Emily’s ‘revenge’ on Victoria

Some of you will have picked up on the TV reference within the title of this post – a US drama series entitled “Revenge” starring Emily VanCamp and Madeleine Stowe as Emily Thorne (who is really Amanda Clarke).

**SPOILER ALERT**

If you’ve not watched the series (or at least the finale of Series 3), then the very point of this post means that I have to tell you how the whole thing ends. So you can stop now if you want – or continue reading if you’re okay with that.

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There are two people who (within the story) are most culpable, and they both find their comeuppance. One dies. But the other – Victoria – is allowed to live.

Instead, she is taken down by an elaborate plan which basically results in her being ‘sectioned’ [i.e. forced into a mental health institution against her will by the law enforcement agencies] and the final scenes of the finale consist of Victoria lying in a bed with ‘restraints’ shouting her head off while Amanda swans through the hospital doors. We are supposed to understand that this is the ultimate humiliation – instead of taking her life, Emily takes Victoria’s mind and all the things that Victoria holds most dear – status, power, material wealth, the ability to lever and manipulate other people up and down the social order at will. Indeed, every one of those things is impossible if people think that you have lost your marbles.

So now this gets serious. Mental illness is no small thing. No trifling matter. And this kind of storytelling does more to reinforce the astounding lack of compassion that continues to surround the mentally not-so-well across global society. Most of us would accept that we shun that which frightens us. And all of us would be afraid to lose full cognitive functionality. But we would also be afraid of cancer, and we don’t shun cancer patients – well, most of us don’t.

But there is a world of difference between being afraid of mental illness – regardless of whether or not that fear can be understood as legitimate – and portraying the reality of mental illness as a loss of status as a human being. And this storyline plays right on the edges of that socio-ethical question. Thomas Adés, the internationally renowned composer/conductor/pianist, makes the following statement whilst being interviewed by the BBC’s Tom Service: “Ethics are a distraction the artist can’t afford.” The ramifications of the storyline transcend the story itself (which is precisely what makes it compelling storytelling). Hollywood’s motto is: “show, don’t tell.”

In this instance, mental illness is something that a person could not possibly want. So if we think in a very binary way about this, it means that to have mental illness is to experience a living nightmare. And it can of course be argued that the reality of mental illness is itself simply ‘grist to the mill’ for the story itself – because it serves the story. But what does that ‘show’ us about how mental illness is conceived and understood? What are the ethical implications of this story beyond itself as an ‘entertainment experience?’ Are we left with any real sense of compassion for those who – for whatever reason – find themselves ‘sectioned?’

This storyline extracts a limited set of entirely negative social constructions about mental illness and appropriates them into a story about revenge (‘not forgiveness,’ as the narrative voiceovers state clearly), leaving the viewer with a highly distorted view of mental illness. But there is of course more to the story – Emily’s character has been very badly mistreated by the very same psychiatrist who now – in exchange for her own life (etc) repeats the same trick of falsifying reality in order to sign off the ‘sectioning’ of Victoria’s character.

There are fewer things in life that reduce a person’s personal power (a philosopher and psychiatrist might use a word like ‘agency’) than the loss of mental faculties. But is a person only worth the quality of their mind? How is a person’s worth measured? Elsewhere in the same series, Emily’s character is literally saved from self-destruction by the man she loves, but as she realises what she has done and what he has done, she states clearly that she is not sure that she ‘was worth it.’ Her self-destruction was itself caused by emotive and cognitive breakdowns – and we are left with a clear sense that all of this ‘revenge-pursuing’ activity comes at a very high price.

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This is an increasingly bleak and sordid world, and one in which health itself is not regarded as a gift (and I say this in the context of a religiously pluralistic world) – but as a ‘right’ and as a token of power. One’s worth is dependent on one’s appearance and one’s competence, and the greater the levels of physical and mental health, the easier it is for one to take one’s self-perceived ‘rightful’ place in the world. But I want to argue forcefully that we do not deserve our places in the world because we are ‘well enough’ to ‘do something’ and ‘offer something.’ We human beings have the gift of life if we come safely through the womb and into the world, but we don’t have ultimate control of anything. Some people live very healthily and still contract freak diseases and die young. Others live very unhealthily into their late eighties. And mental health seems to be even more capricious – the more we know, the less we know.

Yes, a person may lose their cognitive functionality and reach a point of self-risk where they may have to be sectioned for their own good. This is a sad, vicious reality of our world. But perhaps – even as we are surrounded by various messages about mental health, most of which are less than holistic – we can remember that what we loosely call ‘madness’ is much closer to all of us than we care to admit. The plotline of this TV storyline has done nothing to humanise people who really are genuinely sectioned for their own safety and that of others – instead, it subtly reinforces the unverbalised fear and loathing that many of us feel at the idea of mental illness. As ‘art,’ it may have been compelling viewing, but what are we left with?

Let’s not allow the media to determine our values for us. Let’s choose our values for ourselves, and continue to rethink mental health. One day, you may be the one who needs compassion…

A weird way to show gratitude

I have had to watch a number of people wrestle with the side-effects of various forms of pharmaceutical medications (anti-psychotic drugs being the most complicated in my experience). I have listened to people talk with real feeling about how they wished they never had to take ‘mind-altering’ substances. Their desire for what I will loosely refer to as ‘regular cognitive functionality’ was great indeed. And wholly understandable. And absolutely heart-breaking.

I am sure that some of the readers of this post will know what it is like to deal with family members who function well on their medication, but who do not function at all well when they stop taking whatever it is that they are supposed to be taking. The stress and grief that can be caused is incalculable at times.

Charlie Parker was a phenomenal jazz musician who – having developed a heroin dependency – needed to get high in order to actually feel normal. But the terrible legacy created by his drug habit (and those of other jazz luminaries) was essentially driven by a total failure to understand the truth of my previous sentence. So on the basis of sensory perception (i.e. what they could see), younger, impressionable jazz musos see him (and others) doing two things:

a) playing jazz to an extraordinary standard;
b) using illegal drugs on a regular basis (hence ‘drug habit’).

They then fall headfirst into the worst possible type of syllogism (google if necessary!) – namely:

  1. (for example) Charlie Parker (‘Bird’) is an incredible jazz musician.
  2. Bird is a monster heroin user.
  3. Taking heroin will help me to become an incredible jazz musician.

The tragedy is that it wasn’t too long before jazz musicians found out that shooting heroin didn’t  – and couldn’t –  make you a better player, but by that time they had become addicted and so the tragic cycle was perpetuated. And over forty years later, as an aspiring professional jazz musician, I personally discovered that this same myth was still alive and well…

In case you were wondering if this was a mad digression: the point just made is that the narcotic substances did not take one ‘beyond’ regular human experience to interstellar space where creativity reigns. They facilitated a level of ‘normality’ on the part of the musician in question. Now, a ‘normal’ person should not have to take (let’s say) antidepressants; and a mentally ill person wants the truth to be that they are not mentally ill (deliberate focus on the ‘negative there). Taking the medication means that they are ill, but they don’t want to be ill. They want to be ‘normal.’ But sometimes really bad things happen when they don’t take their medication which causes pain and grief to their family and carers. So they also need pharmaceutical (in this case, literally mind-altering) substances to be ‘normal.’

The sadness of some of these people who have to depend on mind-altering substances to be able to function in the ‘real world’ has stayed with me. And that brings me to the crux of this post.

It has been a source of both heartbreak and anger for me that so many Christians that I have met in many denominations really do not think rigorously about their faith. But now I want to speak specifically about my experience as a member of a church in which our UK membership is over 80% black (although this is not in any way part of our constitutional and theological identity). There is a brokenness of language which has led to a brokenness of actual thought. There are all sorts of different social and ethnic and cultural groups who all use and abuse the English language in their own specific ways as part of their respective group identities. But I have grown up in a cultural and racial and religious community with thought-values and language values that I have had to conspicuously reject for my own sanity.

As a result, although I have never left my church or committed the kind of major ‘sins’ that make you a pariah in church circles, I experienced a type of socio-religious disenfranchisement that has meant that most of my closest friends do not share my religious beliefs. I have been able to enjoy honest fellowship with them despite some quite radical differences in terms of ideology – because all parties have done their best to be honest. And honest disagreement has always been better than dishonest agreement. Indeed, we could go further and say that difference, per se, is essential to actual relationship. For if there is nothing different about any of the people with whom we associate, our very friendship network is an exercise in narcissism!

It is not that we must all think the same way on the same issues. And it is not that everyone must think the same things that I do (please don’t take that to mean that I am a religious pluralist or a liberal Christian, for I am neither; I do, however, acknowledge people’s right to be both of those things and more if that is what they choose). But so many of the reasons for religious and Biblical belief that I hear week in and week out are so vague and nebulous that the very words ‘vague’ and ‘nebulous’ sometimes seem kind indeed. So many people in my community are blessed with better mental health than some others, but for more of us than could ever be ideal, our patterns of thought and reasoning often lead to unusual and cruel consequences – not least when it comes to judging others.

Many of us Christians are the quickest to condemn a person (Christian or otherwise) who falls into psychosis for their ‘lack of faith’ or ‘secret sins in their lives’ or to castigate their parents as spiritually underpowered – to say nothing of the classic ‘demon possession’ argument. Now, I am a Bible-believing Christian and I believe in the supernatural – for sure. But we cannot always know what is wrong with someone who has a mental health problem and if we are as quick as my own eyes have seen to judge a person harshly as opposed to showing them the love of Christ, small wonder that the UK is full of self-identifying Christians (2011 census) who are living their understanding of that Christian identity as far away as possible from the churches themselves. This kind of reasoning is just as bad if not worse than that encapsulated in the syllogism I gave you earlier – and totally unjustified (Biblically and theologically!).

This is a seriously weird way of showing gratitude to God for good mental health and sentience. Instead of using it to think spiritually and creatively about how we can help those less fortunate than themselves, far too many of us have taken those very gifts of mental health and sentience that we believe to be God-given (because we are Christians) and thrown it straight back into God’s face. Willful ignorance of mental health issues leads to poverty of thought; itself a mockery when one claims to worship the God who is the author of life, cognition and language – each of which are indispensable to actual thought (not to be confused with vague and vacuous mental flutterings).

There is absolutely no point in having the gift of good mental health if you are going to abuse it and abuse others with it.

This means (of course) that it is not just religious people who have a case to answer for in terms of stewardship of mental health. If you are someone who has no such problems, then this could be a great time to pause for a moment and take stock of all the reasons to be thankful that you are not in the NHS system as a mental health service user – not least because the number of ‘preventable’ deaths in this area of the NHS is higher than would be ideal. Let’s all make a decision to be more understanding of these people and those who care about them.