the mentally ill and the madness of guns

With mass shootings the new normal these days — oh, who am I kidding, by now they’re the old normal — I’m starting to run out of things to write, much less say. In November I published a post grappling with the “thoughts and prayers” bromide issued by too many politicians in the wake of such killings, and with the same-old same-old being expressed following the horrors of Sante Fe, I wonder what I or anyone can possibly say that could change anything. But something has to be said. Because something has to change. Because this has got to stop.

So let’s take another tack, here. Let’s talk about mental illness, because even some people who support sane gun legislation and oppose the demoniac manipulations of the N.R.A. fall back on this idea that keeping guns out of hands “the mentally ill” will somehow magically solve this singular American hell of our own creation.

And guess what, everybody. It won’t.

Why? For starters, most mentally ill people aren’t violent. Some are: Between 3 and 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. Flipping that statistic on its head, it means that 95 to 97 percent of such acts are committed by people not defined as mentally ill. Which means, in other words, that most violent people are sane, a point so obvious it rarely gets stated amid all the rampant scapegoating, doublespeak and bass-ackwards emphasis on everything but the guns themselves.

We need gun control not because mentally ill people are prone to violence, but because PEOPLE ARE PRONE TO VIOLENCE. Period.

You want to talk about people with mental illness? Let’s talk about my sister Lucy, the most breathtakingly gentle soul who ever walked the planet. Or my husband Chris, whose only violent act in our 20 years of marriage was that time he knocked a fan to the floor when he woke late to catch a train. Or my father Louis, a pacifist who sparred as a young man but later swore it off, shunning the violence, and thereafter walked out on any film that threw a punch.

I’m more violent than they were. And I’m sane. Supposedly.

Lucy and Chris died by their own hands; my father tried to. In each case, their mental illness manifested itself not in anger at the world or in acts of pathological self-aggrandizement — because, let’s face it, that’s what mass killings are — but the opposite. They weren’t insensitive. They were too sensitive, feeling too much pain with too little hope for assuaging it. Most folks who struggle with psychiatric burdens suffer not from a cold insufficiency of feeling but a glut of the stuff, another obvious point that gets brushed aside in the casual and expedient demonization of the mentally ill.

But I get the logic. I do. As Americans and as human beings, we don’t want to be responsible for these killings. We want some Other to be responsible for the madness. We want Crazy People to be at fault. If, as it comes out, the latest mass murderer exhibited no warning signs, had not been treated for malady X or syndrome Y and wasn’t already diagnosed as mentally ill, the conversation inevitably shifts. The post-slaughter dialogue turns to How He Slipped Through the Cracks,  What Can Be Done To Improve Mental Healthcare and Who Might Have Identified Him as a Crazy Person But Tragically Didn’t.

The idea being: Okay, so maybe the shooter wasn’t labeled mentally ill, except of course he WAS mentally ill, because otherwise there wouldn’t be so many grieving parents and so many impotent politicos tweeting out condolences, right?

Following this logic, the solution is to A) identify all Crazy People everywhere, even the ones who haven’t yet been diagnosed as Crazy; B) make sure none of these Crazy People get access to guns; and C) make sure all Non-Crazy People have full and unfettered access to as many guns as possible. Because guns don’t kill Non-Crazy People. Crazy People do.

What garbage.

First, as I said above, most people with mental illness aren’t bent on killing anyone. Crazy acts are most often committed by Non-Crazy People, which makes the distinction between the two pretty damned worthless, don’t you think?

This also means, and I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, that the line between Crazy and Non-Crazy is much blurrier than you think. It’s a porous border, my friends, and there aren’t any ICE officers waiting to snatch you and send you on home. I say this not as a psychiatrist, which I definitely am not, but as a person who has lived a while and come away with the distinct impression of sanity/insanity as a fluid and relative state much influenced by stressors and circumstances. It isn’t binary; it isn’t off or on, one or the other; instead, it falls on a spectrum. To quote my brother Randy, “Everyone’s a head case. It’s just a matter of degrees.

And so, given the innate Craziness that rests within us all,  it is in our best interests as individuals and as a nation to make guns REALLY, REALLY HARD TO PURCHASE. I know this is a difficult point for some to swallow, but I don’t care. Watching children cry after their classmates die in a bloodbath is even more difficult to swallow, and I’m tired of it. It has to end. Somehow. Someday. Maybe now. What do you say?

to an unknown music lover

Look at what I stumbled across: a flyer reprinting one of my father’s columns for the long-gone New York World-Telegram.

This is one of those old family papers I periodically lose, then find again, then lose again, then find again. I had actually found it and uploaded it to Facebook several years back, but not in high enough quality to actually read. And it deserves to be read. I am wholly, ludicrously biased, but still: If you care about music, if you care about words, and if you care about words crafted in service to music, you should read it. It’s posted at bottom.

The piece is an ode to the humble but impassioned concertgoer, one who lives and breathes classical music and reveres its practitioners. Yes, “his”; Louis penned this gem 63 years ago, in an age when writing and conversation defaulted to the masculine, so let’s just assume he meant “person” when he wrote “man.” He served as the World-Telegram’s classical music critic for nearly 40 years, from 1928 until 1966, cranking out multiple reviews a night until the paper folded in the wake of the New York City newspaper strike.

He was 59 then. I was 2 1/2. I have no memories of visiting Daddy in the newsroom, accompanying Daddy to concerts or hearing Daddy vent in our Queens apartment at the end of a long day. My sister Lucy did. She once overheard him using “fuckin’” on the phone with a copy editor, and for a week thereafter – at least, in Mama’s version of events – the squirt deployed this powerful new term as a frequent qualifier in everyday conversation. E.g.: “Please pass the fuckin’ milk.” (My parents stifled the urge to spit out their coffee and correct her, and the word faded from her vocabulary.)

No vulgarities made it into this column, of course. My father’s paean to “the little man of music” reads like a prayer. It’s beautiful, simply wrought and poignant in its sincerity, describing a common listener of uncommon musical devotion.  I believe he was writing about himself.

“He is the man who often goes without an amenity or two for a seat at the opera”: that was young Louis, a kid from the tenements in Little Italy, scraping together the funds to feed his addiction. “He is a man of simple but profound spiritual needs without whom there would be no concert halls and no orchestras to fill them”: Daddy often characterized music (or, if he felt like getting specific, Beethoven) as the one true god he worshiped. And I believed him. He loved music as much or more than anyone else I’ve ever known, and he wrote his criticism, his columns and his many books from that place of love.

So here it is: “To an Unknown Music Lover.” Louis Biancolli, New York World-Telegram, 1955. I’ve uploaded the image in all its fulsome jpeggish ginormity, so if you have any trouble reading it, just click on it and then click to magnify it. If you have any trouble with that, please shoot me an email, and I’ll send it to you.