I’m a Former Caretaker and The Joker Movie Is Pretty Right On About Society

As a former caretaker, The Joker movie hit me in a raw way. I think the movie accurately portrays how society mistreats the poor and people with serious mental illness (SMI). I saw this, firsthand, in trying to help and take care of my mom, who struggled with schizoaffective disorder.

My mom wasn’t able to take care of herself adequately. She, in fact, had been suffering mightily and deteriorating for years. I couldn’t take it anymore. She deserved to live with a semblance of dignity.

When I started taking care of her full-time, we didn’t have a lot of family around and I didn’t have a lot of money saved up from my teaching job. So, my mom and I were pretty isolated socially and very reliant on the government for her healthcare and welfare needs.

I was able to stabilize her medically (physically) enough and keep her safe for two years, but society made it exceedingly difficult, in every respect, for me to do so. As it was, it never provided us with sufficient help and respect, since the onset of her SMI. My mom needlessly suffered for more than a decade. She would never be treated for her SMI and stabilized. She was discarded. We were discarded.

“They don’t care about people like you, Arthur.”

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Arthur Fleck doing his best to survive.

Those were the words spoken to Arthur Fleck by his government social worker (SW). She was referring to the policy makers (officials) who decided to close her office and, thus, cut Arthur off from his psychiatric meds. But as was clear in their interactions, even the SW didn’t seem to care all that much about Arthur’s struggle. As Arthur stated moments before she told him the news, “You never really listen to me.” He’s of course saying she doesn’t really care about him.

This was all too common an experience in trying to access MH services for my mom. For example, there was the time when an intake worker/clinician at a county Behavioral Health Department, in flagrant violation of county policy and state law, outright denied my mom MH services, because my mom, like many people with SMI, denied having a SMI!

The worker was cold and impersonal from the minute we met. I remember saying, angrily, on my way out of the interview/assessment, “I’m waiting outside, mama. All she’s doing at this point is filling out information so they can get their money for seeing you from Medi-Cal.”

There was the time when a hospital nurse and supervisor unsafely discharged my mom against my wishes. My mom was clearly in a psychotic state and unable to make a competent decision about her own care. My mom didn’t even believe she was in a hospital.

Despite this and her physical condition being fragile (She would be treated for sepsis and was just two days removed from a ventilator.), hospital staff would wheel her to a cab. They couldn’t even be bothered to do a psychiatric evaluation to see if she fit involuntary hold criteria.

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My mom didn’t like hospitals. I can’t blame her.

This incident was an extreme example, but our experiences with various hospitals taught me they don’t give a shit about people with SMI. Whenever my mom started to become non-compliant, due to her psychosis, staff would become less attentive and they’d begin preparing her for discharge, even if she wasn’t medically stable.

And this is what they were willing to do regularly in front of me. I can only imagine what they did all those times I wasn’t with her before she lived with me!

“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?”

That’s what Arthur asked his social worker during one of their sessions. She responded by saying, “It’s tough times. People are struggling with no work.”

Her comment is a reference to the larger political and economic situation the movie is based in. It’s a pretty subtle backdrop, but the movie itself starts with a radio report of a pitched labor battle, a garbage strike, to help make that very point.

It lasts weeks and leads to increasing piles of garbage on city and neighborhood streets. Tensions build and, eventually, protests breakout at what’s clearly deep frustration with economic inequality and uncertainty, and government mistreatment and negligence.

Arthur’s access to his meds and social worker getting cutoff epitomizes how poor people with disabilities are some of the biggest victims of these conditions. Social scientists actually have a name for such government practices. They’re called “austerity politics.”

In a basic sense, we have been living under an era of “austerity politics” for decades. Since the 70s, governments, at every level, have been cutting costs and services (i.e. downsizing), in the name of “fiscal responsibility” and in order to foster a better “business environment.” It’s a process, a project really, that started as a result of a sluggish economy, increased foreign competition and lower corporate profits. The movie is set in the early 80s, the decade when the process accelerates. (My mom would actually lose her job with the State of California in the late 90s, due to layoffs.)

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An abandoned psychiatric hospital

Mental health services have not gone untouched. People like to blame the Republicans and Ronald Reagan for the closing of state psychiatric hospitals. But today, even in “Liberal” San Francisco, we have a local government severely neglecting the needs of its own SMI population. So much so, we have local MH workers themselves speaking out against the inadequate conditions and publicly protesting. In fact, former Chief Psychiatrist of SF General Hospital, Robert Okin, describes the situation as a “war on the mentally ill.”

Arthur’s social worker’s full comment actually was “They don’t care about people like you, Arthur. They don’t care about people like me either.” I’ve had my issues with regular staff and frontline workers. In fact, a friend my mom and I made at her dialysis center even told me, in a private conversation, that her coworkers don’t care about the patients. They only care about the money.

This regime we are living under of austerity leaves me with no doubt, however, that high level administrators and public officials are the biggest culprits of all. They make it too difficult, if not impossible, for even the best and most empathetic workers to do their jobs.

“Society decides what’s fun-ny.” 

Arthur says this after embracing his homicidal, violent urges and becoming The Joker. It’s the beginning of a strident public criticism he makes, while appearing on a late-night talk show, to explain his rage and motives. His criticism really is the first time he says something so politically cohesive in the movie.

In a basic sense, he says society made the rules and the rules were made to keep him marginalized and an outcast. He worked hard and honestly, but he lost his job cause of a dishonest coworker and cold-hearted boss. He wanted to get better, but he was cut off from his meds. He cared for his ill mother the best he could, but in the end, she was his biggest betrayer and abuser.

My life experience hasn’t been so bleak. In fact, there were many people, workers, clinicians and strangers that were nice to me and my mom, and did try to help in some way. And my mama knew I loved her and I know she loved me, even though her SMI strained our relationship.

But I damn well know there are too many people who have it worse, like Arthur. And some of them, unfortunately, do lash out with violence. As it is, I’ll never forget what was done to me and my family. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive. Society will try to focus on individual motives or psychological reasons for behavior it doesn’t like, but the fact of the matter is society, is too often, the monster.

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