Catherine J. Rippee-Hanson recently completed this breathtaking digital pen drawing of her brother, the late James Mark Rippee, taken from a photograph.
You know Mark Rippee’s story if you have followed this blog or read any of the media stories about him. For years, this mentally ill, blind, and homeless man clung to a brutal existence on the streets of Vacaville, California. County and state services, not bound by any hard and fast rules, left him to die there, and he did.
Catherine Rippee-Hanson’s brilliant, damning creation deserves to be enshrined as the prevailing image of American society’s degree of concern for its “crazy people.”
If you retain only one image of those dispossessed by our systems of care for our most helpless citizens, let it be this one.
Undulating above the 9,386 military graves at the American Cemetery and Memorial near Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, its head thrust back and its arms supplicating the heavens, is a bronze figure of terrifying benevolence. It was cast by the American sculptor Donald Harcourt De Lue and placed in 1951 above the cliffs at Omaha Beach, the most brutal of the five landing sites invaded by U.S. forces on June 6, 1944—D Day in World War II. The sculpture is titled “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves”.
I believe that a statue of similar significance should be struck and placed somewhere in America, preferably on a street in Vacaville, California, if the Solano County officials would tolerate such a thing. Call it “The Spirit of American Madness Rising from Our Streets and Jails and Graves.” The statue’s eyeless face would replicate the smashed and scarred features of the late James Mark Rippee, an appalling symbol of the atrocities that can befall a victim of brain-damaging mental illness in a nation that prefers to look the other way. The statue would represent all the oppressed and neglected mad people left to rot in society’s shadows in our time and throughout time.
I know: the very idea of this will strike many as grandiose. Grandiosity might be the only thing that “crazy” people and their overwhelmed protectors have left.
Mark Rippee died at age 59 from many complications in a Vacaville hospital on Tuesday, November 29. Some unidentified Samaritan had brought him there after noticing that he was on the ground, struggling to breathe. (Doctors found evidence of sepsis and pneumonia, among other symptoms.) For years following a horrific motorcycle accident in 1987, when he was 24, Mark had stumbled around the small city’s streets like a maimed animal from the Vaca mountains—hit twice by cars, at the mercy of vicious thugs who beat and robbed him, sleeping under newspapers in frigid winter nights, frequently arrested (unlawful camping was a common charge, for irony fans), suicide-prone, truculent and resistant to care because his derangement made him that way.
He was kept alive through the Sisyphean efforts of his twin sisters Linda Privette and Catherine Rippee Hansen, and the dozens of compassionate souls in the town who tracked him down and kept him supplied with water, food, and the blankets and canes and small change that were routinely stolen from him. Mark accepted their gifts and concern. He would not accept their strategies for guiding him to professional care. His affliction, steeped in paranoia, would not allow it.
And so, yes, Mark Rippee and his sub-nation of mad people deserve a statue. They are, have been, mass-casualties of war, just as were the eighty-nine million victims of World War II 1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties, the forty million in World War I 2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties, and all the casualties of all the wars fought since the beginning of time. It is a surreal war, this one, fought mostly by the losers: the “crazy” (chronically insane and brain-damaged) people themselves; their protectors and advocates; neurosurgeons and psychiatrists; some—not nearly enough—lawmakers and enlightened sheriffs of metropolitan jails. No statistics exist to tally the number of mad people who have lived, suffered, and died through history.
The mad people have always been losing this war. Their enemy, merciless, intractable, apparently invincible, is: Nothing. Nothingness. Silence. Indifference. Contempt.
And mute primal fear. The seriously mentally ill are unique among the world’s dispossessed in that their mere presence repels and terrifies. They reawaken ancient superstitions of demonic transformation. Myths of the vampire and the werewolf, the tale of Jekyll and Hyde—these fantasies merge seamlessly with medieval notions of insane people as monsters, their heads roiling with evil spirits that can be released only by boring a hole through the skull. And the most nightmarish notion of them all: What if I am one of them and don’t know it?
Best to keep away. And keep “them” away.
Particles of hope are coalescing. Print and broadcast journalism now cover mental-health issues with clarity and urgency hardly seen a decade ago. This surge could flow from the wave of grass-roots advocacy that sprang up at about the same time—the networking of infuriated victims’ mothers, internet-linked coalitions, advocacy groups in cities and towns, enlightened free-lance activists.
Two important examples come to mind. Both were published in medium-sized California newspapers (an endangered yet essential species in today’s communications world). The first was written by Joceyln Weiner of Cal Matters, a Salinas paper, and appeared in February 2020. Weiner has covered the Mark Rippee story for years and understands the web of vexed policy issues such as of forced treatment, which would enable the involuntary hospitalization of victims who need supervision but don’t want it and are entitled to reject it—people such as Mark Rippee.
Weiner also laid out the excruciating barriers to conservatorship, a court order that eluded the frequent desperate pleadings and petitions of Mark’s sisters. Conservatorship can let a court officer appoint someone to oversee the safety and interests of a person whose mental capacities are deformed. Cathy and Linda Rippee appealed with obsessive ardor, over years, to the Solano County Board of Supervisors for conservatorship of Mark. Every appeal has been denied on arcane policy grounds—hence their constant searches for their brother on Vacaville’s streets and alleys and strip malls. A fundamental reason for the rejections was that Mark Rippee was not (wait for it) “gravely disabled” and thus not eligible. He could do some things for himself, you see. Like crawl under a newspaper on a frigid night.
Another Alice-in-Wonderland rationale of the Board, as Weiner pointed out, was that Mark could not be conserved because each time he was placed on an involuntary hold, he stabilized to the point that he legally had to be released. Stable, and not disabled. Got it.
The second exemplary essay was published the day after Mark died, under the byline of the acclaimed Melinda Henneberger, writing in the Sacramento Bee. After a ten-year career at the New York Times, Henneberger won a Pulitzer Prize at the Kansas City Star in 2022, then moved to The Bee as a columnist. Her piece is at once empathetic toward Mark and lacerating toward those who did nothing as he wandered, weakened, and perished:
“I say ‘we’ let him die, let’s call the roll: Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed state Sen. Henry Stern’s ‘Housing that Heals’ bill, which would have guaranteed the right to treatment for severely mentally ill and unhoused Californians like Mark . . . Mark thought the voices he heard were being broadcast by extraterrestrials from a military submarine using ‘mind warfare’ to turn ‘almost every single person in my life against me’ . . . Anyone who doubts that Mark was not capable of freely choosing or rejecting treatment can clear up his confusion by spending five minutes with one of the many untreated severely mentally ill homeless people screaming nonsense at no one on the streets of Sacramento and every other city.”
And as for the Rippees’ failed crusade to obtain conservatorship over Mark, Henneberger writes:
“Another bill that might have kept Mark alive was state Sen. Susan Eggman’s legislation, which would expand California’s definition of ‘gravely disabled’ to make it easier for people like Mark to get help. Though his initial diagnosis was a traumatic brain injury, he supposedly still didn’t qualify for a conservatorship on a medical basis. And in Solano County, he didn’t qualify for a conservatorship based on his mental illness, either. Every county interprets ‘gravely disabled’ differently.”
I personally have written many times about James Mark Rippee on my blog noonecaresaboutcrazypeople.com. The blog’s name is taken from my 2017 book, No One Cares About Crazy People, which I wrote following the suicide of my younger son Kevin, who had battled schizoaffective disorder for years. My friend and colleague Gail Freedman is directing a video expansion of the book.
James Mark Rippee is receiving, in death, a parcel of the attention and analysis that he was denied for most of his life. His sister Catherine predicted in her fury and grief that the attention will last for about a minute.
We—the all-inclusive and thus almost meaningless “we” that Melinda Henneberger sardonically referenced—must see that it lasts longer than that.
To assert this necessity is not to imply my belief that it will come about. The heartbreaking, blind wreckage of a man who for years shambled the streets of Vacaville may well vanish into “our” collective memory faster than a mass shooting. Yet “we,” and we, must try. To paraphrase Beckett, we can’t go on. We’ll go on. As Linda and Catherine Rippee vowed that they would do, “we”—the “we” who care about crazy people—will keep pushing for jail, prison, hospital, and public policy reform in the sub-nation of mental health care. We will keep pushing to free the crazy people from puerile and outdated restrictions such as the HIPAA laws. We will keep trying to educate our fellow citizens; to cleanse their “normal” minds of destructive superstitions. We will. . . well, we will.
A statue would help shore up our morale. It will not be an imposing statue, with its eyeless face and its smashed and scarred features. Yet those same qualities will invest it with beauty, and consecrate the cause.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Sadly, the road to mental-illness coverage is fashioned from similar material.
Nicolle Wallace is an elite and excellent television journalist. She hosts a Monday-Friday marathon of two-hour news interviews, MSNBC’s Deadline: White House, in which she and her guests dissect the flood of political stories pouring out of the nation’s capital. Riding the crest of this flood for the last several years, of course, has been the Captain Bligh of American conversation, Donald Trump. Trump’s inevitable dominance of the daily news cycle guarantees that much of the expert talk will recapitulate what has been reported on previous days. This is hardly Wallace’s fault, and she brings heroic preparation, intensity, and palpable human passion to her daily goal of making it all fresh and compelling yet again. My wife Honoree and I are grateful viewers of her program.
Aware of her thematic constrictions, Wallace and her producers made an enterprising decision not long ago: they would embark on an occasional series of mini-documentaries exploring topics rarely or glancingly noticed on regular newscasts. Under the rubric Deadline: Special Report, these segments are being streamed on NBC’s affiliate cable channel, Peacock, and occasionally on Wallace’s MSNBC show.
As Wallace explained to Variety, “The idea is to do multiple series and deep dives into single topics without overlapping too much with what we do on the broadcast.”
This is a rare and noble impulse, yet it comes with a caveat: when you promise to do deep dives, you need to dive deep.
The debut Special Report is streaming now on Peacock: the four-part America’s Mental Health Emergency. Three of the four interview guests offer a tipoff that the Report’s aims are no more than snorkel-level.
These three are celebrities. Granted, they are celebrities who have “gone through a lot,” as the saying has it. Yet their presence as guests only reinforces the weary television trope that no issue will engage an audience unless a super-star shows up to validate it. The travails of Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn and the actors Rosie Perez and Taraji P. Henson, while clearly real and devastating to them, do not begin to embrace the totality of what “mental illness” means at the depths of its menace to human reason.
I mean no disrespect for Dr. Taufique’s good work when I point out that her segment has the whiff of “obligatory,” and serves to extend the great “sin” of the Report’s first three episodes: the sin of omission.
Omitted is any mention of the emperor of all mental maladies. 1. It goes by several names: serious (or chronic) mental illness. Brain disease. The psychotic family of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder. No journalistic project that calls itself a “special” “deep dive” into “America’s mental-health emergency” has a right to ignore it. Yet they do, routinely.
The ultimate origins of this abhorrent disease are not yet fully understood by neuroscience. It is known to be partly inherited, a (relatively) rare cocktail of flawed genes that usually forms in mid-adolescence, when the brain is subject to a massive “pruning,” a replacement of outworn genes with new ones that will control the brain until the end of life. The chaotic power of these genes, their obliteration of reason and self-awareness, can be touched off by severe stress of various kinds.
One would not know that by watching the four installments of America’s Mental-Health Emergency. One would be part of the vast majority of Americans. It’s possible that Nicolle Wallace and her producers are in the dark—out of their depth—as well. Serious Mental Illness is an awful calamity that calls up primal fear. It repels people who still buy into the medieval superstition that “crazy people,” “whack jobs” and “psychos” can shape-shift into murderous monsters. (Think upon the myths of Dracula, the Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde.)
This superstition, this bigotry, this denial have taken an obscene toll on society. Half measures and misspent funds drain our wealth. (Think of the homeless crisis and of the mentally damaged people in that population.) Political leaders remain benighted and callous. County jails, urban and small-town, are filled with suffering souls who belong in mental care centers, watched by doctors who can keep the victim stabilized with medication. (The brutal jail version of special care is solitary confinement, which increases psychosis.) General hospitals toss uninsured patients into the streets. Mindless policies such as the HIPAA code, which prohibits family members from learning the condition of a hospitalized loved one, remain on the books. Lobotomies remain legal. The manifold horror stories of psychotic victims barely out of childhood yet brutalized as criminal adults continue apace, as they have since the Bedlam Asylum was opened in 1329. Mothers’ frantic pleas for help, for simple understanding, continue to haunt my in-box and my dreams five years after No One Cares About Crazy People was published. I recall a long evening of emailing back and forth with a mother in Florida, trapped inside her house as her deracinated son pounded on the door, threatening to kill her.
And how has MSNBC/Peacock’s “deep dive” enlightened us?
It pains me to write what I am about to write, Nicolle Wallace. I admire you and know your intentions are good. But I am writing it out of mourning, and in adrenaline and blood.
Of Lindsay Vonn, who suffers from depression, you tell us that she “was the world’s greatest skier and could fly down a sheet of ice at 80 miles an hour.” You tell a panel of Today Show staffers that “Vonn was so beautiful, so vulnerable, so open” in the interview.
I could get you an introduction to Tyler West, a non-celebrity who is also beautiful, vulnerable, and open. Or was. Tyler, who suffers from bipolar disorder and autism, languishes in a federal prison on an unsubstantiated charge of statutory rape, and for crossing the lawn to a neighbor’s house one night in a psychotic state, opening the unlocked screen door, and falling asleep on a sofa. He has been beaten by inmates to the point of brain injury; thrown into solitary; denied medication. I have called Tyler “a symptom of America’s broken mental health care system.” I have contacted lawyers, advocates, even a Senator, asking for intervention. No one cares. Damndest thing.
Of Taraji P. Henson, you report that “Taraji’s character in Empire was a magical, you know, iconic kind of woman. She was tough, she was strong . . . I talked to her for almost an hour.” You continue, “They [the celebrities] don’t say anything about fame. Fame doesn’t protect them from any of this. And what they all said and what Taraji said most powerfully was I get up every day and try to get through the day. Rosie Perez made the same point.”
I could introduce you to many people who are incapable of getting up.
You drew Rosie Perez out on her traumatic childhood. Yet the closest you or she come to a clinical diagnosis was to report that she suffered from “PTSD.” PTSD might or might not have led her into serious mental illness. We never learn.
I could go on—oh, could I go on—but I really do not want to berate you, Ms. Wallace, or to belabor the point. I think I have made the point clear. Serious mental illness, like a certain former president whom you mention daily, seems to be above the law. Or beside it. Or ignored by it. And ignored by most state and national leaders and journalists who might hold the malefactors and policy laggards and brutal jail wardens accountable; increase local mental healthcare centers instead of building new jails; develop guidelines for public/family education along several fronts—and ultimately mobilize opinion for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Mental Health, which would oversee these and other dire, overdue needs.
The director, Gail Freedman, is expanding the book’s theme to include not only the story of my schizophrenia-afflicted family, but stories of similar families across the United States, with interviews by Gail and footage by her crews in various cities and towns.
This work-in-progress has great potential in expanding the story of serious mental illness, and in educating both political leaders and citizens about SMI: its unsuspected prevalence in the population and its untold costs in public safety, human misery and to our national wealth. Combating SMI is a feasible task, yet it remains crippled by the appalling lack of societal information about its causes, dangers, and treatment. The damage is compounded by the unconscionable negligence among policymakers, law enforcement, prison systems, educators, and even some psychiatrists.
Gail is forging ahead on this project—traveling the country to gather portraits of ravaged families and struggling victims—even as she continues to seek funding for the film’s completion.
You can help. Gail has created a powerful website, filled with information and links to glimpses of the families and experts she has interviewed. You can access it at https://noonecaresfilm.com.
Please review this shocking yet hopeful documentary, and help Gail complete it and present it to the world.
Here is an open letter to a divisive Republican Florida Congressman who yet might be of use.
The July 16 edition of Salon reprinted an Alternet article that quoted some of the vilest, most callous and repugnant remarks I have ever read—and that’s saying something. The remarks were glazed in an oily hypocrisy as transparent as it was fraudulent.
The podcast was hosted by your spirit animal, Marjorie Taylor Greene. Marjorie sat mooing with approval at your side as you spoke, occasionally belching out a supportive comment of her own.
Do you recall those remarks, Matt? I do. The thrust of them was that Jamie Raskin was no longer able to discharge his congressional duties. Because his son had committed suicide.
There are levels of inhumanity, Matt. There are levels of character destruction, of barbarism and bullying, of abusive self-degrading malice. You know these levels, Matt, because they are where you and your fellow congressional cretins live like feral cliff-dwellers. Your horde has pumped these rancid values into the public discourse over the last decade; you’ve done your best to normatize them. To an appalling extent you’ve succeeded.
And now you have broken new mud. You’ve hacked out a new bottom level. No slur, no lie, no amount of hateful falsity in your public past can match your soulless verbal mugging of Congressman Raskin, a man of rare high character and rarer courage who just now is performing the definitive public service of his life: holding to account the moral miscreants like you who thought, on January 6, 2021, that it would be a good idea to follow Donald Trump’s goading and vandalize the United States Capitol building in Washington.
Now you want Jamie Raskin out of Congress—you know, for his own good. Coincidence? Maybe.
You put on your Sigmund Freud pants, Matt, to explain to us laypeople why Jamie Raskin must retreat from the public scene:
“I think that he takes that trauma and he associates it now with his work in the Congress to such an interwoven way that he’s unable to do the congressional experience outside of just the dungeon of that personal trauma . . . I think it makes him look at everything in these very like, dark and severe ways.”
Is that what you like think, Matt? Your . . . analytical gifts are stunning. You kept your own hide safely distant from the violence that day, yet you somehow divined without evidence that it was a bunch of far-left (“anti-fa”) zealots who triggered all the trouble. Still, you were quoted as saying, “We’re proud of the work we did on January 6th to make legitimate arguments about election integrity.” Doesn’t this make you—oh, a proud far-left anti-fa zealot?
Here, though, is the nub of it, Matt: Congressman Raskin will surmount your venomous hypocrisy. Your real victims are the millions of Americans whose lives have been scarred by a child’s mental illness and/or suicide. Often these people are shunned into the bargain by a society that assumes they are crazy themselves, or somehow to blame. I speak from experience. Now they—we—Congressman Raskin—suffer a fresh round of gratuitous stigma, via your clueless and falsehearted claim that such bereavement robs survivors of the ability to function.
Statistics on mental illness vary, as do definitions of mental illness. The National Association on Mental Illness reports that more than 14 million people suffered serious mental illness (incurable brain diseases such as schizophrenia) in 2021. Lesser forms of mental illness affected a fifth of the population. Suicide rates are easier to pin down. Some 46 thousand Americans killed themselves in 2021. About half of these were mentally ill. The Raskin family courageously announced that Tommy, a Harvard Law School student, had suffered from serious depression for years. Depression is a leading symptom of chronic bipolar disorder.
History and common sense make you look like a fool, Matt, perish the thought. “And death shall have no dominion,” wrote Dylan Thomas, and for most bereaved people, this is at least partly true. They forge on. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln lost their beloved 11-year-old son Todd to typhoid fever in February 1862, in the midst of the Civil War. Less than a year later, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Meningitis took the life of Susy Clemens, Mark Twain’s cherished daughter, while Sam and Olivia were away in Europe. “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live” Sam wrote. Yet he did live, and wrote some of his more important works before his own death in 1910.
The list goes on to encompass the millions of unknown parents and siblings who bravely have forged on, electing to consecrate their lives and work to the memories of their lost loved ones.
Your intrusion into the Raskins’ grief was out of line, Matt Gaetz. Only those who have actually lost a child, to suicide or otherwise, are qualified to discuss the despair that descends, against their will, until “comes wisdom through the awful grace of God,” per Aeschylus.
The Alternet quotes you as saying, piously, “[Y]ou know, no one would ever want to lose a child, particularly to suicide,” and, “As human beings, our hearts go out to him.” How true and how touching. You could prove your sincerity and commitment to these remarks in many ways.
The American mental healthcare system is in shambles. This year, committees in both houses of Congress at last began to focus on solutions. The Senate Finance Committee has released a discussion draft regarding mental health care for young people in Medicaid. In May, President Biden released his draft for a comprehensive strategy. And less than a month ago, your body, the House of Representatives, passed the Mental Health and Well Being Act, and two other acts aimed at reclaiming those afflicted with madness and addiction.
These are essential yet tiny steps. Massive work remains to be done: reforming our medieval criminal-justice system as it relates to mentally ill prisoners; rewriting outdated and harmful policy mandates; training many more care workers; speeding up access to diagnosis and treatment; vastly increasing public education; perhaps even creating a cabinet-level office to unify these and all other operations. Oh yes: and reducing stigma.
Have you thought of taking a leadership role in some or all of these initiatives, Congressman Matthew Gates? Being a part of seminal reform in mental healthcare would give your legacy a priceless quantum boost. It might even get your thoughts diverted from political conspiracies—which, after all, as you might know, can be a sign of paranoia.
Her first book reached out to mothers of afflicted and lost children, making common cause with their plight and her own. (And why is it, I ask again, that mothers seem always to be the point-parents in dialogues about m.i.? Where are the fathers?!) This second work is even more ambitious. It’s a compendium of stories that Ms. Ranahan has exhaustively retrieved from mothers in similar straits. It brings to mind the protean books of Studs Terkel more than a generation ago. Ms. Ranahan writes that she chose this interview-and-transcribe approach in lieu of “an extended rant,” and she has been forthright about the psychic weariness this journey has cost her. If you are lucky enough not to have lived in this horrific “sub-nation,” with its attendant catastrophes of diagnosis, effective treatment, ruinous healthcare costs, courtroom and criminal justice, effective political leadership, and awareness in the culture at large, please read Ms. Ranahan. And then get busy. You could help change the world. And DeDe Ranahan is now enshrined in the literature of enlightenment.
In the tradition of the late D.J. Jaffe, but with a psychiatrist’s grounding in nosology and a journalist’s zeal for social and civic truths, Insel explores the strange disconnect between stunning advances in the understanding of why and how the human brain can run amok, and the infuriating stagnation of actual reclamation for the mentally ill. He writes with laser-like clarity and the assurance of a master in his field.
I can’t recommend this book with any more persuasion than that of the great advocate Pete Earley, who writes on the back cover:
“’Healing’ is truly one of the best books ever written about mental illness, and I think I’ve read them all. Dr. Insel speaks as a parent, scientist, doctor . . . defining what’s wrong and offering clear-headed solutions—all the while guiding us forward with compassion, goodness, and hope in this juggernaut wake-up call.”
I am wearily–yes, wearily–posting links to two recent pieces by the peerless mental-healthcare blogger Pete Earley. Below them I’m linking to an archive within the blog you are reading now.
Their common denominator: they are about young brain-damaged men enduring Hell-on-earth lives on the streets of America as those who love them–mothers, sisters–trudge on through the years, and decades, trying vainly to awaken the conscience of the–the what? The whom? The withered, laughably misnamed “mental health” systems in their states that are restricted by outdated boneheaded rules and by the soul-deadened payrollers who run them. By the distracted politicians who appoint those payrollers and promptly forget them. By the oblivious electorate that will never form a constituency to keep the politicians on the case.
After his barbershop was vandalized by a mentally disturbed white man in Atlanta, Run The Jewels group member Killer Mike offered to help the man if anyone could identify him.
Killer Mike, a recording artist who is very vocal about supporting and enhancing Black entrepreneurship, posted a message on his Instagram account. He described his place of business being vandalized but used the moment to encourage others to “check on your mentally ill loved ones.”
The film version of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, the documentary-in-progress, has a website as of Monday, December 27. Congratulations to producer Gail Freedman for achieving one more big step in getting this project to completion! https://noonecaresfilm.com