America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment

The first word that came to mind after watching “That Way Madness Lies”, Sandra Luckow’s documentary about her older brother’s Duanne’s wildly destructive tendencies brought on by paranoid schizophrenia, was courageous. As a film professor at Yale, Columbia and Barnard with a long career in filmmaking, Luckow could have made any number of films that would have been less painful and confessional. However, she surely must have understood that this was not just a bit of family history that would draw an audience in the same way a roadside accident draws the stares from bypassing cars. Its broader interest is in showing the terrible lack of institutional support for families that have to cope with a walking time-bomb like Duanne Luckow. While it is beyond the scope of this article, I can say that I have seen such problems up-close and can empathize deeply with what Sandra Luckow had to endure.

As American as apple pie, the Luckows hailed from Portland, Oregon where her father operated an antique car repair shop. Mechanically gifted, he built a tiny helicopter that he flew for pleasure. Showing the same aptitude as his father, Duanne soon became his partner. In addition to his talent for repairing cars, Duanne also became an avid home movie buff, varying between the typical vacation fare and ambitious works depicting himself as a James Bond type super-spy. He also was an accomplished still photographer who managed to entice young women into cheesecake type shoots that oddly enough substituted for any real intimacy. Looking back at this and other eccentricities, Sandra wonders whether the family might have sought professional help early on. Obviously, those eccentricities were normal enough in a country that is a breeding ground for maladjustment.

When Duanne reached his forties, the warning signs grew more pronounced. Still addicted to amateur film-making, we see him chatting away in iPhone selfies that are like the heat lightning that precedes a violent thunderstorm. Side by side, we see film clips made by Sandra whose professional path was first inspired by her older brother’s hobby. Put together, they constitute a novelistic character study that prepares you for his eventual descent into hell.

In his forty-sixth year, long after schizophrenia appears (it usually surfaces in the late-teens), Duanne began to spiral out of control. Unlike most people savvy enough to delete emails from Nigerian con artists promising fabulous wealth in exchange for putting up only a few thousand dollars, Duanne began to send tens of thousands to a man who guaranteed millions. This led to financial insolvency that his now aging parents had to compensate for. They absorbed the losses and helped to keep him living in his modest ranch-house that had begun to show signs of serious neglect. One day, after an innocent puff of smoke came out of a heating vent, he became convinced that a fire had caused major damage. This led to him sending hundreds of claims to insurance companies who understandably discarded them as written by a crank. Meanwhile, his descent into the Internet’s shadowy criminal underground deepened. Meeting a Russian woman online, whose website featured photos probably similar to those he took as a teen, accepted a marriage proposal under the condition that he send her thousands of dollars. Once again, his aging parents paid for his delusional flights. Beyond all this, he developed the typical paranoid fears about a conspiracy involving government agencies, insurance companies and the local police topped off with an obsession over chemtrails. All in all, he was the stereotype of the man wearing a tinfoil cap to ward off secret electronic attacks.

None of this would have mattered much if Duanne had kept to himself. But as the years wore on, the financial drain on his parents mounted and the anger at those who supposedly wronged him—including Sharon who had become the legal executor of his house—led to death threats. We see excerpts from his emails that threatened terrorist attacks just like the kind that has led some to spend years in prison. By this time, Duanne’s symptoms had become so obvious—even to the police—that he was routinely confined to mental hospitals rather than jail. (That would change later on when he began to become much more of an obvious threat to strangers.)

As a film scholar, Sandra shows snippets of films that featured two of the Northwest asylums that he spent extended periods in. The first was Oregon State Hospital, where “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed. The other was Western State Hospital in Tacoma, Washington where Hollywood movie star Frances Farmer was confined after one of her frequent psychotic breaks. Her story was told in the 1982 film “Frances”, with Jessica Lange playing the troubled actress who died in 1970.

Another cited film is key to understanding the torments suffered by all of the Luckows, both well and ill. That is Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 “Titicut Follies”, the first in a series of cinéma vérité documentaries (a term he hates because it is so pompous in his view). Filmed in Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, a place openly described as housing the criminally insane, Wiseman shows how the long-time denizens are basically warehoused without any hope of release. This was at a time when psychotropic drugs had yet to be developed. With Haldol, Thorazine, Mellaril and other first-generation drugs dispensed widely at mental hospitals, the patients could be released to halfway houses that were less expensive and theoretically more humane. A recent NY Times article describes how flawed such programs have become:

The stench from Abraham Clemente’s apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, this summer was overwhelming. Maggot-infested scrambled eggs were strewn across the floor; a cantaloupe was so spoiled, it seemed to be melting. Feces were ground into the carpet.

Mr. Clemente, who is 69 and has schizophrenia, kept the shower and sink running for the “oxygen.” He blamed a kitchen fire on a doll nailed to a cabinet. He believed he could crush and smoke his antipsychotic medication to achieve its intended effect.

Yet the state of New York determined Mr. Clemente was capable of living on his own.

Unlike Abraham Clemente, Duanne Luckow never exhibited that kind of bizarre behavior. In his case, he was “reasonable” enough, which meant being tidy and soft-spoken, to earn releases. However, a refusal to take his medication led to a new round of terrorist threats and arrests.

Finally, he was jailed for an extended period for an offense that could have led to a 12-year prison term. But he was so “out there” that the courts ruled that he had to go through a new round of forced medication before standing trial as a “competent” defendant. However, so extreme were his symptoms even after large doses of medication that a judge ruled that he was to be remanded to a mental hospital for an indeterminate period just like in the days of Bridgewater State.

Nowadays, just about every schizophrenic can get whipped into shape by heavy doses of psychotropic drugs to be deemed competent to stand trial. This means that someone who pushed a total stranger onto the subway tracks is as likely to spend life in prison as a mafia hitman.

This wasn’t always the case. It all changed after John Hinckley tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan. After Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, committees of the House and Senate held hearings regarding use of the insanity defense within a month of the verdict.

Within three years of Hinckley’s acquittal, Congress and half of the states enacted laws limiting use of the defense and one state, Utah, abolished the defense outright. In 1986 Utah was joined by Montana and Idaho, two other “frontier justice” states. Congress passed revisions embodied in the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which reads:

It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense.

As a rule of thumb, schizophrenics who are in a “severe” condition are too detached from reality to go out and kill somebody, let alone cross the street. People who are this dysfunctional are generally hospitalized. The more typical occurrence is somebody who goes off their medication when not hospitalized, but who are sufficiently in touch with reality to use a knife or some other weapon. And even if such an individual is in a “severe” state at the time of the crime, they will pump him or her full of medications before and during the trial to effectuate a “sane” condition sufficient to win a conviction. Another factor that militates against a successful defense is that psychiatrists are no longer allowed as expert witnesses in many cases.

In a September 29, 2013 episode on Sixty Minutes titled “Imminent Danger”, Steve Croft discusses the rash of mass shootings carried out by mentally ill people for whom society fails to provide a safety net. While Sandra Luckow tells Croft that her brother has never carried out a violent attack (most schizophrenics never do), she admits that he is afraid that he might, especially in light of the threat he made to her that someone armed with an AR-15 was going to show up at her New York apartment and pump her full of hollow-point bullets.

Statistics gathered on schizophrenia indicated that 3.2 million people are afflicted with the illness in the USA. If you spend any time in a major city like New York, you will soon discover that many of the homeless are people like Duanne Luckow who fall through the cracks of largely underfunded and bureaucratically distorted medical and social services. In a revealing article titled “When Hearing Voices Is a Good Thing”, Olga Khazan refers to a survey that discovered a correlation between cruel and accusatory aural hallucinations and the type of society you live in. If you live in such a country like the USA, the cruelty and accusations in a sick person’s brain can reach such a fever pitch that it might lead to a psychotic break with collateral damage to total strangers. In less dog-eat-dog societies, the voices are different.

But there was one stark difference, as Stanford News points out: “While many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful—and evidence of a sick condition.”

The Americans tended to described their voices as violent—”like torturing people, to take their eye out with a fork, or cut someone’s head and drink their blood, really nasty stuff,” according to the study.

Meanwhile, the Indians and Africans were more likely to say that their hallucinations reminded them of friends and family, and that the voices were playful or even entertaining. “Mostly, the voices are good,” said one Ghanian participant.

I would conclude by saying that this is just one more reason to struggle against a social system that by its very nature leads sick people to either kill themselves or others who are total strangers.

“That Way Madness Lies” opens today at Cinema Village in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. Highly recommended.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.