Saturday, August 15, 2015

Of Idiots And Criminal Justice

I have written before about living with a special needs child, and the challenges obvious and discreet. A discreet benefit is insight into those on the fringe in the realm I inhabit in the criminal justice system. By this I mean the mildly intellectually disabled and those suffering mental illness. Their conduct is still often measured by a yard stick not of individual circumstance, but the measure against which most others are compared. This has always been the case, but in varying degrees been plastered behind a veneer of tolerance.

And so, in reading  W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil I happened on this passage:
But there was one child that she could not grow used to. It was a little girl of six, an idiot with a huge hydrocephalic head that swayed to top-heavy on a small. squat body, large vacant eyes, and a drooling mouth, the creature spoke hoarsely a few mumble words; it was revolting and horrible; and for some reason it conceived an attachment for Kitty so that it followed her about as she changed her place from one part of the large room to another. It clung to her skirt and rubbed its face against her knees. It sough to fondle her hands. She shivered with disgust. She knew it yearned for caresses and she could not bring herself to touch it.  
Maugham's character, Kitty Fane, is an attractive yet shallow young woman thrust by circumstance into interior China of the 1920's in the midst of a cholera epidemic. She finds a measure of emotional depth in experiencing that desperate time ministering to abandoned and orphaned children.

Well, except for "It." The passage continues:
Once, speaking of it to Sister St. Joseph [Kitty] said that it was pity it lived. Sister St. Joseph smiled and stretched out her hand to the misformed thing. It came and rubbed its bulging forehead against it.  
'Poor little mite,' said the nun 'She was bought her positively dying. By the mercy of Providence I was at the door just as she came. I thought there was not a moment to lose so I baptized her at once. You would not believe what trouble we have had to keep her with us. Three or four times we thought that her little would would escape to heaven.' 
Kitty was silent. Sister St. Joseph in her loquacious way began to gossip of other things. And next day when the idiot child came to her and touch her hand Kitty nerved her self to place it in a caress on the great bare skull. She forced her lips into a smile. But suddenly the child, with an idiot perversity, left her; it seemed to lose interest in her, and that day and the following day paid her no attention. Kitty did not know what she had done and tried to lure it to her with smiles and gestures, but it turned away and pretended not to see her. 
Literature, at least good literature, is a window into attitudes of the time written. Maugham embraced the dark parts of his characters and we recognize them in ourselves. This post, however, is not about Maugham's own disability (stammering), his society's view of sexual orientation, or his attraction to those who ill treated him. Instead, this post is about attitudes not changed, at least where they most matter: The criminal justice system. Here, more than lip service is required. It is in this crucible our real attitudes are exposed to the world by those we imprison and segregate from ourselves.

This crucible promises exclusion of the clinically diagnosed mentally disabled from the death penalty, yet allows them to be re-defined into a legal category of offender nevertheless eligible for death by the State. It is a crucible that  uses incarceration to segregate the mentally ill. It is a crucible that in it's own kind of shallowness feigns tolerance, but is actually intolerant of it.

Maugham's great grandson, by the way, is a autistic savant.

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