Primum Non Nocere

Film scholars have commented upon the native power of the documentary medium to convey the impression of unmanipulated reality. The intimation of ‘truthiness’ – Steve Colbert’s delectable mot – becomes especially pernicious in a thankfully rare subgenre I’ll call the ‘ill-intentioned’ documentary. Here, the maker’s attitude towards some painful psycho-social problem is subverted by the very images which are supposed to promote  compassionate understanding.

For example, in a film about Mexican-American street youths several decades ago most of the latinos sported gross acne, scraggly mustaches, gold teeth, and copious off-putting attitude. Their girlfriends were slovenly dressed and spoke like Tijuana trollops. Despite the off-screen narrator’s earnest lament about the subjects’ dismal lives, their appearance projected an aura of disreputable entitlement, evoking distaste rather than sympathy for unwary viewers. One would like to believe the maker did not consciously create the prejudicial dissonance between word and imagine.

Compliance, written and directed by newcomer Craig Zobel, has received rave reviews from knowledgeable critics. Inter alia, The New Yorker’s David Denby and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone have hailed Zobel for baring the dreadful ease with which ordinary people abdicate moral choice in the face of authoritarian pressure. Nevertheless, I rate Compliance an ill-intentioned “mockumentary”, in which the audience is the chief victim of the disparity between its noble aims and ignoble ends.

The opening titles state that Compliance is based on true events, an assertion one views with misgiving. I don’t doubt that the tragedy upon which the film is based did occur in 2004, at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky. It’s Zobel’s exploitative re-packaging of that occasion’s grim realities which spur one’s mistrust and aversion.

Zobel has changed the Kentucky McDonald’s to a “Chickwich” in an small Ohio town. It’s a Friday afternoon. The usual bustling crowd is about to descend and Sandra, the evening manager, has just arrived. She’s a stocky woman in her late forties or early fifties, touchy about her attractiveness. You empathize with her defensiveness when she tells a pair of employees gabbing about sex  that she, too, enjoys a robust love life with her fiancee.

Sandra is a tough but not unkind boss; totally dedicated to her customers; thoroughly knowledgeable about her operation down to the last french fry. She presides over a staff of several people nearly her age and a gaggle of minimum-waged late ‘teens. The young people have no great affection for the job, yet do it well enough under Sandra’s ever-vigilant eye – except for one slacker who may or may not have left a freezer door seriously ajar. The weekend’s meat supply is threatened,  a bacon shortfall threatens to become a big problem, no laughing matter for Sandra.

For she sees herself as a rising star in Chickwich’s tatty firmament. Her anxiety about blame from above regarding the costly food spoilage is palpable, escalating pressure on her crew to stay on top of their game. In this already taut setting, she gets a call from a police officer who says a female customer has just filed a complaint that a waitress, Becky, filched money from her purse earlier in the day. He wants to avoid hauling off Becky to the station; asks Sandra to hold Becky in the back of the restaurant pending his arrival to clear up the problem.

Sandra complies uncomfortably. The cop next intimates conspiratorially intimates that Becky’s detention could become crucial to a larger investigation into her boy friend’s sale of illicit drugs. Sandra buys his unlikely tale. Through a subtly orchestrated regime of wheedling, praise, and menace, he chivvies her into interrogating the hapless younger, beginning with a mutually humiliating strip-search.

Becky’s ensuing Golgatha endures into the small hours of the night. By this time, the ‘investigation’ has turned definitively perverse, and Sandra has swept several employees and her boyfriend into the dismal proceedings. They stand by, or participate with varying degrees of discomfort.

I won’t go into the ghastly details. Suffice to say that rape is in the air when an older male employee flatly refuses to join in Becky’s degradation. Sandra and staff suddenly wake to the horrid realization that they’ve been scammed. (Viewers have known the ‘cop’ is bogus for some time. He’s revealed to be a disturbingly ordinary family guy, weaving his sicko web from a comfortable home.)

Three months later a brief sequence shows Sandra in the midst of a TV interview, the program’s nature undisclosed. A subtitle describes her as a fired fast food worker. She chats uneasily about the weather during a break. Scant words are exchanged about the Chickwich debacle, but an 800 pound gorilla is clearly in the room. A laconic sentence states there have been 70 such incidents in America, then the screen goes black.

Compliance is competently acted. (Ann Dowd, as Sandra, adroitly excites one’s pity and revulsion, as she becomes ever more unglued in her absurdist endeavor to hold the fort out front while supervising the obscenity unfolding in back). The mise-en-scene artfully captures the sense and sensibility of a dumbed- down hick backwater. Zobel’s direction is credible – too credible.

What does he really wants us to make of, or to take from this deeply suspect project? Are his objectives honorable – to tutor and warn that anyone, given the right – or vilely wrong — circumstances, can be intimidated by abusive authority? Indeed, that all of us may harbor an innate yen to submit to overweaning authority?

The film’s many admirers allude to the shameful willingness to surrender moral responsobility of participants in the notorious Milgram experiment at Yale; or of German citizens during the Nazi era. But the reliability of Milgrim’s evidence has been seriously questioned. And the anti-Semitism pervading Nazi Germany rendered much its population exquisitely susceptible to approving the Jewish persecution if passively; neither wanting or caring to know about the Holocaust’s brute reality.

I don’t pretend to fathom Zobel’s unconscious motives. But I must wonder if he consciously, if dimly,  intuited that his aims were questionable, pitched at inflaming the emotions rather than edifying the mind; encouraging contempt for the characters as well as ourselves.

Compliance’s protagonists aren’t portrayed as morally bankrupt, rather deeply stupid. With the exception of the sadistic prankster, the director paints them as well-intentioned but utterly witless good people, charter members of journalist H.L. Mencken’s heartland ‘boobocracy’. (Sandra’s boyfriend is particularly doltish.)

They hate what they doing or witnessing. Zobel’s voyeuristic camera takes into their midst, into the very belly of the beast they’ve collectively created. I feel there’s a subtle implication that some may even have begun enjoying Becky’s debasement, in some corner of the id where the snakes and lizards writhe.

Step by step, Zobel invites us to linger over the transgressive violation of Becky’s body and spirit. One wants to turn away, overcome by shame and loathing. Fans of torture- porn cinema savor the atrocities of the Saw and Hostel franchises they’ve paid to attend.  Zobel’s semi-torture porn ambience took me utterly by surprise, even knowing something about the film in advance.

While estimable critics like Travers and Denby praise Compliance, the majority of viewers I interviewed felt ill-used, as did I.  I’ve always maintained that primum non nocere, the physician’s first duty not to harm,  should be the credo of the documentarian, and now the ‘mockumentarian’. It should pertain to subject and audience.

Zobel, I fear, hasn’t taken the oath. It came as no surprise when several people walked out of the movie. I would have left too, but had to stay in order to review this noxious piece of work – and now urge you not to see it. I’ve never given this advice in decades of writing about cinema. But I don’t give money to phony charities either.

An earlier version of this review appeared in Clinical Psychiatry News.




Monster: Based On A True Story (2003), written and directed by Patty Jenkins.

Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003);

The Selling of Aileen Wuornos (1992), directed by Nick Greenfield.

From 1989 to 1990, a ragged drifter, Aileen Wuornos, murdered seven men along a stretch of central Florida freeway. Her MO bore the reckless signatures of a dissolute and desolate life. She would hitch a ride in a car or truck with a male driver; rattle off some song and dance about getting back to her kids in another state. After sussing out a mark with the prostitute’s native intuition, she would propose exchanging sex for a few bucks. The unsuspecting john drove to some offroad clearing, where Wuornos drew a battered pistol and blew him away.

Some of her victims were gunned down in the driver’s seat. Others stripped for action outside, and were slaughtered buck-naked. Wuornos would then toss the corpse into a wooded area nearby, take the cash (little gain in most cases), and ride wherever the wind took her, until fear of detection lead her to abandon the stolen vehicle. She knew that the authorities were zeroing in on her, but their pursuit didn’t deter her from returning to her lonesome road and killing again.

Wuornos’ past reads like the history of a Jerry Springer trailer-trash guest. She was born in a seedy Detroit neighborhood. Her mother bolted early on. She and a brother were left in the care of a father who beat them mercilessly. He too took off, later killed himself in prison. This time, the children were sent to Kallikak grandparents who enthusiastically continued the daily round of brutal abuse, physical and possibly sexual.

Mean streets furnished Wuornos all the education she ever had. By her early ‘teens, she had already borne a child and given it up. The termination of a hasty marriage left her with only her husband’s last name – eerily alliterative with the oldest profession she had begun to ply. After squandering insurance money from her brother’s early death she returned to the streets, exchanging sex for meagre sustenance. Occasionally she was arrested for petty crime.

Wuornos was never any kind of happy hooker. As far as one knows she disdained pimp or madam, preferring to work solo at whoring’s lowest rung. She stood by her gritty roadside, sporting roadhouse gear and worn sneakers instead of the street prostitute’s gaudy uniform – hot pants, stiletto heels, so forth. With an impudent thumb stuck out, one hip shot provocatively at the rushing traffic, she attracted homebound husbands with a yen for the gutter, as well as rough trade with more sinister urges. Often she was not used well.

Writer/director Perry Jenkins’ harrowing film, Monster, addresses the nine months of Wuornos’ killing spree during which she became involved in a passionate lesbian affair. Jenkins theorizes that Wuornos’ romance was the mainspring of her serial killing.

According to the director’s loose reading of actual circumstances, Aileen (Charlize Theron) meets a shy young woman, Shelby Wall (Christina Ricci) at a gay bar. Shelby has been exiled by her parents, sent to relatives with the hope that a change of scene will make her shed her ‘ungodly’ desires.

Barely out of the closet, primly dressed, hunched over her drink at the grotty bar, Shelby would seem an unlikely exciting object for a wild creature like Wuornos. But Aileen is drawn to Shelby’s innocence and vunerability – arguably these qualities evoke dim fantasies of a prelapsarian childhood.

For her part, Shelby is infatuated with Wuornos’ manic energy, her absolute disregard for convention or authority. The two elope shortly after they meet, live in a succession of seedy motels.

Steamy sex between bisexual women is a staple of male oriented pornography. However, in mainstream Hollywood fare lesbian love tends to be curiously chaste. It’s often shot in soft focus, frequently inflected by a none-to-subtle assumption that the gender-ambivalent heroine will eventually see the light when Mr. Right comes along – e.g. Personal Best (1982). It’s greatly to Jenkins ‘ credit that Wuornos and Shelby generate an intense sexuality that lasers off the screen.

Monster’s subsequent plot recapitulates a durable subgenre of doomed lovers on the run. Often from lower-class backgrounds, these misunderstood outlaws are
depicted as pitiable victims of a repressive, puritanical society in films like Gun Crazy (1949), They Live By Night (1949) and the signature Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

While Monster powerfully lays bare the utter impoverishment of a throwaway underclass woman – living roadkill – Jenkins laudably avoid facile blaming of Wuornos’ crimes on her lurid background. Indeed it’s scarcely mentioned. One only infers that Wuornos’ relationship with Shelby provides the first authentic love she has ever known, at least as an adult.

Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1981) introduced a lesbian context to the outcast couple subgenre. The heroines never actually coupled. After the parking-lot homicide which was clearly committed in self-defense, their non-lethal violence comprised an often hilarious clarion call to arms against a dulled-down repressive patriarchal culture.

The film’s feisty heroines facilitate each other’s liberation as equal partners through their criminal adventures. In Monster, however, Aileen is always the boss, while Shelby grows increasingly incapable of fending for herself, a feckless parody of the male- dominated suburban domesticity Thelma and Louise ultimately rejects. She cannot or won’t get work, relying on Aileen to find the money which they suppose will help them realize an absurd fantasy of a tidy picket-fence ever-after.

After a pathetic attempt to get a job in the daylight world fails, Wuornos returns to the only work she knows. Her love for Shelby puts her at risk as a disposable receptacle for roadside rutting. She shoots a deranged sadist who rapes her, then tries to set him on fire. Afterwords – if one accepts Jenkin’s thesis – she’s gripped by a traumatic repetition compulsion, cannot stop killing.

Monster may be read at one level as a realization of the homoerotic sizzle and revolt against male oppression latent in Thelma and Louise. It’s not nearly as well crafted nor ideologically sophisticated as the former picture. It would probably fade into DVD oblivion, were it not for Charlize Theron’s blazing portrayal of Wuornos.

Theron has radically transformed her alluring features – she’s a well respected model – into an uncanny simulacrum of her character. She gained thirty pounds for the part; artful make-up replicates Wuornos’ freckled, weather-beaten face. Theron’s Wuornos seethes with turbulent impatience; a ferocious kinetic energy seems to send her body juddering in several directions simultaneously.

Typically, Theron/Wuornos alternates between pressured, fragmented muttering and frenetic paranoid rant. But she is also able to address her alienation, the blasted lives of her peers, the venality of her captors, with startling eloquence. Her poignant yearning for Shelby and the small joys of an ordinary life articulates with crazily rationalized homicidal rage. The actress adroitly captures the complex nuances and contradictions of Wuornos’ tormented, tormenting character. She’s both appalling and pitiful.

The accuracy of Theron’s impersonation is even more impressive, after viewing Wuornos herself in Nick Greenfield’s unsatisfying documentaries: Aileen Wuornos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer and The Selling of Aileen Wuornos – the latter released twelve years ago. Both films are patchwork jobs, but they do accurately describe Wuornos’ life before and after the murders, as well the social canvas that backdropped both the homicides and their prosecution.

Wuornos’ own vision of her motives was slippery, inflected at any given moment by psychopathy, psychosis, even genuine insight. Initially, she declared her guilt without qualification. She then turned on a dime, pleading innocence by reason of self-defense. At one time or another she presented herself as a hapless victim of male depredations, betrayed and exploited at every turn; or a profane avenging angel seeking to redress the wrongs perpetuated on the feminine wretched of the earth by patriarchal authority.

Greenfield discovered that there was at least a grain of truth in many of her allegations. Wuornos maintained that she began killing after her first victim, Richard Mallory, raped, then treatened to slay her. Subsequent to her trial, it was revealed that Mallory had indeed previously served ten years for violent rape in another state. Wuornos’ public defender was an inept pot- smoking wannabe rock star. Her real lover, Tyria Moore, who knew fully about Wuornos’ crimes, never served a single day of inprisonment in return for ratting her lover out.

Others also sought to cash in on from potential TV or movie rights. These crass unworthies included her attorney (who Greenfield insinuates may have wanted her dead, in aid of creating a more potent – and saleable – narrative arc) and three members of the Florida police department. Wuornos’ life also inspired a plethora of lurid tabloid stories and a sensationalist TV docudrama.

Even Greenfield, pace his good intentions, does not refrain from inserting himself clumsily into his own film as a high-minded truth-seeker. (This having been said, Wuornos herself frequently perpetuated and relished the publicity she generated).

Wuornos’ last, most despicable exploiter was Jeb Bush, who wanted her executed to ramp up his gubernatorial campaign. She had been imprisoned for twelve years when Bush came on the scene. Although she knew he wanted her death, she definitively confessed her guilt – possibly because she could no longer tolerate confinement by that time.

She also had gone quite mad. She told Greenfield that the mother ship of an alien race – arguably a psychotic elaboration of the mothering she never received – would effect a one woman Rapture, take her up to sit at Jesus’ side.

On the evening prior to her execution, several psychiatrists declared that she was sane enough to be murdered by the State. What gain these Doctor Deaths desired is not clear. Perhaps they merely wanted a paycheck for an odious night’s work. But one never knows what knavery is afoot when a Bush is about.

The origins of Aileen Wuornos’ homicidal binge have never been satisfyingly elucidated. One could, for instance, blame a conflation of her horrific childhood, a genetic predisposition towards psychopathy, and a periodic dissociative state which emerged after barely escaping death from her first victim’s attack.

One must underscore, however, that the overwhelming majority of women who have suffered the same hurtful backgrounds and degrading experience as Wuornos do not kill. Indeed, it’s far more likely they will die at the hands of some malevolent misogynist – more often than not a husband or lover.

So – what finally tipped the scales to precipitate Wuornos’ road kills? A forensic psychiatrist told me that after years spent studying the minority of mentally ill
who murdered, he never had been able to tease out an “X factor” separating the perpetrator from the majority who didn’t. I don’t believe Wuornos demonstrated the diabolic cold-bloodedness of male serial killers like Ted Bundy and Ed Gein. The “X factor” of these hideous creatures has proven even more resistant to explanation.

Some years ago I participated in a discussion about Silence of the Lambs (1985). Another panel member was an amiable Texas FBI profiler who had extensively interviewed Bundy, Gein, and others of their heinous ilk. Asked to speculate on their diagnosis, he drawled: “Well – let’s see. You folks are up to DSM-III, right? I guess I’d put Ted and Ed somewhere around ….DSM-22…”

An earlier version of ROADKILL appeared in PROJECTIONS, Volume 16, #2, pp. 37-42.

On Massacres, “Slaughterfest,” and the Goldwater Rule

A new patient in a state of high agita pleads – “Doctor, you must help me! I’m tormented by a nameless fear!!”

“Please don’t worry, sir,” replies the psychiatrist soothingly. “We have a name for everything.”

The perpetrator of the recent shootings in Isla Vista, California, had been diagnosed with just about everything from the DSM, the ICD, and the FBI – Asperger syndrome, paranoid schizophrenia, narcissistic personality disorder, rampant sociopathy. . .. These wildly disparate assessments have been rendered by mental health professionals with qualifications ranging from credible to risible.

Those mental health professionals who made their pronouncements via the media all have one thing in common – they seriously violated the so-called “Goldwater rule.”

In 1964, a majority of psychiatrists (just how many isn’t certain) in a straw poll declared that Barry Goldwater was psychologically unfit for presidential office. Of course he was eminently sane. Psychiatrists of a liberal persuasion just abhorred his politics.

The utterly inappropriate statement about the wretched condition of Goldwater’s psyche, coming on the heels of other questionable opinions about public figures, prompted the American Psychiatric Association’s Ethics Committee to establish guidelines about statements to the media about the mental status of the famous, the infamous, or Joe the Plumber. Essentially one was supposed to give an assessment or diagnosis regarding someone in the public eye only if a professional relationship existed, and then only with informed consent.

The Goldwater directive obtains today. It is a “rule” only in the vernacular sense, not an edict mandating punishment for its infraction. It wasn’t meant to apply to analytic study of past personalities (eg, Eric Erickson’s magisterial studies of Luther and Gandhi), or profiling murderers on the loose. It carries moral rather than legal valence, implicitly restraining speculation about anyone in the limelight – a government official, celebrity, or perpetrator of a heinous crime.

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals followed the Goldwater guidelines over the next 4 decades with rare exceptions—those usually found in “Boy Eats Other Foot” supermarket tabloids.

Unfortunately, ad hominem diagnoses have now become the rule. The escalation of public mayhem – at the Aurora multiplex, the Sandy Hook school, the Fort Hood PTSD center – has been paralleled by a garbage tide of unseemly jabber by therapists in the media. The Isla Vista massacre has provoked a notable plethora of such chatter, arguably sparked by the shooter’s interminable manifestos on Youtube and Facebook, as well as revelations about longstanding psychological problems.

By now, media coverage of these rampages comprises a grisly—and vastly profitable—reality show.

I’ll call it a Slaughterfest.

The typical Slaughterfest mingles searing pathos with saccharine bathos—between commercials. It commences with harrowing on-scene coverage of the catastrophe, accompanied by lurid descriptions by survivors, cops, and bystanders. This is followed over several days by interviews with the victims’ (less often, the perpetrator’s) relatives and acquaintances; shots of photographs, bouquets, and placards deposited at the murder site; funeral services in which a clergyman (or clergywoman) offers what comfort can be given to the stunned bereaved, and tries to wrestle whatever sense which can be made about the tragedy’s inherent senselessness. Tearful witness is duly borne to the victims’ virtues and—if young enough—their potential, lost forever.

As events unfold, one or more therapists are routinely roused to dissect the perp’s persona. Their appearance rarely lasts more than a few minutes. The nature or quality of their analysis doesn’t matter a penny. It’s just another set piece of the Slaughterfest.

Why do therapists continue to take part in this offensive entertainment? Aside from grossly violating the Goldwater guidelines, their comments are consistently shallow, if only because of brevity. Differing interpretations and diagnoses abound, doing no honor to our profession, while underscoring just how very little is really known about men who commit these outrages.

I am also concerned that even a therapist’s valid comment may inadvertently contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness. Belief that a psychiatric disorder sui generis carries violent potential still—and none too subtly—informs the talking head blather, despite the sanctimonious call for early identification and treatment. (I’ve said before that even with improved psychiatric services, most perpetrators will still stay well beneath the radar.)

Andy Warhol predicted that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. I think that most therapists on network Slaughterfests mean well, and hope to provide a reasoned explanation to a terrified public. But few, no matter how noble their intentions, are immune to the heady promise of celebrity for a fleeting fraction of Warhol’s 15 minutes.

And the media’s siren song can be incredibly seductive. To lure you on camera, network reps will stroke your narcissism to a high gloss, laud your achievements, deem your contribution invaluable. They also want you to drop everything, patients included, and show up in the Green Room yesterday. After your stint, they can discard you like a banana peel.

Isla Vista bloodbaths are occurring so frequently that they seem to be feeding on themselves, acquiring a frightening momentum. By now, a sinister cybernetic
is well entrenched, a vicious cycling between the public massacre, the media Slaughterfest, and millions of mesmerized viewers.

The reasons why mega-audiences continue to devour the latest cavalcade of carnage are too many and complex to explore at length. I’ll only nominate the need to obtain mastery over the horrific event; the innate appetite for spectacles of any sort— and on the darkest end of the spectrum—that perverse delight in the suffering of others the Germans call Schadenfreude.

The vicious cycling is unlikely to end soon – but mental health professionals do have a choice about joining it. Many perpetrators of communal butchery dearly yearn for an audience to their resentments, if only posthumously (the Isla Vista killer left the largest verbiage record yet on internet social media).

Denying these miscreants a bully-pulpit from which to vent their spleen certainly won’t halt the slaughter altogether. Yet it would be worthwhile if even if one potential mass killer backs away from heinous deeds because no one is out there to hear him.

We cannot expect the media to cease and desist. The Slaughterfest simply generates too much cash. But we do not have to participate in it. The Goldwater directive provides useful guidelines for a quote or appearance in other circumstances. But our most potent response to an invitation to join the unholy festivity is to refuse it.

Paraphrasing Wittgenstein’s famous epigram on the limits of knowledge:

“Whereof one should not speak, one must remain silent.”

– originally published on Psychiatric Times

Psychological Notes on the Aftermath of Flight 370’s Disappearance: “Cans’t Thou Draw Out Leviathan With A Hook?”

On September 12th, 2001, I joined a busload of mental health workers dispatched by the Red Cross to Manhattan’s 23rd Street Armory, where we were to render help to families of missing 9/11 victims.

We arrived at twilight, and were promptly greeted by a horde of reporters bawling inane, insensitive questions. Inside the Armory’s cavernous space we joined a melee of other circulating professional caretakers; pressing cups of coffee and offers of support upon weeping or dazed or stolid family members who by that time had mostly stopped seeking either.

During an hour of wandering about to little purpose, I grew concerned that our well-intentioned efforts might in fact be augmenting the general misery. So I asked a police sergeant for his take on the situation.

“I’m on my third shift,” he replied wearily. “Off the record, and no offense, Doc, I think you people ought to stop pestering these poor folks. What they really should do is go home and talk to their priests. If anyone survived, we’d have known about it by now.”

I’ve kept remembering that Dante-esque Armory experience as I’ve followed the aftermath of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 on March 5. The harrowing sight of the Twin Tower’s collapse on TV, endlessly repeated, however traumatic, at least showed that few could have survived after the initial evacuation. A few families continued to believe for months or even longer that their loved one would somehow emerge from the catastrophe. But the majority were able to acknowledge their loss within a week, and begin the work of grieving.

By comparison, I must wonder if the mourning of many relatives in the Malaysia Airlines disaster has been tragically forestalled, because hope for a loved one’s survival is still being stoked by a perfect storm of preventable contributing factors.

The unusual events surrounding the plane’s disappearance— the switched off transponder, radical departures from the flight plan, abrupt changes in altitude and direction—set the stage for the usual media circus to evolve into a prolonged and profitable feeding frenzy. (CNN in particular rose like a phoenix from its subterranean ratings.)

The predictable klatch of blathering pundits was joined by a plethora of experts, some dubious. Opinions were rendered on every conceivable aspect of the disaster, from passenger profiles to the flotsam and jetsam trolled from the straits of Malacca to the Bay of Bengal. Endless discussions about the vicissitudes of deep ocean exploration and the latest gizmos deployed in the search, sometimes gave an eerie impression that the crew and passengers of Flight 370 had ceased to matter.

The hope of relatives was further stoked by persistent lollygagging and evasions both by Malaysia Airlines and government officials. From the first, confusing and contradictory reports were issued about Flight 370’s fate. Announcements that the plane had crashed into nearby seas with no survivors were superseded by reports that it might have been diverted landwards—thus raising the possibility that it might now be situated in some obscure locale with all aboard still alive.

Strangely, one saw or heard very little about the relatives themselves on the media early on, and virtually nothing as the days dragged on. (A disquieting shot of a relative being dragged out of an airline conference can be found here.)

It turned out that many relatives had been whisked away to hotels where interviews were denied to reporters on one pretext or another. Others returned to their respective countries. Japanese family members who angrily demanded action from their government were rebuked and advised not to jump to conclusions. So far, they’ve complied, arguably because respect for authority is deeply ingrained in the national character.

Chinese relatives who went back to their homeland have essentially remained silent. Whether they decided to keep mum on their own, or were ordered to do so by an essentially totalitarian government, remains a vexing question.

One or another media talking head has intimated that the prolonged search—and implicitly the glut of media attention—was necessary if relatives were to have “closure” (a word I’ve come to detest in this context). Whatever the cause of death, it is most certainly helpful to have remains properly identified and interred. But this isn’t strictly necessary for effective grieving. I expect that most relatives of the vanished 9/11 victims have been able to successfully mourn their loss. I’ve treated several, and met others.

The “closure” issue often raised by the media implies that the cessation of grief must be absolute, akin to the hermetic sealing of a Pharonic tomb. While successful mourning allows us to pass through the valley of despair and take up life again, memories of the departed must continue to surface, painfully or pleasurably. Such precious remembrance is ritualized in every faith I know.

But the interminable media response to Flight 370 wouldn’t have occurred if millions weren’t watching. One doubts that morbid curiosity alone compelled viewers. Concern about airline security clearly has played a role, with so many of us in the air these days.

I submit that a deeper explanation resides in our perennial fascination with mysteries of every sort and their resolution. Death poses the most formidable mystery of all, and the most poignant need for answers—as well as a conscious or unconscious desire to escape the reaper, even if only by proxy (in this case, by the survival of Flight 370’s passengers.)

So theories addressing the riddle of Flight 370’s fate continue to flourish—some rational, others on the lunatic fringe: invoking human error or mental illness, mechanical failure, hijacking gone wrong, a terrorist’s bomb, a meteor strike, alien abduction. And hope against all hope remains that the plane and passengers still exist somewhere. . . anywhere. . . except in the bosom of the deep.

Angrily demanded by Job to furnish reasons for his suffering, God silences him into humility for what he can neither perform nor comprehend – because he is not God. Speaking invisibly from a whirlwind, God thunders:

“Cans’t thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?”

Leviathan is a mythic sea-creature likened to a whale of immeasurable size. God can fish him up. Job cannot, and should not seek to do so.

Flight 370 has become our Leviathan, its passengers Leviathan’s children. In accepting our inability to draw them out of whatever deep place they lie, lies the best hope of healing, a necessarily ambiguous closure.

[Addendum: Several days ago, the Malaysian government issued a statement that covered the possible routes Flight 370 might have taken and other technical details. All remaining relatives who had been put up at hotels would be dispatched “to the comfort of their homes.” Not only was there no mention of the possibility that the plane had been destroyed, killing all aboard. The word “death” never appeared in the statement.]

– originally published on Psychiatric Times

Oklahoma’s Botched Execution–A Post-Mortem on the Death Penalty

On April 29, 2014, Oklahoma prison officials administered an untested mixture of 3 drugs to Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist. The new cocktail was deemed necessary because European companies that once supplied chemicals used for US lethal injections refused to sell them to states that still sanction the death penalty.

The execution went immediately and terrifyingly wrong. Following administration of the first drug, Lockett, obviously conscious, started to writhe and groan, and then went into convulsions. The death chamber’s curtains were hastily drawn and witnesses summarily removed. While subsequent events are still obscure, it is clear that Lockett expired from a coronary occlusion 42 minutes after the “procedure” began. Oklahoma authorities suspended further executions, including one scheduled for the same day. The usual suspects were rounded up for an investigation. It will take several months before all the facts are on the table.

Lockett was an unrepentantly wicked man. He committed many acts of brutal violence before his arrest in 1999 for the rape, shooting, and live burial of a 19-year-old girl. Most inmates who face a death sentence behave well during the slow march of years it takes for their cases to plod through our courts. But Lockett’s malicious behavior continued unabated on death row. He threatened serious injury to prisoners and guards, proudly proclaimed himself a badass “assassin” while he pursued every legal means of preventing his execution.

Intriguingly, Lockett’s engrained evil and repugnant deeds can be construed as justification for—or against—the death penalty. Refusing to exact the barbaric retribution of earlier times on this monster of depravity could be deemed an exemplary exercise of civilized morality. One could also argue that life behind bars would be far more punitive than a quick and merciful death.

Mutatis mutandis, Lockett’s dispatch could be construed as a civilized society’s most meaningful response to heinous crime. But a remorseless sociopath may actually thrive during life incarceration, at the very least pose mortal danger to prisoners and guards alike. Far better to have him permanently deleted.

Lockett’s maladroit execution predictably rekindled debate over the death penalty. I won’t rehash the standard arguments pro or con. I undertook this piece after hearing several acquaintances assert that, although they strongly opposed the death penalty, the Oklahoma grisly debacle gave Lockett the excruciating end he truly deserved.

The cognitive disconnect implied by this statement set me to wondering about the deeper psychic factors behind standard views. I claim no statistical proof on either side of the dispute, nor do I believe that unconscious, or at least unacknowledged, motives always figure decisively in most opinions one way or another. I only suggest there may be less rational biases swirling beneath the surface of “reasonable” beliefs about the death penalty.

Contrary to the Tom Waits’ ballad, we are not innocent in our dreams, neither as adults or children. Guilt-ridden filicidal and parenticidal fantasies are ubiquitous in early childhood. According to psychoanalytic development theory (to which I still mostly subscribe on clinical grounds), these are checked by fantasied threat of dire punishment dictated by a primitive super-ego, the extravagant harshness of which has yet to be tempered by mercy.

Every child we ever were still lives within the psyche. One theorizes that adult justification of execution may be inflected by the remnants of the child’s persecutory superego. (The awful punishments meted out to the wicked in fairy tales have been said to embody the child’s sadistically inclined vision of justice.)

Throughout history, the voyeuristic yen to watch bloody spectacles has been joined to the sanction of extreme vengeance, practiced on true criminals in the name of justice, but also, and all too often, on innocents judged criminal by a corrupted state—as in the Holocaust. The fictional depiction of vengeance has existed for millenia. Violent retribution occurred offstage in Greek tragedy. Elizabethan and Jacobean stages dripped with blood shed in revenge. Horrifically cruel executions were also viewed by huge, jeering Elizabethan audiences, who savored the gory spectacle while applauding its rectitude. Public hangings were attended just as eagerly in the late Victorian era. In the old West, a multiple hanging was a crowd pleasing popular entertainment, hallmarked by the hawking of beer and preaching of instructive sermons.

One questions whether the insensate lust for retribution of times past still tinges our gentled down, relatively private executions. (Note that revenge drives much contemporary crime and horror fiction as well as film narratives—notably in torture porn like the SAW series.)

Today, mention of retribution is likely to mesh with citing the need for “closure” in death penalty advocacy, whether it is advocated that the perpetrator should receive a death at least as painful as his victim’s, or a humane extinction. Prosecutors and conservative media talking heads often state as received truth that execution will definitively end the grief that has tormented survivors for years, or will enable effective grieving to begin, with the expectation of a quick finish.

But grieving is never so tidily accomplished. It may be prolonged, sometimes indefinitely forestalled—especially when murder is inflicted on the young, the innocent, the good. Gruesome death intolerably mocks the premise of a just earthly and divine moral order. Those so inclined perceive mortal retribution as restoration of that order.

The principal hidden psychological motive for opposing the death penalty actually lies in plain sight, like Poe’s purloined letter: It is the stark terror of our own inevitable dissolution—in Shakespeare’s words: “. . . to die, to go we know not where. . . ,” augmented by the fear that searing torment might precede passage into the void. Several patients told me that they experienced the agony of Lockett’s bungled execution viscerally, as if it happened to them.

My own position on the death penalty has shifted uneasily back and forth, depending on the time and crime. But I’ve always thought that “humane execution” is sui generis an absurdist oxymoron.

I end with a free association to the words of Will Munny, anti-hero of Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s masterful anti-western. To a wannabe young gunfighter trembling after his first— and probably last—homicide, Munny meditates:

“When you kill a man, you take away everything that he has, and everything he’s ever going to have…”

I expect this is where the rubber hits the road, both for those who defend execution—even if the wheels do occasionally come off the car—and those who think it an utter abomination.

Addendum: at this writing, the state of Tennessee has just restored execution by electric chair, since death’s chemistry, at least for the time being, is unavailable.

– originally published on Psychiatric Times

Fake Signing at the Mandela Memorial


In Act I, Scene 4, of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1593), the Earls of Mortimer and Lancaster debate whether Edward’s detested low-born lover, Gaveston, should be brought back from exile. The return has been proposed to reconcile the besotted king with his angry peers. Lancaster bitterly opposes it; the wily Mortimer, his eye on the crown, counters once Gaveston in in London, he can be quickly dispatched by some anonymous assassin to the general rejoicing of court and country, without any blame falling upon the nobility.

LANCASTER: Ay, but how chance this was not done

MORTIMER: Because, my lord, it was not thought upon.

The exchange has always seemed odd, comprising an anbsolutely unexpected “duh” moment in the midst of Marlowe’s sumptuous poetry. It also contains a potent, if mundane truth.
History is strewn with calamities which stem from staggering disregard for dire consequences lying in plain sight, yet perversely “not thought upon”. One example amongst the multitude: France’s defense against the German invasion of its borders in 1944 hinged upon a “Maginot Line” of powerful fixed fortifications. It was regarded as a work of supreme military genius. But the Germany army simply swept around the Line into Belgium and the Low Countries, to conquer France in six weeks. “Duh” indeed.

Flash foward sixty years: at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesberg on December 12, one Thamsanqa Jantjie stood a scary heartbeat away from world leaders (Barack Obama included), high South African government officials, other notables and the Mandela family. Jantjie was tasked to sign the event to hearing impaired people in attendance and watching throughout the world.

During the long ceremony, as different languages were spoken (including African dialects), Jantjie’s gesticulations were curiously stilted, varying little from one speaker to the next. His face, often raised to the heavens, remained impassive; utterly devoid of the expressive play which fleshes out the play of hands in every deaf signing system.

Complaints from the local and worldwide deaf community quickly flooded the internet. It was obvious that Jantjie was performing a private pantomine of outlandish gibberish. One surmises that some listeners in the audience would have been apprized of the cock-up. But Jantjie kept up his bizarre performance, with not a finger raised to give him the hook.

Jantjie blames his aberrant behavior on an attack of schizophrenia, in which he saw angels hovering about the stage. Apparently he has been treated for past episodes; and got himself hospitalized a few days after the memorial service.

It turned out that schizophrenia had also been invoked on several occasions of alleged criminal behavior – including attempted murder – since the mid-1990s. Each time, he was judged unfit to be prosecuted by virtue of mental illness. In one television interview, available on YouTube, he appears quite lucid, shows no psychotic stigmata. In fairness this isn’t conclusive proof that he was not delusional at the memorial.

Jantjie claims his credentials are impeccable; states that he has signed before other events without incident. His qualifications have yet to be ascertained. The interpreting firm that hired him out possibly has intimate ties to the ruling ANC party, and so far has not responded to ‘phone calls. At the TV interview, he was asked to demonstrate his signing competence, but testily refused on dubious grounds.

Government officials have yet to offer a satisfactory explanation as to how Jantjie got to crash the party. The predictable investigation is being undertaken. Its conclusions are not likely to be known soon. At this writing the only certainty amidst the swirl of uncertainty is that some agency and/or individual did not properly vet Jantje. Apparently “it was not thought upon” that he might sully this solemn occasion so flagrantly, and also pose a terrifying security threat.

One submits that the Jantjie affair is yet another example of humanity’s timeless obliviousness to one or another glaringly obvious potential for crisis, with dire or merely risible consequences. One wonders if this chuckleheaded disregard is hardwired into our genome. Down through the ages, it has afflicted brilliant minds as well as those with little wit; politicians, generals, and the average Jane or Joe.

Our profession is hardly immune. During my Bellevue residency, a patient in a trichotillomania study was a successful, apparently well put together borderline woman. In those green and salad days, I was blissfully unaware that a high-functioning facade could mask serious borderline pathology, and overzelous to break new research ground. I failed to recognize that my patient was gradually becoming unglued, as I probed relentlessly into her history. Fortunately, an astute supervisor counselled that I was undermining her fragile defenses. She returned to her previous tranquil state once I gentled up my approach.

Today as never before, we labor under formidable pressures to spend ever less time purely listening to our clients without rushing to judgement The problem stems from – inter alia – the incursions of ill-Managed Care, the shift from an analytically-oriented/supportive paradigm to biological and cognitive interventions; the prevailing yen of our age for therapeutic quick fixes.

If anything is to be taken by clinicians from the Johannesberg debacle, it’s that we must be even more mindful of distress and despair which can easily elude a quickstep march through DSM-V criteria. Like Poe’s purloined letter, profound sorrow may lie in plain sight under one’s clinical gaze – but not yet “thought upon”.

originally published on Psychiatric Times


Bully, a film directed by Lee Hirsch.

At one time, it was received truth that a documentary comprised the obverse of the Hollywood fiction feature. By its very nature, the documentary discovered the world, whatever world, as it ‘really’ was. The idea documentian, from this perspective, was like a Taoist master:
an absolute neutral, like purest water reflecting back to the viewer only what his camera beheld.

Of course, this is purest balderdash. Much as a documentarian consciously strives to efface his persona, the work will inevitabloy be shaped by one or another subjective bias. Not necessarily a bad thing:

Robert Flaherty’s film of Eskimo life in his iconic Nanook of the North
is inflected by his Anglo perspective, but it remains a craftworthy, deeply affecting film. On the other hand, ignoble bias, conscious or otherwise, has tainted excellent work. Leni Riefenstahl’s stunning capture of athletic power and grace in Olympiad, her account of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics is undermined by the fascist mentality which is so odiously blatant in Triumph of the Will, her depiction of the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally.

Contemporary documentarians do not shy away from declaring personal and political biases. Two schools have emerged in this regard. One features the directors’ active presence. Errol Morris’ gentle off-camera questions are heard throughout his films. His unvarying discretion is a tool which renders his revelation of unsettling truths all the more powerful.

In The Thin Blue Line, his relentless inquiry into police and prosecuturial bungling freed the innocent victim from execution, and lead to the conviction of the real murderer. In The Fog of War, under Morris’ gentle probing, a tearful Robert McNamara disclosed his culpability in our Viet Nam debacle.

Michael Moore is an unabashed in-your-face polemicist. In Roger and I, his provocative encounters with General Motor executives enabled a scorching exposure of the corporation’s despicable prizing of profitability over protecting a devoted Flint, Michigan work force from destitution. But as Moore himself has become a leftist poster-boy, his films are increasingly married by his trademark intrusiveness gone hyperbolic. The director now often seems to fancy his own fastidiously messy persona as much his subject, as the venal establishment under his attack.

In the other major current documentary trend, the maker’s maintains a deliberate unobtrusiveness. The film is free of an ‘omnipotent’ narrator, whose God-like pronouncements actually distances the viewer from the subject. Here, the material alone speaks the message. Images and sounds may be real, staged, or a combination of both. This ‘cinema verite’ practise is commonly traced back to Fifties and Sixties indie and documentary cinema, here and abroad (France, notably). However, one discovers verite techniques in Riefenstahl’s sinister craft, and even further back in the silent era, e.g. in Jean Vigo’s hilarious send-up of the idle rich in his 1923 short A Propos De Nice.

Fredrick Wiseman is the old master of American documentary verite, still at work today (he says he doesn’t like the verite label, because it’s too neutral from his engaged – and quietly enraged – political perspective. His 1967 debut, The Titicut Follies, exposed the scarifying milieu of a Massachussetts hospital for the criinally insane. Since then, he’s exquisitely investigated institutional practises and relationships of – inter alia – a high school, hospital, ballet company, welfare agency, and legislature. His cool but always compassionate vision has shaped important pictures like Hoop Dreams (Steve James’ 1994 moving account of inner-city ‘teen pro-basketball hopefuls), and Grey Gardens (the Mayles’ brothers 1975 tragi-comic portrayal of folie-a-deuxed mother/daughter socialites, descended into desparate circumstances.

Director/producer Lee Hirsh brings Wiseman’s engaged politics and documentary strategies to his new docuemntary, Bully. It explores the endemic persecution of the hapless weak by their largely unrepentant oppressors in American schools. Hirsch also exposes the frequent crass, if unwitting, sanction of bullying by the very school officials mandated to protect present victims and protect future harm. His courage in address this immense and still largely ignored issue is admirable; his commitment to its eradication absolute. But he doesn’t own nearly enough of Wiseman’s expertise at the vocabulary of documentary argument to stroke a viewer head-on, as with the astonishing rawnes of The Titicut Follies. Of which, more presently.

Hirsch advances his arguments via the actual and narrated experiences of five victims, their families and associates, all from working- to middle-class backgrounds. Two youngsters are already dead by their own hands as the film begins, so others must speak of, and for them. Alex is a socially awkward Iowa middle-schooler, unrelentingly ridiculed as ‘fishface’. Kelby had a bright athletic and scholastic future at her Oklahoma high school, until she bravely left the closet. Now most kids – and, incredibly, some teachers – ridicule her openly, while her once widely admired family is being wrenchingly shunned by their community, fellow churchmembers included. Ja’Maya, a shy Mississippi ‘teen, was so mortified by savage schoolbus taunting that she took a gun onboard to threaten her perseuctors, and was promptly thrown in jail.

In classic verite mode, Bully has no narration. Hirsch deliberately – and to my mind wisely – avoids the usual parade of expert talking heads, who spout mind-numbing stats; cite uncertain causes; and recommend contradictory or unworkable solutions. The viewer’s conclusions will be drawn from what Virginia Wool called ‘the cotton wool of everyday life’: from establishing shots of the various small town and city locales; from what young and older characters say and do; at home, in typical schoolday milieus – buses, classrooms, lunchrooms, recess yards; hallways; offices); at community meetings; public protests – and, tragically, at funerals.

As far as I could determine, there was no hidden camera surreptitiously gathering evidence. Bullies are in plain sight. Most don’t appear particularly villainous away from their nasty business. One is struck by how native bullying is, not just to the perpetrators, but to most of the kids who stand by as neutrals, or participate vicariously: a pencil-poke or passing slap here; a vicious insult there. Even more painful is the passivity of the bullied. They’ve obviously learned to go along to get along, and avoid worse.mars

originally published on Psychiatric Times

Multiplex Mayhem

I’ve always savored a movie theater’s magical cocooning—that ineffable sense of being whisked away from mundane reality into the film’s seductive realm. Snuggled into your seat like a swaddled babe, your safety seems implicit. It’s utterly unimaginable that danger could ever be lurking in that enchanted darkness – except for the people on the screen.

Sure, characters can be machine-gunned by mobsters, drowned in an upside-down ocean liner, or disintegrated by alien death-rays. But aren’t they actors, and isn’t being killed occasionally part of their job?

Movie violence has become more brutal over the last 50 years. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) paved the way. The director’s grisly slaughter of a major star like Janet Leigh halfway through the story (how could it be believed?!) terrified viewers as never before. Vicarious carnage steadily escalated thereafter. As a result, we may be more disposed to writhe in our seats—but we still stay put. Our faith that we can be frightened, but never actually harmed at the Multiplex remained inviolable.

One would have thought this illusion of invulnerability would be exploded when a shooter invaded an Aurora, Colorado theater on July 20, 2012. The assassin emptied a powerful shotgun, then a semi-automatic into the audience waiting to watch The Dark Knight Rises. Twelve were killed, 70 others wounded.

Afterwards, media talking heads blamed vicious videogames, or barbaric movies for the slaughter. Yet neither before nor after Aurora has there been one piece of statistically valid research proving that even a single murder was incited by a violent videogame or film.

The possibility that the shooter was afflicted with mental illness that went undetected because of systemic failure was also pondered. He still keeps silent about his motives, probably on legal advice. So we cannot know at this time to what extent—or indeed if—he was deranged.

Despite another interminable round of debate about gun control, no viable legislation has yet to be passed. Indeed, gun sales have risen. Continuing gargantuan box office successes would seem to indicate that viewers still feel as safe in theaters as theaters as they do at home. One surmises they consider the bloodbath at Aurora a spectacular one-off.

The industry’s only discernible response was desultory safety training for movie personnel.

On December 12, 2013, shortly after a training session at the Grove 16 theater in Wesley Chapel, Florida, Curtis Reeves, Jr. killed Chad Oulsen with one shot from a .380 semi-automatic handgun. The shooting occurred during matinee previews. Reeves allegedly objected to Oulsen’s text-messaging. (It turned out that Oulsen was checking in with his daughter’s baby-sitter.) Reeves’ attorney invoked Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” statute – claiming that his client acted in self-defense after Oulsen had bombarded him with popcorn. The court rejected this repellant balony. Reeves currently is awaiting adjudication behind bars. Reeves is a 71-year- old retiree; a former Tampa police captain; then a security chief at Busch Gardens. He is described as a devoted husband and father, and a church-going good neighbor. Oulsen was a naval veteran, a hard working husband father, generally beloved, who never owned a gun.

The media has been odiously sharking through Reeves’ past for psychological “issues.” Apparently he was a bit authoritarian on a few occasions, but that’s neither a felony nor a misdemeanor. Nor was he a devotee of violent amusements. He allegedly denounced someone else for text messaging a week or so before the Grove 16 shooting.

Like the Aurora shooter, Reeves has disappeared into the criminal justice system, so we are unlikely to hear more about him soon. Whatever else motivated or disinhibited him, I wonder if this latest homicidal eruption in a user-friendly communal space comprises an extreme example of a gradual erosion of the social contract that has beset our nation.

In small towns and big cities alike, one encounters less of that agreeable American willingness to get along in order to get along. Too often, common courtesy is replaced by rank rudeness. Congenial resolution of individual grievances is frequently supplanted by the taking of great affront on small provocation. Not that long ago, Reeves might have expressed his disapproval about Oulsen’s texting more rationally and listened to his explanation more reasonably.

However, the chief cause of these outrages in civic places continues to be the staggering national arsenal of guns, frequently lying close at hand. As an ex-cop and security officer, carrying a weapon may have been second nature to Reeves. But did he need to bring his revolver to the movies? Did he even have to own it after retiring? Without it, Reese might have treated Oulsen more peaceably, or merely shouted his objections.

I researched purchase of a .380 semi-automatic over the internet. One website offered it “dirt cheap.” Another chillingly analyzed its disadvantages and merits. While the .380 was judged less powerful than, say, a Colt 45, it was commended for easily being concealed. One was also assured that close up to one’s target, it would “get the job done.”

Reeves got the job done.

Movies continue to draw banner crowds. Once again, it appears that the Florida shooting is perceived as just another one-off. Ever higher ticket prices may ultimately scare off audiences. . . but not an occasional homicide.

originally published on Psychiatric Times

Hail Caesar!

caesarSid Caesar died on February 12, at 91. From 1950 through 1954, he starred on NYC-TV’s Saturday evening Your Show of Shows. Previous variety programming relied heavily on vaudeville antecedents. A banana-peel laugh rioteer like Milton Berle performed broad slapshtick in the midst of an omnium gatherum of acrobats, animal acts, anemic tenors, and second string hoofers.

Your Show of Shows had its share of stock variety material. But its enormous popularity stemmed from a comic vision with a scope and originality unprecedented in the medium. On any given Saturday night, one would howl through send-ups of marital woes in the ‘burbs; or foibles in the workplace; wicked parodies of bathetic reality weepfasts like This Is Your Life, or Italian neo-realist cinema; sidesplitting pantomimes and barmy monologues on anything or everything by a daft German professor. There was a dash of slapshtick bufoonery, too, raised to absurdist Dada-esque altitude.

Your Show of Shows was ably produced by Max Liebman, but Caesar was always its presiding genius, master crafter and player in skits, monologues and pantomimes. The most famous of the latter was a frenetic one man, all parts depiction of a World War I aerial combat duel.

caesar220px-Coca_caesar_your_show_of_shows_1952He was supported by a cornucopia of comic talent. Notables in his madcap fellowship were the rubber-faced Imogene Coca and dimunitive Howard Morris. His writing stable included Carl Reiner (who also acted), Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Larry Gelbardt.

All went on to become legends in theater, film, and TV. Spurred by Caesar’s prodigious gifts, Your Show Of Shows provided the groundwork for Saturday Night Live, Annie Hall, Seinfeld, The Producers, and so much more. Incredibly, each show was assembled in several days with limited rehearsals and broadcast live.

Caesar not only pleasured millions . . . he helped me get through a reasonably tormented adolescence. One recurring skit particularly echoed the plight of being placed in the middle of my parents’ endless skirmishing: Caesar would find himself haplessly sandwiched between a battling couple (Reiner/Coca) in a movie theater, restaurant, or some other public locale.

The pair always ended up walking away hand in hand while Sid was left on the ground, dazed, his clothes in rags. It was my psyche rather than my wardrobe that often got shredded when I was elected parental peacemaker. Somehow I took perverse satisfaction in Caesar’s ability to endure every trashing by the gruesome twosome, and return next week for more – like the Road Runner’s tattered coyote.

The antics of Caesar and his wacky crew also inspired me to read James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, H. L. Mencken, and other sparkling wits of the day. Miraculously, I awakened to my own ability make people laugh. (In all fairness my parents’ quarrels were leavened by their own crackpot wit)

In high school I was a earnest lonely nerd – mocked by jocks, ego savaged by unrequited love for girls to whom I hadn’t spoken a word. Tutored by Caesar and his literary counterparts, I became the class clown; acknowledged—even admired—when my shenanigans got me tossed out of class and into detention.

I skipped my senior year; went directly to college at 16 on a Ford Foundation scholarship. Unfortunately the well-meaning experiment made no provision for planful mixing the klatch of immature “Fordies” with older students as well as Korean War vets. Once more I had become the dorky outsider. No wonder that I instantly identified with the gang of Animal House misfits I stumbled upon in the office of Jester, Columbia’s humor magazine. I honed my writing skills as I rose through Jester’s rowdy ranks, eventually becoming its editor.

Back in the day, that position could have launched a career in print journalism or in Hollywood. But I had become smitten with psychoanalysis – hadn’t Freud authored a terrific joke book? – and opted for medical school and psychiatry instead.

Subsequently I’ve blended practice with journalism. My speciality remains adolescent therapy. One needs considerable humor to withstand pubescent sturm und drang. Mutatis mutandis, many kids learned to deal with their angst by acquiring an ironic perspective in their work with me.

I haven’t written humor per se for years. The market for it has become terribly slim. But I hope my work in the “applied analysis” of cinema, media, and popular culture has not lacked wit. I’ve also been able to fight off my own occasional blues by re-viewing Sid and his merry crew on YouTube.

Caesar himself wasn’t so lucky. The audiences who savored his wit didn’t know that by his supremely successful 30s, he had become an infuriating self-loathing drunk and pill addict. His afflictions over several decades after Your Show of Shows crippled, then nearly destroyed, his career. His devoted wife of many years and his 3 children suffered for him and from him.

A prolonged Freudian analysis in the 50s was monumentally ineffective. Caesar’s fame, even as it declined, as well as his formidable denial made him avoid AA. Hospitalization dried him out, but relapses predictably followed. Several therapists did better than their orthodox predecessors, but he never really let them reach him. As far as one can determine, his drug regimen for a mood disorder (which possibly fueled his addictions) was hair of the dog, along with whatever sedative comprised the flavor of the day.

Caesar hit rock-bottom in the late 70s when he realized he was a few steps from suicide. So he traveled alone to his beloved Paris—presumably to take a relatively small role in a Peter Sellers movie, but really to heal himself through his own loopy version of gestalt therapy. He took a room at a quiet hotel where he tape recorded and listened to himself – actually himselves – for hours and sometime days at a time. “Sick” Sidney debated “healthy” Sid for both their souls. His autobiography* samples those dialogues, profoundly moving – are often funny as anything he ever did on Your Show of Shows.

Caesar’s idiosyncratic self-analysis freed him from substance abuse and stilled his personal demons. He became a health and fitness addict, lived an infinitely happier life for 35 more years. He performed nearly until the end, ever the consummate, reliable pro. But, poignantly, his work somehow never attained the xenith of wit he achieved on Your Show Of Shows.

Much print has been put to paper about the relationship between art and madness, between comedic talent and affective illness. Why the gift of great mirth so often co-exists with ravaging anguish in many comic geniuses remains a vexing question. Was the euthymic Caesar unable to reach the dizzy heights of the hypomanic Caesar? Or had years of addiction so bruised his brain as to simply rob him of his powers?

No matter, not now. Those 5 years of Your Show of Shows alone have won him a secure place in comedy’s pantheon as well as my heart. In Shakespeare’s words:

“Here was a Caesar.

Whence shall come another?”

originally published on Psychiatric Times

Pink Panther


(This piece was published as “BOND REVISITED, CLOUSEAU OBSERVED”, in FILM/PSYCHOLOGY REVIEW, Volume 4, #1, 1980, pp. 140-51.
My remarks then were prompted by the latest Inspector Clouseau film, THE REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER , released in 1979, and sixth in the Clouseau series. The latter began in 1963 with THE PINK PANTHER, a routine caper movie in which David Niven took the main role of a notorious international jewel thief. Clouseau played second banana to Niven. His maladroit character, portrayed by the inimitable Peter Sellers, quickly became popular with audiences, and a lucrative franchise followed.
The Bond oeuvre commenced in 1962 with DR. NO. Unlike the Clouseau films, the Bond franchise hit the ground running, its instant popularity stemming from Sean Connery’s witty impersonation and a caravanserai of special effects, exotic locales, and perennially nubile beauties. The latest, tenth Bond movie, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME was also released in 1979..
The following version has been edited slightly, but remains very much of its time, which embraced (inter alia) the Watergate cock-up, Richard Nixon’s malodorous presidency, and the seemingly endless Viet Nam conflict.)

At the end of Diamonds Are Forever, the pair of yobbos, who’ve tried unsuccessfully to kill James Bond throughout the film, are masquerading as waiters on a luxury liner. They are about to serve Bond and his latest pneumatic companion a lethal supper, when Bond sniffes out one of the assassins’ cologne. In a single fluid motion he douses him with cognac, sets him ablaze, trusses the partner to a ticking time-bomb between his legs, and pitches him overboard. All of this, detonation included, takes place in about ten seconds. Bond emerges without a scratch, his haberdashery dazzlingly intact.
In Revenge of the Pink Panther, Inspector Jacques Clouseau is being fitted for his latest egregiously obvious disguise. Comes a knock at the door; someone hands him a comic-strip anarchist’s bomb, sparking merrily away. Clouseau pitches it to the tailors with a mad howl. It detonates, destroying the entire store. Clouseau emerges with not a scratch, his wardrobe in smoking rags.

Autre temps, autre moers. Different times call forth different heroes. Conceive that Bond’s star rose throughout the Sixties. Although the sun continued setting over the British empire, the dollar was doing just fine, thank you very much, and all things seemed possible for the American imperium. One submits that Bond was essentially a Hollywood creation, Lalaland’s version of the omnipotential adolescent* – the kid who thinks he knows everything and can do anything.

Bond’s intellect and memory were prodigious for a man of mayhem. In a flash he could digest arcana about heraldry, the gold market, or laser weaponry. His reflexes were razor sharp, his courage unfaltering as he faced man-eating sharks or megalomanic madmen. He also shared the adolescent’s loopy blend of lofty idealism and rank narcissism, shifting dizzily between service to Queen and Country, and shameless self-indulgence with luscious babes, choice wines and baccarat.

Then came a cascando of assaults upon our nation’s most precious givens, including cheap gas: the Watergate scandal, the Viet Nam debacle, Nixon’s resignation and the downfall of the Holy Buck. It becomes more difficult to sustain belief in an sexy, omnipotent secret agent when E. Howard Hunt, supposedly one of the CIA’s best and brightest, is discovered skulking about the Watergate, disguised in a crimson fright wig. Bring on the clowns!
Et voila, Clouseau, the reverse of Bond’s medal. Clouseau, who affects a Bondish image, but whose omnipotent fantasies are consistently undone. Clouseau – who genuinely believes he knows everything – or the unrevealed will soon be illuminated by his consummate sleuthing. Yet it’s hilariously obvious that the man has the deductive powers of a gnat.

Like Bond, Clouseau is never at a loss for action. Bond grasps danger instantly and always does exactly the right thing with whatever means at hand to get out of a deadly jam. However, Clouseu is an impulse ridden flailer, an Harpo-like addict to the large muscle groups, strewing wreckage and ruin about him for the innocent and culpable alike.
Clouseau doesn’t lack courage, but it’s the foolhardy bravado of the two-year old who steps into a bustling thoroughfare, absolutely confident that his reality takes precedence over the traffic. Clouseau, too, usually prevails in the end, not through the exercise of intellect or karate; rather dumb luck, fate, karma, whatever.

Bond, who masters every hostile environment with consummate sang-froid, gives over to this stumbling boob, totally at the mercy of whatever perils he stumbles into – until dumb luck, fate, karma, whatever – prevails. However, Clouseau’s continuing survival is predicated on external caprice, sheer whims of fate, .Yet, in an ancient and great comic tradition he remains God’s fool, absurdly confident in the grandiose delusion of his omnipotence.

A note on Oedipal intimations. The potent, gentlemanly Bond betrays little personal competitiveness or will to power within Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He affects a rebellious posture, but in the crunch he remains absolutely obedient to the directives of his acerb chief, “M”. The applied analyst speculates that this “M” worship – which is quite clear in the novel – is founded on an Oedipal compromise. One notes that Bond is content to flirt, but never bed, Moneypenny, M’s gal Friday.**

Clouseau, on the other hand, is insatiably ambitious and fiercely competitive. His desire to supplant his boss, Dreyfus, as head of the Surete, has escalated with each Pink Panther movie. Meanwhile Dreyfus has mutated into an archetypal mad scientist like Dr. No, engaged in ever weirder schemes of world destruction in aid of eliminating his idiot ‘son’.)
Clouseau is utterly without Bond’s gentlemanly graces, a parvenu supreme. He fancies himself suave, magnetically attractive, while women regard him as a risible, gullible jackass.

T.S. Eliot wrote that:

Ambition comes when early force is spent
When all things are no longer possible…

The ever loyal, patriotic Bond, rather than act out Oedipal rivalry with M, projects unconscious patricidal intentions towards his surrogate father, “M”, upon the malignant foreign adversaries he dispatches so handily. Clouseau, on the other hand, is no devotee of Gallic gloire, and just as eager to dispatch Dreyfus as the latter is bent on slaughtering him.

In sum: Bond, a paragon of gentlemanly graces and selfless patriotism, a hero of unerring skill and exuberant sexiness, yields pride of place to Clouseau, hero manque/maudit – an inelegant Nixonian bumbler, well befitting this age of narcissistic entitlement and gross mismanagement in the halls of power.


*In the ‘omnipotential stage’ of late adolescence described by Eugene Pumpian-Mindlin in 1966, the youngster believes all doors are open vis-a-vis career, romance, so forth. Under this rubric, adolescence is deemed completed when the omnipotential stage is replaced by an appreciation of ordinary reality’s homely pleasures.
Which is yet another reason why we envious oldsters, having closed the door on our own omnipotential possibilities, are so easily irritated by the presumptuousness of youth.

** Of course my Oedipal spin on the ambivalent father-son relationship between Bond and M is utterly fanciful. While Moneypenny remained a given in the Bond universe, M was replaced by an acerb Judy Dench after Bernard Miles died; she herself has been superceded by yet another male M, played by Ralph Fiennes, in mar (2012).