Archive: July 2008

L.A. or Beijing? 7/31/08

Ok, here are the clues:  It’s a major city with millions of inhabitants, and the local government wants to ban new fast-food restaurants from locating in certain parts of the city because it wants its poor citizens’ diets to include fewer unhealthy foods.  Now guess, is it Beijing in communist China or L.A. right here in the United States?  It’s actually L.A., where the City Council just voted to put a moratorium on permits for new fast-food restaurants in poor neighborhoods because Council members believe that the residents of those neighborhoods are too fat.  No, I’m not kidding.  The Council’s vote was in response to a study that found higher rates of obesity in L.A.’s poor neighborhoods than in its wealthier neighborhoods.  There’s a very important point to be made here.  If you live in one of the L.A. neighborhoods where new fast-food restaurants are being banned for your “benefit,” think about what your City Council members must think of you.  Think about how stupid they must think you are.  Obviously, they think you’re a big fat idiot with no self-control, a virtual slave to your own appetite.  Notice how they didn’t vote to ban new fast-food restaurants city-wide, only in neighborhoods like yours.  It’s often the case that the public officials who profess to “care” about you and want to “help” you the most actually think the least of you, and this is a perfect illustration.  They believe that you’re incapable of improving your own life and that the government can and should solve all your problems for you if you’ll just give up some freedom.  Whenever someone tells you he/she will take some responsibility for your personal well-being in exchange for some of your freedom (autonomy, choices, money, etc.), you can bet it’s a bad deal.  Freedom and personal responsibility go hand-in-hand.  You should have the freedom to eat whatever foods in whatever restaurants you want, and you should exercise personal responsibility for doing it in moderation and keeping yourself healthy.

Quick takes and a follow-up 7/29/08

Here are my quick takes on some current stories in the news:

If you read my recent posts about average Americans facing home foreclosures (my “Quick takes” post dated 7/21/08 and “Fatal foreclosure?”), and you’re wondering how the homes of high-earning celebrities can end up in foreclosure, see my previous post “Stupidity + money = trouble.”

While we’re on the subject of stupid celebrities, singer Amy Winehouse was back in and is now back out.  No, not out of rehab, but out of a medical center for — wait, who cares?  Better yet, why does anyone (other than maybe her family and friends) care?  The woman’s an idiot, a smelly-looking, drugged-out, classless, talent-wasting idiot.

And while we’re on the subject of music, if you’re wondering whether the current chart-topping song about lesbian experimentation indicates that lesbianism is on the rise in America, see my previous post “Girls Gone…Lesbian?”

If you missed Prime News yesterday, I made the point that the grandmother and jailed mother of a missing Florida toddler seem to be a like-mother-like-daughter duo in that every time they speak publicly, their focus seems to be more on themselves than on the missing child (see my previous post “Psychological diagnoses in the news”).  No wonder the grandfather’s out at the local grocery store handing out t-shirts with the little girl’s picture instead of hanging out at home with the grandmother or visiting the mother in jail.  Psychologists call people who need to be the center of attention “histrionic,” so I’ll call these two the “histrionic duo.”

A suspect is in custody in the murder of a pregnant Ft. Bragg soldier found dead in a motel bathtub last month (see my “Quick takes” post dated 7/5/08).  Details have yet to be released, but it looks to me like a fellow soldier and ex-boyfriend who probably learned about the Zodiac Killer in his psych-warfare class and wrote a bogus letter to the local paper blaming the murder on a copycat serial killer (interestingly, the date on that letter was written military-style, day-month-year).

You probably heard that there was yet another shooting spree on Sunday, this time at a Tennessee church.  As always, there were warning signs that the guy was dangerous, and this creep was an even bigger coward than they’ve usually been.  He didn’t want to stick around to face the consequences, but he didn’t want to shoot himself either — he wanted the cops to do it (they didn’t).  He was jumped by several churchgoers and is now in custody.  He’ll probably claim insanity, but that will be bogus because there’s a lot of evidence of planning including a multi-page “suicide” letter and the fact that he smuggled his gun into the church in a guitar case (i.e. he knew what he was doing and that it was wrong).  Props to the heroes in the church who took the guy down in the spirit of the Flight 93 passengers on 9/11.

Some ex-employees of Google have launched their own search engine called “Cuil” (pronounced “Cool”).  Apparently, one of the innovations of their service is that it includes images along with websites in its search results.  Unfortunately, it seems that pornographic images can randomly appear among the results of completely innocent searches, making Cuil…not cool.

Finally tonight, a follow-up:

In my last post, I explained why I didn’t like “The Dark Knight” — I thought it was too dark, and I’m sick of Hollywood’s apparent obsession with exploring the “dark sides” of American heroes, real or fictional.  Since then, I’ve been asked specifically why I thought the movie was “too dark.”  Ok, that’s easy.  The thought that someone could put a knife in your mouth, rip it to one side, and cut your face open is not a good thought for kids to have in their minds.  Likewise, the thought that you could be forced to choose between killing dozens of innocent people or being killed yourself is not a good thought for kids to have in their minds.  Similarly, the thought that you could be taken hostage and then dressed up to look like a terrorist so that the police would shoot you instead of your captors is not a good thought for kids to have in their minds.  (In fairness, carnage eventually is averted in those last two situations.)  Along those same lines, superheroes in past movies have been faced with situations in which two people or groups of people were in danger but there was only time for the hero to save one or the other, however, the heroes have always seemed to find ways to save both (that’s what has made them “super” — Christopher Reeve’s Superman saved the world and then turned back time so he could save Lois Lane too, remember?).  Apparently that was too clichéd for the makers of “The Dark Night” — in their “save-one-or-the-other” situation, one person gets saved while the other one gets incinerated, and you get to hear it.  How entertaining.  How uplifting.  It’s Batman ladies and gentlemen — parents should be able to take their kids and not have to worry about nightmares.  I’ve also been asked why I find it so irritating that Hollywood is obsessed with the “dark sides” of heroes.  Ok, that’s easy too.  I think it reinforces a cultural cynicism that has broader implications.  The message is that there are no true heroes — no “good guys,” no “bad guys,” just “guys” — and I think that’s the kind of cynicism that makes people quick to accept the worst about real-life heroes like American soldiers in Iraq (e.g. that they’re torturers, murderers, etc.).  I don’t think it’s accurate, and I don’t think it’s helpful — to kids, to adults, or to the country.

“Dark Knight” too dark 7/28/08

Ok, let me preface this one with my acknowledgement and acceptance of the fact that it isn’t going to be popular.  A week ago, I expressed some concern here about what seemed to me like sycophantic adulation of the late Heath Ledger in the media after the release of his final film, “The Dark Knight,” in which he played the role of the Joker, originated by Cesar Romero in 1966 and played by Jack Nicholson in 1989.  Well, I saw “Dark Knight” over the weekend, and now I can say definitively that I didn’t like the film, nor did I like Ledger’s character.  The problem wasn’t Ledger’s acting — I think he probably did just what he was directed to do in making the Joker into the kind of depraved psychopath you’d expect to find in a movie like “Hostel” or “Saw” or a documentary about cannibalistic serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer.  Having seen “Dark Knight,” I’m now a lot more concerned about the millions of American kids who’ve seen it (and the millions of kids who have yet to see it) than I ever was about them seeing the media’s hero-worship of Ledger.  Whether it was the script or the directing or Ledger’s portrayal or a combination of all three, in my opinion, this latest incarnation of the Joker made “Dark Knight” way too dark for kids.  I think it should’ve been “R” rated.  Romero’s and Nicholson’s Jokers were much more family-friendly and were followed by a series of comically-evil Batman villains, like Danny DeVito’s “Penguin” and Arnold Schwarzeneger’s “Mr. Freeze.”  This latest Batman sequel should’ve stuck with that tried-and-true formula.  It was this time last summer that I couldn’t recommend “Transformers” to parents because of a gratuitous and profoundly stupid reference to masturbation (see my previous post “Cultural chaos in film and sports”), and this summer, I can’t recommend what’s supposed to be a super-hero movie to parents because of gratuitous, over-the-top depravity.  And while we’re on the subject, I’m sick of Hollywood having to bring out the “dark side” of every American folk-hero — Batman, Superman, Spiderman.  I know they’re not real, but at their best, they stand for things kids (and adults) can believe in — “outdated,” “old-fashioned” things like “truth, justice, and the American way.”  You’d think we were suffering from an excess of heroes for kids to look up to here in America.

A.D.D. news 7/26/08

Here’s a quick rundown on some recent research findings about A.D.D. and A.D.H.D.  As you know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I think A.D.D. (with or without the “H”) is mostly bogus – i.e. in most cases, the real problem is a lack of proper discipline in the child’s life.  Sure, the parts of the brain that enable a person to focus his or her attention can malfunction, but I believe that happens extremely rarely (for more on what I think of A.D.D. in general, see my previous posts “D.D.D.” and “Psychobabble”).  In my recent post “Psychological diagnoses in the news” I disagreed with the degree and breadth (though not with an underlying premise) of radio talk show host Michael Savage’s recent comments on Autism, but if Savage had made some of those same comments about A.D.D., I would’ve supported him wholeheartedly.

The C.D.C. is reporting that 5% of America’s school-aged children have been diagnosed with A.D.D. and that the actual number of American kids who have the disorder could be much higher.  That first part (the 5% diagnosed figure) I can believe, and I think it’s a travesty that reflects rampant misdiagnosis, malpractice (by doctors who are not mental health specialists and have no business diagnosing the condition), excuse-making by parents and their children, intensive marketing of psycho-stimulant drugs to improve attention (see my previous posts “Follow the money” and “See what I mean?”), and the very unfortunate belief now in the minds of many American children that there’s something wrong with their brains when there isn’t.  The second part of the report (the suggestion that the prevalence might be higher than 5%) is a total crock in my opinion because I think the 5% figure already is artificially high.

The C.D.C. is also reporting an increase in A.D.D. diagnoses among teenagers.  My first reaction:  Duh.  (Thankfully, kids almost always grow up, so if pediatricians give a diagnosis to millions of little kids, pretty soon you’re going to have millions of teenagers with that diagnosis.)  And if these are truly first-time diagnoses that teenagers are increasingly receiving, then I think it’s a travesty for all of the reasons stated above.

Researchers at Brown University have found that children who are diagnosed with A.D.D. are more likely than other children to become obese.  The researchers explained to Reuters that the impulsivity and poor behavioral control associated with A.D.D. leads to irresponsibility with eating as well as other activities.  Shocking!  But there’s an important point to be made here.  The impulsivity generally doesn’t do bodily harm unless it’s coupled with the poor behavioral control (i.e. an impulse, whether it’s an impulse to throw something across the classroom or an impulse to overeat, doesn’t do bodily harm unless a person acts on it), and poor behavioral control usually can be fixed by parents who are present and involved enough to instill the proper discipline (not pills) in their kids.  So, I’m not letting the responsibility for a child’s obesity stop at a mental diagnosis and say, “Oh too bad, little Johnny has A.D.D., so now he’ll have to also get fat.”  No, if little Johnny becomes fat Johnny, whether he has A.D.D. or not, I’m blaming Johnny’s parents (see my previous post “Girl Scouts Gone Murderous or Parents Gone A.W.O.L.”).

Fatal foreclosure? 7/24/08

A Massachusetts woman committed suicide on Tuesday, just hours before the house in which she had lived with her husband and adult son was to be seized in a mortgage foreclosure and sold at auction.  She had faxed a suicide note to her mortgage company notifying them that she’d be dead before they could foreclose on the house, and she directed her husband and son to use the proceeds of her life insurance policy to bring the payments up to date.  Some in the media have opined that her suicide reflects the depth of the despair among financially-struggling Americans.  I don’t agree.  I think there probably was a lot more than just the foreclosure going on in this woman’s life.  Psychological research has actually looked at the stress created by a foreclosure relative to other stressful life events, and while it might not seem like it to someone who’s going through it, foreclosure by itself has been found to produce considerably less stress than things like divorce, a death in the family, or even getting married.  Also, the foreclosure wasn’t sudden — the family had been struggling financially for some time, and they would’ve had plenty of notice of the foreclosure before the sale date.  I think she was probably depressed for a number of reasons, and depressed people often don’t think rationally.  I mean, you can get another house, but you can’t get another life.  In fact, her stated purpose for committing suicide might not even be realized if the husband can’t collect on her life insurance benefit — that depends on how long they had the insurance policy and whether they had been paying the premiums.  Most states require life insurance companies to pay death benefits for suicide but only after a policy has been in force for at least two years, and if their mortgage payments weren’t being made, you have to wonder about their insurance premiums.

Some will say that this signals a rise in suicides similar to the increase that occurred during the Great Depression, but here are two reasons, one historical and one psychological, why that’s bogus.  1)  There was an increase in the overall suicide rate during the Great Depression (from 14 to 17 out of 100,000 people — it’s gone back down since then), but, not to make light of what people in foreclosure are going through, we’ve not had anywhere near the sustained bad economic conditions that existed during the Depression, and 2)  I think there’s an emotional difference in play between “down-and-out” Americans of the Depression era and today.  I think the emotion that motivated suicides during the Depression was overwhelming shame associated with not being able to get jobs and provide for their families.  Today (some people might not like to hear this), the bulk of the problems seem to be confined to home mortgage defaults, and they seem to involve a lot of people who “over-reached” and bought more house than their earnings could afford because they felt entitled to it.  That mindset seems less likely to feel shame and more likely to feel anger — not at themselves interestingly, but at their lenders.

So, even though many Americans are having difficulty paying their mortgages right now, suicide is still a very unusual way to deal with it.  I don’t think we’ll see a rash of cases like this one, but what it does underscore is that if someone is feeling overwhelmed, for whatever reason, that person needs to let someone else know.  In this case, even the husband says he didn’t have any idea how distraught his wife was or even that foreclosure was looming (which I find very strange — even if their communication was abysmal, the foreclosure and auction must’ve been advertised in their community — but if it’s true, it’s just another indicator that there was more going wrong in her life than just the foreclosure).

Hypocrisy and the “n” word 7/23/08

Well, I had decided not to weigh in on Rev. Jesse Jackson’s use of the “n” word, caught on camera last week when he thought no one was watching or listening, because at first it didn’t seem like the kind of psychological or legal or cultural issue that I usually address here.  But after the protracted dust-up about it on “The View” the past couple of days, I’ve concluded that there are in fact two important cultural issues in play, so I may be a little late, but I’m weighing in.

First, let me address the issue of hypocrisy.  Is there a bigger hypocrite in America than Rev. Jackson?  He’s made a career out of excoriating people for racial insensitivity, and specifically for using the “n” word.  Just last year, he loudly and publicly called for “Seinfeld” alum Michael Richards to be blackballed as a comic after using the “n” word in a tirade against a heckler during a show.  I agreed with Jackson that Richards’ behavior was disgusting, but I also find Jackson’s hypocrisy disgusting.  (And while we’re on the subject of Jackson, how does a person call himself “Reverend” and tell others how to live after having an extra-marital affair with a staffer, fathering a child with her, and paying her off in a failed effort to keep the whole thing quiet?  I’m not sure exactly which Christian denomination he is, but I wonder what you have to do to get “de-Reverendized” or “defrocked” or whatever they call it — i.e. have your “Reverend” license suspended or revoked — in that church.)  Secularly speaking, because Jackson is a political leader in addition to being a religious leader, I don’t think we should tolerate such hypocrisy from our leaders (or anyone really, but in a society of 300 million people, we can and should insist that non-hypocrites fill our leadership roles).  Righteous words should be backed up with righteous actions, and if they aren’t, then the speaker should lose all credibility in my opinion.

Second, let me address the issue of using the “n” word in our culture — not “African-American” culture, not “Anglo-American” culture — American culture.  I’ve watched the tape several times of Whoopi Goldberg saying on “The View” that it’s fine for black people to use the “n” word but horribly offensive for white people to use it, and that makes no sense to me whatsoever, so Whoopi, here’s my response:  I choose not to say the “n” word because I think it would be classless, offensive, and disrespectful to my black friends, and to any other black people, and to many white people, who might hear it.  If you choose to say it Whoopi, fine, but then I don’t want to hear ever again how “offended” you are when anyone else, black or white, says it.  Deal?  If a word is offensive to you only under certain circumstances (i.e. when it’s uttered by a white person), then I’m not persuaded that you really find the word all that upsetting.  What if you call a restaurant to make a reservation, and the host uses it on the phone with you?  Do you seriously have to wait until you arrive at the restaurant and see if the host is white before taking offense?  If the answer is no — i.e. the use of the word would be offensive to you regardless of the host’s race — then we’re on the same page, and none of us should be using it.  If, on the other hand, the answer is yes — i.e. you’d only be offended if the host turned out to be white — then while I’ll continue not to use the word myself, I won’t worry too much about how “offended” you are when someone else uses it.

Better late than never, I say.

Psychological diagnoses in the news 7/22/08

You’ve probably heard about Caylee Anthony, the missing Florida three-year-old whose mother is in jail because she apparently knows where the little girl is but won’t tell police.  Caylee’s grandmother (who seems a little off-balance to me) has implied in t.v. interviews that her daughter does in fact know Caylee’s whereabouts but is keeping quiet in order to protect the girl somehow.  If in fact the little girl is still alive (it’s been a month though, so the stats unfortunately aren’t good), I can see a scenario in which the jailed mother has been threatened with harm to the child if she tells the police where she is or who has her.  I can also see a scenario in which the mother is determined to keep Caylee from someone, most likely the little girl’s father.  In fact, the father is probably the key to both of the aforementioned scenarios, and so far, virtually nothing about him has been made public.  I’m inclined to favor the second scenario because the mother’s standoffishness with police reminds me of Melinda Duckett, the woman who went on national t.v. last year, begged viewers to help her find her missing toddler, and then committed suicide when the media started to suspect that she knew where the little boy was and had orchestrated his disappearance to spite his father (that child has never been found).  Another possibility is that we’re seeing an extreme form of a rare psychological phenomenon (which doesn’t excuse anything) called Factitious Disorder (a.k.a. Munchausen’s Syndrome) whereby a person (in this case, the mother) orchestrates or fakes a crisis (usually a health crisis but in this case, a kidnapping) to get sympathy and attention from others.  In this case, it would be “by proxy” because the direct “victim” of the crisis would be the little girl, not the mother.

You may also have heard that radio talk show host Michael Savage is under fire from Autism activists after saying on his program last week basically that Autism is a bogus diagnosis and that 99% of kids diagnosed with Autism are just kids with behavior problems who need more discipline.  While I substantially disagree and would never have said what he said, I do think there’s a grain of truth underlying Savage’s hyperbole.  I absolutely believe that many children and parents are suffering due to developmental deficits that are classified diagnostically within the “Autism Spectrum,” but I also believe there’s something “A.D.D.-like” going on with Autism in the past couple of years (see my previous posts “D.D.D.” and “Psychobabble” for what I think of “A.D.D.”).  I don’t buy that there’s any disease — not childhood cancer, not A.D.D., not Autism — afflicting America’s kids at many times the rate that it did just a few short years ago, nor do I buy that one in every 150 American kids has always suffered from Autism but pediatricians, psychologists, and psychiatrists just haven’t been observant enough to diagnose it until now.  I think that some parents, particularly here in America, have become increasingly reluctant to accept that their children may not be in the “top tier” among their peers developmentally (i.e. not among the smartest, most social, most coordinated kids) and particularly reluctant to accept that their parenting (or lack thereof, i.e. absenteeism from the household in pursuit of income, personal relationships, etc.) might have something to do with their children’s developmental shortcomings.  I think that such parents increasingly demand, and get, diagnoses and treatment for disorders like A.D.D. and Autism when their children fall at the very edge, or even completely outside, of the threshold criteria for such diagnoses.  Thus, I think some of the increase in reported cases of Autism in the past couple of years is attributable to kids who once would’ve been classified as “normal” receiving diagnoses due to parental pressure as well as hype about specific disorders in the diagnostic and pharmaceutical (see my previous post “Follow the money”) communities.  In other words, when we look back in the future, I think we’ll see that the Autism Spectrum has, in effect, been expanded in recent years to encompass not only the kids who clearly have profound developmental issues but also some kids whose development, until recently, would have been considered “within normal limits.”  (By the way, recent research findings suggest that there are both genetic and environmental causes of Autism and that they work in tandem — i.e. there’s a genetic predisposition that gets activated by things that occur or don’t occur in a child’s environment early in the child’s life.  This makes me think that we may eventually find, in at least some cases — perhaps cases in which we can identify the presence of the genetic predisposition — that lots of brain stimulation during infancy by present, actively-involved parents, may act as a buffer against Autism.)

PTSD, cesarean murderess II, the Joker, debt psychology & “World’s Greatest Dad” 7/21/08

Here are some quick and not-so-quick takes on recent news stories:

First, if my previous post “Mental healthcare for veterans” wasn’t enough, the recent death of U.S. Army veteran Pfc. Joseph Dwyer should convince anyone of the importance of identifying, properly diagnosing, and treating PTSD among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Dwyer signed up after Sept. 11, 2001, served as a medic in Iraq, and was even featured in a photo that made international headlines as he treated a wounded Iraqi child.  After returning home, his mental health spiraled downward into classic PTSD symptoms of depression, hypervigilance, and flashbacks, and even further downward into paranoid delusions from which he apparently tried to escape by inhaling aerosol cleaner, which killed him.  You can search the Internet for Pfc. Joseph Dwyer to learn more about his heroic life and the five-year struggle with PTSD that ended in his death.  The point here, once again, is that the VA psychologist who recommended against diagnosing PTSD in returning vets earlier this year is an idiot (see my previous post “Mental healthcare for veterans” for more on why).

Next up, you may have heard about the woman who’s in custody in Pennsylvania after apparently killing an expectant mother, cutting the baby from the deceased woman’s womb, and presenting him at a local hospital as her own self-delivered newborn.  It’s eerily reminiscent and perhaps even inspired by an almost-identical case that happened in Missouri back in 2004 (see my previous post “Death verdict for cesarean murderess”).  What you may not have heard is that the suspect in this current case has served time in prison for attempting to steal a baby and for actually stealing another baby previously.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I frequently point out cases in which there was every reason to foresee tragic outcomes and yet the perpetrators were left on the street to cause them.  Add this case to the list (and see my previous post “See, I told you so” for more).

Ok, I know some people aren’t going to like this one, so if you’re a big Heath Ledger fan, you might want to skip it.  I haven’t seen the Batman movie currently in theaters, but I’ve heard person after person saying how good it is and how good the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is.  The next thing out of their mouths is frequently something along the lines of what a tragic loss to the art of acting Ledger’s death was.  While I’m not trying to rain on his final parade, I do think it’s important for people, especially young people, to remember that Ledger didn’t die rescuing a child from a fire or fighting terrorists in Afghanistan (see my previous posts “Heath Ledger,” “Ledger follow-up,” and “Ledger’s death ruled accidental”).  He may have been a great actor, but his acting is the only thing about him that I’d want to encourage a young person to emulate.

Now, some folks might not like this one either, but amid a daily bombardment of news stories about rising gas prices and mounting home foreclosures, more and more cash-crunched Americans seem to be looking for someone else to blame.  While there certainly are Americans who are barely capable of earning enough money to secure the basic essentials of living (food, clothing, and shelter), the truth is that many cash-strapped Americans get that way by “living on the edge” of their financial means, purchasing unnecessary things today betting that they’ll be able to afford those things tomorrow.  It’s ingrained in our national psychology and encouraged by ubiquitous advertising to be optimistic about our economic future, and at the macro-level, it’s necessary to the country’s continued economic growth.  For example, if everyone who took a cruise this year could write a (good) check for the ticket, the cruise lines would have far fewer passengers and employ far fewer Americans who could then afford to buy far fewer of a lot of things.  The reality is that many Americans will take cruises this year and charge their tickets on credit cards, betting that they’ll be able to pay them off later, and lots of other industries in our economy work the same way (i.e. employ people to sell non-essential goods and services to other people who don’t have cash on hand to pay for them).  While credit is an essential element of our economy, far too many people are using far too much of it for far too many things in my opinion — they’re living too close to the edge, taking too much risk, and wanting others to bail them out when the risk doesn’t pay off.  The fact is that the consequences of risk-taking, good and bad, are just as essential to our economy as risk-taking.  For example, from a behavioral perspective, you don’t encourage people to be more cautious about their risk-taking by making it easier for them to take bad risks.  Like it or not, for a person who has the choice to spend all of his/her income or save some, the way to avoid falling off of the financial edge is to not live so close to it (e.g. not buy a house with an adjustable-rate mortgage payment that eats up every last penny of income month after month and becomes unaffordable with an increase in the interest rate or the price of gas).

Finally tonight, we discussed a story on Prime News last week about a perv who was caught in an Internet child sexual abuse sting wearing a shirt that said “World’s Greatest Dad.”  Not to make light of the case — I hope the perv goes to jail for a long, long time — but to close on a less-serious note, I’m still trying to figure out where he got that shirt.  Maybe he stole it from Alec Baldwin (see my previous post “Alec Baldwin, Father of the Year”) or David Hasselhoff (see my previous post “Hasselhoff’s relapse”).  Or maybe Peter Cook had to have a garage sale since he got only a couple of million dollars from Christie Brinkley last week (see my previous posts “Fidelity matters” and “Martyr moms”).

Money can’t buy maturity 7/13/08

Last week’s OK! Magazine spread depicting 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears (singer Britney Spears’ younger sister who got pregnant last year at age 16) as the blissfully-happy mother of a newborn has been roundly excoriated by pundits in the media for glorifying and promoting teen motherhood.  While I certainly agree with that criticism, I have to weigh in here because I’ve heard pundit after pundit focus on the young Ms. Spears’ financial resources, saying that the problem with the spread is that it fails to point out the overwhelming financial burdens that most teen mothers face.  I agree with that too, but material needs aren’t the only needs that a child has!  Optimal parenting, in my opinion, requires two committed, mature parents who make a newborn their first priority in life for at least the next 18 years.  Seventeen-year-olds are not generally mature enough to make those kinds of commitments or to provide the kind of selfless nurturance and guidance that a newborn needs, now and for years into the future.  I applaud Spears for not having an abortion, but I wish I could also applaud her for allowing the baby to be adopted by two married, mature, loving, stable (financially and otherwise), adults.  She may have the financial resources to raise a child, but does she have the mental and relational resources?  Come on, it’s the Spears family, so what are the chances?

“Pulp Non-Fiction” 7/12/08

Based on police accounts, it was like something out of Pulp Fiction.  A 46-year-old psychopath in Wisconsin abducted two intoxicated young men, ages 21 and 23, by pretending to be an off-duty law enforcement officer and offering them rides as they walked home from bars alone.  The young men reportedly ended up unconscious – one from a blow to his head and the other from drunkenness – and awoke naked, blindfolded, and chained in the psychopath’s house, where they were sexually assaulted and tortured.  Thankfully, one of the victims escaped, ran for help, and returned with police who freed the other victim and arrested the psychopath.  First off, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you already know that the extensive planning involved in these kidnappings and assaults shows that the perpetrator, despite being a psychopath, was not “insane” by legal standards (i.e. he knew what he was doing to his victims and that it was wrong – in fact, he admitted this to police), so he should get the maximum penalty allowed by law.  Second, I predict that there are other victims who either were murdered by this psychopath or have been too ashamed to report what he did to them.  Now, I’m not blaming the victims here in any way, but in the interest of lessons to be learned, here’s a very important one:  Women are not the only ones who have to worry about being sexually assaulted.  It can happen to men too, especially when their faculties and judgment are compromised by alcohol and/or another substance, knowingly or unknowingly ingested, and when they leave the presence of friends who can be trusted to look out for them.  Therefore, both men and women, especially college-aged men and women who tend to party at bars and sometimes walk home alone, need to follow the same advice:  Don’t drink so much that you become unable to make good decisions.  Don’t use illegal drugs, and don’t abuse legal drugs.  Don’t leave your drink where somebody could put a drug in it without your knowledge.  Don’t walk home alone, especially if it’s a relatively long distance and/or a dangerous neighborhood and/or a deserted road.  Don’t accept rides from strangers, and don’t believe that someone is a law enforcement officer just because that person says so.  Following this advice won’t guarantee that you’ll never be abducted or assaulted but should significantly reduce the likelihood, and it probably would’ve prevented what happened to these two young men in Wisconsin this week.

“…with possible liberty and different justice for all”? 7/11/08

Our Pledge of Allegiance says “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  You’ve probably heard that there are some disgruntled people out there who want to remove the “under God” part, but you may not be aware that there are others who have a problem with the whole “one nation” thing, and the indivisibility idea, and who aren’t really on board with the “liberty and justice” parts either.  Believe it or not, there are people who’ve immigrated here who believe that they should be allowed to disregard our laws and instead follow the laws of their native countries/cultures, particularly when it comes to family issues (divorce, child custody, etc.).  As is the case with most groups of people, thankfully, this disturbing mindset appears to exist within a relatively small subset of otherwise law-abiding immigrants, but those who embrace it actually want U.S. courts to settle their divorce, property-division, and child custody issues by applying the religious or tribal laws of other nations.  Imagine the chaos that would ensue if we did that, not to mention the failure to provide people with the “equal protection” of our laws as required by the Constitution.  In the past three weeks alone, I’ve talked on t.v. about two cases in which murders were committed here in the U.S. and were apparently justified by the murderers based on foreign cultural traditions that permit the killing of people who’ve “disgraced” their families.  Hopefully no one seriously wants to argue that these defendants should be off the hook if the murders weren’t “wrong” by their cultural standards.  While family courts may not deal with such life-and-death issues, the decisions that are made there have long-ranging and profound effects on the litigants and on their children.  Nevertheless, some European countries are actually starting to experiment with applying litigants’ religious and cultural laws rather than the countries’ secular laws in family courts, which I think is totally misguided political correctness that will prove disastrous for the legal systems of those countries.  I say let’s skip trying it here.  I don’t want “many nations, divisible, with possible liberty and different justice for all.”  I like the Pledge as it is.

See what I mean? 7/10/08

The FDA has announced that several commonly-prescribed anticonvulsant (anti-seizure) medications will now be required to carry warnings of suicidal thoughts among their potential side effects because an unusually high incidence of “suicidal ideation” has been reported among patients taking these drugs.  Interestingly, in addition to treating epileptic symptoms, these same drugs are often prescribed to bipolar patients as mood stabilizers, and Bipolar Disorder is associated with a higher rate of completed suicides than any other psychiatric disorder.  So, it seems to me that one of two things is going on here:  It could be that for years, mental health professionals have been unknowingly prescribing suicide-inducing drugs to patients who already were among the most vulnerable to suicidal tendencies.  On the other hand, it could be that the studies leading to these new warnings were flawed in that the reasons for the prescriptions weren’t properly taken into account (in other words, if the heightened incidence of suicidal ideation was observed only among bipolar patients, maybe the disorder rather than the treatment accounts for it).  Either way, see what I mean about the need to be cautious when it comes to taking, or allowing your child to take, a mind-altering medication?  While I readily acknowledge that such medications can be invaluable in restoring normal lives to some people, I believe that Americans have become far too quick to embrace a “quick fix” that comes in the form of a pill, and I believe that there is still a lot to be learned about the effects of these drugs, both positive and negative, on the brain (see my previous posts “Quick (and not-so-quick) takes on stories from the past week,” 7/5/08, and “Follow the money”).

Fidelity matters 7/9/08

With two major celebrity divorces (Christie Brinkley’s and Alex Rodriguez’s) in the news this week, both involving child custody issues and allegations of infidelity, I’ve been asked whether infidelity should be taken into consideration when making custody decisions.  In my opinion, as a custody evaluator, yes.  Many judges bristle when issues of fidelity are raised in custody disputes because they don’t want to appear to be making judicial determinations based on personal morality or religion, but there is a perfectly secular reason why a parent’s marital fidelity (or lack thereof) matters.  Infidelity is often a major reason why a couple is divorcing (this is true in both the Brinkley and Rodriguez divorces), and divorce almost always hurts a couple’s children in my opinion.  Therefore, when a parent has demonstrated that he/she was willing to risk destroying his/her family (i.e. put his/her children through the emotional trauma of a divorce and its aftermath) in order to have an extra-marital relationship, I think it’s both reasonable and responsible to question both that parent’s judgment and how much that parent really loves his/her children.

Also on the subject of (in)fidelity, I’ve been asked which is generally more hurtful to one’s spouse:  an extramarital sexual relationship, or an extramarital emotional relationship (in Brinkley’s case, sexual infidelity seems to be the primary allegation, while in Rodriguez’s case, an “affair of the heart” with singer Madonna seems to be the primary allegation).  In my opinion, it depends on the gender of the “cheatee.”  In general, on average, most of the time, a man will be hurt more by the fact that his wife had sex with another man, while a woman will be hurt more by the fact that her husband fell in love with another woman.

A tale of two places (and the psychology of flood “victimhood”) 7/8/08

Caution:  This post is not intended to be insensitive to anyone who’s ever suffered in any way (e.g. economically, physically, emotionally) due to a flood anywhere, anytime.  It’s intended to explore a psychological phenomenon that I believe can cost or save people’s lives.  Notable exceptions to generalities are duly noted in advance.  Nevertheless, if you’re a hypersensitive individual, you may want to skip this post, but if you do, and you live along the Gulf or the Atlantic coast of the United States, please just be advised that according to forecasters Monday evening, the first major hurricane of this season may be on its way.

Last week, I got a chance to see some of the flood-ravaged areas along the Mississippi River in eastern Missouri.  As I was looking at partially-submerged buildings, light/sign poles, streets, farm fields, etc., I was reminded of all the video clips I’d seen on the various cable news networks leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of this flood, and I couldn’t help comparing them to my memories of video coming out of New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.  In both places (the Midwest and New Orleans), like pretty much all places inhabited by human beings, thankfully, the vast majority of the inhabitants were able-bodied, able-minded, good, and decent people.  In both places, the populations knew for days that devastating floods were likely to come.  But in one place, many of the inhabitants seemed to do little to prepare for the rising waters, while in the other place it seemed like the entire community pretty much banded together, stacked sandbags upon sandbags for days upon days, and where it became apparent that those efforts were futile, helped one another pack up their essentials and whatever else could be safely salvaged.  In one place, some inhabitants who weren’t able-bodied were left to die, unable to flee the rising waters, while in the other place, as far as I know, the able-bodied inhabitants made sure that fellow inhabitants in need of evacuation assistance got it.  In one place, many people ended up on rooftops, waiting for others in helicopters or rescue boats to come and save them from the rising waters after the flood, while in the other place, I recall seeing just a couple such rescues because the vast majority of the inhabitants had gotten themselves to higher ground before the flood waters arrived.  In one place, many people died, while in the other place, I don’t know of anyone who did (some may have, I just don’t know about it).  In one place, some of the remaining inhabitants stole the possessions of those who had fled to higher ground, not just essentials for survival like food items, but luxury items like big-screen t.v.’s, while in the other place, I don’t know of anyone who did (again, some may have, but if they did, I don’t know about it).  In one place, some of the remaining inhabitants were raped and even killed by other remaining inhabitants, while in the other place, I don’t know of anyone who was (and I’m confident that I would’ve heard about that).  In one place, people were angry that their fellow Americans weren’t doing enough for them while they were displaced, while in the other place, I didn’t hear a single person be anything other than appreciative of any help that had been received.  In one place, many of the inhabitants are still displaced, still angry, still bitter, still demanding things of others, while in the other place, all I saw was an eagerness to get back into the flooded area, roll up sleeves, rebuild, and get on with life as soon as possible.

So what was it about the populations of these two places that made such a profound relative difference in how they dealt with similar (although not identical, I know) circumstances?  First, let me say what it’s not.  It’s not race.  Anyone who thinks that’s what I mean, whether they think they agree or disagree, misunderstands me completely.  The differences in the racial demographics of these two places are irrelevant.  I don’t think it’s demographics like education level or religion either.  It’s also not the mere fact that one place is rural, while the other is urban, although the difference in the sense of community that rural and urban environments engender in their inhabitants did, I believe, play a role in developing the psychological trait that I think is a big part of the answer:

Psychologists call it “locus of control,” and every person has one.  The term refers to where you believe the control over what happens to you primarily lies — inside of you, or outside of you.  It’s a continuum that ranges from totally internal, where the belief is that the individual has total control over every aspect of his/her life (health, relationships, career, etc.) to totally external, where the belief is that the individual has no power to affect anything that happens to him or her and must simply take life as it comes (kind of like someone clinging to a life-preserver in the middle of the ocean has no control over how big the waves will be and where they’ll take him or her).  I believe that either extreme can be problematic.  For example, people on the extreme internal end of the continuum can feel guilt about things that are totally beyond their control, while people on the extreme external end never take the initiative to do anything to improve their lives (because they don’t think it will make any difference).  Most people fall somewhere in between, but I believe that a more internal locus of control generally serves people better in life, and I believe that’s the crux of the extreme difference between what happened in these two places.

It seems to me that many people in the flooded areas of the Midwest exhibited, on average (with notable exceptions), a fairly internal locus of control, while people in New Orleans seem to have exhibited, on average (again with notable exceptions), a fairly external locus of control.  People in the Midwest, therefore, seemed to have a strong dispositional tendency not to see themselves as “victims” of circumstance (i.e. to hate the idea of not being in control) and thus to take personal responsibility for controlling that which they could control (even when things beyond their control were happening), which resulted largely in their not becoming victims of much other than water damage to property (which can cause profound economic suffering as well as some emotional suffering, from the loss of sentimental possessions for example, but it’s not the same as losing loved ones).  Many people in New Orleans, on the other hand, seemed to be less averse to assuming the “victim” role and thus to wait for others to take responsibility for and assert control over their circumstances, which resulted not only in their being victims of profound physical, economic, and emotional suffering due to the flood waters, but also of the crimes perpetrated by the sociopaths who took advantage of the situation.

So, if I’m right that the populations of these two places reacted differently to impending floods in large part because of a disparity in average locus of control, where would such a disparity originate?  This is where I think the rural/urban demographic difference becomes relevant.  It seems to me that farming communities tend to socialize kids to be self-reliant and resilient, and to believe that what they reap in life (literally!) will be no more and no less than what they sow.  At the same time, it seems to me that some of our urban communities, particularly where there’s poverty combined with corruption, as there historically has been in New Orleans, socialize kids to be dependent on others, particularly government (i.e. politicians), and to give up easily, and to believe that what they get out of life will be what they can get from someone else.  I know I’m oversimplifying this, but it’s in the interest of getting to the bottom line, which is:  I’ve never seen any (able-bodied, able-minded) person helped by encouragement to be dependent on others for the basic necessities of life or to see himself or herself as a “victim” or to be comfortable in the “victim” role.  As I see it, that kind of encouragement fosters the development and perpetuation (inter-generationally) of an external locus of control, which in turn discourages people from thinking rationally about what they can do to improve their circumstances and from taking the initiative to do those things.  Particularly in this election year, I think it’s important to consider which type of locus of control we, as a national community, should be trying to foster in the people who grow up and live here in the U.S.A.



“Martyr moms” (cry me a river!) 7/7/08

Here are two moms that have made me gag in the past week with bogus public “martyr” routines:

1)  Christie Brinkley — The woman’s in the middle of a nasty divorce.  By all accounts her husband is an unfaithful creep.  But, she’s a model, not a rocket scientist.  She’s been married four times.  Who would think she’d pick a winner this time?  My problem with her is that she’s crying and complaining about how “difficult” it is for her to go through this divorce in the public eye (reminiscent of Heather Mills, another former model who acted similarly during her nasty public divorce from singer Paul McCartney), but Brinkley is the one who insisted that it be public!  I agree totally with Bill O’Reilly that she’s playing the “martyr” role to the hilt.  Her husband wanted the proceedings to be closed to the public and to the media, but she refused.  As a child custody evaluator, focused totally on the best interests of the two minor children involved, that refusal on her part counterbalances every negative thing I’ve heard about her husband thus far.  Just like in the Baldwin and Hasselhoff divorces, neither parent looks good to me here, and I think I know what’s really going on:  The biggest thing Brinkely’s done in years is sell fitness equipment with Chuck Norris on infomercials that air in the middle of the night.  Then, all of a sudden, she’s getting divorced, and the media’s interested in her again, and I think she put publicity over the welfare of her own children.  If we believe her “martyr” routine, then she ought to be glad that the divorce of baseball player Alex Rodriguez has eclipsed hers in the news, but I’ll bet she’s not!  (By the way, I also fault the judge here.  It would be nice if you could count on divorce litigants to always have their kids’ best interests at heart, but you can’t.  That’s why it’s your job as a judge to step in and do the right thing.  These proceedings should be closed.  I know it wouldn’t be as good for us in the media, but it would be far better for the kids.)

2)  This mother who was kicked off of a commercial flight because her kids were “out of control” (by her own admission) — The airline has said that the children were removed from the flight for the safety of the other passengers and crew, and the mother wants a public apology from the airline.  Give me a break!  Now this might annoy some readers, but the woman is morbidly obese, which indicates to me that she has difficulty controlling her own behavior, so I have no doubt that she also has difficulty controlling her kids’ behavior (and I don’t want to hear about any “medical conditions” causing morbid obesity — as I’ve said repeatedly, there’s no way for fat to be added to a person’s body without first entering that body as food).  I’m sorry that two of her kids reportedly have medical issues (autism and cerebral palsy respectively), but neither condition should render them uncontrollable.  And if she truly can’t control them, then unfortunately, they just might not be able to fly, because no one, disabled or not, is entitled to endanger or harass his/her fellow passengers (see my previous post — “Breasts, babies, and banishments”).  I hope the airline stands by its employees’ decision, and if the woman sues, I’ll be happy to serve as an expert witness for the defense!

Update on murder of Kansas student 7/6/08

At the end of yesterday’s post, I discussed breaking news of the apparent murder of a female KU student.  The suspect, Adolfo Garcia-Nunez, had fled the area but was since apprehended in New Jersey and committed suicide (hung himself) while in jail awaiting extradition back to Kansas.  By all accounts, the victim, Jana Mackey, volunteered many hours on behalf of abused women and was loved by many in this community.  We’ll never know now what Garcia-Nunez was thinking when he did what he did, but at least he’ll never be able to hurt anyone again (it would’ve been nice if the State of Kansas had accomplished that by keeping him locked up after he attacked a former girlfriend four years ago).  I want to add my condolences to the many that Ms. Mackey’s family and friends have received already.

Quick (and not-so-quick) takes on stories from the past week 7/5/08

Last week, John Kasich (guest hosting the O’Reilly Factor for Bill) and I discussed the reasons why several teenage girls in Florida beat a female classmate to the edge of consciousness and videotaped it.  As I was thinking about the ways in which our culture seems to be “de-feminizing” females (e.g. treating them as objects, unworthy of any kind of elevated dignity — see my previous post “Isolated incident of sign of bad times?”), it occurred to me that it also seems to be “feminizing” males (e.g. pathologizing normal rambunctious behavior among boys and medicating them into docility rather than disciplining them to channel their energy appropriately).  These apparent trends make me wonder if we’re headed for some kind of weird androgynous society, and if so, who’d want to live in it?

On that same O’Reilly Factor, we discussed the recent hit-and-run in Connecticut, where an elderly man was struck by a car and nobody stopped to help him as he lay in the middle of a busy street (see my previous post “Sign of bad times on a busy Connecticut street”).  Then just a few days after that show, a patient collapsed and died while waiting to be admitted to a New York psychiatric hospital, and numerous hospital personnel walked right past the woman as she lay on the waiting room floor for approximately 45 minutes!  Now it’s bad enough when strangers won’t be “good Samaritans,” but healthcare personnel ignoring a patient who’s obviously in distress is absolutely inexcusable.

Someone sent a letter to a North Carolina newspaper claiming to be a serial killer responsible for killing a pregnant soldier found dead in a motel bathroom in that state (reminiscent of Maria Lauterbach whose alleged murderer, Caesar Laurean, is part of “The D Team” – see my previous post with that title).  That letter is an obvious ruse, designed to throw authorities off the trail of the real killer, and here are a couple of indicators.  First, the author of the letter claimed to be a copycat of the “Zodiac Killer” who terrorized California in the 1960’s, but based on the few details that have been released by North Carolina authorities, the m.o. in this case sounds significantly different (sounds more like the alleged Drew Peterson m.o. than the “Zodiac” m.o.).  Second, the author of the letter claimed to be adopting a symbol used by the “Zodiac Killer,” and it would be surprising to me if a real serial killer started using such a “calling card” in the middle of a killing spree.  The authorities investigating this case should be looking first and foremost for the father of the baby (who may of course be innocent), not some serial killer.  They say they have a “person of interest” who is a fellow soldier, currently studying psychological warfare at a military training center.  If he turns out to be guilty, this letter will have been his first and only “psy op” and a total failure.

New research findings released this week suggest a connection between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (S.I.D.S) and the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Interestingly, serotonin is also the neurotransmitter that is manipulated by the latest antidepressant drugs, which I believe are dramatically overprescribed.  I worry now that a correlation eventually will be found between mothers taking these drugs during pregnancy and babies dying of S.I.D.S. (but I have no evidence of such a correlation yet, and the decision whether to take or discontinue a prescription medication is a decision that should be made with your doctor).

Speaking of babies dying, a grand jury impaneled here in Kansas to investigate Dr. George Tiller’s (alleged) performance of illegal late-term abortions based on bogus psychological diagnoses has disbanded without indicting Tiller.  Based on my knowledge of the case (see my previous posts “Factor coverage of Kansas illegal abortion story” and “Progress, but a long way to go in Kansas illegal abortion case”), I am convinced that Tiller is responsible for the deaths of numerous viable babies in this state, and everyone, regardless of their positions on abortion in general, should be saddened that this practice will likely continue.

Finally this morning, a female law student here at the University of Kansas, where I teach part-time, was found dead yesterday in the home of a man who apparently had been her boyfriend and who is apparently now on the run, facing at least a second-degree murder charge.  This man served time in prison between 2004 and 2006 (not nearly enough — see my previous post “A guarantee and a flashback”) for attacking an ex-girlfriend with a knife back when yesterday’s victim was attending undergraduate school here.  The local news media reported on that case extensively, both before he went to prison and when he was released, and it was well-known in this community.  Now I am not in any way blaming this victim, whether she knew this guy’s history or not, but as I always say in such cases, the only good that can come from them is knowledge that can be used to prevent future tragedies.  The lesson here is that people who have committed acts of violence are highly likely to commit more acts of violence, and the acts are highly likely to increase in lethality.  If anyone reading this is in a relationship with a person who has a history of domestic violence, please learn this lesson so that I won’t be talking and writing about you as the victim in a future case.

Important lessons in Vermont tragedy 7/3/08

Although I held out hope on t.v. this week for a happy ending, Brooke Bennett and her family didn’t get that happy ending.  The missing child’s body has been found on her uncle’s property in Vermont, and the uncle is in custody, suspected of kidnapping, sexually abusing, and killing her.  As I’ve said many times, the only good that can come out of such sad stories is knowledge, which hopefully can keep others from becoming victims of similar tragedies.  So, here are three important lessons to be learned from this particular tragedy, and if you’re a regular reader of the blog, none of them will surprise you.

1)  The time to know what your kids are doing on the Internet is not when they’re missing.  I don’t mean to be insensitive to the family of Brooke Bennett, but there was apparently an Internet component to the uncle’s “grooming” of her, and her father has reportedly backed me up on this, saying that he regrets letting his daughter use a social networking website unsupervised.

2)  Pedophiles cannot be talked out of being sexually attracted to children.  Bennett’s uncle had been through a sex offender “treatment” program, and this tragedy appears to illustrate just how ineffective those are.

3)  “Supervised” release of pedophiles from prisons into communities is not providing adequate protection for children.  Apparently, Bennett’s uncle had been released from prison (God knows why!) after serving a sentence for sexually abusing a child previously, and he was being “supervised” by Vermont authorities while he (allegedly) was online with, kidnapping, sexually abusing, and killing his niece.  Pedophiles are highly likely to abuse children as long as they have access to children.  It’s that simple.  And it’s not just Vermont judges and lawmakers who don’t seem to get that.  Right here in Kansas, the same judge that Bill O’Reilly and I spotlighted last year for going soft on pedophiles recently gave a reduced sentence to the rapist of a five-year-old and probation to another defendant who had sex with a six-year-old and a seven-year-old.  As I see it, either this judge doesn’t think that pedophiles pose a serious danger to children in this state, or he’s suffering from some sort of impairment.

We can only hope that parents, lawmakers, and judges in Vermont, Kansas, and across the U.S.A. will learn from Brooke Bennett’s case and reduce the frequency with which such tragedies occur in this country.



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