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A contributor, not an excuse

Jackson Jr.’s mental illness explains, but doesn’t explain away, his actions

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 4:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — If you think that Jesse Jackson Jr.’s mental illness explains away all his bad behavior, you may need treatment for an excessively mushy heart.

If you think his mental illness explains absolutely nothing, you are suffering from a heart made of nails. Somewhere in between the hard hearts and the mushy hearts are the rest of us, wondering exactly how much weight Jackson’s illness deserves in the scales of justice.

You’ve probably heard the Jesse Jackson Jr. shopping list.

The furniture, the furs, the $43,000 Rolex, the mementos from his curious trip down memory lane, items that include a $5,000 football signed by U.S. presidents; a $4,600 fedora that belonged to Michael Jackson; and pricey memorabilia once owned by the assorted likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

All in all, according to federal prosecutors, the former Illinois congressman spent $750,000 of his campaign funds on personal purchases, expenses that will cost him more than money could ever repay.

What made him do it?

Greed. Arrogance. Entitlement.

Those are the easy, familiar explanations.

But Jackson’s family and the Mayo Clinic say he suffers from bipolar disorder, and if we take that claim on faith — I do — the answer to what made him do it is more complicated.

And if it’s more complicated, is he guilty in the usual criminal way? How responsible is any mentally ill person for his or her behavior?

On Tuesday, I put the questions to Mark Sheldon. He’s a senior lecturer in the Medical Humanities & Bioethics Program at Northwestern Medicine. He teaches on the subject of just punishment.

“We want a system in place that’s humane,” Sheldon said. He said he’d been thinking about Jackson too.

“The first thing we want to do is to punish people who are responsible for their behavior. What gets problematic is when we start — appropriately — raising questions about how responsible people are for what they do.”

Bipolar disorder brings wild mood swings. People with the condition go from depression to impulsive behavior. They may fluctuate between grandiosity and feelings of worthlessness. “Spending sprees” is on the list of symptoms. So is “poor judgment.”

But bipolar disorder is not insanity. People with the illness may not be able to control what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re not aware of what they’re doing.

In the past half century, Sheldon said, as social science has helped us to better understand behavior, there has been a growing “tension in the court” over how to factor mental illness into decisions about crime and punishment.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “It can be very frustrating to the public.”

Mental illness remains mysterious, and in the mystery of Jesse Jackson Jr. there are plausible explanations that go beyond the illness, or hand in hand with it.

“Sometimes,” Sheldon speculated, “people who may not completely believe that what they’ve obtained is something they deserve engage in self-destructive behavior.”

Here’s my speculation: Jesse Jackson Jr., the son of a man who wanted to be president but didn’t quite make it, was groomed for greatness but not quite cut out for it. In the isolating bubble of power, he presumed on his privilege, and his presumptions flourished along with his illness.

He bought things — a guitar, a fedora — that let him touch the fame and accomplishment of men greater than he could be. Opportunity and illness converged into crime.

Last week, Jackson issued an apology, accepting responsibility for his mistakes. If he’s lucky, that will be a piece of his cure.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She can be contacted via e-mail at mschmich@tribune.com

©2013 The Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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