Thursday, December 13, 2007
Much has been written about NYU Child Study Center's "Ransom Notes" child mental health/mental illness advertising campaign. Kristina at AutismVox is keeping a running list of posts about the campaign, so I won't list them all here. The New York Times ran a story about the campaign this morning. But for my part, I hadn't posted about the ad campaign, or about anything else for that matter.
I first spotted an ad from the campaign last week, the one about childhood depression, in the back of New York Magazine. My response was visceral — something between nausea and the sensation that you've just been kicked in the stomach. But I wasn't in my autism-mom-advocate blogging mode. I was in my keeping-my-family-together, working-two-jobs mode. So I just made a mental note of the disturbing ad and continued on my way. The closest I came to a complete thought about it was "oh, ick, oh ick, oh awful, not NOT good."
But when I got an email from GRASP about the campaign, I felt as though I had to dash off an email to Dr. Koplewicz about my reaction. Sweet M has been in treatment at the Child Study Center for five years, and some of the practitioners there have been spectacularly good. One of them taught me how to teach Sweet M to read — back in the very earliest days of this blog. (And now she's twirling pillows with her toes while reading her many and beloved Berenstain Bear books.) Another has been the world-class psychiatrist who has helped us through many a rough patch in the past five years.
Possibly because I also have — full disclosure — a professional affiliation with NYU, Dr. Koplewicz phoned me earlier this week and we spoke yesterday. Based on that conversation, I would say that he has heard the concerns of the autism community loud and clear and is contemplating what to do about the campaign, though admittedly the public rhetoric would not suggest that. I believe that the Child Study Center's interest in raising the awareness of childhood mental health issues is genuine. I also believe that the Ransom Notes campaign is a disaster, from nearly every point of view.
Why? Because the metaphor of hostage taking is a metaphor of trauma, evoking and provoking trauma. Hostage taking is an act of desperation, one of the primary powers of the weak, where those with the least to lose try to make others feel how very much they can lose. Desperation is its raisonne d’etre.
For those of us who are old enough to remember the genesis of Ted Koppel's career-making television news program Nightline, the show began in 1979 as a nightly report on the state of the Iranian hostage crisis where Americans were held hostage for 444 days in 1979-1981. The late night news program started out as a prime time report on the status of the hostage situation. After the trademark music — DA DUN DUH DUN -- the voice over would announce "DAY 22 (or whatever the day was) — AMERICA held HOSTAGE."
Koppel's late night program, which commanded high ratings and kept the crisis in the minds of Americans all through the night, contributed to President Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan. Later everyone learned that Reagan staged a behind the scenes arms-for-hostages deal, organizing for the hostages to be released just minutes after his inauguration. The rest, as they say, is history.
Americans feelings of powerlessness in the face of the Iranian hostage situation led to the desire for "morning in America" and a campaign of chest-thumping free-marketeering. (Anyone remember the American invasion of Grenada? Yes, that's Grenada — the tiny Caribbean island that had a socialist leadership. Yep, we invaded 'em. Recently we haven't been picking such easy targets.)
What's this got to do with the NYU-CSC's Ransom Notes campaign?
Powerlessness is (paradoxically) a powerful feeling. It sways elections. It changes history. It mobilizes people, as fascists of every stripe know well.
The idea that one's child is held hostage is so provocative — it taps so deeply into the feelings of powerlessness that I'd venture each of us has felt from time to time — as to evoke profound feelings of rage. Now, I'd venture, our rage is directed, not surprisingly, at the NYU-Child Study Center which deployed the dubious and dangerous hostage-rescue-kidnapped-child metaphor.
But at the end of the day, my rage continues to be directed at the lack of resources, supports and services, for our children.
Misguided and ill-conceived as the Ransom Notes campaign is, I believe that the NYU Child Study Center shares my concern over the lack of resources available for our children, and the lack of public awareness of the challenges our children and families face. I think they have been attempting, with limited success, to raise awareness of challenges that neurologically different children face, albeit within the psychiatric framework that by definition understands difference as disease or disorder.
The Ransom Notes has campaign (along with the debacle around the Autism Speaks autism awareness campaign) has left me wondering whether the rhetorics used in advertising campaigns are simply too one-dimensional to work as advocacy tools.
If we, in the autism parenting and autism advocacy community, were to launch an ad campaign to raise awareness of childhood neurological differences and social integration issues, what would it look like? How would it play? Where could it take us?
That's a conversation I'd like to have.