Usually when mental health advocates talk about a fictional portrayal of mental illness, it is to complain about it, and with good reason. Mental illness in Hollywood is either played for laughs or as a standard horror trope to provide motivation for the psychotic killer. Of course, mental illness is one of the last socially acceptable stigmas in our society. Traditionally stories about mental illness fall into one of two categories: laugh at the insanity (both comedies and horror films) or see mental illness as the repression of individual “quirkiness” (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted, and every other drama about mental illness). If society wasn’t so filled with stuffed shirts, these free spirits wouldn’t be institutionalized is the basic concept. Both of these fictional treatments of mental illness are based in denial: the former (the “psychopath” allows us to create distance between us and “the other”) and the latter uses pretentiousness to deny the seriousness of these illnesses.
So you can imagine my shock after watching last night’s episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” entitled “The Grove.” If you watch the show and this episode is still waiting in your DVR, you need to stop reading right now. I generally don’t give a damn about spoilers but not this time. I really don’t want to take away from the emotional impact so stop reading if you haven’t seen the episode yet and intend to.
“The Walking Dead” has touched upon mental illness before, to debatable realism, but what makes this episode so seminal was that it tackled mental illness in CHILDREN.
A tv show about a zombie apocalypse presented the most realistic fictional portrayal of childhood mental illness I have ever seen.
Why do I say it was so realistic?
Because I never saw it coming.
No, not Lizzie killing her little sister Mika so she would “come back” as a “walker.” Not even her plan to do the same thing to baby Judith. Not Lizzie playing tag with a walker a few minutes earlier in the show. Not her feeding mice to a walker like it was a pet snake.
I didn’t see any of those things coming…
…but I should have.
And that is why the episode was so unsettling. It wasn’t until the damage was done that I realized the full magnitude of Lizzie’s mental illness. Lizzie was first introduced in the fourth season premiere “Thirty Days Without an Accident” in mid October. Six months ago. For six months Lizzie’s mental state has been staring me in the face every Sunday night. Of course I saw her weird ideas, her emotional flat affect, her “oddness.” Clearly, the girl wasn’t right in the head. But I made excuses. She lost her parents. She is growing up in the middle of the end of the freaking world zombie apocalypse. No one would expect her to be right in the head in those circumstances. But I didn’t take it seriously until she killed her sister.
Last week, The New Yorker ran a long interview with Peter Lanza, the father of Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza. This article was also seminal in that it was the first time a parent of psychotic killer has spoken at length about who their child was before they became a black and white mugshot on the TV news. It included much of Adam’s psychiatric history. I’ll share the article here, if you haven’t read it.
Over and over, a theme emerges with Adam. Not just the failure to realize the full gravity of Adam’s increasingly strange thoughts and behaviors. Beyond that, the theme is focusing on the wrong thing. A psychiatric nurse at Yale who evaluated Adam many years before felt that his parents were overly focused on his academic performance rather than his increasing social isolation.
It reminds me of Carol, so focused on trying to teach Lizzie to survive in the walker world that she missed the biggest obstacle to her survival. Carol was the one who taught Lizzie how to use the knife that she would later use to kill Mika.
Kind of like Nancy Lanza buying Adam guns.
Nancy, like those of us watching “The Walking Dead,” missed the forest for the trees.
And that is what made “The Walking Dead” and 11 year old actor Brighton Sharbino’s portrayal of Lizzie’s mental illness so realistic. Denial.
Denial is what makes serious mental illness so dangerous. Denial is what allows it to grow unchecked within the mind of its victim. Denial is what will ultimately kill the victim, and, on rare occasions, others.
Readers of January First have criticized my denial in regards to what was happening to Jani. Prior to Peter Lanza’s interview and last night’s “The Walking Dead,” I had bristled at that. How was I supposed to know? We are not programmed to look for mental illness or even think about it. Humans, by nature, are wired to deal with problems immediately in front of them. That is what has kept us alive as a species. Consequently, when confronted by the symptoms of mental illness, we tend to make excuses until the symptoms no longer allow us to. For me, that came when Jani became violent not long after Bodhi was born. The need to protect Bodhi forced me to face the seriousness of Jani’s then unnamed condition, just like the need to protect Judith forced Carol to “deal” with Lizzie’s mental illness in the only realistic way available in a post apocalyptic world where she “can’t be around people.”
Now I understand that when people read the book who are not Jani’s parents, they see obvious signs of Jani being disturbed long before I accepted it. Now I understand the judgment levied against Nancy Lanza for having firearms in the house. Those outside the situation see things in black and white. They see things only in terms of the safety of others. It is an easy decision for them. But for those of us inside the situation, it is different. We don’t see not because we are stupid but because of hope. We eternally hope for the best. We want to believe we can solve the problem and make everyone okay. Nancy gave Adam access to guns because of hope, hope that guns would be the way Adam could connect to the world. It’s not blind optimism. It is desperation. No parent ever wants to believe that their child is lost forever. For most of us, giving up on your child is the greatest sin a parent can commit. So we keep trying, refusing to give up, refusing to accept what those outside the situation see having only one inevitable outcome. You call it stupidity. We call it love. We cannot give up.
It is this undying hope for a better outcome that is both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. It is the answer to “I don’t know how you do it,” and the cause of our greatest failures. It is what caused the Sandy Hook Massacre. Hope springs eternal because it is what keeps us going. It is also what causes us to dismiss that which we shouldn’t.
For us, Jani’s violent impulses forced us to face the truth before it was too late. Unfortunately for Nancy Lanza and Adam’s 26 other victims, there was nothing to force her to face the truth of what was happening to Adam was far more severe than just Asperger’s. Unfortunately for Carol on “The Walking Dead” and Lizzie’s sister, Mika, Lizzie did not do enough to force those around her to face the truth until it was too late. Just like with Adam, there was nothing Lizzie did before that would give any indication of what she would do. That is, until after the fact. After the fact, looking back to her first appearance, her reaction to the walkers, her lack of emotional response, it seems inevitable.
Although most critics were moved by the episode, a few reacted to it like Paul Vigna of “The Wall Street Journal:”
Of all the sick, demented things that have happened in the zombie apocalypse on “The Walking Dead,” it’s hard to imagine any as shocking and sad as seeing insane little Lizzie standing over the sister she just stabbed to death, no concept of what she’d just done, fully expecting her to “come back.” Carol being forced to kill Lizzie was a close second. There’s really no two ways about it, this was one of the sickest episodes of “The Walking Dead” in its entire run. All the darkest crevices of the human psyche come out in tonight’s episode, “The Grove,” and while it’s one thing when you see a character like the Governor do shocking, demented things, it’s far more upsetting and uncomfortable to see a child, a little girl, doing them. But that’s where this show went tonight. It’s hard to imagine any other show on television would go that dark. You really have a build an audience up for it, because it’s not an easy thing to swallow at all.”
Vigna just can’t believe it. I suspect he had the same reaction to the Sandy Hook Massacre. Certainly this editorial uses much of the same terminology used to describe Adam Lanza: “sick,” “twisted,” “demented.” But what bothers me most is this line:
All the darkest crevices of the human psyche come out in tonight’s episode, “The Grove,” and while it’s one thing when you see a character like the Governor do shocking, demented things, it’s far more upsetting and uncomfortable to see a child, a little girl, doing them.
Essentially, what Vigna is saying is that it’s okay for the character of the Governor to be psychotic because he is a villain. That doesn’t conflict with Vigna’s sensibilities and conception of psychotic violence. But it is “upsetting” and “uncomfortable” to see a “little girl” psychotically violent. Why? Because that conflicts with Vigna’s image of children. It would be different if Lizzie had been a villain from the get go but because we were made to care about her, her final psychotic action is too much for him. I don’t blame him. We all wanted Lizzie and Mika to be okay. They were children. Innocent.
But that is the point, Mr. Vigna. A tv show about survivors in a zombie apocalypse made you feel what we parents of severely mentally ill children feel everyday. Everyday we watch the children we love, the children we would die to protect, fight a battle against an enemy we cannot protect them from and who is stronger than we are. Everyday we see the innocence of our children torn away by the ravages of severe mental illness. Everyday we watch them lose a little bit more of the ability to live in our world. And every day we live in fear that eventually we will lose them forever.
I am sorry to say, Mr. Vigna, that little girls can do shocking, demented things. It is called severe mental illness. I am also sorry to say that their parents have to make decisions like Carol: the needs of the mentally ill child versus the needs of the larger society. We try to balance the two. Sometimes, like Nancy Lanza, we fail. The rest of us are just running like the characters on “The Walking Dead” from a herd of zombies, hoping that we can carve out a life for our disturbed children in this apocalypse.