B.S. and the Bear

I often hear radio commercials for auto dealerships where we are told the proprietor has “gone crazy” and is slashing prices right and left, and we should hurry on down before he regains his senses. But to me, suggesting that car salesmen are mentally unstable is not a selling point. Sure, their insanity may be manifesting itself in low, low prices right now. But what if by the time I arrive their insanity has switched to the kind that involves high, high prices and killing people? What if they get tired of slashing prices and begin slashing throats? Where does that leave me? Dead and without a new car, that’s where.

All of which means it is time for another column in which we ask the question: How are we treating our crazy people?

It’s a sensitive subject, as you know, and there is no better place to address sensitive subjects than in this column. Here in Utah, we have had to deal with the matter of craziness a lot lately because Brian David Mitchell, the man who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart, is a total loon. He has a tendency to sing hymns and make wild prophecies during his court appearances, rather than, you know, defend himself. This is maddening to Utahns because we fear he will be found incompetent to stand trial, which means he won’t get quite the punishment we want him to get, which would ideally involve electrodes, piranhas, and Mitchell’s groinular region. If he’s nuts (sorry!), he’ll just go to a mental hospital and be watched closely. Being crazy probably has its drawbacks, but here Mitchell has found an advantage.

Craziness was in the news nationally last month when the Vermont Teddy Bear Company introduced its special “Crazy for You” bear, an adorable li’l fellow who arrives in a straitjacket complete with “commitment” papers, meant to show the recipient that the sender is stark raving mad for him/her, and also that the recipient is not particularly sensitive to the sanity-challenged.

The bear was the cause of many panties being gotten into wads, most notably the panties of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which has special panties on reserve just for the purpose of getting them into wads. NAMI gets upset every time insanity is trivialized in public. For example, if you tell the joke about the woman who goes to a psychiatrist and says, “You’ve gotta help me! My husband thinks he’s a refrigerator!,” and the psychiatrist says, “What’s the problem with that?,” and the woman says, “He sleeps with his mouth open, and the little light keeps me awake!,” the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill will get its panties into a wad, and then send you a letter.

I think I might agree with NAMI on the bear, though, at least in part. I’m not sure it’s offensive, but isn’t it just a little creepy? Let’s say you’re a woman who’s been dating a man for several months, and he sends you a teddy bear in a straitjacket. Isn’t the suggestion, even in jest, that you’ve driven your boyfriend over the edge of sanity mildly unsettling? What’s he saying here? That’s he’s no longer responsible for his actions? That he needs to be restrained so that he does not harm himself or others? I think “I’m crazy about you” is one of those figures of speech that is best not to think about literally, like “she broke my heart” or “he beat the crap out of me.”

NAMI was not alone in decrying the “Crazy for You” bear. Vermont Gov. James Douglas also said the toy was insensitive and demeaning. The whole thing got a lot of news coverage. For its part, Vermont Teddy Bear insisted the “Crazy for You” item was simply a humorous Valentine’s Day gift and that no offense to the mentally ill (or “cuckoos,” as they are known) was intended. The company continued to sell the bear until the inventory ran out, which occurred rapidly, perhaps due to, I don’t know, maybe ALL THE EXTRA ATTENTION it got. Thanks, NAMI and Vermont Gov. James Douglas! Vermont Teddy Bear’s profits this month were totally insane!

But all was not well for the teddy bear company. Its CEO, Elisabeth Robert, wound up resigning from her position on the board of Vermont’s largest hospital, saying the “Crazy for You” controversy made it sorta hard for her to be on the board of a hospital that sometimes actually TREATS crazy people. It is exactly like the time I had to resign from the Special Olympics board after I pushed a retarded kid down the stairs.

So yes, the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. got to sell its crazy bears and make a lot of money, but at what cost? Did the bear represent a stain on the dignity of mentally ill people? Or can we make light of something and still take it seriously? More to the point, how long can a crazy guy run an auto dealership before he loses it? Seems like you’d be able to take advantage of him pretty easily. Which, again, is why I wouldn’t include that in the ads if I were them. I’m just sayin’.

The first paragraph of this column, as with many first paragraphs of my columns, was written several weeks ago and set aside until I could find an appropriate home for it. I made sure not to open it, though, so its freshness remained intact while in storage.

I first discovered NAMI a couple years ago and wrote about the organization in this column. I still check their Web site occasionally to see what they're getting upset about lately.

No particular psychiatrist joke came to mind when I arrived at that point in the column, so I did an Internet search to find some options. I chose the one I did because it's short and silly.