During the 1960s it was fashionable to loudly declaim the Victorian institutions where those who did not possess the wherewithal to avoid transgressing society’s mores lived in peace and security.
The inhabitants of these spacious and airy model villages were described as being ‘deprived of their liberty’, never as being protected from the demands of the outer world’s rules.
In time, along with the clarion calls that we were all equal, all the same, came demands for an end to the system which labelled some people ‘cretins’, ‘morons’, and ‘mental defectives’ and provided a safe space for them to live out their lives minimising the dangers to themselves or the rest of the population.
In its place, we put a system whereby the newly re-branded ‘mentally challenged’ were expected to observe the rules of our society and live amongst us. ‘Care in the Community’ was born.
One of the most insidious of the clauses inserted into the new Mental Health Act which wrought these changes was the brainchild of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists. They lobbied hard and won a concession whereby, apart from those who possessed the insight to realise that they needed a voluntary ‘rest’ from observing society’s rules, the only people they could be forced to provide this haven of space for, were those they deemed to be ‘treatable’.
Those who, either through physical trauma to their brain, or by virtue of the untreatable nature of a congenital brain condition, were beyond help, were excluded from this system. Removed from the model farm in the countryside inhuman Victorian institution, they were expected to live in the accommodation provided by social services.
Not possessing the social knowledge to refuse the graffiti ridden flat, refused by all other potential tenants, on a windswept redundant mining village, surrounded by drug addicts, illegal immigrants and squatters, they were supposed to ‘fit in’ with the aid of a hard pressed social worker dropping by for a cup of tea once a month. Their benefit books were stolen, they were beaten up, and some were murdered for their meagre possessions.
Their only salvation came when, for instance, they failed to realise that fatally silencing the 14 year old girl who has refused your burgeoning sexual demands is not considered by us an acceptable response to the age old problem of a girl finding you unattractive, and they were carted off to the Crown court with a segment of society banging on the side of the prison van and screaming ‘evil monster’.
Once convicted, they would be presented to a prison service staffed by medically unqualified assistants, who stood guard over society’s new Demon – the ‘evil monster’.
We demonised the old places of safety; we demonise the tragic doings of those who cannot manage life without a place of safety. In between, we demonise those who would so much as suggest that some people cannot cope with the confusing and fast paced life we have engineered for ourselves.
I once knew a man, a happily married family man, father of two, who was involved in a car accident. Hurled through the windscreen, he left that part of his brain which enables us to tell right from wrong, to draw back from actions which we know to fall on the side of wrong, splattered on the lamp post which halted his airborne trajectory. It is situated at the front of the brain, a most vulnerable situation.
His life was saved by the Doctors, and his wife was presented with a shadow of the man she had married to take home with her. When you have once enjoyed the company of a soul mate, partner, lover, friend, it is difficult to cope with finding him replaced by a man who smashes up the kitchen when annoyed at being asked to take the bins out; a man who sees violent physical rape as the answer to his sexual urges; a man no longer capable of seeing the wrong in hurling the baby across the room when awakened by his screams. She divorced him and took her children away to a place where he could no longer hurt them.
Devoid of both that area of his brain which controlled his inhibitions and the ‘carer’ forcibly appointed by the state – his wife, who had controlled his worst excesses, he saw no wrong in driving once more. In fact he saw no reason to be restrained by society’s observance of the rule that you stop at a red light. He was soon involved in another head-on collision. An entirely innocent fellow driver, fully entitled to expect that his green light meant that he could drive safely across the junction was left paralysed. He, himself, was deprived of a second segment of his brain. Once more the Doctors patched him up, pronounced themselves entirely satisfied with their handiwork, and returned him to do his best at living amongst us.
The local papers proudly announced that he was now a millionaire, courtesy of the insurance companies involved. The predatory drug dealers soon paid him a visit. Plagued by headaches, he sought and found, solace in hard drugs and alcohol. They blocked out the memory of the life he once had, the children lost, the wife long gone.
The social workers called by his unassuming bungalow, surrounded by elderly retirees, from time to time. They came in pairs, well aware of the danger to life and limb posed by a man who could not tell right from wrong. His Father could no longer bear to meet him, his Mother stayed in touch by telephone.
The psychiatrists refused to give him safe harbour on the grounds that what ailed him was untreatable – they could not put back the brain function he had lost.
The bleeding heart liberals continued to say that depriving him of his liberty was ‘inhuman’, and they went on selling off the old hospitals to developers to provide new homes for young couples.
It was my misfortune to have to step out of the sunny suburban street and into his closeted, curtain drawn, filthy, drug addled world. His drug dealer was in attendance. Between them, they had decided that I was the answer to his mounting indebtedness to the dealer, and I was to stay there until the bill had been paid. The part of his brain that I might have appealed to with reason or logic no longer existed. There was nothing I could say that would determine my fate. I cannot tell you of the cold fear that settles in your stomach as that realisation dawns. It left me with a permanent fear of stepping into the world of such inadequates.
For inadequate is what they are, as is Jon Venables. Inadequately equipped to live by our rules.
Eventually that man will do ’something’ – kill another motorist, rape a girl, imprison another visitor, decide that his dealer’s head would look better mounted on a pole outside Tesco’s, who can say? He doesn’t have the ability to determine that – neither do we.
We wait, consoling ourselves that we have a caring society, that he is just the same as us, that social workers calling in tandem once a month will effect a change – and when they don’t, we will pick up our newspapers and howl our outrage at ‘the Tesco pole murderer’, we will shout and holler as the prison van goes past, bang on the sides, and call him an evil monster. A judge will solemnly declare that he is a danger to society; lawyers will go to the European Courts to try to release him from an ‘inhuman’ life of incarceration. Journalists will write articles describing how he was little more than a child when all this occurred, that redemption should be available to all of us.
We don’t know the circumstances of Jon Venables return to prison, but I do know that somewhere, in a quiet suburban street, or a windswept abandoned mining village, an innocent couple will have been required to live next door to him, unknowing, unsuspecting. I know too, that he will have been required to turn his inadequate brain to the task of understanding our rules and living by them.
Now that he has spectacularly failed, we can vent our anger at him, hound him, demand that he be locked up for life, and castigate him. Evil Monster – how dare he prove inadequate to the task of living amongst us?
All this, so I am told, is a vast improvement on the old system of ‘depriving innocent men and women of their liberty’ – or of providing them with a barrier between what they are capable of doing and what we expect them to do – at least until they become official ‘evil monsters’. Then we pop them into a Victorian prison.
We do not expect those who have lost part of a leg to hop round until they fall over. Then call them evil for falling over. Why do we expect those who have a damaged brain to do the equivalent? Why do we deny the existence of mental inadequacy, pretend it doesn’t exist?
Could it be connected to the desire of the Royal College of Psychiatrists to only be presented with ‘curable’ conditions, or those who volunteer themselves as guinea-pigs?
I dare say the social workers would like to be presented only with those cases they can do something about, not the intransigent. They don’t have such a powerful lobby, so must go on doing their best, and weeping when we demonise their failures.