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Trouble in Mind

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-01-24


Comedian Drew Carey used to do a funny riff in his stand-up routine about postal workers, where he theorized that the spate of shootings committed by disgruntled employees was directly caused by the oddball prices for postage stamps. Trying to figure out multiples of 44 cents was just too confounding, he thought, and eventually the postal worker would just say to hell with it and start firing.

The joke always caught the audience off guard and usually generated a huge shock laugh. It was a surprisingly dark bit from a comedian who was known for performing a relatively clean act. I got a big kick out of the joke the first time I heard it and found myself repeating it to friends unfamiliar with the act. It seemed to me a perfect example of gallows humor, a blackly comic take on a manifestly unfunny situation.

Drew Carey, of course, wasn't the first comic to use a topical sick joke in his act. There's been a long tradition in American humor of spontaneous and perverse responses to tragic or horrific events. In the mid 80's, the space shuttle "Challenger" disaster was a terrible, televised horror, yet within days of the explosion I was hearing jokes about Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the ill-fated crew. Plane crashes, celebrity deaths, horrific serial killings it seemed that no tragedy was too taboo for the nation's sick joke makers. And the lag time from event to joke kept getting shorter I remember hearing the first "Jeffrey Dahmer" joke not twenty-four hours after the story broke.

Sociologists and therapists believe that the sick joke phenomenon is a coping mechanism that people employ in response to terrible stimuli. There is a threshold to how much psychological trauma people can take, and humor can act as a release valve for the trapped anxiety caused by the event. The jokes, then, are cathartic ways for people to being to start processing the terrible reality of what they've experienced.

A more likely answer is that people are sick bastards. As a free speech zealot, I usually champion the perverse and the profane, but it's highly unlikely that I'll be retelling Drew Carey's joke anytime soon. The recent shootings in Arizona were so shocking and painful that I've shamed myself for ever making light of gun violence. I'm sure the feeling will pass like it did for Columbine, like it did for Virginia Tech and eventually I will return to my usual careless self, but for now I can't stomach the thought of reducing all that pain into a glib and convenient one-liner.

It's been awful to behold the political dialogue that's occurred since the shootings, as both sides seem hell-bent of competing for the title of "Most Exploitive." There is a necessary conversation, perhaps, about the effects of violent rhetoric in public life, but the time for that dialogue is in the future. Right now the only appropriate national response should be sadness and sorrow.
I wondered, after the killing, after the shooter was discovered, if the subsequent investigation would point to a loner, the classic psychotic so often associated with mass killings. And of course he was, as everyone has now learned. Symptoms of profound delusion were noticed by friends and teachers, and a series of disturbing incidents showed the gradual deterioration of the man's rationality. After the shooting, most of his friends talked about his increasingly isolated existence, and they reported that they weren't surprised when the killer's identity was finally revealed.

Something about the friends' responses really bothered me, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. But then I identified it, and it's this: in my life, I think I've known a few people who I could imagine being capable of committing a similar crime. A mass killing, an assassination, something terrible, and after the fact a TV reporter would be interviewing me and I would say, Yes, I saw the signs. I know I sound melodramatic here, but I swear that I've been acquainted with a few profoundly unbalanced people who genuinely frighten me with their unmasked volatility.

Disturbed by this, I conducted a brief, informal poll among a group of friends and asked them if they knew anyone capable of this kind of destruction. Initially, most people said no. But after a few moments, invariably the respondent would get quiet and then say, "Hold on . . . " And they would produce a name. It seemed that most people were familiar with at least one person who fit the profile.

This is all anecdotal information, of course, and proves nothing, though I'm sure my friends came away from the interview a little disturbed and uneasy. But it got me thinking, if my presumptions are truly correct that I indeed know someone who is a ticking time bomb--what am I supposed to do about it? Contact the police? Call his family? Try to get him to a mental health center? I can't imagine myself doing any of these. What I'll probably do is what you'd do avoid him, remain scared of him, hope you're not around if he goes off.

It's no secret that mental illness is a significant health concern in the United States according to the National Institute of Mental Health, between 20 and 25 percent of all Americans experience some form of mental illness in a given year. "Mental illness," is, of course, a broad generalization and often difficult to assess, yet it's hard to dismiss some of the numbers 14.8 million suffer depressive disorder, 5.7 million bipolar disorders, 2.4 million schizophrenia. Of the 33, 000 suicides in 2006, 90% suffered some form of mental illness. (Highest suicide rate: White, male, age 85 and over.) And while the stats show that only a tiny number of the truly psychotic are considered dangerous, that doesn't do me any good if I think I'm aware of someone who I think is capable. I wish I was a better person, the kind who can intervene, get confrontational, show empathy and true concern for the lost souls out there. But I'm not.

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