In a very personal way I appreciate the Academy Award acclaim given to movies about people with mental disabilities who prevailed in life like “A Beautiful Mind” and “I Am Sam”. I had severe bi-polar disorder when I was a student in the 1950s. Thanks to the late Lee Atwater, the electro-convulsive “shock” treatments I received over forty years ago have probably been the most publicized political episode of its kind since Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri was replaced on the Democratic ticket in 1972 because of a “nervous breakdown” in his past.
Atwater was a legendary political gunslinger from South Carolina whose ability to exploit fear facilitated his rise in the ranks of Republican political operatives. He ultimately managed the first George Bush’s winning presidential campaign featuring the race-baiting “Willie Horton” ads and Lee finally became chair of the Republican National Committee. I was the Democratic nominee in a 1980 congressional race in South Carolina and Atwater was a consultant for my opponent. To cultivate his macho image, Atwater spread the word in the national media that he had planted a story with local reporters covering the race that I had been “hooked up to jumper cables” when I was a student. The story appeared in major newspapers, magazines and on television networks. Atwater seemed to delight in kidding about a suicidal 16-year-old who was treated for depression with “shock” treatments.
My struggle with depression as a student was no secret. I had talked about it at a widely covered media conference when I was a State Senator in 1977. I have been a board member of the Mental Health Association of South Carolina and have shared the story of my illness and recovery for many years. To have progressed from adolescent despair to a responsible adulthood was not without its pitfalls. But, becoming a husband, father and grandfather with a diverse career as an attorney, writer, political and civil rights activist has been a rich and rewarding experience. Teenage depression is a major problem and I believe my story offers hope to young people who suffer from a relentless fear of the future.
Dying of a malignant brain tumor in 1990, Lee Atwater wrote me a letter that said, “It is very important to me that l let you know that out of everything that has happened in my career, one of the low points remains the so-called ‘jumper cable’ episode.” And, “my illness has taught me something about the nature of humanity, love, brotherhood and relationships that I never understood.”
The relationship with my wife, Judy, whom I met while I was struggling with bi-polar disorder as a student at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was much better therapy than the “shock” treatments. I told her as much as possible about what I had experienced with the illness and she loved me anyway. Her love and understanding has enabled me to make it through 39 years without any more treatments or medication.
“A Beautiful Mind” is the story of John Nash, a delusional schizophrenic and mathematical genius who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Brilliantly played by Academy Award favorite, Russell Crowe, Nash underwent shock treatment and heavy drug therapy as an adult, but the love and care of his beleaguered wife, Alicia, was the crucial thing that finally enabled him to persevere. The performance of Jennifer Connelly as Alicia also won an Oscar nomination. Judy and I shed a few tears as we held hands and watched love prevail like we did at the movies in Chapel Hill as students so many years ago.
Then we got even more teary eyed when we saw the sappy, but poignant film, “I Am Sam” about a man with the IQ of a seven year old who is trying to raise his bright little daughter by himself. He gets involved in a long legal struggle with the State over his fitness as a parent. Sean Penn received an Oscar nomination for playing the retarded father and his interaction with his daughter and his mentally disabled buddies is wonderful.
Crazy is the N-word for people with mental disabilities and I remember as a kid how we patients jokingly used it on the psychiatric ward. But guess what, this year, at least in the movies, Crazy is Cool. I am considering a run as an independent candidate for Strom Thurmond’s seat with the major party candidates in a three person contest. They have already raised several million dollars. I will not accept more than $100.00 from anyone and no PAC money. I will be an advocate for peace and justice, a sustainable environment and the poor and working class-a “Field of Dreams” candidate for open, honest government.
The U. S. Senate could benefit from a member raising hell with corruption like Jefferson Smith did in Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. I lack the political naivete of Senator Smith, having run three state-wide races in South Carolina. Each time I received just under 50% of the vote with the “Tom’s a little crazy” rumor contributing to the winning margin. Who knows what might happen this year when a one-third-plus-one plurality could win with an evenly split vote and Crazy is Cool!
Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and civil rights activist in Columbia, South Carolina. <www.turnipseed.net>