In 1973, Karl Menninger, MD, the great psychiatrist and one of the founders of The Menninger Clinic, wrote Whatever Became of Sin? That title is a great question when discussing the texting scandal that involves Anthony Weiner, the Queens, N.Y.-based Representative, who has said he will enter a treatment center of some sort for rehabilitation.
I have personal expertise in two compelling areas that ought to give me absolute credibility as I present my opinions on this matter. First, part of my growing up took place in Maspeth, Queens, one of the neighborhoods in the congressman’s district. Second, I am a first-rate sinner.
The question Dr. Karl posed in his book was this: Why is “bad behavior” often excused as a consequence of mental illness instead of being considered immoral or bad human conduct wrought by free will? Does Col. Moammar Gadhafi kill civilians because he is a psychopath or because he is evil? Are all wrongdoers simply acting out the manifestation of a mental illness or is bad behavior simply bad behavior? Where does free will belong in the universe of human conduct?
Growing up Catholic in Queens
This is a difficult question that I can only answer for myself. Growing up Catholic, I was surrounded by sin. I went to Catholic school where my perception was that most everything was sinful, from a summer full of reading the hotter excerpts of Henry Miller’s church-condemned Tropic of Cancer with my boys on the steps of a city stoop, to Manuel Giz actually sneaking a copy of Playboy into third grade and flashing the centerfold to his enormously grateful and stuttering classmates just as Mrs. Slattery turned back from the chalkboard.
Manuel was in hot water, no doubt, but I immediately thought, “Thank God the class wasn’t being taught by one of the nuns,” any one of whom might have killed him with a ninja nun blow. As it was, Manuel got the ruler across his knuckles and was sent off to see Brother Thomas, the enforcer of Incarnation School. I knew then that Manuel was going to be dead or in hell or both by the end of the day.
This was during a time growing up in which a sense of morality was being formed under the strictest of rules— rules that were pretty clear. We were taught a list of things and behaviors that were wrong, and if you indulge in them, you will be condemned to a fiery afterlife. I have always appreciated that clarity.
I have sinned since, although now it is no longer a question of whether my conduct is sinful. Nowadays, it’s either right or it’s not. Even as I have grown distant from church rules, I know I retain the basic principles with which I grew up and which provided me the moral compass that guides me every day. Do right. Be good. Don’t read dirty books.
Let’s be clear
I would agree with Dr. Karl’s premise that we often define human failing as illness of the mind as opposed to simple bad behavior. I know the difference as I conduct my own life, which means my personal bad behavior is not inspired so much by illness as it is by my own urges. I also know that individuals with mental illness are not always aware of behavior that can be injurious to themselves or others.
Yet all of our conduct cannot be held blameless, especially when it may be the result of willful greed or lust.
As for Rep. Weiner, whom I have always admired for his bombastic Queens style, I know in my heart I would never emulate him and send images of yours truly to anyone over the Internet. The worst thing I have ever considered sending is Barry White’s entire canon of lyrics, which can be boiled down to read something like, “Oh, baby, baby, oh baby, I love you, baby,” out of my huge respect for that disco maestro and because his lyrics are the easiest ones to remember.
Rehabilitation for the congressman may uncover an uncontrollable addiction or obsession that can be overcome with treatment. Or maybe his trip to rehab is the same cover many celebs seek to escape the limelight with the hope that someone else’s failings will fill the TV images that come at us 24/7. It is up to the mental health professionals from whom he seeks help to make those judgments.
In any case, I hope these professionals keep Dr. Karl’s premise in mind: Don’t let misbehavior or willful behavior give mental illness a bad name. Sometimes our bad behavior is simply that, a personal decision that deserves a comeuppance equal to the crime—like poor Manuel Giz, whom I still imagine burning in hell after all these years.