lays bare patriarchy in a way that demands action. Thus, mentally ill.

Man after man after man who performs a mass shooting due to some real or perceived slight from a woman in his life? Must be crazy! But man after man after man after man who kills his wife/girlfriend/partner? That’s just a one-off tragedy (that happens all the time).

When we talk about someone like Jian Ghomeshi who, like many perpetrators, is a serial perpetrator, if we are able to overcome the patriarchal impulse to call 20+ women liars in favour of protecting a scumbag, we’re often met with claims of mental illness. There must be something wrong with him! He’s mentally ill! He’s craaazy.

It can’t be, of course, that he is taking the non-consent routinely taught to men and boys in this culture, the entitlement to women’s bodies, the extreme violence against women increasingly normalized in mainstream porn, and making it explicit, unavoidable, and un-defendable. No, it must be that he’s “crazy.”

When we talk about someone like Rachel Dolezal, there are two general paths to defending her. There are those who build a dangerous, transphobic, and incorrect bridge between being trans and appropriating a racialized identity. And there are those who claim she must be crazy.

Because Rachel Dolezal lays bare white privilege and cultural appropriation. She takes existing societal power structures (the safety, access, and privilege of whiteness; the routine stealing of cultural, intellectual, and creative work by people of colour–especially Black people in America–by white people for profit and, for lack of a better word, cred) and makes them visible.

And, again, by making them visible she makes them explicit, unavoidable, and un-defendable.

But power will do anything to maintain power. And thus we label these transgressors “crazy.” Not because we are so horrified by their actions–remember, these actions happen in smaller, more easily ignored ways every second of every day–but because their actions betray the unspoken pact to keep power invisible.


*Just a quick note that this rush to label people who transgress and do harm thereby laying harmful systems of power bare “crazy” is inherently ableist and that people with mental health issues are far (far far) more likely to be victims of violence than to perpetrate it.
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