by Chris R. Morgan

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“Many of the children at Eastern are chronically mentally ill. They’ll never see what we see, hear what we hear, think in ways we do.” This is narration from the Academy Award-nominated documentary Children of Darkness, produced by Richard Kotuk and Ara Chekmaya and which aired on PBS in 1983. It explores the lives of young people who struggle with mental illness, of the institutions that house them, of the parents who place them there, and of the counselors who treat them. I’ve mentioned this film in previous posts, mostly in passing and almost always in tandem with likeminded works such as Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies and Geraldo Rivera’s exposé of the Willowbrook State School. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to explore the film in detail. But then I forget that this is an era in which impossibility seems less and less rare. Sooner or later I would be given this blessing, and I was, as it so often seems to be, through Twitter.

“This is what happens when you add the voice over to an old documentary about mental illness to video of SJWs,” reads a tweet posted by Jenna Abrams. “And it actually makes sense.” Below the text is just that: a video mashup of the most comical tantrums of left wing protestors set to narration of Children of Darkness, the aforementioned lines included. I suppose it’s hard to argue, on some level, that it doesn’t make sense. Ideology-as-disorder is a reliable cudgel. It’s certainly not easy to let go of with the advent of the “social justice warriors,” whose largely emotive and performative brand of persuasion lends to them an air of hysteria. And so to wield the cudgel effectively, one must go big or delete one’s account. As of this writing, Abrams’s tweet has over 6,000 retweets and over 10,000 “likes.”[1] And it’s a clever bit of media manipulation to be sure, almost pop art-level. But people seeing this on their timelines are left to wonder if the SJWs are being framed, as the mentally ill tend to be, as either threats to order or as pitiable. Perhaps by actually watching the film, which is available through Kotuk on YouTube, we might be able to surmise the intent of the tweet.

Viewers of Children of Darkness will find the following: Brian, a schizophrenic patient of Eastern State School and Hospital in Trevose, PA who is prone to violent, indiscriminately directed outbursts; the Elan School, a private treatment center for affluent teens with behavioral and substance problems and whose “no bullshit” approach is barely distinguishable from psychological torture; an autistic boy named Billy at Sagamore Children’s Center in New York who must be restrained to a bed for hours so as to prevent him from harming himself; and a Staten Island hospital fraught with deaths of patients due to neglect or harsh procedures. And those are just the framing devices.

“I was trying to kill myself so I could be with my mother,” says Denise, a teen patient of Eastern. “I love her a lot, and I don’t even know her, that’s what’s so funny.” Jerry, a patient at the same complex with muscular dystrophy, had not seen his parents since being dropped off two years before. “Three days after [being dropped off] … I was trying to call them at home and got somebody else who moved into our house, and six months later they wrote me a letter saying they were in Las Vegas, and they enclosed it with a check for $20.” By film’s end, both are out of the hospital, Jerry struggling to find a job and live on his own in Philadelphia, Denise’s whereabouts unknown. Children of Darkness runs the gamut of suffering, not just from patients but also from parents who are still present. “Why is this child? Why did God create it? That’s all I’ve always wondered,” says the mother of the autistic Billy.

Through Kotuk and Chekmaya, mental illness is not one easily comprehended condition, but one with many hues and intensities, never requiring the same approach to management. This is shown by the counselors in Children of Darkness, who are given substantial screen time. The Elan administrators, for instance, are direct in their harshness; students who act like “a baby” are “screamed at,” students who act like “a mature adolescent” are “talked to.” The staff at Eastern are more overrun and beleaguered, both by the demands of their patients and the outside indifference that had brought them under their care.

Children of Darkness is also a film steeped in little details: Billy’s protective Giants football helmet, the charming Australia t-shirt worn by a near-catatonic Denise, an Elan student wearing a bunny costume and leg shackles as punishment for trying to run away, Brian smiling while his father talks to him during an outside visitation. These moments, great and small, form a parasitic attachment onto the viewer. Children of Darkness is at once irresistible and difficult to watch, and all for what it is not. It eschews the aloofness of Titicut Follies and the grandstanding of Geraldo’s exposé. It is not a work of gothic nonfiction but of colorful, unavoidable reality.

But merely expositing a film doesn’t take us very far in answering why mental illness is used in political rhetoric at all. Contrast it, perhaps, against the use of cancer in the same way. When describing an opponent’s views as “cancerous to the body politic,” or some such, the metaphor speaker seeks to render them as dangerous to the point of being fatal if not neutralized soon. Mental illness, however, doesn’t work like cancer. It is not something that a sufferer can be entirely excised of in treatment. At best it is manageable. Saying one is mentally disordered by ideology, then, implies that one is hopeless, cannot be reasoned with, and so whose ideas are out of step and ultimately invalid.

When writing about Sarah Palin’s incoherent endorsement of Donald Trump, Slate’s Katy Waldman said that the apparent stream-of-consciousness nature of her speech was reminiscent of “clanging, a verbal symptom of schizophrenia in which the patient compulsively rhymes words that bear no logical connection to one another.” Rather common, almost harmless, language. But Sam Kriss, also writing in Slate, uses Eric Garland’s infamous game theory tweetstorm to make the rhetorical intent more explicit:

Game theory models human actions on the presumption that everyone is constantly trying to maximize their potential gain against everyone around them; this is why its most famous example concerns prisoners—isolated people, cut off from all the noncompetitive ties that constitute society. One of its most important theoreticians, John Nash, was also a paranoid schizophrenic, who believed himself to be the target of a vast Russian conspiracy. (Emphasis added.)

“But I digress,” he adds. Whatever one’s quibbles with the academic validity of game theory, they don’t seem to matter because John Nash had a screw loose. Neither, it seems, does Nash’s Nobel Prize.

Keeping with the metaphor, then, what are the “symptoms” of the social justice warriors? Possibly they are lazy, less interested in being challenged by any one theory or line of argument than they are in finding the view that best fits existing moral precepts. They may also be arrogant, believing rules and manners as such do not apply to them because their truth renders them moot. At worst they are just not very intelligent. Though more likely they wildly overvalue how personal the political truly is. These don’t ring like objectionable points of critique. Indeed, they are far and away more preferable. For they do not absolve those “diagnosed” with disordered ideology of responsibility for their own actions and thoughts. They do not enable the progressive’s penchant for politicizing the therapeutic nor do they elevate self-diagnosis to a kind of craft hobby. But to indulge those arguments would seem inconvenient. Because the same symptoms that drive special snowflakes to disrupt campus speakers are also found in “free speech activists” who disrupt play performances.

But the attributes of activists do not interest me as much as the mindset that causes people to look at depictions of mental illness to find primarily, perhaps exclusively, opportunities for scoring political points. I hesitate to pinpoint what attitude propels the mindset as it does. If I’m not generous I’d say cruelty, though it may more fairly and accurately be indifference, a common enough source of woe in human failing; the readiest to indulge, the easiest to ignore, and the hardest to reverse. But on this I have flimsy authority. I only know with certainty what the mindset is not, and anyone who watches Children of Darkness can find precisely what I mean.

One of the film’s stops is the Sagamore Children’s Center, which treats young people with autism. Employed there at the time of filming was teacher Joe Romagna. He is one of the “stars” of the documentary aside from the patients, and it’s easy to see why. He works in a classroom with numerous severely autistic adolescents. The camera almost struggles to keep up with him as he moves from desk to desk trying to give equal attention to each student, some lacking basic communication and motor skills, some hyperactive, some languishing under the side effects of medication. “What I hope for for them is that they can be happy and be taken care of all the time,” Romagna says. “I don’t have hope for all of them [that] they’ll be like you and me, I don’t think that’s possible at this point.” Not that this realism deters him, in fact Romagna’s lack of deterrence is almost superhuman. “So much effort for so little,” his interviewer comments from behind the camera. “A lot of people say that,” Romagna replies with a smile and a nod:

It’s not a little to me. A kid, you know, is a kid and he deserves a chance to be here like everybody else and deserves a chance to get better, to enjoy himself. The kids need to have somebody close to them. And it’s important to me while I’m doing what I’m doing, that I’m close to the kids, too. … I have no plans to do anything but this for the rest of my life.

The viewer may feel drained while watching this segment, but more so than in other sections. Where we might be able to create distance between someone with schizophrenia and ourselves, we cannot do the same with Romagna, who stands as a direct challenge to the competent. His energy, though extraordinarily boundless, even for a teacher, is dedicated to the hard work of care. His constitution, moreover, refuses to see certain types of humans as burdensome or abstract. To do the opposite of this, that is, to take a condition and form it into a rhetorical construct or bogeyman may or may not be altogether indicative of cruelty or even basic wrongheadedness. I just know that it is not good.

1 Jenna Abrams’s Twitter account—or rather the account claiming to be used by a human named “Jenna Abrams” (its output made it unclear)—was suspended since this piece was posted. Why? I have no idea. But there you go.