Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite Hollywood Actors. I know that he was both “way back in the past” and “not the sophisticated Betty Davis or handsome Cary Grant or physically stunning Grace Kelley.” Yet there was something so lovable about him, something that transcends the greatness that these other actors achieves in the parts they played so well. Though not all of his parts were as good natured as the film this article is about–he was equally convincing as villainous and pathetic roles in Alfred Hitchcock films–I think that in all of his films, down to the animated An American Tail: Feivel Goes West as Wylie, he always appeared to be exactly the type of person he was supposed to be in the film. Yet my favorite film he was in was the real Jimmy Stewart–the World War II vet who couldn’t capitalize on his success in the military when he didn’t have to join at all or the married man who was a paragon of virtue during his marriage in an industry where it was not unheard of for a man to have five wives or vice versa–Harvey.
Harvey is my favorite film, even including such greats as the remake of Sabrina and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because I love the idea of a six-foot rabbit in the head of a “madman” which turns out not to be imaginary at all. Though supposedly less able to help people than Betty Davis’ On Voyager, a film I like for its early interest in humanizing the sick, or Rain Man, the film intended to show the human side of autism, or the classic and breathtaking A Beautiful Mind, I like it even better for its emphasis of something I always see in Cervantes’ Don Quixote in the second half of the book, and Man of La Mancha all the way through: sometimes it is the lunatic and not the world who is right. Jimmy Stewart must have known that mental illness sometimes makes people insightful, for they see truths other people do not. I have not read the book version of A Beautiful Mind yet, but on the back it said that the schizophrenic whom it was about was asked, “How with your marvelous abilities in mathematics could it be that you did not imagine that the things you were imagining were absurd?” and he answered, “Because my delusions entered my mind the same way my best ideas did.” Yes, the man’s illness was harrowing, as were some of the early psychotropic drugs he tried to cure it with, but for him genius and madness were intertwined. That was his greatness and tragedy. He was King Lear.
Elwood P. Dowd, the character Jimmy Stewart played, has the perfect foil in his sister Veta Louise. She is petty though not truly vindictive. She cannot bear the thought of the neighbors knowing her brother is crazy. More, he must be crazy because everyone knows that human beings do not really consort with six foot tall rabbits. Why? Because “Pookahs” or six-foot-tall rabbits simply do not exist. It is the extraordinary that this woman fears. She wants an ordinary, orderly life. It is not enough that Elwood love her, he must conform to the patterns of the average person in her small town. Though not evil exactly, she lacks imagination–until she has the misfortune to meet Harvey herself. Now if you ask a psychiatrist today, all too many will insist that somebody who is truly sick, unless you are in their family or perhaps unfortunate enough to be their spouse, is not capable of giving or receiving your love. Before Freudian analysis and psychotropic drugs, they simply aren’t human. An untreated mental patient is not human almost, and only a doctor can really do anything for them. This is the great lie of the mental health profession, which Freud no doubt did not actually mean to perpetrate in his work.
How does this bear out in a person’s day-to-day life, sick or not? I remember there was a website I was on for some time before finding out they just weren’t “my type of people” for a personal and painful reason. This person on the site was discussing how she was one of two couples, of whom she was married to the man she was then dating. However, she said, of the other couple, the man revealed to the woman that he was schizophrenic, and took pills for it. Now bear in mind: they were engaged to be married. Shocked and horrified, she dumped him. She was scared of the thought of living with a man with such an illness, and–supposedly–betrayed by the fact that he had waited so long to tell her. Though still on strained but speaking terms, they never married, and the two couples were never close again.
Now, bear several things in mind: schizophrenics are statistically less likely to be violent than the general population. Most mental patients, in fact, are not more likely to be violent than people who aren’t “sick.” I am not saying an abusive man might do well to try to get therapy, but if you are in one of the “major mental illnesses” that is no reason for society to ostracize you as a potential abuser or murderer. True, people with Bipolar (my own illness, I am sad to say) are more likely to abuse than their peers but not enough so to say that the average Bipolar patient does. What it really is in this illness’s case the truth is that sometimes when a Bipolar patient goes from a depressed to manic state, she loses (sometimes) her emotional and physical self-control. That is why in some cases they are likely to become violent. However, as I said, the majority are not.
I did not write anything on that Blog or to the person who ran the site about it. Yet I never could return afterwards. For a healthy chunk of my life–before I got my pills–people thought I was immature, I think. So it was I felt for that schizophrenic, whether if we ever met we would have been friends or not. Why was he not the same person after being sick as he was before? Why did this supposedly nice person not have it in her to see he was still the same and it was she who was different. She lacked what Jimmy Stewart had in Harvey. She lacked the ability to love somebody who was “different.”
It is a perversion of Freud to say the sick do not need and deserve love. This may be the only thing that Harvey understands us about it, but it doing so its heart goes deep. By the way, in none of the films I named does a good or well-meaning person slam the door on somebody they disown as no longer human to them. More, when I read Donna Sommer’s (an abused autistic woman’s) Nobody Nowhere, I remember reading that before finding a psychiatrist, there was one kind boyfriend whom she treated terribly–if she had been well enough to realize it–only for her next boyfriend to be physically abusive. Yet that normal boyfriend–I forget whether the woman he was with afterwards was his girlfriend or his wife–allowed Donna to recuperate in his house with his significant other’s help. She had hurt him, yet they both forgave. That is–on a personal level–a model for how the sick should be treated. As for Donna… I never did read the sequel Somebody Somewhere, but she would become friends with Temple Grandin and although she described her illness as a cage, she still bravely seeks to live a normal life–or as normal life as any autistic person can have. She is a survivor.
Temple Grandin herself discovered, however, the one neat truth that on most days is my experience: she insists that without diseases like autism and Bipolar, there might not be much variation in human personalities. We would all be a bunch of “boring conformists.” She says autism is a part of her, and she cannot imagine herself without it. Among other things, it helps her understand animals. With that in mind, I will admit that except on rare occasions when I have the blues (and am Donna), I sometimes imagine Temple is right. I am able to see my Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder as a gift–not a curse–from God.
I have told people often that my illness is like a Kaleidoscope. I see and feel things other people cannot understand. The broken glass which cuts and yet somehow can heal, too, distorts the light that comes into it. People do not really feel sorry for me much of the people who know me. I seldom know if it would make me better if they did. Yet looking through my Kaleidoscope, I am in awe of the beauty I see. And that is what Elwood P. Dowd saw in Harvey, I believe.