Madness in the Method: On 'Homeland'
Three years ago, Danes starred, to great acclaim, as the autistic genius Temple Grandin in an HBO biopic of the same name. She is a formidable actress, and in Homeland she once again seems to have done her research, perhaps too well: The producers have received letters from bipolar people expressing concern that Danes truly suffers from mental illness and is teetering on the brink. Most of her fans, however—the masses who help her boost ratings and win awards—are probably not bipolar or severely ill with another mental disorder.
There is a real tension here. Carrie Mathison may be America’s Sweetheart—and why not, in this age of collusion, occlusion, banal evil and grave doubt? But how many of the viewers who root for her each week would choose Carrie, among her CIA cohort, as their handler? How many of them believe that people like her should be allowed to work for the CIA at all?
In the bluest states of America, there are few remaining stigmas whose disclosure can kill a career. The law precludes in word if not in deed discrimination against women, people of color, gay people, disabled people, old people, religious people, atheists, heterosexuals, white people and male people—everyone from the traditionally oppressed to their perceived oppressors and back again. The item in the CIA’s employment FAQ that follows its boilerplate nondiscrimination clause concerns, of all things, tattoos. (No worries on that count: “Tattoos will not disqualify you from gaining employment at the CIA, and all professionally-qualified persons are encouraged to apply.”)
In theory, disability rights law applies to those with mental illness, but its scope is limited and enforcement rare. The Americans With Disabilities Act protects the mentally ill from discrimination by employers, but there’s a catch: disclosure. This seems reasonable; if an employer doesn’t know about a disability, how can he be guilty of discriminating against it? But this is also the logic of nondisclosure: if my employer doesn’t know I am mentally ill, he won’t treat me like a crazy person. Given the fear and discrimination that people with mental illness face all the time, in all aspects of life, there is little incentive for the undiscovered to trade the one protection they do have—invisibility—for some theoretical rights to be enforced in a future that seems far less likely to occur if no one knows they are mentally ill. Unemployment rates among people with mental illness are estimated to be 60 to 80 percent, and as high as 90 percent for people with the “most severe” mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
These numbers are—or should be—appalling. They do not reflect the necessity, ability and desire to work among the mentally ill, or the ease with which employers could make accommodations for those who require them. They do not reflect how few of the mentally ill are violent or criminal. What they do reflect are social neglect, feeble support systems and, most of all, fear. We cannot calculate how many thousands of people with truly unusual minds labor, hidden, within the workforce, precisely because they wish to remain unseen. And why wouldn’t they? Why would those who can fly under the radar, who can pass as neurotypical at work and at large, not continue to do so indefinitely, like Carrie, for as long as they can pull it off?