Down the Memory Hole

Woody Zimmerman

13 October 2013

In a recent article I referred to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s work championing mental-institution patients’ rights to independent living. (This wasn’t all that she worked on, but it was one of her public policy issues.) Mrs. Carter has been active in mental health work for over 40 years, starting when her husband was governor of Georgia. Her role in getting inmates released from institutions was well-known during Mr. Carter’s presidency and into the 1980s. In recent years, however, we haven’t heard as much about her efforts. I noted that her activism had the unintended result of creating the “street people” phenomenon of the last 30 years.

For this mention of Mrs. Carter’s activism (and its consequences), I was mocked in a recent letter to the Atlantic Highlands Herald. The writer awarded me a conspiracy-theory citation, for blaming Mrs. Carter for the Navy Yard shootings. In that incident of September 16, 2013, a disturbed individual, Aaron Alexis, shot a Navy Yard entrance-guard, entered the base armed with a shotgun, and eventually killed twelve individuals inside the building where he had once worked – before being killed by guards. Previously, Mr. Alexis had asked police for help, but was not detained or treated for the delusions that evidently drove him to his violent actions.

Contrary to the letter-writer’s impression, I did not “blame” Mrs. Carter for the Navy Yard shootings, although I did cite her mental-health activism for causing the release of large numbers of disturbed people from institutions, after which they lived in city parks and other public spaces, starting in the late 1970s. I said that letting mentally disturbed people wander about unsupervised represented a potential danger to society.

This argument was self-evident to me, but evidently wasn’t so to the writer, who seemed unacquainted with Mrs. Carter’s social work on mental health policy and its unintended consequence. Recognizing the writer’s ignorance of the link between Mrs. Carter, inmate-release and the large population of street people, I decided to do some research to see what had been written on it. On the Internet I found many references to Mrs. Carter’s work. Some reports noted her lack of professional qualifications for giving high-level policy-advice on these matters. One account related how President Carter was only narrowly dissuaded from appointing Mrs. Carter as Chair of his Presidential Commission on Mental Health. Under pressure on account of her lack of professional credentials, he ultimately made her honorary co-chair.

The linkage between Mrs. Carter’s mental-health activism and the burgeoning street-people population was known and much-discussed during the 1980s, but that linkage seems to have disappeared today. In the many articles on Mrs. Carter’s work, I found no mention of the legions of disturbed street-people that we accept as “normal” in our cities today. Many younger people seem to think that large numbers of disturbed, unkempt people have always lived in city parks and pushed shopping carts full of rubbish through the streets. Did the Reagan Budget Cuts cause this, as young students have been taught? No, it was mainly well-meaning efforts to set mental patients free. Gradually, the records of those efforts have gone down the Memory Hole.

The Memory Hole is where inconvenient facts and historical accounts go when they begin to discredit the Left’s time-honored shibboleths or damage its liberal heroes. Willing hands – many of them anonymous – gradually erase facts and historical linkages, once it is recognized that certain items could be politically damaging if Joe and Jane Voter become aware of them. Mrs. Carter’s part in giving us the disturbed street-people is no longer mentioned by partisan Big Media, leaving many people ignorant of how things became as they are. Thus, my connection of the dots between Mrs. Carter and disturbed people wandering the streets made our letter-writer think I was a conspiracy-nut. (Too bad – I should have saved news clippings from the 1980s.)

Understanding how we arrived at this point is valuable because that knowledge can help us to see possible corrections. In the 1940s, when I was growing up in a Pennsylvania city, we occasionally saw “hobos” – as we called them then. But they were few in number, and they tended to keep moving to avoid law-enforcement attention. Local authorities would never have allowed vagrants to camp out indefinitely in parks and other public spaces. Vagrancy was a misdemeanor in most communities at that time, and people who were considered “chronic vagrants” could be jailed. Those found to be mentally incompetent could be committed to institutions to protect themselves and society from harm. This was not considered an ideological or “civil rights” issue.

Mrs. Carter and her fellow-activists became convinced that many people were suffering abuse under this system, so a push for political action began. Mr. Carter’s election to the presidency in 1976 enabled elevation of mental health to high priority because of his wife’s advocacy. Many changes in the treatment of mentally and emotionally disturbed people were recommended by Mr. Carter’s Presidential Commission on Mental Health. No doubt there were some positive results, but a less salutary product – at least indirectly – has been a national homeless population that today numbers between 500,000 and 1 million, depending on the season of the year.

This result came about mainly because the Mental Health Commission believed mental patients could be successfully treated at home by their families. Later research revealed, however, that 75% of mental institution inmates were widowed, unmarried, or divorced. This made home-treatment premise fundamentally unrealistic, since these individuals had no families to help them. Doctors have found that patients unattached to a family are unreliable in taking their prescribed medications. Their behavior becomes unpredictable – dangerously so, in some cases.

There is no reliable count of how many homeless people are wandering around the country at any given time. Nor can the numbers of mentally disturbed and possibly dangerous people in the homeless population be readily determined. Suffice it to say that attention to the problem is overdue. Mentally ill people should be receiving regular treatment, not wandering around cities and towns in the present uncontrolled manner.

I don’t claim expertise in these matters, but I do bring a perspective from a time within living memory when we had neither a large population of disturbed street-people nor horrible mass-shootings by crazies who obtained weapons. If we want to stop the shootings, we’ll have to start somewhere. Opportunistic politicians think we can solve the shooting-problem by banning guns or making them difficult to obtain. That’s unlikely because of the large numbers of firearms in the country. Besides, the Constitution guarantees citizens the possession and lawful use of weapons.

What we can do is take a serious look at the mentally disturbed people who are loose in society. Those adjudged dangerous must be placed where they cannot hurt themselves or others.

We have to quit fooling around with this. We’re all sick of those reports of innocent people being killed by someone who “slipped through the crack” of our mental health system. Too many cracks; too much slippage.