Whoosh! Issue 30 - March 1999

EXPLORATION OF MENTAL ILLNESS AS PRESENTED IN THE FURIES
IAXS project #607
By Virginia Carper
Copyright © 1998 held by author
3406 words



Perspective (01-02)
Presentation (03-05)
     Mental Illness as Stigma (06)
     Coming Down with Mental Illness (07)
     Silly Antics (08)
     Objects of Curiosity (09)
     'Boot-Strap' Method (10)
Suicide (11-17)
Families (18-22)
Illnesses Depicted
     Schizophrenia (23-27)
     Depression (28)
     Trauma (29-30)
The Reality (31)
The Hope (32-34)
Notes
Web Resources
Bibliography
Biography



Exploration of Mental Illness As Presented in THE FURIES



Whoa!  Gabby's been using too much henbane in the nutbread again!


Weird lenses and camera angles are a sure sign of madness in THE FURIES



Perspective

"Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad".
   --Euripides

"It shall be done. Hear me, gods and goddesses: Xena, Warrior Princess, committed a terrible crime. She will be punished by persecution and madness".
   --Alecto, one of the Furies, in THE FURIES (47/301)

[1] Today's society still attaches a stigma to mental illness. Popular TV programs show people with mental disorders acting silly or violent or both. Since Xena: Warrior Princess has broken ground in many social areas, one would expect an enlightened depiction of mental illness in THE FURIES (47/301). Instead, the episode presented a sensationalistic picture of a deranged Xena acting foolishly.

"Oh, demons of the soul,
Over Xena's reason roll,
Replace sanity's sweet illusion
With the poison of delusion,
To Xena's head do not be kind,
For it's your job to make her lose her mind".
   --Alecto, THE FURIES (47/301)

[2] The plot of THE FURIES (47/301) is based on the ancient notion that insanity is the result of a curse, moral depravity, or demonic possession. The ancient Greeks believed that insanity was a curse from the gods. How else could one explain a 'normal' person suddenly behaving strangely? For failing to avenge her father's death, Ares, the god of war, demands that the Furies curse Xena with madness, which they do. Ashamed of her current condition, Xena informs her mother, Cyrene, "I'm a lunatic with lethal combat skills". As she struggles against the madness that grips her, Xena finds the answer to ending the curse. When she satisfies the Furies' demands, they restore Xena's sanity.


Presentation

[3] Marcel Proust wrote,

"All the greatest things we know have come to us from neurotics. It is they and only they who have founded religions and created great works of art. Never will the world be conscious of how much it owes to them, nor above all of what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it." [Note 01]

Unfortunately, the presentation of insanity in THE FURIES (47/301) runs counter to his understanding.

[4] The writer of THE FURIES (47/301), R.L. Stewart, describes Xena's hallucinations: "This entire sequence is based on meticulous research into schizophrenia and a bad trip I had in college when I dropped some purple haze". [Note 02]

[5] In my opinion, it is one thing to read about mental illness, but quite another to actually have a mental illness. Xena is quite correct when she states, "Madness is a rotten way to go through life". However, Mr. Stewart fails to depict an accurate experience of being mentally ill.


Mental Illness as Stigma

"She killed your father. You have to avenge his death or the Furies will torment you for eternity".
   --Ares to Xena, THE FURIES (47/301)

[6] The first incorrect aspect of the presentation is that Xena's illness is a stigma based on her lack of morality. At Ares' urging, the Furies arbitrarily decide that Xena will be persecuted and made insane. People become psychotic because they have a disease of the brain.


Coming Down with Insanity

Gabrielle: Xena, you're acting really strange.
Xena: Don't be ridiculous, Mavis. Alley OOP, Argo!

[7] The second aspect is that Xena quickly 'comes down' with insanity, as if she catches a cold. Then, just as quickly, she is `cured'. Mental illness, a family of brain disorders, may be gradual or appear suddenly at a certain age. Moreover, the process of recovery from many mental diseases often means matching drugs and therapy with an individual's brain chemistry. Sometimes the side affects of the drugs are worse than the disease, or, more unfortunate, the drugs stop working.


Silly Antics

Sure?!  I'm not even mildly certain!




"I love the smell of warrior sweat in the morning".
   --Xena, after fighting several bandits and then sniffing her armpit, THE FURIES (47/301).

[8] The third aspect is the Three Stooges' antics of Xena. According to Mr. Stewart, "Xena has reached the `I can't stop laughing' part of insanity'" [Note 03]. His strange notions combined with Lucy Lawless' silly walks assert the idea that mental illness is a trivial matter. Xena's nonsense conveys little respect for people with mental illness. As Voltaire observed, "I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: 'O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it".


Objects of Curiosity

"He killed his mother, Clytemnestra."
   --Asylum keeper to Gabrielle (who is staring at Orestes), THE FURIES (47/301)

[9] The fourth aspect is the common attitude that people with mental disorders are objects of curiosity. Mr. Stewart's description of the asylum where Orestes is chained exhibits an aspect of voyeurism. He writes, "Scary Place. Think MARAT/SADE without the clean white robes" [Note 04]. By referring to MARAT/SADE, Mr. Stewart harkens back to the time when people with mental illness were considered beasts without a soul. They were chained, left in dungeons, and treated as objects of amusement for the nobility. Even in today's institutions, an aspect of 'MARAT/SADE' exists: electroshock therapy (ECT), which is used on some patients[Note 05].


'Boot Strap Method'

[10] The fifth aspect is Xena must employ `the boot strap method' to recover. Before she can become rational, Xena must remove the Furies' curse. But since she is insane, how can Xena know why she is being punished? In short, only she can pull herself out of the pit of madness.


Suicide

[11] Albert Camus said of suicide,

"There is but one true, serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy" [Note 06].

[12] Xena's statements about suicide are similar. She confronts her mother:

"I have an interesting choice now. I can kill you, or I can spend the rest of my life shuttling between babbling idiocy and vivid clarity. Did you know that sanity is just a veil that the gods throw over our eyes to stop us from seeing the truth?"

When are you two crazy kids gonna just settle down?


Cyrene and Xena exchange words, if not philosohpical commentary.


[13] Cyrene asks, "What is the truth, Xena?" Her daughter answers:

"Life is a joke. It's a barroom joke at that! And do you know what the punch line is? The punch line is that no matter what we do, we still end up as food for the worms".

[14] Before she leaves, Xena taunts her mother,

"I leave you to entertain the gods. I am retiring from the stage. Mother, I am a lunatic with lethal combat skills. If I stay around here much longer, some innocent people are going to get killed. I'm going to do them a favor".

[15] If Xena truly felt that she was `a lunatic with lethal combat skills', then Ares' intervention would not have prevented her from killing herself. Xena's motivation for attempting to kill herself is not despair. Her `despair' is an act to entrap Ares. Before she flings herself off the cliff, Xena hesitates. On cue, Ares appears to stop her,

"You're my favorite. I don't want to see you throw yourself off some cliff, if for no other reason than it's such a tastelessly melodramatic way out of this life".

[16] Xena listens as Ares spouts his philosophy of life:

"No, life isn't worth living. It's to be taken and beaten and wrestled and formed in your image. That's where the meaning lies, in what you can twist life into. For those who just endure life, yeah, it is a very nasty joke, but for those who form it with their will, the joke is on those that get in the way".

[17] Now compare those sentiments with what a pastoral counselor advises:

"Suicide is not a choice; it happens when pain exceeds your resources for coping with pain. You can survive suicidal feelings if you either find a way to reduce your pain or find a way to increase your coping skills" [Note 07].


Families

Gabrielle to Xena: It's not your look that I'm talking about. It's what going on inside your head.

Xena: You don't want to go there. It's terrifying.

Gabrielle: I know you're in there. Hey, we're going to get through this; you know we always do.

[18] Without understanding, patience, and reassurance from others, many people with mental illness feel abandoned. Being mentally ill is a lonely life. What makes it worse is that society still thinks of mental illness as something other than what it actually is: a physical disease of the brain. Society instead ostracizes people with mental disorders.

Gabrielle: Xena, I think something terrible has happened to you. You are not thinking clearly.

Xena: Well, you know how I am when I miss breakfast!

Gabrielle: No! Look. I think the Furies are punishing you for something. Legend has it they punish with persecution, which explains the bounty and the madness.

[19] Gabrielle notices Xena's marked change in personality, and reassures her. Then, during their interrogation of a bandit, Gabrielle finds out who afflicted Xena with madness. Afterwards she convinces Xena to go to the temple of the Furies to unearth the reason for Xena's curse. Instead of abandoning Xena, Gabrielle fearlessly seeks help for her.

You get used to being naked, Xena, trust me




"Xena, I'm going to help you. I'll help you if you let me. I can help. Xena, LISTEN!"
   --Gabrielle, THE FURIES (47/301)

[20] Like many family members, Gabrielle becomes frustrated when Xena refuses to listen. She does all she can to have Xena respond to her, even to the point of enduring abuse. Eventually, she manages to convince Xena to return home. Once Xena is safe, Gabrielle sets off to find a cure. While at the asylum, she discovers that Orestes remains insane even though he avenged his father's death by killing his mother. After that, Gabrielle races to the Furies' temple to stop Xena from killing Cyrene. With Gabrielle's help, Xena convinces the Furies that Ares is her father.

[21] Unlike Gabrielle, Cyrene is unable to help her daughter. Full of guilt and remorse for killing her husband to save her child, Cyrene passively allows Ares to sacrifice her. The past trauma of having been forced to choose between her husband's life and her child's paralyzes her from acting in the present. By forcing Xena's madness, Ares unwittingly becomes the agent of healing for her mother. He propels Xena to confront her mother, who is then compelled to grapple with her trauma. Much to Ares' chagrin, mother and daughter forge an alliance of recovery.

[22] Cyrene asks Xena, "Can you ever forgive me?" Tenderly, Xena tells her, "There is nothing to forgive. You saved my life. I owe you my thanks. I'm just sorry that you had to carry this alone all these years. We'll go on. We'll be stronger than before".


Illnesses Depicted

"Well, if it's my head you want, then take it, 'cause frankly it's driving me crazy!"
  --Xena, THE FURIES (47/301)


Schizophrenia

[23] Schizophrenia includes delusions (false but seemingly unshakable beliefs), hallucinations (hearing voices), and disorganized thinking and speech. These impairments of the mind result in a person having grossly distorted perceptions of external realities. However, most people with schizophrenia are not violent (as depicted in the media).

"The schizophrenic experience can be a terrifying journey through a world of madness no one can understand, particularly the person traveling through it. It is a journey through a world that is deranged, empty, and devoid of anchors to reality. You feel very much alone. You find it easier to withdraw than cope with a reality that is incongruent with your fantasy world. You feel tormented by distorted perceptions. You cannot distinguish what is real from what is unreal. Schizophrenia affects all aspects of your life. Your thoughts race and you feel fragmented and so very alone with your 'craziness'" [Note 08].

[24] Compare that reality to the fiction in THE FURIES (47/301). Although, there were times when Xena seems fragmented, she is still in control of the situation. For example, she understands that Ares is the cause of her insanity and why. When she attempts to kill herself, Xena knows that Ares will stop her. When he suggests that she kill her mother to have her curse removed, Xena agrees. Then she throws a tantrum to coerce him into having the Furies witness her act.

[25] At their temple, Xena convinces the Furies that Ares is her father. She tells Alecto, "Did you hear that little chit chat that Daddy and I had on the cliff when he thought I was going to throw myself over?" Then, she tells a surprised Ares, "Had you going there, didn't I?" This is a Xena in control of the events. She answers Alecto's question of why would Ares want her insane: "Because a mad Xena would be more sympathetic to his quaint world view".

Xena soon learns the hard way that kebab meat can spatter


A naked Xena prepares to torch a village.


[26] The only time when Xena remotely acts as if she had schizophrenia is when she decides to torch a village. At night, she stands stark naked before the cowering villagers. A torch in her hand, Xena screams, "I've come to take retribution! I've come to take retribution in flames!" When Gabrielle finds her and asks, "What are you doing?", an outraged Xena replies, "Delivering the Wrath of Justice. These people are evil!"

[27] Horrified, Gabrielle confronts her: "Xena, what have they done?", and Xena glowers at her, "What have they done? Can't you see? They've crucified the women and children!" Gabrielle puts her face close to her friend's: "Xena, the only people here are women and children. Xena, they're afraid of you". Suddenly, Xena looks wistful and lost, "I'm in trouble aren't I, Gabrielle?"


Depression

[28] A person becomes depressed when they have lost control over their life situation and their emotions. Someone with depression loses a positive sense of the future, and begins their downward spiral to the pit of despair. Depression narrows their view of the world until only the negative remains. Unlike Xena, many depressed people cannot think through their problems clearly and logically. Like Xena, many people who are depressed are also suicidal. They feel pain and an overwhelming desire to end that pain.


Trauma

[29] Dr. David Baldwin (Ph.D.) describes what a trauma experience does to a person: "Traumatic experiences shake the foundations of our beliefs about safety, and shatter our assumptions of trust [Note 09], and "Most traumatic incidents are sudden and unexpected. . . they overwhelm our ability to cope and to adapt" [Note 10].

[30] Xena's mother, Cyrene, displays many signs of traumatic stress. Twenty years after killing her husband, Cyrene blames herself for what happened. When Gabrielle brings a disheveled Xena home, Cyrene knows exactly why Xena is cursed. She asks, "Gabrielle, do you think that Xena, even in this state, could kill her mother?" Shaken, Gabrielle asks, "What?" Cyrene tells her, "I killed Xena's father". Cyrene relates how she was forced to kill her husband to save Xena because he wanted to sacrifice her to Ares. Later when Xena comes for her, Cyrene resigns herself to be killed.

When I said I wanted to get out more often, this isn't what I had in mind!">


Cyrene wonders whether or not Xena will carry out the threat to kill her.



The Reality

[31] One out of every one hundred people have schizophrenia. People with bipolar disorder (manic-depression) are also one out of every one hundred. About five to seven percent of the population is at risk for depression. Anxiety disorders affect eight percent of the U.S. population [Note 11]. In the United States, about one third of all homeless people are mentally ill. Job applicants with mental disorders are counseled to keep their illnesses secret. In Europe, many disability laws ignore the mentally ill.


The Hope

[32] Deaf people were once considered soulless animals because they could not speak. Deaf himself, educator Laurent Clerc rebutted,

"Every creature, every work of God, is admirably made. What we find faulty in its kind turns to our advantage without our knowing it ... We can only thank God for the rich diversity of his creation, and hope that in the future world, the reason for it will be explained." [Note 12].

[33] Later Alexander Graham Bell barred signing for deaf children since he firmly believed that: Apes Sign, Men speak. In response, Jean-Ferdinand Berthier began the Deaf Rights Movement to secure rights such as using sign language and obtaining higher education [Note 13]. Victor Hugo, the novelist, wrote to his friend Berthier, "What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears. The one true deafness, the incurable deafness, is that of the mind".

[34] Perhaps, in the future, people will apply the wisdom of Laurent Clerc and Victor Hugo to people with mental illness.


Notes

Note 01:
Marcel Proust, Remembrance Of Things Past (New York: Random House, 1934)
Return to article

Note 02:
Whoosh! Episode Guide, THE FURIES (47/301)
Return to article

Note 03:
Ibid.
As there are many types of insanity, perhaps Mr. Stewart was referring to the mania phase of bipolar disorder.
Return to article

Note 04:
Ibid.
Return to article

Note 05:
MARAT/SADE is the shortened title of a groundbreaking play by Peter Weiss which was first performed in Berlin in 1964. Peter Brook directed the most famous production for the Royal Shakespeare Company a few years later. The actual title is The Persecution And Assassination Of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of The Asylum Of Charenton Under The Direction Of The Marquis De Sade. It is a meta-theatrical 'play within a play' in which the actors play duel roles: asylum inmates and 'actors' in de Sade's play.] Return to article

Note 06:
Albert Camus, The Myth Of Sisyphus. (New York: Knopf, 1955)
Return to article

Note 07:
David Conroy, "If You are Thinking About Suicide: Read This First."
Return to article

Note 08:
Janice C. Jordan, "Schizophrenia - Adrift In An Anchorless Reality", First Person Account series Schizophrenia Bulletin, Volume 21, No. 3, 1995
Return to article

Note 09:
David Baldwin, "About Trauma"
Return to article

Note 10:
Ibid, "Trauma"
Return to article

Note 11:
Statistics are from the National Institutes of Health (NIH, United States)
Return to article

Note 12:
Laurent Clerc left France to establish schools for deaf people in the United States.
Return to article

Note 13:
Alexander Graham Bell, who was hearing, felt shame because his mother was deaf. Jean-Ferdinand Berthier, a noted French educator, was deaf.
Return to article


Web Resources

David Baldwin's Trauma Information Pages

Doctor's Guide to the Internet: schizophrenia

Mental Health Infosource

The Mental Illness Activist

Metanoia Communications (Pastoral Counseling)


Bibliography

Frederic Flach, MD, The Secret Strength Of Depression (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974).

Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir Of Moods And Madness (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1995.).

Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched With Fire: Artists And Mental Illnesses (New York: Free Press; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993).

Eve LaPlante, Seized: Temporal Lobe Epilepsy As A Medical, Historical, And Artistic Phenomenon (New York: Harper Collins, 1993). [Temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) seizures bring hallucinations, dreamy states, bizarre feelings, and involuntary actions resembling the symptoms of psychiatric disease.]

Martha Manning, Undercurrents: A Life Beneath The Surface (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 1994).

Ian Osborn, Tormenting Thoughts And Secret Rituals: The Hidden Epidemic Of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998).

William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir Of Madness (New York: Random House, 1990).

Otto F. Wahl, Media Madness: Public Images Of Mental Illness (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

Peter C. Whybrow, A Mood Apart: Depression, Mania, And Other Afflictions Of The Self (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1997).



Biography

Virginia Carper Virginia Carper
My goal is to be a garden variety human being. My friends know me as a squirrel. I am, however, a card carrying member of the Squirrel Lovers Club, and do squirrel studies. My family watches XWP for the marvelous things Xena does and for Joxer, the warlord with autism.

My family was a eclectic group of religions - Pentacostal, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Orthodox, Native American (Abenaki), Unitarian-Universalist, and Deism, with a mixing of atheists. I became Catholic by choice and have discovered the rich heritage of Saints and Icons.
Favorite episode: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302)
Favorite line: Joxer to Xena and Gabrielle: "A great many people have become allies because of their hatred of me." Xena and Gabrielle nod 'Yes!' BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302)
First episode seen: WARRIOR PRINCESS (H09/109)
Least favorite episode: Most of the Third Season

Return to Top Return to Index