Roseanne 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.
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.
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).