When Bad Things Happen to Beautiful Minds

Sister of the Yam


When Bad Things Happen to Beautiful Minds


For lack of a better reference, the moment felt like Lauryn Hill circa 2000: Kanye West spitting his characteristically impulsive but nod-worthy truths–my favorite that night was his deft critique of “rap beef” –riddled by the painfully familiar feeling that what we were also witnessing was a beautiful mind unraveling.

Some who watched the Kanye West-Jimmy Kimmel interview this past Thursday, who had been keeping close watch of the many other interviewstweetspaparazzi attacks, and fashion statements that brought Kanye to Kimmel’s desk that night, and who were perhaps also nostalgic for the pre-kilt, pre-Kim, College Dropout Kanye that used to croon about family dinners and the graveshift of dead-end jobs, observed in Kanye a dangerously heightened mix of mania and megalomania; heard a wired, rambling incoherence; and chronicled those twenty plus minutes as exhibit Z that Kanye West is indeed battling some sort of mental health crises.

Others picked up on a mouth racing to keep up with a mind in constant overdrive; they tuned into Kanye’s fearless, biting critique; and cheered along the self-proclaimed Genius-Underdog sparring with the lovable Everyman type that always seems to win these kinds of debates.

Both interpretations of that night–that Kanye was emitting his last fumes before meltdown or that he is deep beyond reproach–are freighted with their own particular dangers. On one hand, we risk participating in a rich tradition of silencing and managing rightfully angry people of color who dare to speak up by calling them crazy. On the other hand, fawning hero-worship can doom us to pulling up a chair and whipping out the popcorn to shit shows that could very well be prevented; Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston hang heavy in my mind as the parables for how fatal that kind of spectatorship can truly be.

Positioning oneself in the gray is often indicia of cowardice, but here I am in this whack limboland of hedge and no answers: neither hypotheses fully work for me.


That night I saw a man who was wounded. Who never expected his naked struggle for legitimacy would become fodder for late-night mockery or that it would hurt that much–that he, as an adult man with serious indictments against an industry that made and now mangles him, would be infantalized into a whiny, ranting child. I saw a man deeply frustrated by an industry that has smugly siloed bright black and brown men into the white noise of hip-hop so that it can exoticize, imitate, appropriate, and snub them safely from afar. I saw a man who was lonely and misunderstood, who had had been stripped of his support system and now floats about unmoored. I saw a man who thought his creativity and hard word would somehow immunize him from the garden variety isms that topple heroes and unmentionables alike. I saw a man who, like many talented men of color, whether they hide out in Ivy League institutions or behind mics, has never been held accountable for the gaps in his logic and the tangles in his heart strings–for the materialism, misogyny and violence that hobbles his otherwise brave and sophisticated wisdom about race and class in this country. (But that goes for Common, Nas, Tupac and Kendrick Lamar too). I saw a man who wears his vanity like a XXL T-shirt as armor for the much smaller, more vulnerable man underneath. I saw a man who is so transfixed by needing affirmation from White America, so obsessed with his worthiness and seriousness as an artist, an intellectual and a man that he can’t quite calibrate, stake out terms for himself, laugh at the jokes that will surely come, or brave the insults that will never end. And I saw a man who can’t help but still be, many albums and awards later, the creative boy in the back of classrooms, saving up for Gucci loafers, standing up against gangster bullies and inventing those self-survival myths and mechanisms that get you out but never quite set you free.


Black America is mad at Kanye because he didn’t properly learn the lesson that every person of color must learn to remain sane in an insanely racist world–how not to offer your neck to the guillotine. Quite frankly, we’re confused: did Kanye think his art, his name, his stuff, his women-as-props would exempt him from blackness? Did he think his laying out of dreams, the unbridled honesty and that faux Little Engine That Could confidence could be the brave preemptive moves that would keep him safe? Further, we’re exhausted by his lack of groundedness . Kanye cannot seem to locate himself in a long history of great people doing great things while hearing as many–if not more and more serious–no’s than he. Lack of perspective is a male privilege and also the white privilege Kanye will never have and should never fight for.

Terrifyingly, Kanye’s sins for White America are much simpler: he dared to call himself great without their permission. For that, he is an asshole.  For that, he is dangerous. For that, he is crazy.


Deciding what Kanye is–”crazy”, genius, or troubled–is important because this is, of course, much bigger than Kanye. He stands next to Lauryn Hill, Dave Chapelle, and others with beautiful minds and broken spirits. I do not think it is coincidence that all three–Kanye, Lauryn, Dave and we can even throw Michael Jackson in–have been accused of “craziness” at the height of critiquing the ugliness and the isms of the industries and audiences that have propelled them to fame. I think we should understand that “crazy” is the Atomic Bomb of the English language, that it’s a no-return obliteration of personhood and credibility. And we should also remember that ”crazy” has been a way of managing female sexual desirequeer eroticism and political ideology; yesterday’s history is today’s wet paint. As Dave once said, “the worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit.”

I believe in considering Dave’s follow up to that thought: “These people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe their environment is a little sick.”drwdx-pw5_ru-deyv-shapell-aktery-dave-chappelle[1]

And that–the sick environment–is the one thing that never, ever gets enough play: if, as we speculate, all these beautiful, beautiful minds are breaking, undoing themselves, unfurling like tightly wound string, we owe it to ourselves to at least ask if something drives them to it. Certainly, mental illness is complex and at times turns on with no external switch, but we have testimony from artists we respect and admire, that something is rotten in Hollywood.

As Lauryn said after her hiatus from music, “When artists experience danger and crises…everyone easily accepts that there was something either dysfunctional or defective with the artist, rather than look at, and fully examine, the system and its means and its policies of exploiting/’doing business’.”

Over the course of a short decade, so many celebrities have fallen apart before my eyes: shaving their heads, ripping apart cameras, tearing off clothes, eating themselves into bloated existence or not eating themselves into invisible non-existence, drinking and drugging fast lives and slow deaths, basically begging us to listen in the most literal, primal languages possible, and we still keep diagnosing symptoms instead of curing the disease and the whole thing seems wild to me.

If mental illness is a dialectic between the person and the space,  then its source is not wholly the artist nor Hollywood, but I know that what Kanye and so many others deserve is the clean slate and the fighting chance Kanye kept quoting Richard Pryor to talk about.


If this past Thursday was only an open-aired breakdown of mental health, then we need better language. Because though we complain mental health in this country and for black folks in particular isn’t talked about, that’s not entirely true: we talk about it all the time; we just talk about it poorly. If finding oneself on the edge deserves a life-sentence of being called “crazy,” of being dismissed, written off, and laughed at, of not being heard, then no wonder the shame and the silence. Particularly for artists, whose whole careers and identities are based on being experienced, interpreted, listened to and gazed upon: mattering.  Truth is, there are those who are dying from, but more curiously living with, mental illness in our midst; they are flying our planes, shaking our hands, watching our kids, loving us, and staring back at us from mirrors. And some of the great mindswe most admire produced art, theories, and inventions despite and because of battles with mental illness. Furthermore, achieving mental health is often a lifetime of strenuously and intentionally maintaining the balance; there is not one discrete day you are sick and one discrete day you are well. Given the enormity, pervasiveness, and constantly looming threat of mental illness, we have to figure out a way for people to matter even if they have not sought or successfully phased out of treatment. We can’t just keep calling people “crazy” as the lever we pull to extradite them into irrelevance. The balance is hard but important: how to hear folks when they need help, how to hear folks even if they need help, how to empower them to seek help, how to be the help they seek, and how to know when we can’t be.

If this Thursday was also about something bad happening to a beautiful mind and that something bad is, as Lauryn puts it, “a machine that overlook[s] the need to to take care of the people who produce the sounds that have a lot to do with the health and well-being of society,” then we still need transformation.  We not only need to imagine and create a celebrity culture that does not drive the talented, the strong, and the brave into hiding but we also need to collectively figure out how to survive that heartless, breathless machine in the meantime. For Kanye, the machine is the fashion and the music industries, but for any one of us, it could be the university or the office or the political regime. If we become as angry as we deserve to be, then the isms we fight will rob us of our life joy. We have to somehow figure out how to resist and dissent without allowing that enterprise to swallow us whole and turn us stale and I have faith we can win this war without quotable tweets or serving as the one-person congregation of the Church of our own self-proclaimed Godliness. Kanye once said that he, like Dave Chapelle, has to laugh to keep from crying and I suggest that he works harder on that laugh–not for the Kimmels but for Kanye.

How the media tried to assassinate Chris Dorner Claims of ‘mental illness’ are in the mind of the beholder l Thandisizwe Chimurenga

How the media tried to assassinate Chris Dorner Claims of ‘mental illness’ are in the mind of the beholder

Published on Thursday, 21 February 2013 15:55

 Thandisizwe Chimurenga

LAWatts Time  Contributing Writer



Christopher Jordan Dorner is dead but his words and actions will continue to impact the Los Angeles area and beyond for quite some time. The former U.S. Navy lieutenant and Los Angeles police officer who is alleged to have shot and killed four people earlier this month was the subject of the largest manhunt in Southern California history.  Authorities say that manhunt ended on Feb. 12 with Dorner, surrounded by law enforcement in a cabin in the Big Bear area of San Bernadino, committing suicide as highly flammable tear gas canisters ignited the cabin and burned it to the ground.

Dorner’s ‘manifesto’, in which he declared war on the Los Angeles Police Department and his subsequent actions were horrifying to many.  In an effort to understand the reason behind his rage and actions, many mainstream media outlets posited that Dorner must have suffered from some sort of mental illness.

Appearing on “Piers Morgan Tonight” on Feb. 7 Dr. Xavier Amador, a regular commentator for CNN, said there was “absolutely no basis in reality for [Dorner’s] complaints that he was mistreated, that there was any kind of police corruption,” that Dorner had “clear signs of mental illness,” and that his ‘manifesto’ was “delusional.”

Amador’s analysis was based on a review of Dorner’s LAPD case file, he said.

According to Neon Tommy the online news site of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared that “Whatever problem [Dorner] has is mental,” while speaking at a press conference on proposed gun safety legislation. Villaraigosa’s comments were part of a Feb. 7 news article entitled “Christopher Dorner’s Navy Service Record And Mental Health Scrutinized.”

On Feb. 9, The Associated Press ran a news brief on Dorner’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain a restraining order in 2006 against his then-girlfriend Ariana Williams.  The story quotes court documents filed in the case that called Dorner “severely emotionally and mentally disturbed.”  The court documents also link Williams to a post about Dorner on a website that was signed anonymously, calling Dorner “twisted” and “super paranoid.”

Also on Feb. 9, The Christian Science Monitor, in “Christopher Dorner: Experts look for clues to alleged cop killer’s mental state,” quotes a retired FBI profiler who said Dorner’s actions were “completely over the top.” Dorner, who claimed in his manifesto that he simply wanted to “clear his name,” had a “personality disorder” according to Mary Ellen O’Toole.

While it can be considered normal to search for answers in a case such as this, attempting to make a mental health diagnosis of Christopher Dorner without ever having physically examined him is not.

“It is difficult to make a diagnostic conclusion given how little any of us know about Dorner’s mental health history, having no audio transcripts to review, no testing and assessment instruments to analyze, and no clinical interview data, said Thomas Parham, PhD.  Parham is past president of the national Association of Black Psychologists and a co-author of “Psychology of Blacks: Centering Our Perspectives in the African Consciousness.”

“All we have is a so-called “manifesto” (that I have not read) that is selectively presented in the media.  So, for the press and media to be making a statement in absence of that kind of information is just interesting, if not useless chatter,” he said.

Clive D. Kennedy, a clinical forensic psychologist and president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists, echoes Parham’s comments on evaluating Dorner’s mental state.  “I believe no professional has indicated he or she is aware of Mr. Dorner’s mental health status and therefore, we are unlikely to ever know, including those in the media who have been so forthcoming of his psychiatric condition,” he said.

Dorner claimed in his manifesto clearly and explicitly that not only was he a victim of racism but that his attempts to “blow the whistle” on the racism of the LAPD against him and other officers are why he believes he was fired.  According to Dorner retaliation against “snitching” on other police officers was one of several corrupt practices within the, department.  Despite this, much of the media coverage of Dorner’s mental state has conveniently left this fact out.

Are Charges of Racism Enough to Push One Over The Edge?

In her Feb. 9 Los Angeles Times op-ed, civil rights attorney Connie Rice recalls a conversation she had with former Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Jesse Brewer. Describing him as “wise and classy,” Rice states that Brewer, the first African American president of the Los Angeles Police Commission that oversees the LAPD, “came to my law office in 1990. He described to me his own ordeals on the force, in which white officers illegally blocked his entrance to the Police Academy, tried to plant false evidence on him, blocked all of his promotions and set him up for ambush in the field. He also described how viciously the department retaliated against him and other officers who tried to stand up for fellow officers or civilians who suffered abuse from cops. The LAPD never did allow whistle-blowers of any kind to survive, no matter how righteous they were,” wrote Rice.

Chillingly, Rice goes on to write that Brewer told her that Black LAPD officers had to resort to accepting abuse from white police officers and  “outsmarting” them because, “If you let them get to you, you’ll become homicidal.”

In her 1995 work “Killing Rage, Ending Racism,” noted political and cultural critic bell hooks wrote: “the conditions of racism can ‘drive one mad.’

Referring to an outbreak of violence in New York City in which a Black man opened fire randomly on a subway train, hooks states that “ … most Black folks can recognize that it is ethically and morally wrong to kill folks even as we can also sympathize with mental illness that is either engendered or exacerbated by life in [the United States].”

Psychologist Thomas Parham echoed that sentiment.  “We must extend our prayers for those who lost their lives in this rampage (both victims and perpetrator) and for the families who are left to grieve. There is never a justification for the taking of innocent lives, no matter what the level of unfairness one believes has impacted their own life.  There is nothing more sacred in the African tradition than life, so to be so callous in the taking of innocent lives would seem to be the most fundamental violation of an African centered worldview.”

Parham continued, “Clearly, the actions Dorner engaged in are very “out of the ordinary,” and beyond the realm of most standards of normalcy and decency that society embraces. Yet, like all of us, he is a product of a social system that makes an implicit contract with its citizens that says if you work hard and play by the rules, including doing the right thing on your job, then success should be the reward for one’s hard work, dedication, and commitment … I suspect that if he embraced this implicit social contract with the rigidity of a very concrete thinker, and then believes that his life was ruined by some unfair and discriminatory treatment when he called himself trying to do the right thing and report abuse by a fellow officer, then the violation and betrayal he feels might evoke that type of anger, rage, and desire for retribution that we all witnessed…”

Paul Harris, a San Francisco-based attorney and author, says that “ … even in cases where the perpetrator of the crime is mentally ill, one must look at the concrete experiences of racism (and other environmental hardships) to understand the resulting behavior.”  Harris is the author of “Black Rage Confronts the Law,” a 1971 book based on a case in which Harris was successful in defending a young Black man accused of bank robbery.  “Too many people cry racism in explaining these crimes without combining the underlying mental problems, with the specific life experience with racism the person has suffered,” said Harris.

Joy DeGruy, author of “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” uttered similar  comments as Harris.  “I would think that any serious response would include consideration of the obvious and blatant differential treatment of African Americans by a dysfunctional justice system and the structural inequalities inherent in that system.”  DeGruy holds degrees in social work and clinical psychology and is an assistant professor at Portland State University.

More than 1,000 sightings of Christopher Dorner were reported to police during the manhunt to apprehend him.  The overwhelming majority of those tips were based on faulty identifications of Black men whose appearance was similar to Dorner.  What we do not know for sure is how many of those tips were from individuals that were simply Good Samaritans interested in assisting law enforcement, and how many were from individuals who were genuinely frightened that Dorner might attack them.

As we continue to ponder Dorner’s mental state we might also take into account the words of bell hooks:  “White supremacy is frightening.  It promotes mental illness and various dysfunctional behaviors on the part of whites and non-whites.  It is the real and present danger – not black rage.”

Read the LAWT Here