John Hinckley: Is He Really Cured?

John Hinckley in the back of a cop car with angry expression

Associated Press is reporting: Prosecutors and lawyers for the would-be assassin of President Ronald Reagan are disagreeing over what conditions should be imposed if he’s allowed to leave a mental hospital for good and live full-time with his mother in Virginia.

John Hinckley Jr.’s attorney, Barry Levine, said Wednesday during the opening of what is expected to be a multi-day hearing that his client is “clinically ready” to live in the community, a position supported by his treatment team.

Here’s the problem with the medical model applied to violent, criminal behavior such as John Hinckley’s: It assumes the violent behavior is a medical illness that generally runs its course and even gets “cured.” Medication and months or years of talking are presumed to “do something to” the passive “patient” who gets better as a result. The unspoken assumption is that murder or violence are so irrational, nobody would do such things unless there was some unspecified chemical or other “imbalance” that by itself explains everything, and that somehow is resolved in a medical setting, at least so long as we tell ourselves (and our experts insist) this is what happens.

Dr. Stanton Samenow’s decades of research (detailed in his book, Inside the Criminal Mind and elsewhere) begs to differ. Samenow has found that criminal behavior is actually the product of a certain, deeply ingrained style of thinking. While it’s not impossible to change this thinking, it’s highly improbable, based on the research available. It certainly does not change with passive compliance in an institutionalized setting, called a mental hospital, which is actually more of a prison than a hospital, and can’t be considered anything like a setting conducive to change.

Levine says the mental illness that drove Hinckley to shoot the president in 1981 has been in “full and stable remission” for more than two decades and conditions including regular visits with a psychiatrist and therapist can ensure he remains healthy and is not a danger.

Well of course Hinckley has been in “full and stable remission” from being a president-hunting predator. That’s because he has been locked up. How do you evaluate “full and stable remission” in the context of a mental hospital? Are the professionals so confident that Hinckley is “not a danger” that they’d trust their own daughter dating him; or they would feel serene and welcoming if he moved into their community? Highly unlikely.

Whether the facility is a prison or a mental hospital, the criminal is there against his will. Of course he will say what’s necessary to minimize his time there, or to alleviate the severity with which people treat him while he’s there. Just as losing one’s freedom creates stress on a nonviolent, noncriminal person, it also creates great stress for a violent offender. Under such stress, one will do what one has to do in order to cope, survive, and get released.

Hinckley’s “treatment team” will respond to this by saying that we don’t have all the facts, only they do, and they really, truly do see evidence that he’s a changed man.

The New York Times [4-19-15] reports: Psychological testing designed to predict violence shows Hinckley’s dangerousness risk is “decidedly low,” Hinckley’s longtime lawyer, Barry Levine, said during the most recent set of hearings over his release that started in late 2011 and continued intermittently through 2013.

“This man is not dangerous. The evidence shows that he is not dangerous,” Levine told Friedman, who was assigned the case in 2001 after the previous judge overseeing it died.

What evidence? It’s evidence from time in the hospital and under the close watch of his mother on regular visits to his family home. Is this the same context as freedom, even freedom under more careful watch? There’s no way to know for sure until you give him years of freedom and see if he develops, and starts to act upon, the same kind of violent fantasies that he was drawn to back in the 1970s and 1980s.

The New York Times also reports: More recently, they cited a July 2011 incident in which he was supposed to go see a movie in Williamsburg and instead went to a nearby Barnes & Noble. The Secret Service, whose agents sporadically tail Hinckley while he is in town, reported he was observed looking at shelves that contained several books about Reagan and the attempted assassination, though he didn’t pick anything up.

Hinckley then lied when he returned to St. Elizabeths, suggesting he’d seen “Captain America.” A few months later he claimed he saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” when instead he ate at Quiznos and again went to the bookstore.

People can lie. Violent criminals lie way more than most people. They can disclose, or not disclose, to psychiatrists and therapists whatever they wish to disclose or not disclose. Hinckley is a delusional thinker. While the psychiatrists will insist they have essentially cured this problem, as recently as 2011 we have evidence that Hinckley is still preoccupied with the things that used to preoccupy him. What evidence or proof exists that it won’t happen again? The word of people who “treat” Hinckley. And their word is based on their faith in everything he does and says — in an institutionalized setting, like a prison, where he does not have the freedom to leave.

Prosecutors have consistently opposed Hinckley’s release, arguing he has a history of deceptive behavior. They have pointed to a 1987 journal entry in which he claimed his psychiatrists would “never know the true John Hinckley.”

“Psychiatry is a guessing game and I do my best to keep the fools guessing about me,” he wrote.

John Hinckley may not be the noblest character, but he may be more intelligent than his medical wardens.

Psychiatry as we know it, and as practiced in psychiatric hospitals, isn’t so much a guessing game as an enterprise based on highly naive and false assumptions. Most of us are trained to assume that doctors, being experts, know what they’re talking about.

While it’s true that psychiatrists do have experience and even expertise in areas with which most are unfamiliar, this doesn’t justify accepting their underlying premises and assumptions without question. The premise and assumption that criminal behavior is a medical disease — which can be alleviated or even cured with the passive compliance of the patient — is inaccurate, dangerous and foolish.

Something tells me that John Hinckley understands this better than those now poised to release him.


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