Nancy Grace & “Vodka Mom,” Rep. Jesse Jackson, Romney at NAACP, Cruise-Holmes settlement, and more!

It’s been a busy week in law/psychology news, so here’s a mid-week rundown:

First up Nancy Grace and “Vodka Mom” — Last month, a Minnesota woman’s infant son was found dead after the woman apparently rolled over onto the child in the middle of the night, smothering him, after passing out drunk on vodka (just as I believe is one plausible theory in the “Baby Lisa” case here in Kansas City — that case seems to have gone cold at the moment, but I still predict it’s going to heat back up this summer).  Nancy Grace discussed the Minnesota case on her program and dubbed the woman “Vodka Mom.”  Well, the woman apparently has since committed suicide by setting herself on fire, and some people are pointing fingers of blame at Nancy.  As I see it, though, a woman who’s done nothing wrong doesn’t light herself on fire because a talk-show host called her “Vodka Mom.”  This woman clearly had major mental problems, with major guilt feelings presumably at the top of the list.  Self-immolation is a very rare way of committing suicide, and in this particular case, it suggests to me that the woman not only wanted to die but also to punish herself further by choosing a particularly painful manner of death.  It’s shocking, and it’s sad (particularly for the woman’s surviving children), but it’s not Nancy’s fault.  (In the interest of full disclosure, in case you don’t already know, Nancy was one of the first major hosts to put me on the air, and I consider her a friend, but that really doesn’t impact my analysis here.  I wasn’t on her show the night that she called this woman “Vodka Mom,” but if I had been, I very well may have used that name myself.)

Next up, Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s mysterious leave of absence from Congress — The Congressman and son of the famous Rev. Jesse Jackson has been missing in action for over a month, and while it had been vaguely stated that he’d been hospitalized for “exhaustion,” some had speculated that it had something to do with substance abuse and/or dependence.  Well, on Wednesday, his treating doctor, with his apparent authorization, released a still-brief, still-somewhat-vague statement to the media categorically denying any substance-related rumors and semi-clarifying that Jackson is receiving inpatient treatment for a “mood disorder” from which he is likely to make a “full recovery.”  The “mood disorder” label could apply to a number of conditions including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders.  Some in the media are demanding more clarity, on behalf of Jackson’s constituents, about his condition, prognosis, and timetable for resuming his Congressional duties, which raises interesting policy questions as to what information voters are entitled to have about their representatives’ mental health and when they’re entitled to have it.  I think that if it had been substance abuse or dependence or something else that reflected on his characterological fitness to serve in Congress, voters would’ve been entitled to know about it immediately.  If it’s something that reflects only on his mental fitness to serve and not on his character, I think voters became entitled to know about it at the point when it significantly interfered with his ability to perform his Congressional duties, and given that he’s been absent for over a month and remains absent, I think it’s safe to say that the line’s been crossed.

And while I’m on the subject of psychology in politics, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s speech to the NAACP — Gov. Romney knew that it wasn’t going to be a love fest when he accepted an invitation to address the NAACP this week, and it certainly wasn’t, which is consistent with demographic statistics regarding voting behavior but still always perplexes me a little.  I mean, quite arguably the worst thing that ever happened in our nation’s history, slavery, involved millions of people being forcibly prevented from doing all that they could’ve done and becoming all that they could’ve been in life.  In a sense, it was a “holocaust” of the hopes, dreams, and potentials of millions of people.  It perplexes me, then, that arguably the single best embodiment of how far we’ve come as a nation since that time, Pres. Obama, seems to propose almost exclusively policies and programs that continue to prevent millions of people in modern times from doing all that they could do and becoming all that they could become in life.  No, not by physically forcing people to live in oppressive and subsistence conditions, but by making people dependent on the government for bare-minimum standards of living when they’re actually capable, physically and intellectually, of attaining their basic needs — and far more — for themselves.  I don’t generally conceptualize Americans in distinct demographic groups because I prefer to think of us all just as Americans, but even from a purely-practical perspective, big-government programs don’t seem to have delivered much on their promises to any particular demographic group, NAACP members included.  So, for both philosophical and practical reasons, I remain perplexed when an alternative message of individual empowerment and personal responsibility — as opposed to one of individual dependency and collective responsibility — isn’t better received.  (Of course I have to admit that I’m a white guy who can only say how I think the two messages would sound from a perspective other than my own.)

Now, a Cruise-Holmes divorce update — Actor Tom Cruise and actress Katie Holmes reportedly have reached a settlement agreement in their divorce case covering all issues, including the parenting of their six-year-old daughter.  As someone who has served as a child-custody expert in multiple contentious divorce cases and as a mediator in others, I can tell you that this is near “record” time in which to craft a settlement agreement, particularly given the presumable complexities of this particular case, such as divergent views regarding the child’s religious training and frequent, sometimes-extended work-related travel by both parents.  The speed with which Cruise and Holmes apparently reached agreement is great, so long as the child’s best interests dictated the terms.  It’s much more common for these things to drag on and on, and that’s always hard on the kids involved.

And finally, a case of marital discord that didn’t work out amicably and instead turned deadly — A New York woman (it’s tough to call her a “mom,” so I won’t do that again here) apparently believed that her husband had been cheating on her.  So what did she do?  First, she (allegedly) poisoned their two kids, forcing them to drink orange juice mixed with windshield de-icing fluid.  Both kids died.  Then, she apparently turned on the gas in their home and slit her wrists.  She, however, didn’t die and is now charged with two counts of first-degree murder.  You can bet that we’ll hear some kind of “insanity” defense in this case, something about how “overcome” with rage and emotional distress she was at the time.  Yeah, right, and that would be why she (allegedly) was able to think up and execute a murder-suicide plan to kill her kids and herself in relatively benign ways (compared to the “Vodka Mom” above), ostensibly so that her husband would arrive home to find them all dead as “punishment” for his supposed cheating (it’s not clear whether he cheated or not).  I’d love to be the one who gets to perform the psych eval of this woman.


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