Once again, we are commemorating the life of an American leader, whose great work was ended by a crazy man with a gun. Once again, as everyone knows, last week a crazy man with a gun opened fire at a political event and killed people.
This is about guns, about craziness and about people.
In August of 1976, a crazy man named Cato Wilson decided that doctors were evil, and so he went out and got a gun and shot up a medical clinic. Dr. Clement Greene Martin took bullet from Wilson’s M-1 carbine rifle point blank in the chest and died.
Dr. Martin was my father.
Every time it happens again- a crazy man with a gun opens fire, I feel the same wounds in my own life reopen and bleed a little more. Not only for the victims and the loss but for the insanity that causes someone to go and get a gun, and think that murdering some figure of authority – an elected official, a doctor, a civil rights leader – will somehow solve their problems or ease their pain. Mental illness is painful.
As we talk about the life and death of Dr. King, and we talk about the bloodbath in Tuscon, we are talking about the ease of guns and the difficulty of insanity. We need to know that racial hatred and political vitriol is insanity.
We need to change our culture. We need mental health to be taken at the same level as physical health. If people were as confused and ashamed of cancer as they are of depression and schizophrenia, we would have far less treatment, and a much higher death rate. The death rate from mental illness is not counted only in the number of homicides, but suicides as well.
I had another relative, technically a cousin, but we called him Uncle John. He was so angry, so mistrustful and so paranoid, my siblings and I used to refer to him jokingly as “The Prophet of Doom.” He was not amused. He was given to quoting the Bible in a thundering voice that trembled with rage. We listened to him rant, our arms crossed over our chests, snickering quietly in the way that children do. He kept turning up the volume of his delusions until the night his paranoia became so overwhelming that he cracked up. He was the one who called the police, reasoning that those around him were obviously insane since they would not agree with him. When the cops arrived, it was clear who was crazy, and he was taken away in handcuffs, and admitted to a mental health facility. The darkness that engulfed him was one from which he did not return.
When I published the essay “Gunslingers” last year, a large part of my intent was to remind the community that the beloved and respected Albert Vera had become a crazy man with a gun. The posthumously understood fact that Mr. Vera’s heart problems were preventing adequate oxygen from getting to his brain was a classic example of physical illness begetting mental illness. We know how a lot about how brains work.
I hold great hope for the recovery of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, as she is now breathing on her own, and I know that the brain has many ways to heal. I even hold out hope for the recovery Jared Loughner, but the light there is not as strong. We know a great deal more about the brain than we know about the mind, and he may be damaged beyond repair.
When I hear about someone whose life is over because of a crazy man with a gun, that person is a member of my family. When I hear about someone who has lost all connection to reality, that person is a member of my family.
The hardest news to take was Christina Green, because there are no members of my family that I value more than little girls. When I listened to the President offering her eulogy at the memorial service, I sat down in the middle of my kitchen floor and cried like a kid.
You might have noticed that my father’s middle name was Greene, so the 9 year old who is no longer with us could be a member of my family in more ways than one.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been in his seventies this January. Imagine what his courage and his faith could have done to change the world, if not for a crazy man with a gun. Now imagine what a difference your courage and faith can make in shifting the assumptions in our culture. Mental illness is an illness, just like leukemia or influenza.
If we can get help to those who are suffering, then we may not have to suffer because of it. Make treatment easier to get, make guns harder to find, think of one action you can take right now that will make a difference.
We shall overcome, one day.