Posts Tagged ‘gibbs’

Witches Old and New

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

By Gretchen Gibbs

I recently published a historical novel, sparked by my parents’ discovery that we had direct ancestors who played an important role in the witch trials of 1692, not in Salem but in nearby Andover. The Book of Maggie Bradstreet (Glenmere Press) tells this relatively unknown story from the perspective of a 13-year old girl, who, like everyone else, believes in witches until the people she loves begin to be hauled off to jail.

“I’m glad I don’t live in those times,” several people told me after reading the book. The implication of my readers’ comments is that our own time is very different. I don’t think so.
It isn’t that hard to fathom the minds of colonists threatened by starvation, Indians, wild animals, disease, and by a world unlike the one they left in England. They believed the end of the world was at hand. What a relief to find an explanation and a scapegoat in witches!

Isn’t our own time characterized by a similar dynamic? The threats are different, but they certainly exist – terrorism, economic disaster all over the globe fueled by the Wall Street mindset, the energy crisis, nuclear bombs, and global warming, to name a few. Environmentalists warn that the actual end of the world as we know it is a possibility. We have responded to this threat in a similar way as the colonists, by looking for scapegoats. The division of the country into red and blue states, with so much fear and hate on either side, seems a part of this scapegoating.

It is easy to see the Tea Party’s hate. Gays and liberals make good witches.

The Left tends to hate Wall Street, gas guzzlers, right wing radio, and the Tea Party. Since September 11, 2001, as a country we are united in our hatred of Islamists, even though we might deny it. The other day, I got a thinly veiled anti-Muslim tract on email, one of those messages we are instructed to forward to 20 others. It was based on the premise that the United Kingdom no longer covers the Holocaust in classrooms because of fear of offending Muslims. The sender was a good liberal who didn’t check her facts. I think she believed it because she fears terrorism, as we all do. Kind of like a colonist thinking that his headaches were caused by the scary woman who cursed and never went to church. Who knows what bad people might do.

And the response can be violent. The other day I was watching the news with a friend. When the program aired a report on Iran’s nuclear development, my friend bellowed, “Bomb them into the Stone Age.” He was hurt and said he was only joking when I accused him of being prejudiced against Islam.

Our country has always been prone to hysteria against outside groups. The McCarthy hearings in the Fifties weren’t called witch hunts for nothing. People who are different are perceived as threatening. And of course, in some way or another, we’re all different, and any of us can be scapegoated. The study of witchcraft in the colonial era is instructive as to how far this hysteria can go before people recognize the amount of damage it is causing, and begin to change their ways.

Why Men Won’t Dance, Except in Barns

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

By Gretchen Gibbs
Orange Environment is hosting a barn dance on March 24, and the occasion turned me to thinking about gender, dancing in general and barn dancing in particular. A number of men of my acquaintance “won’t dance, don’t ask ‘em” and yet some of these same men will show up at a barn dance. Why? I wondered.

I took a trip to the Galapagos not long ago and watched the mating dances of the blue-footed booby and the albatross. With birds, although sometimes the female joins in, it is the male who dances, his beautiful plumage puffed up to heighten his attractiveness. Why don’t men follow the lead, so to speak, of our animal counterparts? At some periods in history, they did flaunt their bodies, as in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when they wore tights, mini skirts and codpieces. I don’t think they practiced mating dances per se, though.

I looked up the history of dance in that universal font of wisdom, Wikipedia, and found that someone, a male, has a theory about the origins of dance. He says that primitive man (presumably not woman) danced to induce an altered state of consciousness preparatory to battle. Like the Maori dance, the haka, I suppose, which is so fierce and hypnotic that it strikes awe and fear in the beholder. At least it did in me when I saw one, a highlight of a trip to New Zealand. The New Zealand All Blacks still perform a haka before starting each rugby match

I tried to develop a theory of my own. There is male dance, like the haka, or female dance, like waltzing around with one’s beloved in fancy plumage. Perhaps Freud’s theory was better: dance could focus on aggressive needs vs. sexual needs. After all, women can dance aggressively and men can perform those mating rites.

And that brought me back to barn dancing, which didn’t fit my theory or Freud’s. Barn dancing is not aggressive, neither is it romantic and sexual. As I noted at the beginning, men are almost equally likely as women to take part. Barn dancing originated from the ceilidh in Scotland and Ireland and contra dancing in England, events which brought the community together for a rollicking good time.

Perhaps the distinguishing feature between types of dance is whether they are communal or performed in pairs. I went to see an Irish step dance performance recently, and part of the pleasure of watching it was the synchronicity, the perfect unanimity of those pounding feet. Watching people dancing as a group can be thrilling.

Of course, a pas de deux can be thrilling too, or watching Fred and Ginger, or watching a single incredible dancer like Baryshnikov. But that kind of dance demands excellence with the dancers on display, and judged, as in “Dancing with the Stars.” There’s something egalitarian about square dancing, or step dancing, or the haka. We can all do it, women, men, children, seniors, and it’s fun.

Go to for Barn Dance details.

Coping With Christmas

Monday, December 12th, 2011

By Gretchen Gibbs
Hey, it’s the holidays! Time for Santa and mistletoe, bright lights and happy carols, family closeness and wonderful presents! Time for depression!

Because it’s never what it’s cracked up to be. Presents are never what you really wanted. Heaven knows family gatherings, and the family itself, are not what you hoped for either. There’s actually a group devoted to banning “The Little Drummer Boy,” they’ve heard that pa-rum-pum-pum-pum so many times. The new blow-up Christmas house decorations are tawdry, and those Santas at the mall are part of the whole materialistic scam.

Then there are the special stresses of the holidays. The memories of Christmas past, the pains and disappointments. The endless shopping in huge crowded malls, card-writing, cooking, eating, drinking, entertaining the imperfect families. Getting and spending, as Wordsworth put it. Not exactly a spiritual experience.

Is there anything to be done to avoid the holiday blues? Maybe not a heck of a lot. But as a psychologist, it’s my job to try to help. The following is not new or profound, but it doesn’t hurt to think about it again.

–Lower your expectations. Instead of comparing your family to the Waltons or the Cleavers, try thinking about one of those families on “The Wire.” Your parents didn’t push you into drug dealing or sell all your clothes for a fix, right? (If they did, I’m really sorry and none of this is probably going to help much.)

–Count your blessings. At Thanksgiving, The New York Times published a summary of recent research on gratitude. People who were asked to keep a gratitude journal just one day a week, listing five things they were grateful for, were happier, more optimistic, and had fewer physical problems as compared to people in a control group. Anecdotally, my friend who keeps a thankfulness journal is one of the most up-beat people I know, in spite of many sorrows in her life. Even when life is not going well, there are blessings. When I had cancer, I was so grateful for my friends.

–Simplify. I do hardly any shopping anymore, as my good friends and family agree that we don’t need anything. I donate some money to charities in their names. When you do need to buy presents, shop locally, avoid driving and crowds. Most people have given up sending cards, and you can probably get away with a holiday email. Simpler meals are usually healthier and appreciated by those who are worried about overeating. Try to avoid too much food and drink. Food doesn’t really meet those needs for holiday nurturance, and alcohol can be a risk in many ways.

–Practice self-care. Find some ways to meet those needs for nurturance by yourself. Self-soothe, as we say in the trade. A gift for yourself, if there’s something you need. If I’m shopping, I like to stop for a cup of coffee. Play your favorite music while you work. Read from a favorite author before you fall asleep at night. Don’t forget exercise and how good it makes you feel.

–Spend some time outdoors. Remember that Christmas replaced the ancient winter solstice celebration, the darkest time of the year, and many links have been found between darkness and depression. We need sunlight.

–Watch out for triggers. Both my father and mother died during Christmas vacations. For a long time the holiday was tinged with sadness for me. Now I recognize which memories are going to trigger sorrow and I reach for something different, a happy memory of the family together. I think even those of us from the most dysfunctional of families have at least one happy memory, the one Christmas when you received the present you wanted, or the one holiday when Dad didn’t get drunk, or the one when you all shoveled snow together and threw snowballs and laughed. Kind of like the Waltons. Happy holidays!

Two Psychologists in the News

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

By Gretchen Gibbs
It’s almost always a treat to find the name of somebody you know in The New York Times. Today, however, I was saddened to see the name of a student I taught at Fairleigh Dickinson University before I retired. It was an article about how there are no longer enough internship sites for potential psychologists, with a quarter of the applicants unplaced. Some students find unaccredited experience, but many must wait a year to re-apply. The internship is essential to the granting of the Ph.D., so a large number of doctoral psychology students are floundering, their loans increasing as their hopes sink.

Joanna, the student featured in the article, had it all: intelligence, good grades, outside experience, and good references. Part of the problem is the economy, and the amount of money it costs an institution to provide good training, but another part is that there’s just too much competition in the field. I will return to this issue.

Another recent Times article about psychology concerned a Dutch academic, Diederik Stapel, who was found to have committed fraud in several dozen published papers. Some of these fraudulent findings were reported in the Times itself. The article talks about the dangers of psychology research, where data is not usually shared and journals don’t check statistics. One survey found that 70 percent of researchers acknowledged “cutting corners” in reporting data, and another, which looked at actual published studies, found that 50 percent contained at least one statistical error.

(I wrote an article for Zest a few months ago about the decline effect, how initial findings in science often do not hold up. Many esoteric explanations for this phenomenon have been put forward, but the problem of fraudulent data has not generally been explored.)

What do Joanna, the student without an internship, and Diederik Stapel have in common? I have no respect for Stapel, who has betrayed the ethics of my profession, while I am fond of Joanna. They have both, however, struggled to get ahead in an extremely competitive field.

“Publish or perish” applies in all academic fields, but in psychology as compared to, say, history or English, the publications must be empirical studies, usually with hundreds of participants. The data from these subjects must be collected, entered into the computer, analyzed, and written up. Without graduate student assistants and doctoral projects, it would be impossible to produce anywhere near the necessary number of studies per year, generally three or four. What if your study doesn’t produce the findings you hypothesized? Nobody will publish negative findings. The journals of the American Psychological Association generally reject over 90 percent of the submissions anyway. The level of the competition means that the temptation to “cut corners” in reporting data is enormous. I haven’t ever knowingly made errors in my publications or presentations, but I didn’t go back to check the raw data or the statistical work of my graduate students, who were also under pressure to publish as they applied for internships and jobs. I don’t know anybody who does that kind of checking.

My point is that the field is too competitive. There are too many psychology majors in college, most of whom are disappointed because they can’t get into graduate school. Then there are too many graduate students, who now can’t get internships, let alone jobs. Then in the universities there are too many researchers jockeying for position and promotion. When I started my professional career 40 years ago, psychology was a field more like the Humanities than the Sciences. Today, we keep finding out more and more about less and less. Most of the published articles aren’t interesting, having to do with esoteric aspects of problems nobody in the public would want to know about. As one of my students said, “Even my mother’s head falls into the mashed potatoes when I try to tell her about my dissertation.”

I’m not sure why psychology is so popular – a topic for another day. I don’t think it’s going to last, though. As the trend toward more and more competition continues, something self-correcting is going to happen. Students will drop out of psychology as a major, graduate applications will go down, and universities will struggle to recruit psychology professors. I will have mixed feelings about this development.

What We Could Have Learned From 9/11

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

By Gretchen Gibbs
To me the question is not why we connect in times of trouble, but why we stop. Why can’t we hold on to the glow?

After Hurricane Irene swept through our area, I began to receive calls and emails from friends and family, asking how I had fared. Personally I was fine, though the tenant in my rental house in downtown Warwick had to be rescued by boat and the amount of damage to her possessions and to the house was severe.

I was touched by people’s concern, and it led me to think about disasters and how we respond to them.

I’ve done some research on disasters, their emotional impact, and how to mitigate it. Trauma often takes a great psychological cost, depending on factors like how much terror and horror was experienced, how great the losses were, and vulnerability to the experience because of past trauma. Even factors like gender, age, and social class may affect the consequences of disaster.

Support from others can play a major part in recovery. And usually others do provide support. I remember after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, some reporter called me for a quote, wanting to know why people had donated so much money to the relief efforts. “Why does it need explaining,” I said, “given that this is the most deadly tsunami in history?” It seems a natural response to want to help others in need.

It is now the tenth year anniversary of September 11th. That first week or so afterwards, wasn’t that our finest hour? People from all over the country converged on New York to help, exposing themselves to toxic dust and toxic sights and experiences. Commerce seemed forgotten in the sense of togetherness. Many businesses closed down temporarily. Restaurants and businesses provided free food and services for the workers at Ground Zero. The sky was still and blue without the planes and their vapor trails. I had such hopes for our country. I thought we could build on the connections, see things from outsiders’ points of view, broaden our perspective.

And then in no time at all, we had war and freedom fries. The sense of community gave way to vengeance and isolationism. I don’t know what happened, but I suspect it was fear. Terrorism is well-named; it is hugely frightening, and to protect ourselves we put up barriers and defenses against other people and ideas. Disasters bring out our best, and they can also bring out our worst. Something to reflect on as we mark the anniversary of the events of 9/11.

A Story of Domestic Violence

Monday, June 13th, 2011

By Gretchen Gibbs
He looks like the batterer that he is. Most of them don’t; they’re skinny and anxious to please, or short and worried, or anything but my stereotype. This one – we’ll call him Juan, though I’ve altered his name and anything that could identify him – approaches my stereotype. He’s big, both tall and heavy set. He answers my questions briefly and without inflection. His face shows nothing, his body never moves in the chair. He is a dark man – dark skin and eyes, black and navy clothes, a dark expression. He wears his worn black leather jacket throughout the interview in spite of the warmth of the small room. I’m not afraid of him, but I don’t like him. Maybe I’m a little afraid of him.

We start off with the incident that led to the court order for counseling. Not his fault at all, of course, all he did was push his wife after lots of provocation.

He’s from a Central American country, coming to the United States in 1996. “Your English is good.” A small smile. “Is there anything that you might have done wrong with your wife?” “I yell a lot.” (His English is not perfect.) I am glad to hear an acknowledgment of a little responsibility. We talk about his wife, the conflicts between them, his work.

“Tell me about your childhood.”

“What do you want to know?”

“What was it like for you growing up?”

“It was hard to live.”

The story comes out in short spurts. His father was the teacher of the local school, an alcoholic man who never acknowledged Juan and refused to help the family in any way. Juan was raised by his grandmother. The grandmother, her six children, and four grandchildren all lived in a single room. The grandmother ironed and cooked and cleaned for other people, supporting them all as well as she could. She would do anything for money. They were always hungry.

“There were no toys, no Christmas or birthday presents. Once in a while my grandmother would buy a towel, or a cloth for the table, for all of us and we would all be excited – that was the biggest present we ever had.” He couldn’t understand why they had to live as they did, why they were hungry, and he rebelled. He disobeyed his grandmother, ran away, and stole things. “My grandmother would beat me like an animal, hitting me with a stick across my back many times, maybe 50 times,” he says matter-of-factly. “But her love weighed more. I was a black sheep that had to be disciplined.”

When he was an adolescent, Juan could not continue in school without shoes or a uniform, and there was no way to obtain these. He decided to go into the Army as a way out of poverty and a way to help his grandmother. It was not what he thought it would be. As the memory returns, he gives a short snort of disbelieving laughter, his first sign of emotion.

He was still almost always hungry, and now he was exposed to terrible death and killing. Even today he has nightmares about the experience, he says impassively. At one point his unit, with losses due to fighting, disease and desertion, had only seven men left. They were in an isolated portion of the country, with no more food and no more ammunition. They were starving. They made a joint suicide pact, to shoot each other with the remaining bullets. Finally the Army helicopters came.

After four years in the Army, he returned to his village. He wanted desperately to emigrate, and eventually a relative in the U.S. sent him the money to make it possible.

Now, because of the domestic violence, he lives separately from his wife and children. How does he feel? “Sad. It is hard when you are used to coming home and have children to ask you how you are, to come home to a single room, where you are sharing a bath with other not-very-clean people.” He is having bad dreams. “What are they about?” He pauses and looks at the floor. “I dream of my grandmother almost every night. I do not ever go back to my country, and I do not see her for 15 years. My sister and I, we saved our money. We planned to go back to see her at Christmas, to give her things. She died right before we were going to leave.”

He looks up at me and begins to weep, silently, his body still motionless, the tears streaming down his face. I find I can’t speak the next question through my own tears.

April Fools for Mets

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

By Gretchen Gibbs

Hey, April 1 and it’s snowing!  God’s little April Fools’ Day joke!

The real joke, though, is that it’s Opening Day for the Mets. Other teams, like the Yankees, start on March 31, but not the Bad Luck Mets. Of course, if you wanted luck, why would you pick a goofy little doofus for a mascot. Mr. Met, with his garish orange and blue costume and his retarded smiley face, tells you all you need to know about how well the team will do.

The main problem with the Mets is that they’ve spent a fortune on bad deals and thrown their money to the wind. Of all the teams in both leagues, they’ve paid the second highest total in salaries, the Yankees being first of course. Some Net blogger, ObamaWood, regressed relative team success on the amount of money spent and rates the Mets 30th out of 30 teams in terms of bang for the buck. Over $150 million and the last two years they’ve played about .500 ball. 

Some examples. The organization recently had to get rid of Oliver Perez, a pitcher who couldn’t get the ball over the plate, and Luis Castillo, a second base player who  hit around .200. They both had  multi-million dollar, multi-year contracts, so they’re gone but the Mets are still paying them.  

Last year they paid a fortune for Jason Bay, who was a star hitter with the Red Sox. For the Mets he did nothing and now he’s injured. That money seems down the drain.

Then there are the multi-million dollar contract players who were injured last year and look like they’re never going to recover fully. Carlos Beltran can still hit but he can only hobble around the bases, and he’ll never be the fielder he was before. Johan Santana was one of the great pitchers of the current age, but last September he injured his shoulder badly, and it looks like he’ll never be able to pitch again, at least not like he did.

Not only did the organization make poor bets, some of which could not have been predicted, but now the owners are being investigated for their ties to Bernie Madoff.

There were other problems last year besides bad investments. The Mets closer, K-Rod, Francisco Rodriguez, blew a game, and then assaulted his girlfriend’s father. Great publicity for a team thought by other teams to be arrogant. Hey, you have to have a little attitude to come from New York.

Anyway, this spring, there’s poverty. No new big players. There’s a few newbies, mainly from the minors, mainly making the minimum salary for the majors. 

Yet here we are, April 1. The weather is raw, the game’s away. The team is hopeless, yet still I hope. I’m not home, but I’ve got the DVR set to record the game. I remind myself that last year the one Met hero was R.A. Dickey, a 36-year old knuckle ball pitcher who played in the minors most of his career. Maybe the team can go back to what they were back in 1973, short on money, long on heart, when Tug McGraw said “Ya gotta believe,” and everybody did. I’m setting myself up to be an April fool, and I don’t care.

P.S.  They lost that opening day game.

Therapy, Almost

Friday, March 11th, 2011

By Gretchen Gibbs
The front page of The New York Times featured the sad tale of Dr. Donald Levin, a psychiatrist who once provided “talk therapy.” Now, he prescribes only medication to 1,200 clients seen every few months for no more than 15 minutes. Dr. Levin, like most psychiatrists these days, says he cannot afford the time to provide any form of psychotherapy. The article speaks of a “telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients.”

Of course, Dr. Levin could allow his salary to plummet to the level of the psychologists and social workers to whom he refers his clients. The math is easy. If you have 40 clients a week who pay you $100 a session, you’re grossing $200,000 a year. Dr. Levin did not reveal his salary, but with four clients an hour and working more than eight hours a day, he easily is quadrupling that $200,000.

So partly the loss of intimacy is due to the desire to make money. There are other factors, however. For instance, the field of psychology is also changing. Psychologists themselves are seeking prescription privileges, and in several states have already obtained them.

Training in many graduate schools focuses on “manualized treatment,” meaning that the psychologist is following a manual telling her or him what to say after each type of comment from the client. It’s easier to prove such treatment is effective. Models of treatment are primarily cognitive-behavioral; there’s no attention paid to the causes of one’s problems, only to the treatment plan. The therapist doesn’t want to hear about your past.

I started this piece with the notion that the public is being cheated out of the kind of personal contact they want and need from mental health workers. Then I saw the headline this week in the Times entitled “Teachers wonder, why the scorn?” and I began to wonder if we really honor those whose professional role involves sharing who they are as a person. Why is the country so concerned to cut teacher salaries? Is there a profession that’s more important?

Of course, teaching also has become more technological. On the college level, I have walked the halls and noted the darkened rooms as professors present their Power Points and as students text and play solitaire. Distance Learning is a catchword, and classes are larger. Other providers of human services, like nurses and nurses’ aides, complain that their work has become more technological, with less patient contact. So perhaps as a society we are in some ways complicit with the loss of intimacy caused by these increases in technology.

I heard an interview on NPR with Sherry Turkle, about her book Alone Together, which deals with the isolation that technology is producing. She provides the ultimate example: the use of robots with children and the elderly to carry out the role a person, or at least a pet, would have had to perform previously. There’s Furbie for children and the Paro, a cute baby seal that moves in your arms and makes pleading noises, for the elderly in nursing homes. The illusion of unconditional love, without any bother. Turkle feels technology isolates us, citing adolescents who say they don’t like phoning now, it’s too intimate; they just text.

So the loss of the “human” in human services may be linked to the growth of technology and interest in making money, but many of us seem to welcome it. It’s more comfortable. Perhaps we are redefining what relationships mean. What’s a friend when you have hundreds of them on Facebook? I am too much of a psychologist to believe that people can do without intimate relationships, or that they want to. What’s the impact, though, of a world where it’s increasingly hard to find that connectedness? Perhaps we think we’ll “save” intimacy for those few we really care about. But then, when we’re in an intimate relationship, will we know how?

“Just Leave”

Monday, February 7th, 2011

By Gretchen Gibbs

“Why don’t the women just leave?” I meet a man at a party, and this is how he responds when I tell him I do some work at a domestic violence agency.
He goes on, “I know it’s not politically correct to say so, but I don’t get it. Nobody has to stay and be abused. Just get out of there.”

“It’s not easy,” I say, and start citing all the difficulties. Financially, especially if there are children, the woman may not be able to manage on her own. Sometimes it’s dangerous to leave – the man may threaten to pursue and kill her if she goes. Abusive men are usually controlling, and the woman may not have access to any money, or keys to the car. She may not have been allowed to talk to friends, so there’s nobody to run to. And there’s something called learned helplessness. When you’ve been made powerless over and over, you stop feeling that you have any control over your life, you stop trying.

He looks skeptical.

I think of one of the cases I saw, some years ago, a woman I’ll call Rosa and about whom I’ll give only the vaguest real-life details, to protect her identity.

Rosa lived in a remote area of a Latin American country, in the mountains, married to a man who abused her verbally, physically and sexually. He liked to call her all kinds of names till she cried, then rape her.

The worst thing he did, in her mind, was to leave for days at a time, with no food in the house for her and their two small boys. There weren’t any neighbors to beg from. They were literally starving. She was desperate to escape, but she had no place to go. The only possible haven was with her mother, with whom she’d never had a close relationship, and who lived miles away in another remote village. There was no way to get there.

Then Rosa had a third child, Julio.  One evening, soon after Julio was born, her husband was beating her while she held the baby. The child fell from her arms, hitting his head. Julio never recovered consciousness.
Abused women often recount their tales numbly, from some inner place they’ve tried to make an unreal dream world. As Rosa told me about the dead infant, she began to howl, to rock back and forth in her chair, to bite her fingers. Usually I try to stay with the woman’s pain, but Rosa’s was more than I could stand; I asked her if she was able to move on with the story.
Her husband left again, after burying the baby in the yard. Rosa took the two children and whatever food she had and headed out for her mother’s. She could not take the road, as she feared her husband would come looking for her. She struck out over the mountain, carrying the two year old and urging the four year old on. Soon, she had to carry both children. She would haul one thirty feet up the mountain, tell him to stay there, then go back for the other and carry him up. Night came, and they huddled together for warmth. The food was gone quickly, and the streams for water were infrequent. It took two days and two nights to get to her mother’s. Rosa and the boys were covered with filth and scratches and insect bites, so exhausted they could barely stand.

In my office, Rosa began to sob and rock again.  She could not get the words out to tell me. Finally she said, “My mother contacted my husband to come get me. She said it was women’s lot to suffer and endure.”

Eventually Rosa ran away again and this time she did make it, with the children. I contemplate telling the man at the party about her ordeal, but I see it’s pointless to try to sway him. “However it may seem from the outside, leaving is not easy,” I repeat.

Gretchen can be reached at

He Heard Noises

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

By Gretchen Gibbs

David Brooks in his New York Times column of January 10 condemned the media coverage of the Tucson shootings, arguing, in his usual moderate style, that Jared Loughner’s rampage was a consequence of mental illness, probably schizophrenia. Brooks pointed out that Loughner’s anti-government ramblings on the net owed something to the far left as well as to the far right and that there is no evidence that he was a Tea Party member or a fan of Sarah Palin. The criticisms of Palin and far right radio after Tucson, Brooks said, “were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.”

It does seem that Loughner had his own brand of anti-government hatred, and it is almost certainly true that he is schizophrenic, judging by his descriptions of imaginary persecution and his senseless lists of numbers. What Brooks seems to be missing, however, is the relationship between culture and mental illness. Loughner need not have been a member of the Tea Party to have been influenced by its violent rhetoric.

Culture impacts mental illness in several ways: the disorders themselves, their relative frequency, and the manifestations of the disorder. Thus I have never seen a case of pibloktoq (pronounced pie-BLOK-too; found in the Arctic, where an attack may cause the sufferer to run naked through the snow) or koro (found in Southeast Asia, where a victim believes his penis is retracting into his body and will kill him). Some disorders are much more or less common in certain cultures. The Amish, for instance, are said to have extremely low rates of depression. Schizophrenia is a disorder distributed quite evenly over cultures, implying that the biological basis for the disorder is probably more important than environmental causes. Even here, however, the manifestations of schizophrenia, specifically the content of delusions and hallucinations, differ culturally. Researchers have found that types of delusions vary according to gender, social class, and the specific society to which the individual belongs.

It is not surprising that Loughner has violent anti-government delusions about this country where a President has an almost 25 percent chance of dealing with an assassination attempt, and an almost 10 percent chance of actually being slain. (There have been ten attempts, five since Franklin Roosevelt, and four killings.) Violence is nothing new to American politics, the Tea Party did not invent it. But violent rhetoric exacerbates what is worst about our political imagery, and it contributes to a perilous climate for elected officials.

I am writing this on Martin Luther King Day, a commemoration that reminds us of both the dangers of violence in politics and the beauty of non-violent protest. Enough said.

Gretchen can be reached at