Charlie Sheen and the bedlamite approach to insanity


England’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, founded in the 13th Century as part of a convent, eventually transformed itself into the world’s first facility dedicated to the mentally ill. By the 16th Century, when it housed only the mentally ill, it was famous for the cruelty with which those patients were treated. The word “bedlam,” which describes a situation that is completely out of control, is a bastardization of the hospital’s name.

For centuries, Bethlem Royal Hospital was also once of London’s most popular tourist attractions. For a penny, people could walk through the facility, staring at the inmates, many of whom were chained to walls, lying in their own filth. It was considered a good show to see the crazy people rant and rave. No wonder, then, that many British people chose to incarcerate mentally ill relatives in their own homes (rather as Rochester did with Bertha). Those homes may have become prisons, but at least they were safe and private.

The practice of making insanity a public show changed only when people realized the indecency and immortality of laughing and staring at people who were helpless victims of their own mental illnesses. People of good will now think to themselves, “I never would sink to such a low practice.”

Apparently the American media is not made up of people of good will. For as long as I’ve been aware of him, Charlie Sheen has been a substance abuser and a loathsome individual. Now, though, it’s apparent that his vices have caught up with him and rendered him mentally ill. Reading the transcripts of his interviews his definite evidence that he has parted with reality. Normal people, even eccentric people, do not say “I am on a drug, it’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available because if you try it you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.”

In a decent world, Sheen would get the treatment he requires. In an indecent world, he’s paraded around for the media’s profit, just as the inmates at Bethlem Hospital were once paraded around for the profit of their ostensible caretakers. It’s embarrassing to watch someone sink into such complete degradation.

Some might say that Sheen wants this publicity. He’s actively seeking it, after all, as he has done for the length of his career. There’s a difference, though, between a mentally functioning person (even a low functioning person) taking appropriate steps to advance his career, and a mentally ill person treading that same path. It reminds me of the arguments the ACLU always makes about the paranoid schizophrenics on the streets of San Francisco: “They want to be there.” Yes, that’s true. They do indeed want to live on the streets, eating garbage, crawling with lice, and having suppurating wounds all over their body. But they want to live that way because they’re crazy as loons. Their desire to be dysfunctional (starving, filthy and diseased) on the streets is evidence of their insanity. A decent society, rather than saying “Great, eat garbage,” helps them out.

I find the Sheen spectacle disturbing, just as I find Lindsay Lohan’s collapse disturbing, and Miley Cyrus’ journey from wholesome comedienne to drug-experimenting slut disturbing. All of these people are victims of Hollywood, which cultivates their weaknesses, addictions and insanity for its collective profit, and then further profits from their spectacular, pathetic, demeaning, and always very public, implosions.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room


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