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Crazy, Not Insane (Gibney, 2020)




Alex Gibney is the rare documentarian who usually ends up convincing me regardless of whether or not I start on the same side of his arguments.

Taxi to the Dark Side and Going Clear are powerful indictments of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the Church of Scientology, but one hardly needs to be a latter-day Clarence Darrow to earn my assent about such subjects. In Zero Days, he argues that the Obama administration and Israel were the ultimate authors of the Stuxnet virus — a form of undeclared cyber warfare against Iran that may have had consequences far beyond what was originally intended.

I don’t (or didn’t) have a side when it comes to the topic of multiple personalities, so that may be why I approached Gibney’s newest film with some diffidence. It turns out, however, that Crazy, Not Insane has some interesting points to make about how we arrive at our convictions even if it can’t answer the ultimate question of whether those convictions are true.

The first half of the film is mostly a profile of Dr. Dorothy Lewis. She has interviewed over twenty serial killers and has formulated a theory that serial killers often have brain injuries, a history of abuse, and other mental disorders. She admits that she was trained to be skeptical of multiple personalities and that many of her colleagues disagree with her research.

What was strange to me about the film is how much I found myself swayed by Dr. Lewis’s affect. She giggles like a schoolgirl frequently, and I often had a hard time reconciling her tone with her words. In one segment where she is testifying in court, she asks for a resource because she is flustered by being misinformed by the defense team about what their strategy was and needs time to process what her ethical and legal duties are to her client and to the truth.

I don’t mean to imply that the film is an attack piece on Dr. Lewis, it isn’t. What I realized when watching it is that we make the same sort of superficial judgments in the courtroom as we do in the court of public opinion. Someone is truthful or not, persuasive or not, qualified or not because of what they say and not because of their comfort in front of a judge or a camera lens.

It’s also true that in the second half of the film, we see that her detractors often have an agenda as well. Often, it seems, in legal proceedings, psychiatrists may start with the result they want to prompt and provide a diagnosis that will support that result. In capital cases, that means arguing against insanity if one wants to see the convicted criminal executed. Dr. Lewis, in contrast, appears to want to argue that these men shouldn’t be executed. Does that make her more susceptible to the ambiguous evidence that they are insane?

I certainly didn’t get the impression that Dr. Lewis induced false memories or unconsciously instructed killers on what to say to make them appear insane. Her attitudes towards the death penalty appear to be a consequence of her research and not the driving force of it. In that sense, she comes across as principled, one of those medical professionals who follow the data rather than pander to the forces of the moment.

Normally, such principles are enough to prompt praises for profiles in courage. Why then does that giggle put me off so much? Could it be that we are all more swayed by superficial and emotional factors more than logic — and more than we realize?

Crazy, Not Insane premieres on HBO November 18, 2020.

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