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The Murder of a Shopping Bag Lady: mental illness in three acts

Like many of you, the events of Friday, December 12th has me thinking and reflecting on the world that we live in.  It also has me thinking about my kids, not just the kids that I have given birth to – but to every kid I have loved along the way as a librarian, because they become a part of your life.  This weekend I have spent a lot of time thinking about mental health and the ways in which we view it in our world today and the ways in which we fail the most vulnerable among us.  These are my thoughts.

Act I
A while ago, during a time of transition in my life, my family and I had the opportunity to stay with another couple.  The man in this story wore a gun on his hip – all. the. time.  We could all be sitting in the living room on the couch and the gun would be there.  At the time, my children were 2 and 8.  It soon became clear that having us around was causing this man to unravel, and the situation escalated, slowly at first and rapidly towards the end.  His behavior became increasingly erratic and disturbing, at times outright threatening. 

At one point, I walked into the living room to see him showing a large hunting knife to my 2 year old. “This is a cool toy,” he told my 2-year-old. “I am going to set it right here on this coffee table for you to play with.” I grabbed my child and we left the house.  I wrestled with what I had seen, who says those kinds of things to a small child?

As his behavior continued to unravel, he began playing what he thought was a funny joke: he would use the automatic garage door opener to open the garage, pull out his gun, and pretend that someone was breaking in. 

On our final night there, there was an incident involving my children in the bathroom.  They had locked themselves in for privacy, the 2-year-old followed the 8-year-old everywhere, and they became upset that the 2-year-old was in the bathroom – why? what was she doing? The man slammed down the footrest of his chair and bellowed, “I’ll get them out of that goddamn bathroom.”  At the exact same moment my girls opened the door, I grabbed them, and we fled the house.  I don’t know how he intended to get them out of the bathroom, but the environment had grown menacing enough of the last two weeks that I feared him.  The night before I had laid in bed and wondered: if he finally snaps and pulls his gun, do I tell the girls to hide in the closet or try and unlock the front door and flee.  We packed our things and left.

Act II
But, let’s take a moment and step into my time machine, shall we?  My sophomore year in high school we were given a reading assignment: we had to check out and read a nonfiction book.  Like most teens, I found my book by browsing the shelves.  It was titled The Murder of a Shopping Bag Lady (by Brian Kates) and it at least sounded interesting.  I mean, it had murder in the title.  It would turn out to be my most profound reading experience ever, one I still think of to this day.

The Murder of a Shopping Bag lady began as a simple investigation by a reporter into the murder of a Jane Doe.  It quickly became, however, an interesting look at our nation’s mental health system, our homelessness problem, and the way that legislation fails to protect the most vulnerable among us.  Because we value our freedoms so fiercely, many of our most unfunctioning – but not an immediate threat – are left to wander the streets without homes, adequate access to health care, and the accountability they often need to stay on their medications.  It can be a delicate balance trying to balance individual freedoms with mental health issues.  Sometimes, we fail.

Here I was at the tender age of 15, gaining an understanding of the world I saw around me.  I hadn’t yet seen a lot of mental illness first hand in my life, but growing up in Southern California I had seen my fair share of homeless people.  This book would help me develop an understanding and an empathy that I would need throughout my adult years, both personally and professionally.

One of my library positions involved working daily with a library patron who had severe mental health issues.  Some days, she would even come in walking different, using a different voice, and a different name.  Like the living situation mentioned above, it was often nerve wracking, terrifying, stressful.  Although we had a clear understanding that there were elements going on in this individual’s life that she could not control, we also had a clear understanding that we were in no way prepared to deal with the daily onslaught that came from trying to negotiate our interactions with her.  Although it was known that she had mental health issues, she was also an independent adult and her rights to privacy meant that was no one we could contact to help us understand and navigate the situation.  We asked for and received training on dealing with difficult patrons, but even that can’t help prepare you when a patron comes flying out of the stacks and asks if you were calling her a bitch, or to print out the information the patron requested just to watch her tear it up and ask you to print it out again because she really needs it, or what to do when she is threatening other patrons.

She was eventually moved after they found her walking down the middle of the street in the middle of a snowy, winter night wearing a t-shirt and shorts.  It was in many ways a relief not to have the daily stress at work, but I often wonder how she is doing and wish her nothing but health and well being.

While it is undeniably true that not all mentally ill individuals will become violent, it is also true that significant violence is perpetrated by those who are mentally ill.  The other truth is that you never know if and when ANYONE around you will snap, although you often at least consider the possibility when you are dealing with mentally ill individuals who have threatening or aggressive tendencies.  Many of us in libraries have been in those situations that produced this fear in us.

Because of the nature of public libraries, we spend a lot of time interacting with a wide variety of mental illness.  I have had teens come to library programs with companions who were there to help the teen navigate the situation.  I have seen families come to family programs only to witness one parent taking one of the children home soon into the program.  And we have all had to navigate those delicate desk interactions or behavior issues.  We always do the best that we can with the knowledge we have given the parameters of our library policies.

But the truth is, there is inadequate training for those who work in the public in knowing how to navigate these delicate situations.  In fact, many libraries probably haven’t had this training at all, and they should.

I would also argue that we do a really poor job in our country of addressing the needs of those with mental illness and their caregivers.  I know several families who have children on the Autism spectrum and their lives are very different from yours and mine.  They spend a great amount of time and money on therapies (which are often inadequate because they are not covered by insurance), many of them are locked tightly in their homes because ASD children have a propensity to not understand danger to self and flee, and they are isolated and alone in a world where complete strangers will walk up to them and say, “If I were you I would bend that kid over my knee and spank them.” – which is actually not helpful in these situations.  (And before you flame me, yes I do know that there are many people who say Autism is not mental illness, but that doesn’t change the reality of the lives that some parents are living with children on the extreme end of the spectrum. Also, Autism has a high co-morbidity of other mental health issues like OCD, bi-polar disorder, etc.)

As someone who works with our youth, I have seen them struggle with mental health issues, whether it be their own or someone else’s in their home.  I recall growing up in a home where during one family fight someone said, “well I’ll just go get a gun and kill us all.”  As people who care about our nation, our youth, we need to be talking about mental health issues. And we need to be doing more for the most vulnerable among us.  While many in the media are arguing that we have failed our children with our gun laws, we are failing far more of them with the way we stigmatise mental health issues and fail to provide proper medical treatment and coverage so they or their parents don’t get adequate treatment.  We need to start talking about mental health.

For an excellent look at mental health issues, please read Robison Well’s post How Mental Illness Tried and Failed to Ruin My Life.  You can also read his excellent post entitled How Close Are We to More Killings?
And for a good look at some teen titles that accurately reflect life with mental illness, check out this booklist.

If you can get your hands on a copy of the book, I really recommend it. A lot of the statistics will be out of date, but the insight is still relevant and powerful.


  1. Reading your post I recalled a young man who was a regular patron. He would sometimes talk about hurting himself. He would sometimes hurt himself at the library. He was sometimes just very disoriented and confused. We all knew him and so did the local police, who we were instructed to call “whenever we need to”. They would come and calm him down, take him with them, and then we'd see him back at the library again, sometimes bandaged, sometimes many days or weeks later. I'm glad he had the library to come to, and people who would call to get him help. But what kind of help? And how much? Clearly not enough.

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