A personal response to the death of James Chasse Jr.

from Street Roots, by Michael Hopcroft – member of the Mental Health Association of Portland board of directors
November 2006

The Devil take the hindmost. A vital, unspoken creed of American society – that those who achieve great things are the ones who do not notice those who fall behind.

The fact that it is so easy for people of talent to fall out of the race does not seem to matter. We focus our attention as a society on the man who becomes a tycoon, not the millions who don’t, until one of them grabs attention in a way he would rather not have done, often by dying. This is James Chasse’s story, and mine.

Like James, I joined the hindmost, and nobody paid any attention to me.

In 1985, my life was going just swimmingly. I was in the early part of my third year at a private university here in the Northwest. I had been coming off a great academic year and was getting ready for a small but significant role in a Tennessee Williams play. My advisor in the English department believed I was ready to think about graduate school. My theater teacher was convinced that I had what it took to at least make a go of acting as a profession.

Then I was diagnosed with depression, and while my professors treated me no differently, the Dean of Students was clear – I was mentally ill, therefore I could no longer be a student. My mother was even clearer – my life was over as far as she was concerned. The question wasn’t whether I would kill myself, but when.

Ever since that year, I have carried inside myself the knowledge I had lost my future. There are many, many people in my position; people of skill and promise and ambition, who because of illness have been pushed not only to the sidelines but out of the stadium.

In reading the reports of the life James Chasse, I saw a great deal of myself. So it was easy for me to picture myself on Burnside that horrible September evening, not knowing what was happening around me and unable to understand what I had done or what instructions I was supposed to follow.

I feel the contempt of people who see me waiting for an appointment at Cascadia, because I feel it within myself. We believe in merit in this country, we believe success must be rewarded and failure punished. And there are those who would make the case that homelessness and disability are supreme failures, worthy of supreme punishment.

The pain of internalizing that argument has brought me is endless. Nobody has judged me more harshly than I have myself. I have told people that I owe my continued existence only to my lack of courage.

Yet when I see what is out there in the community, I see there is courage in simply finding a way to live each day in a world where you are not viewed as a person, where you are not seen as having interests. There is courage in simply surviving your difficulties, even if you can’t solve them right away, which most people don’t see.

Many people in the aftermath of the death of James Chasse are saying it should not have happened, and are looking to assign blame. I can accept the first part; Chasse endured a beastly, agonizing and humiliating death that even the worst of criminals would not be ordered to endure. It should not have happened.

This city is in the midst of the complex process of assigning blame for James Chasse’s death. Will blame alter other people’s actions or perceptions? Will punishing one person change the attitudes of others? No event is so simple it can be explained in black-and-white terms.

And good solutions have been scarce. Businesses have closed their restrooms to the public because of vandals, and basic sanitation is denied in most of the downtown area. Shelters have closed in the name of ending homelessness because statistically they are shown not to be helpful, while this leaves people outdoors as a cold winter approaches. And as far as the treatment of mental illness goes, there is no agreement on what appropriate treatment is, and treatments that are appropriate and helpful in many cases are useless in others.

I will be the first to admit that I do not have the answer. I’m not even sure what the question is. All I can say is this: what happened to James Chasse could have happened to me just as easily, or to any number of the people I see every day. We are the hindmost. Does this society really want the Devil to take us?