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).
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.
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.
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…