Sadly, stories about hideous injustices being meted out to people of color in America are so prevalent that it’s hard to be surprised at them — but even so, there’s something uniquely horrifying about the case of Kamilah Brock. As per Gawker, Brock was pulled over in Harlem by police who accused her of being high on marijuana. No proof of this was ever found, but her car was nevertheless impounded by the NYPD. When she went to demand its return, she was restrained, sedated, and committed to Harlem Hospital for being “emotionally disturbed.” It took her eight days to convince staff that she was in fact perfectly sane, during which time she was dosed involuntarily with lorazepam and lithium and forced to attend group therapy. Once released, she was hit with a $13,000 medical bill.
The idea of falling through a trapdoor into some sort of inescapable netherworld of insanity is a constant theme in our culture, so much so that Brock’s story could just as easily be the plot to a new film or novel. The obvious parallel here is Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, wherein RP McMurphy finds himself in a mire that proceeds to suck him deeper into itself the more he struggles. The point is that once it’s been decided you’re insane — for whatever reason — it’s actually impossible to prove objectively that you’re not. McMurphy doesn’t realize the nature of the trap into which he’s placed his head (he faked symptoms of mental illness to get transferred from prison into the psych ward, on the assumption that life there would be easier) until it’s too late, and the consequences are disastrous.
Similarly, Franz Kafka’s works largely revolve around the idea of being sane in an insane world — and, more insidiously, the fact that constant interactions with that world might lead you to start questioning your own sanity. Is it you who’s turned into a giant bug, or are you as you always were and everyone else is out of their mind? Again, the stories revolve around the impossibility of coming to a definitive, objective conclusion either way. In some cases, you might very well be driven insane — Elias Canetti’s terrifying Auto-da-Fé, for instance, plays like a fever dream wherein the nightmare world into which its protagonist is plunged slowly becomes reality.
It’s notable that pretty much all these stories involve a protagonist who comes from the upper echelons of society — the person suffering the fall is white and middle class, affluent and successful to varying extents. It’s the ultimate middle class nightmare: losing everything, being forced to mingle with the poor people to whom you might have once occasionally tossed some change on the street. This trope has recurred a great deal in popular culture of late, coinciding with the financial crisis that plunged many into exactly the scenario they feared.
Breaking Bad, Weeds, Orange Is the New Black — they all involve the decline and fall of white, middle-class Americans, and they all find those people having to deal with people they would never otherwise have had to deal with. They are, metaphorically, committed to the insane asylum, a place where all the trappings of your life are suddenly rendered meaningless — you’re just like everyone else, struggling to stay alive and insisting to yourself that it’s the world that’s gone crazy, not you. And once you’re in there, it can be damn near impossible to get out.
Perhaps the most famous demonstration of this is the Rosenhan Experiment, wherein a psychologist created pretty much exactly the same scenario that plays out in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He got a eight people (including himself) to feign symptoms of mental illness in order to be admitted to a psych ward. Once there, they acted normally and displayed no further symptoms. They were committed for an average of 19 days, and all but one were diagnosed as schizophrenic. They were all forced to agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release.
Rosenhan’s findings — published in Science in 1973 as “On Being Sane in Insane Places” — demonstrate that for all the progress we’ve made from the insane workhouses of the 19th century, the decision as to whether someone is sane or not remains a subjective one. (As, indeed, does the nature of insanity, a fact illustrated rather neatly by the evolution of the DSM over the years.) If someone has a broken leg, that’s an objective fact — the bone is broken, and the break can be seen on an X-ray. Similarly, the symptoms of a disease are often objectively quantifiable: if you have a belting fever and a bright red rash all over you, you’ve probably got the measles.
Mental illness is never so clear cut. Even its most extravagant symptoms — psychosis, delusions, hallucinations, catatonia — could be associated with many different causes. More to the point, pretty much anything can be interpreted as a symptom, which means that confirmation bias is a real problem. It works both ways, too. Catch-22, for instance, is based around the famous paradox of its title, which neatly inverts the problem (in trying to prove yourself insane, you prove yourself sane). Once you’re in the system, it can be impossible to get out.
This is something demonstrated all too effectively by the treatment meted out to Kamilah Brock — she was committed involuntarily, and what happened next was an all-too effective demonstration that pretty much anything can be interpreted as a sign of mental illness if confirmation bias is allowed to run rampant. As Gawker reports, Brock told staff that she works at a bank and is followed by Barack Obama on Twitter, both of which are true — and both of which were interpreted as signs that she was delusional. As per the New York Daily News, Brock’s treatment plan insisted that she “verbalize the importance of education for employment and… state that Obama is not following her on Twitter,” and that her “weaknesses” included “inability to test reality, unemployment.”
As the NY Daily News notes drily, “race may have been a factor in the way Brock was treated.” Indeed, and the sun might just rise in the east tomorrow, too. As the Brock case demonstrates all too well, subjective decisions are not made in a void. They are, like all human decision making, affected by prejudice. And as such, in reality it’s not usually white, middle-class people who suffer these nightmares — it’s people whose skin color, or gender identity, or accent plays to the prejudices of society. It’s people like Brock, who have the temerity to transcend what American society deems to be their place, a scenario that apparently seems so unlikely to those who enforce these boundaries that they’re deemed insane for insisting that the details of their lives are real. As far as depictions of the idea that truth can be far more frightening than fiction go, you couldn’t really get anything more depressingly perfect.