Madness is a Messy Affair

Ian Brady’s ongoing plea for sanity registers some important contentions with legal prosecution. Here, I’ll look at a few of their psychiatric implications.

This is him today, with Myra Hindley the murderer of five children in the early 1960s:

Ian Brady in Court

Click for source. Hindley’s dead.

Since 1985, Ian Brady has been clinically insane. That he soon might not be, seeking as he is the chance to commit suicide in a regular prison, is testament to the awkward authority held by criminal psychologists: because they represent that attempt by the modern state to incorporate the individual, with his emotional and ritualistic instincts, into its own process for calculation and systematisation, a conflict between the gradient reality and binary bureaucratic world that interprets it.

Bleak though this is, so much hinges upon a declaration of sanity: it is the distinction between the validation of a person’s outlook and its relegation to the condescending majesty of the clouds. But the delusion is ours if we pretend the outcome is in anyway proportional to the assessment.

In some ways, the mental eclipse being classed as mentally ill is more severe than death: by relying on the highly subjective interpretative techniques of psychiatry, it can transform someone’s life irrespective of broadly understood hard, powerful evidence. The BBC has a few such examples: Stuart Harling found that “hurling papers from the dock and shouting threats” somehow lacked persuasive force, the jury rejecting his plea to insanity. But it is also suggested that in instances where the punishment may be capital punishment as many as 22% of pleas are fabrications. How many have escaped the system, and how many miscarriages of justice has it made inevitable?

When Brady was first diagnosed, he now says that he was “method acting”; he understood the necessary prerequisites to be moved to a mental hospital, and exploited their shortcomings. If true, then something ominous is apparent: a sane person may rationalise his way into insanity only to be trapped like a fly in a jar. Suddenly every word uttered is the confirmation, however bleak or sublime, of a madman’s madness. It is the intelligent man’s dystopia.

In ‘Science as a Falsification’, Karl Popper described Freudian psychoanalysis and Adler’s “individual psychology” as “simply non-testable, irrefutable. There was no conceivable human behaviour which could contradict them. This does not mean that Freud and Adler were not seeing certain things correctly; I personally do not doubt that much of what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a psychological science which is testable. But it does mean that those “clinical observations” which analysts naïvely believe confirm their theory cannot do this anymore than the daily confirmations which astrologers find in their practice.”

Psychology, Popper might agree, is empirical in its scavenge for laws: but it would rather create more than challenge the ones it discovers. By virtue of focusing on the atomised individual, psychiatric diagnoses can’t rely on objective analytical frameworks. The common tests, regulations and analyses to which the patient is subject simply cannot hope to account for the idiosyncrasies of the insane; it is a process inviting paradoxes that neither the sensationalist media nor its audience would feel qualified to investigate. But the result of this, ironically, is that scientists are more likely to make existing disorders seem so complicated that they become impossible to challenge – the prevalence of “multiple personality disorder” in the United States, at a rate ten times higher than in India, is one such illustration. Psychiatric treatment risks failing as a science of falsification.

There’s a more moderate parallel in conspiracy theorists, here, and how society tends to treat them: consider Alex Jones, whose apostolic promulgations are so obviously deranged that no comment he ever now makes can affect the real world. He believes he has uncovered the workings of the Bildenberg illuminati or some other such global order; even the non-partisan BBC’s Andrew Neil invited him onto his show to call him a “madman”. But in Jones’ mind the colours are reversed, not negated: the rainbow begins with violet rather than red, but it is a rainbow all the same. His worldview finds consistencies where none exist to normal minds. But just as this process can produce those society reveals as geniuses, like Einstein, so can it throw him to the bins and mock them as they gnaw on forgotten food. Jones typifies the boy who cried wolf when he really believed he saw a pack of them. It is this which the law’s psychiatry needs to be able to explain. No mean feat.

That the psychiatric experience has proven so ready to change does not offer much comfort here. In 1967, David Cooper wrote in his introduction to Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation that “madness has in our age become some sort of lost truth”; for him and his fellow anti-psychiatric contemporaries, sectioned patients were victims of authoritarianism, junkies being freed minds representing narcotic rebellion against the law. For all the obvious paranoia for which polemics were the cover, R.D. Laing’s “alternative” psychiatric hospital at Kingsley Hall proving ephemeral, a number of changes were brought about to official hospitals. Patients were treated less as material objects, and the utilisation of “labels” lost some of its simple ease and flippancy. The assumption that all mental disorders were biochemical was recognised as fruitless. However, these changes proved symptomatic of a system still struggling with its own internal rationalism, its purpose, methods and ideas able to offer visibly less than the legal system demands of them.

None of this is to undermine the good that psychiatry and psychology clearly have to offer, of course. The trouble is that we still have no idea how to quantify it, which is worrying: a great deal hinges on an institutional process that many aren’t confident is even scientific.

(Tomorrow, I might try and touch on a few of the other legal and moral questions that Brady presents. At a godlier hour.)


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