R

oseanne Barr reminds us how hard it is for people not to be themselves, even when it propels them to self-destructive behavior with awful consequences. Barr’s recent smash TV comeback after 20 years was engineered on the cynical calculation that her racism and xenophobia might now attract a huge new audience of like-minded supporters of President Trump. If anything, the network greatly underestimated the show’s entertainment value — the premiere captured an unprecedented 25 million viewers, suddenly vaulting her to first place among TV comedies.

Then Barr managed to blow it all with one astoundingly stupid and insulting (now-deleted) tweet: “If Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”

In the tweet, vj stands for Valerie Jarret, a distinguished adviser of President Obama who happens, like him, to be black.

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The indignant storm of social network outrage woke up the otherwise oblivious Barr to the fact that she was in serious trouble. She tried to save her job with a classically lame excuse: “Not giving excuses for what I tweeted, but I’ve done weird stuff while on ambien — cracked eggs on the wall at 2am etc.” (This tweet has also been deleted.)

Other tweets elaborated on the “drug made me do it theme,” and Ambien soon became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter. But the excuse didn’t take and Barr was fired — a decision by the network that will cost it $80 million in next season’s advertising revenue.

Ambien is certainly a very bad bargain as a treatment for insomnia. It can cause memory loss, confusion, mood changes, agitation, suicidal ideation, weird thoughts, and strange behavior. If used at all, it should be only for a few days under special circumstances. Sleep hygiene is a much safer and more effective approach for chronic insomnia. And if a pill is ever indicated, there are many better choices than Ambien.

(But I must say I admire the literary skill of Sanofi, the drug company that markets this highly questionable sleeping pill. Its rebuttal to Barr’s hiding behind Ambien nicely captured the absurdity of her excuse: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”)

Ambien can’t be blamed as the cause of an individual’s habitual bigotry and recklessness. Barr doesn’t get a free ride for her outrageous behavior just because she took a pill.

The hypocritical excuse for bad celebrity behavior used to be, “The devil made me do it. Yes, I am a sinner, but I have seen the light and humbly beg God’s forgiveness.” In our more secular world, the hypocritical excuse du jour has shifted to the medical domain. Now people like to weasel out of the consequences of bad behavior by blaming their meds or their psychiatric disorder — think Harvey Weinstein’s fake sex addiction.

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Sadly, bad behavior is a ubiquitous part of the human condition and is perhaps particularly common among celebrities and the powerful, who are often given immunity from punishment. Medications or mental disorder can be contributing factors to bad behavior, but that’s rare.

Allowing fake medical excuses to go unchallenged has three harmful consequences: encouraging more bad behavior, discouraging those who really need medications from using them, and unfairly stigmatizing the mentally ill — most of whom are good people — by lumping them together with bad people.

When people try to avoid responsibility for their bad behavior by blaming it on mental illness or medication, the burden of proof should always be on them. Extravagant claims require extraordinary evidence. This goes double for celebrities and leaders who serve as good or bad role models for what is considered acceptable.

We don’t want our kids feeling comfortable with the excuse “The dog ate my homework.”

Allen Frances, M.D., was chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University and also chaired the task force responsible for revising the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He is the author of Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump” (William Morrow, September 2017).

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  • “Ambien … can cause … weird thoughts, and strange behavior.”

    Strange behavior except for posting bad tweets.
    Is that correct?

  • I am surprised she didn’t say opioids made her say that. That’s what a lot of famous and not so famous people blame their downfalls on.

  • ‪The reason why racism is so similar to bestiality is that a decadent person cannot control the urge to denigrate others to feel less rotten about themselves. It’s a coping mechanism for self-loathing on a deeper level if the only good thing a person can see in themself is thier race & not thier humanity.‬ A Chimpanzee can be racist. But these humans? Completely devoid of any intelligent or higher thinking.

  • thank you for this essay. however I have to say that it’s kind of absurd to say that sleep hygiene is more effective than ambien for chronic insomnia. Not only does ambien have excellent efficacy (regardless of the percent of people who experience psychiatric side effects), I believe that quality evidence for sleep hygiene efficacy is flimsy at best. If I’m wrong, please direct me to a large, blinded, placebo-controlled trial.
    I agree with everything else you’re saying, but a statement like that undermines credibility.

  • I recently returned from a five day trip with a long-time “friend”. We had agreed to not discuss politics because she was an adamant Trump supporter, and I was adamantly not. Since 2002, however, we hadn’t spent more than 1-2 days together, as she lives a distance away from me. But the election made her political views surface in such a way that was alarming. We had never had a now obvious problem with opposing VALUES. It goes way beyond politics. Trump’s election gave a platform to racists. It has given them the confidence to speak out and spew the racism, paranoia, hatred & irrational behavior that we all are unbelievably witnessing.
    As horrified as these examples make us, at least this reality has truly surfaced, & white supremacy is a condition of the mind that we all should be concerned about in our beloved America. I knew there was somewhat a problem when Obama was elected. The comments on social media were abhorrent, I thought. It, indeed brought out a backlash from racists. But it was nothing like what we saw in Charlottesville last August, or what I heard from a white supremist on my trip.
    We now know that this problem may be even bigger than the one we have with North Korea or Iran. It is destroying us within our own borders, much the same as the Civil War did in 1861. In War, you must “know thine enemy.” We now know, as does the rest of the world, how many racists live in America. I applaud ABC’s quick decision to nip it in the bud & set an example of who we want America to aspire to. Just like Starbuck’s training on racial bias, or Dick’s decision to ban their sale of assault weapons. It will take corporate America, who holds the power of the purse, to put this problem in the forefront, just as it has taken Ashley Judd & other celebrities, to take a stand for sexual harassment issues. This is indeed, Civil War #II.
    On the four hour trip home, I told my onetime friend that, due to the vast difference in our values, our friendship is no longer possible. We all need to take a stand on this issue, be proactive in our multi-cultural contacts & friendships & take a stand against white supremacy. It is against our Declaration of Independence & Constitution, and the very essence of what this great country was founded on.

    • Exactly. People do not really understand that it is white supremacy that is causing all this mess.

  • Sanofi may be on to something—maybe the Ambien stripped away conscious mental “filters” to allow inherent racism to be expressed?? I have no idea if that could happen, but it’s about as good as Roseanne’s excuse.

  • I think the issue is that the drug and other in similar classes decrease inhibitions and there for decreased filters.

  • Good riddance to Barr. But why fire the whole crew? Lots of scenarios could explain Barr’s absence.

    • I agree with not cancelling the show. Change the storyline. Have Roseanne die in a road rage accident. Call the show The Great Divide, but don’t penalize the other actors & the public. We need COMIC RELIEF in this age of exasperation!

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