Covid Denial: Shared Psychosis–Or Something Worse?

DeSantis speaking at a press conference in southwest Florida,

“I have (three) young kids. My wife and I are not going to do the mask with the kids. We never have, we won’t. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun.”

I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know. What are the outer limits of rightwing arrogance and delusion? What are the limits of human delusion? Are there any limits?

Does “depraved indifference to human life” have any meaning anymore? Does anything have any meaning anymore?

This . . . man, this father, this college-educated governor of a major state, this grinning buffoon who was elected to protect the well-being of 21.6 million souls–the population of Florida, third-largest in the nation—is instead toying with their health and their lives–AND THE HEALTH AND LIVES OF HIS OWN WIFE AND CHILDREN!—and for what?! Stab in the dark here: his personal political ambition.

Florida is averaging 17,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day as the deadly Delta variant surges. Seventeen. Thousand. A day.

And Ron DeSantis wants to see his kids smiling and having fun. So, no masks. And he’s not going to allow schools to mandate mask-wearing in Florida, either.

Ron DeSantis must have a major smile jones.

Over the past wretched year, the past wretched five years, I have often snapped at friends who wailingly ask, “What have we come to?” “How did we get to this point?”

They ask it in bewilderment over Covid denialism. And the Trump administration. And the post-Trump-administration depravities such as the January 6 Capitol storming. And the subsequent mockery directed at brutalized, traumatized police heroes as “actors” in “political theater.”

And in bewilderment over the armchair rightwingers such as the radio blowhard Charlie Kirk who denounce the tormented Simone Biles as a “selfish sociopath[!]” for withdrawing from the Olympics. (On Tuesday she decided to compete in the balance beam final and won a Bronze medal.) And the others who sneer at “the liberals” who supposedly “shed a tear” over her mental-health crisis.

I tell these worried friends: Don’t just ask, in tones that imply the question is unanswerable. There are answers! Find them! Read! Research! Go online! Google “collective psychosis”! Google “tribalism”!

And feeling ever-so-slightly superior in my own stern rationalism.

Until I could no longer pretend to hear the small voice inside me that kept repeating, more loudly each time: “ . . . Maybe.” With the loudly unspoken corollary: “ . . . And maybe not.”

I’ve spent the past several weeks—well, months—trying to follow my own advice. I’ve pored through books, scholarly articles, and serious journalism to help myself figure out why the political fissures and tensions, always present in American life, have burst into this continental oil-refinery fire. And why those who stand to suffer the most from its many scorching flames are responding by throwing more petroleum onto it. ( Vide: Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida throwing up barriers to commonsense Covid protection so that he can see his children smile and have fun.)

Have you ever heard of a more deranged and irresponsible reaction to an existential threat?

As the father of two loved and loving sons who both contracted schizophrenia, one of them taking his life, I am naturally attuned to the fragility of the human mind. (And infuriated at the fatuous Governor for taking his children’s health for granted.) I’m no psychiatric scholar, no authority of any kind. Yet I have learned enough to understand that none of us is truly “normal.” There really is no “normal.” We all advance through life across a thin membrane, a membrane that could rip and thus plunge any of us into a chronic, incurable brain disease such as schizophrenia. Or, far more commonly, into treatable yet debilitating conditions such as depression, rage, alcoholism, refuge in alienated “tribes,” susceptibility to the lure of seductively tyrannical cults.

I’ve winnowed my explorations to the latter two: the tribe and the cult.

An affinity for either of these collective bodies strongly suggests that even though the adherent may not be seriously mentally ill, she may well be wounded enough by life’s cruelties (including abuse, poverty, addiction, a bad education) that her self-identity is ravaged and she has surrendered the capacity to think and act in her own best interests. She accepts the group’s ethos as her own.

To vastly oversimplify: the tribe is generally a physical community of people nurtured by handed-down beliefs. It has the power to absorb an individual’s identity into its shared values, myths, prejudices, and class/political assumptions. The cult generally does not spring from an organic community. It magnetizes rather than nurtures. Its magnetism has been radically enhanced by the electronic grid. The psychic power of the cult over vulnerable individuals is if anything far greater and more insidious than that of the tribe.

I accept the reality of tribal behavior—like most of us, I have witnessed it and lived it to some degree—yet I’ve found myself leaning to the cult as the powerful source of our present chaos.

Cults attract people who did not necessarily come of age under a cultish spell. Cults attract desperate loners; those whose self-identities have been desiccated; people who virtually doubt their own existence and crave identification with a group that promises them a means of belonging.

I think of QAnon. I think of Chris Hedges’s masterful and ironically titled 2014 book, “War Is a Force that gives us meaning.” I think of the odious threadbare trope, “Drink the Kool-Aid.”

Cults, I came to believe in my hard-earned layman’s understanding, are a form of collective psychosis. Yes, that was it! Shared psychosis.

And then I contacted Dr. Joseph Pierre for confirmation.

Dr. Joesph Pierre

Dr. Pierre is professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is copiously published and widely interviewed in the areas of forensic psychiatry, neuroscience, delusion-like belief, cannabis-induced psychosis, and in many topics related to schizophrenia.  

Dr. Pierre has studied shared psychosis, yet he does not think it is responsible for our current havoc. In a recent email, he wrote,

“I am firm in saying that movements like QAnon, however crazy they might sound, are not examples of shared or collective psychosis proper.”

He clarified his view in a June edition of the online journal “Medium.” Without intending to speak for him, I infer a proposition even more troubling than psychosis: the rapid erosion of shared reality. The twilight of “the truth.”

Referring to the rash of harebrained theories that accompanied Covid’s rise, Dr. Pierre writes,

“Conspiracy theories reject authoritative accounts of reality in favor of some plot involving a group of people with malevolent intentions that are deliberately kept secret from the public. The psychological underpinnings of belief in conspiracy theories include a long list of associated cognitive quirks including lack of analytic thinking and heightened ‘bullshit receptivity;’ need for control, certainty, and closure; and various attributional biases such as the tendency to ascribe random events to ultimate ‘teleologic’ causes.”

There it is–an explanation of our current carnival of chaos as terrifying as it is simple. And as tragic. Dr. Pierre titled his essay, “Winning the Battle Against Covid-19 Requires More Belief in Reality.”

And good luck with that. William Butler Yeats wrote the death warrant for such optimism eighty years ago in a line from “Four Quartets”: “Go, go, go, said the bird. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Not that humankind ever could. In America alone, we have lived with the denial that slavery caused the Civil War since the ink dried on Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Thus seven hundred fifty thousand people died over “states’ rights.” (Uh, states’ rights to do what?) The curse of racism stoutly denied is viler than ever today, embedding itself blatantly in our school systems and poisoning free and fair elections.

In April 1966, the cover of Time Magazine thunderously asked, “Is God Dead?”—having answered the question the previous October, in the affirmative. What millions of believers took as the ultimate Truth was pulverized before their eyes.

The academic “deconstruction” crusades of the 1980s gave even intellectuals the vocabulary for denying that truth, and meaningfulness in words, existed. (Besides handing a victory to the anti-intellectual right, the “tenured radicals” found themselves obliged to use words in refuting the meaning of words. An irony lies buried in there somewhere.)

And at about the same time, members of the Reagan administration, including Ronnie himself, were launching their historically effective renunciation of science.

Don’t even get me started on what this meant for poor Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Or for all of us. For the “planet” we “live on.”

Dr. Pierre again:

“Conspiracy theories often arise during times of societal upheaval and can serve a blaming or scapegoating role intended to ‘self-medicate’ fears arising from chaos and uncertainty. Belief in conspiracy theories can also be understood within an overarching ‘socio-epistemic’ framework whereby mistrust in authoritative sources of information leaves us vulnerable to biased misinformation processing when searching for alternative explanations.”

So perhaps Dr. Pierre, and others, have it right: why should we reach for elusive concepts such as “shared psychosis” when the steady, centuries-long assaults on truth and meaning have softened up our frantic civilization for belief, or disbelief, in anything?

Run along and play, DeSantis children, in the open, sunlit, infected Florida air. Have fun. And don’t forget to not wear your masks!

“TODAY IS A DARK DAY”

Mark Rippee of Vacaville, California, has entered what may be the final struggle for his catastrophic life. His survival prospects are not good.

Most readers of this blog know about Mark’s grotesque misfortunes that span thirty-three years. And about the shocking indifference to them among the social services and the members of the Solano County Board of Supervisors. To refresh your memory, click on this blog link to read my previous posts.

Mark Rippee -outside the Vacaville hospital where he was released. Credit: Linda Rippee

Mark was released from a Vacaville hospital on October 26. He had spent two hundred fifty-eight days there, the longest respite of his tortured life since June 1987, when a motorcycle crash left him blinded, his body shattered, parts of his brain exposed, and his mind vulnerable to the schizophrenia that soon struck him. He’d been hospitalized after being struck by a car for a second time while wandering sightlessly around the town.

No agency in the city, the county, or the state of California cares about Mark Rippee. The attached links detail how his sisters Linda Privatte and Catherine Hanson, both women in their 60s with major illnesses themselves, have tried in vain to obtain conservatorship over him and to find a secure place for him to live. The care agencies and political bodies enfold themselves in narrow interpretations of law and policy. The sisters believe that in fact some laws meant to protect people such as Mark have been violated, with no one inclined to enforce them.

The family has been helped, materially and spiritually, by a growing army of concerned friends and Vacaville citizens. The sisters have posted a call for blankets, food, medium-sized long-johns and lined sweatpants, beanies, deodorant, lotion, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, a coat, gloves, socks. And water. Always water. 

To simply read this sad list is to recoil at the scale of difference between Mark Rippee’s plight and the stony disdain—the contempt—of the agencies and the political structure designed to help him.

The charity now arriving is a godsend, and a tribute to the humanity of Vacaville’s private citizens. Yet it is not enough to assure this broken man’s survival. Mark, now 57, remains vulnerable to winter’s ravages, to further collisions with cars and trucks, and—most threateningly—to his environment’s rising Coronavirus rate. Solano County has entered tier 2, the “red” tier, which signals a “substantial” level of infection.

No one tells Mark’s story with more passion and clarity than Linda and Catherine, who have told it to deaf ears for three decades. Their stories and updated reports are linked below.

I’M PAST ANGER. I’M IN COMPLETE DESPAIR by Linda Rippee

Today is a dark day. Mark was discharged from the Acute Care hospital after 258 days of healing from his injuries after being struck by a car for the second time in the last year. He was taken by the facility’s van back to the streets of Vacaville. He left with only a cane, duffle bag, boots, and 2 sets of clothes. They gave him 1-2 months worth of medications but would not confirm what they were. I don’t know how he will know what he is taking or when it is time. He has been on increased Anti-psychotic meds recently and I do not know if he will be on the streets. His new Social Worker is with Solano APS and is the same one who did the “Snapshot Assessment” of Mark and declared him “Not Conservable.” He was planning to meet Mark on the streets of Vacaville to “Receive” him back to town. When we called the facility this morning to check on when he was to be released and how… he was already gone. The nurse claimed, “Oh he is not going back to the streets, but is going to the Vacaville county building!” I started explaining that he is going back to the streets! That is where he has lived on the streets for years! I have 2 people trying to help with getting him a new ID. The facility could not confirm if he even had a blanket. He was supposed to get a flu shot before leaving – he didn’t. We have already put together many things he will need, but with a bad leg and a shoulder that doesn’t work, it will be even more difficult to carry much. He is supposed to still be using a walker – but chose a cane. He will have difficulty social distancing and not touching everything he comes in contact with. They said they gave him a few masks. His discharge was scheduled for 11 am this morning. I tried calling all morning and couldn’t reach him or the Social Worker. It turns out they released him earlier than 11 am, so he was already gone before I could even talk to him. I did not even go to bed last night thinking that tonight Mark will be sleeping on the streets. CJ has been up for two nights bracing herself for his release. His drastic improvement over the last 8 months was not enough proof for the county to comprehend that housing, treatment, and care was exactly what was needed in his case. I am back to taking it day by day to keep him alive. How long before another traffic accident or injury? We know it won’t be long… and we will go back to jumping every time the phone rings.I just received verification from one of our members that he arrived at the Carroll Building in Vacaville and the APS Social Worker was not there! He is now alone and darkness comes.

Linda Rippee

The Road Ahead… by Linda (Rippee) Privatte Updated June 1.

DEMAND ATTENTION FOR JAMES MARK RIPPEE, FROM GOVERNOR, GAVIN NEWSOM & THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA!

Facebook Private Group “Mark of Vacaville”

Am I Not My Brother’s Keeper? Personal Blog by Catherine J. Rippee-Hanson

The Reporter – Family of mentally ill crash victim considering legal avenues

“We’ve lost our compass.” For California’s most visible mentally ill, is a return to forced treatment a solution — or a false promise? by Jocelyn Weiner, CalMatters.org

No One Cares About Crazy People – Mark Rippee Archives, by Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author

After accident they warned about, sisters of mentally ill man blame the state — and beg governor to act

You don’t hear much about mental illness reform these days. Has mental illness suddenly evaporated, like the coronavirus?

Not really. It has quietly infiltrated and normalized aberrant public behavior in our deranged national landscape.

It is now front and center in the streets.

And in the ravings of pre-eminent news personalities.

And within the highest levels of a major party

In the 1960s the breakaway Scottish mystic/psychiatrist R. D. Laing was prominent among many emerging voices proclaiming that mental illness does not exist. His aphorisms such as “Insanity [is] a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world” and “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through . . . ” made him a charismatic figure among the counter-culture. His work placed him in the company of the greatest denier of them all, Thomas Szasz, whose 1961 book, The Myth of Mental Illness, crippled the status of psychiatry for generations.

In that time, neuroscientists and psychiatrists worked patiently to rebuild the legitimate acceptance of mental illness and its destructive properties. Breakthrough advances in microcomputer technology established, for instance, that schizophrenia is a genuine disease of the human brain, and not just a synonym for “nut job”: it leaves lesions–tiny traces–in the brain; its clusters of flawed genes are genetically inherited and, to date, incurable.

Yet even as science (that fake mumbo-jumbo!) has steadily clarified the properties of mental illness at the top levels of discourse on the subject, its work is being rapidly undermined again where it counts: in the chaotic maw of popular culture, where malign ideology, semi-literacy, and poisonous cynicism threaten to nullify reason. Including reasoning about unreason.

Thus when the ineffable birdbrain Ann Coulter tweet-tweets, as she did on August 27, that she wants the deranged teenaged lethal shooter Kyle Rittenhouse to be her president (above), we may think of her as the hideous drum majorette at the head of a long malign parade, marching directly toward a new Dark Age.