One of the books I read over the holiday break was Helen Garner’s latest, Joe Cinque’s Consolation. Like Garner’s previous work The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s Consolation takes the form of a journalistic dissection of real life events, but becomes something much more profound and literary.
Joe Cinque’s Consolation tells the story of the murder of a young engineer by his girlfriend Anu Singh, a beautiful young ANU law student who is utterly spoiled and self-absorbed almost to the point of narcissism. She kills Joe by overdosing him with rohypnol and heroin (he didn’t use either of them himself, or any other drug) after announcing to her friends that she was going to commit suicide and possibly kill Joe as well. Singh even held dinner parties where all the guests except Joe knew of her murderous intentions. Singh was eventually (in 1998) found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder after her defence team successfully advanced a defence of “diminished responsibility”. Morag’s Fraser’s review of Garner’s book provides a succinct summary of the book’s plot and structure. I want to focus on a specific aspect.
Anu Singh served 4 years in prison, completing her law degree while behind bars in a minimum security prison, and embarking on a Masters degree in criminology, researching a thesis on the conveniently self-serving topic that “rationality and right and wrong are concepts that do not necessarily apply to people, especially women, who have been suffering from an emotional or psychological disorder at the time they committed their offence”.
Helen Garner touches in passing on this aspect of the Singh case, musing about the medicalisation of criminal behaviour, and whether it’s appropriate to affix medical labels to behaviour that would previously have been regarded simply as wrong or perhaps even that old-fashioned word “evil”.
The “diminished responsibility” aspect of the case provoked my interest because the bloke who killed my wife’s mother back in 1995, by cutting her throat in front of my daughter just two days before Rebecca’s 7th birthday (while we were out shopping for her birthday present), literally tried to get away with murder by employing just that defence.
* Photo of Joe Cinque and Anu Singh from The Age.
His defence team tried to claim that he was suffering “diminished responsibility” in the form of alcohol-related brain damage and being under the influence of both alcohol and anti-depressant medication at the time of the killing. Fortunately, the prosecution medical experts were able to demolish this claim and proved conclusively that it was manufactured and spurious. He is currently serving a life term for murder in Berrimah prison, and isn’t eligible to apply for parole until 2015.
Anu Singh was more fortunate, probably because her father was a doctor who could afford a better class of medical expert to tell self-serving lies for her in the witness box. Singh successfully claimed that her extreme self-absorption/narcissism was a mental illness called “borderline personality disorder” and that she also suffered from “masked depression”.
I think there are very real questions as to whether the defence of diminished responsibility should exist at all. It’s a statutory defence designed to accommodate the psychiatric ‘insight’ that there is a wide range of medical conditions, short of the old-fashioned common law insanity defence, that may sometimes impair an offender’s ability to control their actions and consequently provide a basis for not holding them wholly legally responsible for them. But to what extent can that psychiatric insight be sustained? And even to the extent that it’s true, does it necessarily follow that such an impairment justifies a reduction of criminal responsibility (typically reducing murder to manslaugher)?
Way back in 1960, Thomas Szasz dealt with the general issue of principle in his seminal essay The Myth of Mental Illness:
The term “mental illness” is widely used to describe something which is very different than a disease of the brain. Many people today take it · for granted that living is an arduous process. Its hardship for modern man, moreover, derives not so much from a struggle for biological survival as from the stresses and strains inherent in the social intercourse of complex human personalities. In this context, the notion of mental illness is used to identify or describe some feature of an individual’s so-called personality. Mental illness — as a deformity of the personality, so to speak — is then regarded as the cause of the human disharmony. It is implicit in this view that social intercourse between people is regarded as something inherently harmonious, its disturbance being due solely to the presence of “mental illness” in many people. This is obviously fallacious reasoning, for it makes the abstraction “mental illness” into a cause, even though this abstraction was created in the first place to serve only as a shorthand expression for certain types of human behavior. It now becomes necessary to ask: “What kinds of behavior are regarded as indicative of mental illness, and by whom?”
The concept of illness, whether bodily or mental, implies deviation from some clearly defined norm. In the case of physical illness, the norm is the structural and functional integrity of the human body. Thus, although the desirability of physical health, as such, is an ethical value, what health is can be stated in anatomical and physiological terms. What is the norm deviation from which is regarded as mental illness? This question cannot be easily answered. But whatever this norm might be, we can be certain of only one thing: namely, that it is a norm that must be stated in terms of psycho-social, ethical, and legal concepts. For example, notions such as “excessive repression” or “acting out an unconscious impulse” illustrate the use of psychological concepts for judging (so-called) mental health and illness. The idea that chronic hostility, vengefulness, or divorce are indicative of mental illness would be illustrations of the use of ethical norms (that is, the desirability of love, kindness, and a stable marriage relationship). Finally, the widespread psychiatric opinion that only a mentally ill person would commit homicide illustrates the use of a legal concept as a norm of mental health. The norm from which deviation is measured whenever one speaks of a mental illness is a psycho-social and ethical one. Yet, the remedy is sought in terms of medical measures which — it is hoped and assumed — are free from wide differences of ethical value. The definition of the disorder and the terms in which its remedy are sought are therefore at serious odds with one another. The practical significance of this covert conflict between the alleged nature of the defect and the remedy can hardly be exaggerated. …
In actual contemporary social usage, the finding of a mental illness is made by establishing a deviance in behavior from certain psychosocial, ethical, or legal norms. The judgment may be made, as in medicine, by the patient, the physician (psychiatrist), or others. Remedial action, finally, tends to be sought in a therapeutic — or covertly medical — framework, thus creating a situation in which psychosocial, ethical, and/or legal deviations are claimed to be correctible by (so-called) medical action. Since medical action is designed to correct only medical deviations, it seems logically absurd to expect that it will help solve problems whose very existence had been defined and established on nonmedical grounds. …
Anything that people do — in contrast to things that happen to them (Peters, 1958) — takes place in a context of value. In this broad sense, no human activity is devoid of ethical implications. When the values underlying certain activities are widely shared, those who participate in their pursuit may lose sight of them altogether. The discipline of medicine, both as a pure science (for example, research) and as a technology (for example, therapy), contains many ethical considerations and judgments. Unfortunately, these are often denied, minimized, or merely kept out of focus; for the ideal of the medical profession as well as of the people whom it serves seems to be having a system of medicine (allegedly) free of ethical value. This sentimental notion is expressed by such things as the doctor’s willingness to treat and help patients irrespective of their religious or political beliefs, whether they are rich or poor, etc. While there may be some grounds for this belief — albeit it is a view that is not impressively true even in these regards — the fact remains that ethical considerations encompass a vast range of human affairs. By making the practice of medicine neutral in regard to some specific issues of value need not, and cannot, mean that it can be kept free from all such values. The practice of medicine is intimately tied to ethics; and the first thing that we must do, it seems to me, is to try to make this clear and explicit. I shall 1 let this matter rest here, for it does not concern us specifically in this essay, Lest there be any vagueness, however, about how or where ethics and medicine meet, let me remind the reader of such issues as birth control, abortion, suicide, and euthanasia as only a few of the major areas of current ethicomedical controversy.
Psychiatry, I submit, is very much more intimately tied to problems of ethics than is medicine. I use the word “psychiatry” here to refer to that contemporary discipline which is concerned with problems in living (and not with diseases of the brain, which are problems for neurology). Problems in human relations can be analyzed, interpreted, and given meaning only within given social and ethical contexts. Accordingly, it does make a difference — arguments to the contrary notwithstanding — what the psychiatrist’s socioethical orientations happen to be; for these will influence his ideas on what is wrong with the patient, what deserves comment or interpretation, in what possible directions change might be desirable, and so forth. …
The diversity of human values and the methods by means of which they may be realized is so vast, and many of them remain so unacknowledged, that they cannot fail but lead to conflicts in human relations. Indeed, to say that human relations at all levels — from mother to child, through husband and wife, to nation and nation — are fraught with stress, strain, and disharmony is, once again, making the obvious explicit. Yet, what may be obvious may be also poorly understood. This I think is the case here. For it seems to me that — at least in our scientific theories of behavior — we have failed to accept the simple fact that human relations are inherently fraught with difficulties and that to make them even relatively harmonious requires much patience and hard work. I submit that the idea of mental illness is now being put to work to obscure certain difficulties which at present may be inherent — not that they need be unmodifiable — in the social intercourse of persons. If this is true, the concept functions as a disguise; for instead of calling attention to conflicting human needs, aspirations, and values, the notion of mental illness provides an amoral and impersonal “thing” (an “illness”) as an explanation for problems in living (Szasz, 1959). We may recall in this connection that not so long ago it was devils and witches who were held responsible for men’s problems in social living. The belief in mental illness, as something other than man’s trouble in getting along with his fellow man, is the proper heir to the belief in demonology and witchcraft. Mental illness exists or is “real” in exactly the same sense in which witches existed or were “real.” …
By problems in living, then, I refer to that truly explosive chain reaction which began with man’s fall from divine grace by partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Man’s awareness of himself and of the world about him seems to be a steadily expanding one, bringing in its wake an ever large; burden of understanding (an expression borrowed from Susanne Langer, 1953). This burden, then, is to be expected and must not be misinterpreted. Our only rational means for lightening it is more understanding, and appropriate action based on such understanding. The main alternative lies in acting as though the burden were not what in fact we perceive it to be and taking refuge in an outmoded theological view of man. In the latter view, man does not fashion his life and much of his world about him, but merely lives out his fate in a world created by superior beings. This may logically lead to pleading nonresponsibility in the face of seemingly unfathomable problems and difficulties. Yet, if man fails to take increasing responsibility for his 2 actions, individually as well as collectively, it seems unlikely that some higher power or being would assume this task and carry this burden for him. Moreover, this seems hardly the proper time in human history for obscuring the issue of man’s responsibility for his actions by hiding it behind the skirt of an all-explaining conception of mental illness.
Quite. If someone like Anu Singh is permitted to evade criminal responsibility for her manifestly calculated actions in drugging and killing her boyfriend, what does that mean for society as a whole? If you have enough money, you can find a psychiatrist or psychologist willing to label almost any behaviour, however calculating, as a mental illness. Criminal responsibility may frequently be something that can be pinned only on the poor who can’t afford expensive therapists.
But even if I’m exaggerating just a tad, there are still some very real issues here. Did Singh make a choice in acting as she did, and is that choice one for which she ought to be held responsible? Is there any such thing as freedom of choice? Some argue that freedom of choice is an illusion; that we’re all products of our genetic makeup and conditioning, and that those factors determine the choices we think we’re making to a much greater extent than we mostly think.
For a start, I accept that offenders from a disadvantaged and physically or emotionally abused background may well have a much narrower range of life choices available to them than spoiled middle class brats like Anu Singh (or me for than matter). But that’s not really the point I’m discussing. All of us act to a considerable extent on the basis of an evolved view of the world and what it means, and we filter the stimuli entering our brains and ignore information that our experience has taught us is irrelevant or unnecessary. We also evolve habituated responses to situations and stimuli, based on our previous experiences. Sometimes those habitual responses become compulsions, so that we behave in a particular manner unthinkingly and sometimes inappropriately. Habituated responses, especially in interpersonal relationships, can be very hard to unlearn, even when you become aware intellectually that they’re having counterproductive results. It’s a phenomenon of which I’m acutely personally aware at the moment, as I go through the painful (but joyous) experience of building a new relationship with Jen.
But does the fact that habitual responses are difficult to change mean that there is no such thing as freedom of choice? My own experience tells me that we do indeed make choices, and that we can make different ones if we want. Freedom of choice isn’t just an illusion IMHO, although my conviction to that effect may itself be an illusion. But even if it is, it doesn’t logically follow that we should be absolved of criminal (or general) responsibility, short of insanity in the classical common law sense (which results in indeterminate inarceration for the protection of the community, not just a couple of years in a minimum security facility as Anu Singh experienced). At the very least, the knowledge that, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, we will certainly be punished severely if we transgress the criminal law by committing a serious crime like murder or rape, is likely to be one of the most important socially positive formative experiences which shape/determine our subsequent responses, whether or not a true choice exists at the moment of action itself. Conversely, the assimilation (whether from actual experience, exposure to media, or studying law) of the knowledge that criminal responsibility can often be evaded by claiming “diminished responsibility” is equally a strong socially negative factor in shaping individual responses and actions.
This is only one tiny aspect of Garner’s book. It’s well worth reading.
PS – It seems that Garner’s book also succeeded in flushing Singh out of her previous silence. This article appears to be Singh’s response to Garner’s book. She doesn’t appear to have learnt anything at all, nor does the article hint at even a glimmer of remorse or compassion for Joe’s family (as opposed to herself and offenders like her).
PPS – 3 Anu Singh was also interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night Live. The interview also reveals an almost complete lack of either compassion or insight into the enormity of what she did. Perhaps the most telling passage is this one:
Phillip Adams: Are you responsible, or were you responsible, for what you did, in your own view: sit in judgment on yourself.
Anu Singh: No, I absolutely am responsible and take full responsibility for it, and that’s something that is difficult to come to terms with and it’s something that I live with every single day. It’s difficult that the whole notion of responsibility is predicated on the basis that someone is rational, and it makes it even more difficult that when you are rational, you can look back and see what you’ve done in a state of irrationality, and it’s actually harder to be able to accept that, because I guess a lot of me wishes so much that I’d listened to so many people who had said, ‘Look, there’s something wrong, you need to actually get treatment in a different way.’ I was consumed with what I perceived to be physical illnesses, and in fact what happened was that my illness manifested in a physical way, so that I was not at all wanting to accept the prospect that possibly there wasn’t something wrong with my body, it was something with my mind. And I guess in terms of now accepting full responsibility, I’m trying to determine ways of making it up to my parents, to society, I don’t think that …
Phillip Adams: To the Cinques?
Anu Singh: Well I don’t think there’s anything that I can do there. I’m thinking about getting involved in a restorative justice program with them.
- p. 116
- p. 118
- thanks to Darlene