Changeling, Feminism, and Szasz
By Bryan Caplan
Changeling is another counter-example to my rule that true stories make bad movies. (spoilers ahead) It’s a long, sad tale: A child gets abducted, the police say they’ve found him, the mother says “That’s not my son!,” the police say she’s wrong, she says she’s right, they throw her in a psychiatric hospital… and it gets worse.
It’s a gripping drama and a masterful period piece. Bravo. But what does it mean? The standard feminist interpretation of this movie says, “The police and the psychiatric establishment would never have treated a man in this way.” This got me thinking: What exactly was and is the gender ratio in psychiatric hospitals? It was very hard to track down any numbers on google; the best I came up with was this post on Volokh which states that in 1965, inmates in mental hospitals were 55% male. Hopefully there are better numbers somewhere, but at least there’s no strong reason to see gender bias here.
Indeed, while we’re on the subject of gender bias, the movie shows us only the male serial killer, and his subsequent execution. But if you read the history of the case, it turns out that the serial killer’s mother was his accomplice. What ever happened to her?
Superior Court Judge Morton sentenced her to life imprisonment on
December 31, 1928. He stated that she was spared hanging since she was
a woman. She was sentenced to life imprisonment… [and] was paroled after serving less than 12 years of her sentence.
Overall, this film – or at least the events on which it is based – has little to do with feminism. It’s much more of a Szaszian anecdote: The woman who insists that the police are wrong gets involuntary commitment; the woman who helped murder her son gets leniency.