Schizophrenia Not Caught on Tape

To get a read on how accurate Hollywood's portrayal of mental illness is, I asked four gentlemen diagnosed with schizoaffective disorders to watch some films that feature "crazy" characters.

Jan 17 2012, 3:30pm

Over a century ago, famed Swiss psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler invented the term “schizophrenia” to classify the mental illness whose symptoms included auditory and visual hallucinations, catatonia, paranoia, and disorganized thoughts in hopes that we would stop calling sufferers “bat-shit crazy” and find a way to actually treat them. Since then, science has developed medications to treat the symptoms, but the underlying causes are still unknown, and media depictions of schizophrenics are often dismissive and outrageously negative.

To get a read on how accurate Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness is, I asked four gentlemen diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar and schizoaffective disorders to watch some films that prominently feature medically “crazy” characters. All four are accomplished members of society: Curtis Plum is a rapper on Strange Famous Records; Erik Leavitt is writing a book about his experience with mental illness; Otis Crook is a prolific musician, writer, and artist; and Matt Bodett is a painter. Here’s what they had to say:

Strange Voices has been the go-to health-class movie for schizophrenia since its 1987 made-for-TV release. Nancy McKeon (Jo from The Facts of Life) portrays Nicole, a young woman whose dreams of being an architect are thwarted when her dad’s computer starts talking to her. She spends the rest of the movie in and out of mental hospitals and on and off medication.

Otis Crook: The thing that got my goat about this film was the lack of serious lockdown security. When you’re in one of these hospitals, it’s much tighter, with no possible escape.

Erik Leavitt: If you suffer from this disease, people look at you, and whatever your dysfunction is, it becomes what motivates all of your actions. I remember being in the county mental hospital and staring at these inkblots, and all I could think was, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I said that all these blots looked like me having sex with my mom”—basically the most Freudian thing I could say—and give that answer for every one of their blots. But I could see how closely they were examining me, how they were weighing my every word for significance, and I understood that all of a sudden I lived in an irony-free zone, and a joke like that would be taken as either confession or psychotic confusion. So in a week I went from being this complex person to a cartoon. Nicole is that same cartoon. She is only the disease personified.

A buffet of gore featuring scalping and intestinal hemorrhages, Maniac! depicts a schizoid serial killer, Frank, out to gut a bunch of sexy ladies. Go figure. (See also: Black Christmas, Bleading Lady, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, etc.) People with schizoid personality disorder (schizoids) generally don’t have hallucinations or paranoia (it often resembles autism or Asperger’s syndrome), but Frank has both.

Erik: The monologue in Frank’s head is Frank’s voice. It would usually be someone else’s voice. And Frank is weirdly in agreement with the voice in his head. Someone with schizophrenia or a mental illness with symptoms of auditory hallucinations would usually be a hostile audience to the voices in his head. Calling Frank “schizoid” here is like rich white people who stop calling all Latinos “Mexicans” and opt instead for “Puerto Ricans,” because it sounds fancier and somehow more politically correct.

Otis: I hate when newspapers feel the need to report that so-and-so mass murderer was bipolar. In this case, it says he’s schizoid right on the box, implying that schizoid people are more capable of scalping women to create a fantasy mannequin that looks like their dead-prostitute mothers.

Curtis Plum: In my hospital stays, I’ve had many unmedicated bipolar and schizophrenic roommates. Some were very far out there—and I was too, at times—but I can’t say I ever felt threatened by my fellow patients. There were no physical altercations between patients in any of my stays. And we were in close quarters with good reason to feel aggro because we were locked up. Equating acting “crazy” to danger doesn’t make sense to me.

Somehow, Focus Features thought it would be a good idea to make a movie in which Samuel L. Jackson plays a schizophrenic man named Romulus who becomes a “Sherlock Homeless” (Erik’s phrase) on a murder-mystery case requiring him to use his classical piano training to solve a crime of homosexual passion. Yeah. Jackson’s performance has mad-genius archetype written all over it, and his hallucinations are depicted by scenes of scores of beautiful, oiled black men in white moth wings dancing. This happens a lot in the film.

Matt Bodett: Before I was diagnosed, I went to a psychiatrist and took a test to see whether I could figure out some of what was going on with me. In the end my test was normal except that I scored really high for schizophrenia. The psychiatrist told me that creative people tend to score high anyway. This is what is difficult about the “mad genius” stereotype, like with Romulus: On the one hand it’s true, but on the other it’s another stereotype allowing us to create a character who exists outside social standards. And we can feel OK about it. It seems lazy.

Erik: This goes back to some real old assumptions about insanity—that it somehow allows the maniac to have a pure vision about the world and understand its truths. Rom’s visions never mislead him. They only make his life more difficult through his responsibilities to truth and morality. Rom isn’t delusional; he’s clairvoyant. Is clairvoyance in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]?

Curtis: Somehow, films make mental illness an asset. That’s a crock. First, it downplays the illness. Second, a lot of mentally ill people aren’t creative types at all. Maybe the “mad genius” is a myth people came up with to explain their lack of creativity—like, “If only I had a magical mental illness.” Dare to dream.

The holy grail of all schizophrenia movies; the how-to film for all wannabe screenwriters who want to portray the sensitive side of mental illness. Screenwriting forums all over the internet push A Beautiful Mind onto newbies, citing it as the epitome of the schizophrenic experience.

Curtis: When I’ve had hallucinations, I’ve usually been aware on some level that they’re hallucinations. The way John Nash has imaginary friends for a long period without anyone noticing is very unlikely. This doesn’t match up to my personal experience. I don’t doubt that he had hallucinations of people—because I have myself—but his imaginary buddy is giving him all this positive, life-affirming encouragement, which sounds like a definite asset. My delusions were not an asset.

Matt: A Beautiful Mind may be an exception because it is a true story. I really like this movie because of how human it makes the illness. The sad part is that the movie could only show very little of what his life was like—it was much worse than portrayed.

Erik: When I was losing my shit, I was still afraid of somebody calling me crazy. I was still aware that “crazy” was a bad thing. A lot of being paranoid was about trying to appear credible. But in these films, nobody’s trying to protect themselves. These people never hide in the bathroom to lose their shit. Instead, they just immediately lose their sense of shame.

While the Joker hasn’t been diagnosed with a form of mental illness, some of his henchmen—like the guy who has the phone blow up in his stomach—are clearly schizoid, a fact that went unremarked by the vast majority of reviewers.

Curtis: The film really bothered me because the Joker enlists a bunch of psychotics to carry out one of his attacks. They’re portrayed as these obedient, easily led people so desperate that they’ll do anything, and they’re performing tasks for the Joker that appear to involve tact, composure, being on time, and following instructions. Psychotics are the opposite of that. If I were having a psychotic episode and you told me to turn on the hose in 45 minutes, it wouldn’t get done. It could take me like ten minutes just to get my wallet out, even if it were in plain view. It’s like the film says these guys are crazy, but then they just operate like everyday thugs, which basically equates mental illness with being just like everyone else. Except you’re a criminal.

Erik: Delusions, hallucinations, and psychosis made me fearful, not violent. The things I was afraid of were so scary and unmanageable that I couldn’t coordinate a plan to take them on. Leaving the house is hard enough, but taking on Batman seems insurmountable.

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