The gendered expressions of mental illness and violence

I’m sure you all heard yesterday or this morning that the Tucson gunman who intended to assassinate U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and who murdered 6 of her constituents and injured 13 others in January was found incompetent to stand trial for his crimes.  Instead, Jared Loughner “will receive treatment in a secure federal mental health facility for up to four months before doctors evaluate him again. . . . If doctors can restore his mental health, the judge may find him competent to stand trial. If not, prosecutors can seek to have Loughner committed to a mental health facility indefinitely.”

This is almost surely the right decision, given the severe nature of his illness.  But, I’m still frustrated by the fact that no one ever talks about gender in the violent expression of mental illness.  Overwhelmingly, the people who commit mass murder fueled by mental illness and access to high-powered weaponry are men.  They’re stark, raving mad–but they’re in touch with reality enough to pick up and absorb cultural cues and messages that gun violence is a masculine prerogative.  There are of course seriously mentally ill women who suffer from similar paranoid delusions and fixate on individuals the way the Tucson gunman did.  For example, a story in this week’s The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv (sorry–subscription wall) offers a nuanced, tragic description of the progress of mental illness in a woman whose disease sounds quite similar to Loughner’s.  Yet, she didn’t pick up guns and kill a crowd of people.  Instead, she retreated into a New Hampshire farmhouse and slowly starved to death.

Yet, we as a culture never talk about the fact that mentally ill women usually turn inward and destroy themselves and only rarely hurt or kill others.  We’re also never permitted to notice or analyze the fact that mass shootings are overwhelmingly committed by men.  (This is similar to the fact that even feminist blogs aren’t ever permitted to talk about the fact that 99% of all rapists are men–no, we must always and repeatedly acknowledge the 1% of women rapists who “prove” that rape isn’t a gendered crime somehow.)

I was talking with a young friend the other day about safety issues and “what would you do if you got separated from your parents?”-type questions, and in strategizing how to go from being lost to being found in an airport (for example), ze suggested looking for people who wear uniforms and had name badges.  I said that was a great idea, but I also suggested to hir to look for women with uniforms and badges to help hir, and to try to get the attention of more than one adult at the same time.  Sadly, this advice to avoid seeking the help of male strangers made perfect sense to this child, who has never witnessed anything but loving behavior from the men in hir life.  And yet, ze knows.

26 thoughts on “The gendered expressions of mental illness and violence

  1. I think the exception to the point that mentally ill women rarely harm others would be mothers who harm their children. Which also speaks volumes about gender, both in terms of who they target, how they go about it (guns are rarely involved) and how society reacts (they are perceived as monsters, not individuals in desperate need of care).


  2. ej, I don’t know if mothers who harm their children really constitute an exception. Given how much childcare is done by women, while men waltz free, and how many children receive loving care from women, the rate of harm to children by mothers seems rare indeed to me.

    The NRA enabling of gun nuttery rests on d00dly privilege. If women used and abused firearms the way men do, no lobby would stand up for the prerogative to shoot. Female unruliness must never be tolerated. Male unruliness = freedom.


  3. Most violence in the world is committed by men. So I am not sure if the very small amount of violence committed by the mentally ill is any more gendered than the rest of the world’s violence. My guess is that it may be less gendered than the average. In terms of sheer numbers of dead the worst violence in the last century has been at the hands of the state. Most state leaders and military and police carrying out this violence have been men. But, there are some exceptions. I think violence by women sticks out because it is comparatively rare compared to violence by men.


  4. Yes! Mental illnesses are very gendered; in part, that is because the DSM is a biased document. But beyond that, the way men vs. women cry out for help is very different. It is speculated that many girls don’t get dxed with learning disorders when young because they don’t act out when frustrated, but instead withdraw. Women are more likely to be depressed and have eating disorders and men are more likely to abuse alcohol. In terms of personality disorders, women are more likely to be dxed with Borderline and Histrionic, while men are more likely to get Antisocial. We know that many mental illness are caused in part by society (Eating disorders come to mind, but also depression and anxiety). Few are strictly biological (though there are biological factors in many). The examples are endless, but women tend to hurt themselves and be quiet about their mental illness (secret starvation, secret cutting, secret sadness), while men tend to act out (anger, irritability, drug abuse.)


  5. Slightly off topic but I wondered about the statistics regarding mentally ill…mothers who harm their children so I looked some up.

    While there are many factors to consider, the US DHHS report on the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect indicates that alcohol and drug use are stronger contributors to child maltreatment than mental illness.

    I also read in the NIS report that overall, when a child is maltreated by an adult, if the adult is a biological parent, the adult is more likely female than male. If the adult is not a biological parent, the adult is more likely male than female. There are gendered differences among the types of maltreatment. Women are more likely to neglect a child while men are more likely to abuse a child. I think this gets at LadyProf’s comment about time spent caring for children.


  6. To clarify my above post, I was thinking of those extreme (and yes, rare) cases of mentally ill mothers (perhaps even suffering from post-partum depression) who kill their children, prompted in part by all the attention of trial in Florida right now. I’m not sure if anyone is claiming that she is mentally ill, but my point was that mentally ill men who cause violence are often excused because of their mental illness, yet the same understanding is seldom extended to women. Especially when they are mothers, because society assumes that nurturing instincts should trump mental illness, which is dumb.

    My point was not at all to attack women, or to suggest they are more likely to harm children. On the contrary. It was to point out how our perception of mental illness is as gendered as the disease and treatment of it.


  7. I think ej is right about mothers who kill. Fathers who kill are portrayed sympathetically, whereas mothers are made out to be monsters. Frequently, stories about fathers who kill their families are framed rather sympathetically to explain why work or financial/personal problems led him to slaughter his family, whereas we don’t really want to craft communal narratives to explain how women can kill their own children. That would require that we acknowledge the stresses and the pressures of motherhood, when we’re much more invested in portraying motherhood as unalloyed pleasure rather than as work or something stressful. But we have no qualms crafting sympathetic explanations for men who kill to save their own pride, their reputations, etc.


  8. Male killers always get treated more sympathetically than their female counterparts. In order to be called a depraved monster, a male killer needs more than half a dozen victims + extra gristly details like cannibalism. A woman will be called a monster simply for killing any vulnerable person. By “monster,” I mean the person receives no sympathy or even acknowledgment of a motive.

    I know this distinction sounds trivial–as if anyone wanted to defend, say, Susan Smith–but men get to retain their membership in the human community far more easily than women, and that’s wrong.


  9. I was the one who brought up female rapists on the other blog. I’m sorry to read that you, too, interpret my words in this way. My point was that there is a world of difference between talking about how rape fits into a gendered structure of oppression, on the one hand, and simply denying that women ever commit rape, on the other. The former is crucial. The latter is incorrect and hurtful. Put more simply, 1% is not 0%. I don’t care about people who only talk about the 99%, really; I do care about cruel and inaccurate remarks about that 1%. I am very sorry to see two bloggers I admired greatly fail to make that distinction.


  10. m, there’s an expression in medical training. It goes like this: look for horses, not zebras. I’m more concerned about the ways in which male violence is naturalized and explained away, while we dwell disproportionately on female perps. It’s utterly ridiculous.

    Like I said over at TR’s place, start your own blog if you want. Stay out of my threads with your concern trolling.


  11. Right then. I’ve learned a lot about the historical profession as well as American history from your blog, and I’m sorry to have to cease reading and (occasionally) commenting. You’re off-target with the ‘concern troll’ accusation, but I don’t think there’s any way for me to prove that to you, at least without revealing a great deal more about my personal identity and experience than I feel comfortable doing in this context. I do believe it is possible for feminists to work against rape in a way that acknowledges gendered oppression but does not deny reality nor shame any victim, and I hope that at some point in the future we find ourselves working together rather than at cross purposes.


  12. @m “simply denying that women commit rape”

    Strawman. Never happened here.

    What you’re demanding is that a writer intone a declarative sentence of your choice whenever SHE chooses to write about a particular topic. That’s coercion, to say nothing of concern trolling. You ought to blog about interests you; Historiann will blog about what interests her. (Which, for this post, happens to be horses not zebras.)


  13. I’m with ej, especially given the case of the historian who was mentally ill who killed her child, in part because she couldn’t get adequate mental health care. After the act, she was incarcerated and killed herself. Villanova U. removed a plaque that commemerated her memory. RIP Mine Ener. I probably have to stop reading this thread. I’m too emotionally invested to be rational on this one.


  14. I remember reading a book titled, “Men are Not Cost Effective,” by June Stephenson, and feeling as if the author made a really good case. So I went home and pitched it my dad, a state judge, and he gave me the stink eye. I still fondly remember the book, though.

    And I’ve often felt like the “mothers who kill their own children” trope is another version of the “white girl in trouble in the tropics” trope. That is, the actual storyline is less significant than its social function, which seems aimed at piling on more evidence that women are irrational/reckless/whatever-stereotype-hasn’t-been-discussed-lately. In terms of violent crime, “mothers who kill their children” are statistically invisible, after all. Whereas violent men are dandelions in the American landscape.

    And maybe, to continue the discussion (a day late, of course), not *all* male killers are presented sympathetically. I think the logic of the representation requires that some small number be defined as beyond humanity, so that the great bulk can be more three-dimensionally defined.


  15. Historiann, could you please provide examples of stories that portray fathers who kill sympathetically? The ones I’m familiar with do nothing of the sort and frame these as the culmination of domestic violence.

    I should add that those of us who blog about disability have been talking about this subject for quite some time.


  16. KC–“sympathy” was a poor choice of words. But if you follow the first link in the second paragraph above, you’ll find discussions of stories of men who murdered their families that frame the murders in narratives that emphasize the stress (financial, emotional, or otherwise) that the men found themselves in. I think those stories are in marked contrast to the media coverage of Mine Ener, especially the right-wing demagoguery that that story attracted. (Google it–I didn’t want to link to it. The link above is to a Chronicle of Higher Ed discussion that included a detailed and sympathetic rendering of the story.)


  17. Totally off-topic remark – I’ve always told my daughter to look for another mama if she is lost, then for a uniformed person. My daughter has special needs and recognizes “mamas” more than uniforms – those could be anyone from a suit, to a janitor, to a police officer. And most mamas will completely stop their day to assist a lost child.


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  20. Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D, deals with the topic of women who abuse their children in her book, Don’t Blame Mother. From the book:

    Researchers who make these claims rarely ask how much time each parent spends with the children. In general, mothers spend far more time than fathers with the children, and many of the fathers in studies of abuse have left their families or are rarely home. So for each hour spent with the children, the mothers actually abuse them far less than the fathers do. But many “experts” continue to believe that mothers are more likely than fathers to commit child abuse – and this belief is a serious distortion.


  21. Are men more or less likely to be convicted of violent crimes than women? After conviction, do men on the average receive harsher or more lenient sentences than women do for comparable crimes? If one man commits the same kind of murder as another woman, is one more likely to receive the death sentence?

    I don’t know the answer to those questions but I think it would provide another data point for understanding how violence is gendered and perceived in society. I think I agree with about 98 percent of what Historiann and others have said in this thread, but I honestly cannot ever recall thinking that men who massacre their families get off more easily relative to women. I think society tends to regard both men and women who murder their families as “monsters,” although that’s not a term I would ever use.

    In my extremely unscientific recollection, it seems to me that women who are accused of killing are often portrayed in a relatively sympathetic light: I am thinking in particular of the outrage in Britain over the second-degree murder conviction of Louise Woodward, or the various portrayals of Amanda Knox during her murder trial in Italy. Even Susan Smith was occasionally perceived in a sympathetic light, with many expressing hope that she would not be executed. In this respect, it will be interesting to see how the Casey Anthony case plays out.

    Of course, those four cases are all examples of young white women. If you bring race into the equation it probably looks much different.


  22. I’ve just been watching the (extremely well-written) U.K. version of Life On Mars, and one of the things I noticed is that rather than being defined as shooters, the police as portrayed in this program often don’t have guns, and when they do, loading them and carrying them is seen as an event, not just status quo.

    Since the show moves back in time to 1973, it’s also a nice reminder of how the “norm” for treatment of women then would be reprehensible now….


  23. KC: “Of course, those four cases are all examples of young white women. If you bring race into the equation it probably looks much different.”

    Minor thing, maybe, but I just wanted to point out that race is already part of “the equation” there. Especially (not only!) in the case of Amanda Knox. Race is never not part of the equation.


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