Haven, House, Horror © Nina Otulakowski July 2022
This post is by Johanna Ryan for whom, like many in Chicago in 1999, the Lemak case was like knowing where you were when Challenger blew up. It is part two of a four part series on Marilyn Lemak and follows Janet Lagerloef’s opening post last week.
Marilyn Lemak has been in prison for twenty years – and now she has filed a petition for clemency. She is asking the State of Illinois to set her free.
Marilyn’s story was told in compelling detail last week by Janet Lagerhoef. But if you happen to have lived in the Chicago area in 1999, you probably remember the shock you felt on hearing that a Naperville woman – previously known as a devoted mom, first-class nurse and all-around good suburban neighbor – had just been arrested for killing her three young children.
At the time, only two responses seemed possible. County prosecutors wanted the death penalty for Marilyn, and a lot of her fellow citizens agreed. This was an act of cold-blooded murder, they argued, motivated by a desire for revenge against her soon-to-be-ex-husband. Some people were simply evil, and ultimate punishment was the only way to stop them. You could call this Team Law and Order.
The other response was that this mother’s actions could only be the result of her severe mental illness. We needed to send Marilyn to a hospital, not a prison, for long-term treatment, and learn how to identify and treat people with mental illness before tragedy struck. Call this Team Mental Health.
A surprising new chapter
Twenty years later, the news about Marilyn Lemak might leave both teams scratching their heads in confusion. She looks very much like someone you’d like to have as a next-door neighbor. Despite two decades in a maximum-security prison, which might bring out the worst in any of us, she is neither a troublemaker nor a helpless “mental patient.” In fact, she’s regarded as a model prisoner and a genuine positive influence on her fellow inmates.
Among her supporters are her parents, sister and brother, several fellow nurses who worked with her, and a local Unitarian church where she’s been voted in as a member. None of them think she needs careful psychiatric monitoring and medication in order to be safe in the “free world.” After all, she is not getting any such services in prison, and has been doing just fine without them.
In fact, Marilyn Lemak has not taken any psych meds for the past fifteen years—and she is now convinced that medication was largely responsible for her tragedy. It was not depression over the breakup of her marriage that drove her to harm the children she loved; it was high doses of Zoloft. Her lawyers, and several medical experts, agree.
If they are right, how did we all get “the Lemak case” so wrong twenty years ago?
Team Mental Health circa 1999
At the time, the death penalty was popular in Red and Blue states alike. Bill Clinton had just signed the “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,” and politicians were using tough-on-crime rhetoric to ride voters’ fears and resentments to victory.
I was convinced back then, as I am today, that Team Law and Order was simply wrong. I was an activist against the death penalty – and to impose it on people like Marilyn Lemak, who were not in full control of their actions, seemed especially barbaric. After all, she had tried to kill herself as well, hadn’t she? Punishing her for her mental illness made no sense.
So I signed up for Team Mental Health. The undisputed captains of that team were the National Alliance on Mental Health, or NAMI. And NAMI’s approach to the problem was summed up in two slogans it repeated over and over:
NAMI had committed to this stand as early as 1980, when it was still somewhat controversial. When a series of “new” antidepressants were rolled out a decade later, NAMI went all in. Its partnership with Eli Lilly, makers of Prozac, raised eyebrows at the time. By the close of the 20th century, the idea of “chemical imbalances” as the root cause of mental illness, and brain medications as the cure, dominated mainstream medicine.
Thanks to NAMI, it also dominated the popular media. The new medications, we were told, were just like insulin for diabetes: with their deficient brain chemicals restored, people once desperately ill could lead normal lives. Once society embraced this scientific truth, we’d be on our way to curing mental illness. The stigma attached to the condition would disappear as well. After all, who would dream of judging a diabetic for needing insulin? The “chemical imbalance” narrative was not just scientifically correct, but progressive and compassionate as well.
How did that narrative affect Marilyn Lemak’s case? Well, it may at least have saved her from the death penalty. To their great credit, local NAMI leaders in Illinois opposed the death penalty in her case and in others involving serious mental illness. They joined with Catholic social justice activists as “Concerned Neighbors of Marilyn Lemak” and brought Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame to Naperville.
However, that did not convince the jury to acquit her on grounds of insanity. She was found guilty of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors argued that a person who could plan a violent act in advance, and conceal their plans from others, was acting rationally and therefore had control over their actions. The jury bought it – and also bought the idea that someone like Marilyn, a hospital nurse and Sunday School teacher who had seemed quite well-adjusted until shortly before the crime, could not have been insane.
Her actions also likely ran counter to the jurors’ concept of “depression.” That could explain sadness and despair, and even a suicide attempt – but not anger and aggression, let alone murder. Yet Marilyn Lemak had made harassing calls to her estranged husband’s new girlfriend, as well as other expressions of rage, prosecutors stressed. Much was made of a photo of the two, found in the home, which had been slashed with a bloody X-Acto knife. This wasn’t depression, they argued – it was a classic crime of jealous fury.
The idea that antidepressants, particularly Zoloft, could cause both agitation and out-of-character aggression was entirely unknown to the jury. Marilyn herself was unaware of this, and it’s likely her lawyers were too, although evidence was already mounting that SSRI’s could have these effects in some cases. Both the medical profession and advocacy groups like NAMI urged journalists and public figures to keep any such evidence under wraps. It was largely just “misinformation” from anti-science fringe groups, they insisted. And even if true in rare cases, it might scare vulnerable people away from treatments that could save their lives!
It wasn’t until 2006 that national NAMI followed the lead of its Illinois chapters and officially opposed the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. Many feared that getting involved would only worsen harmful stereotypes equating mental illness with violent crime. Mental-health advocacy groups that did speak up on criminal-justice issues tended to focus on legislation, like “Kendra’s Law” in New York, to expand court-ordered involuntary treatment for people judged mentally ill.
The new narrative of “brain disorders” did not appear to be reducing stigma—if anything, just the opposite. More than a few lawyers decided that insanity defenses were just too risky. While jurors might be less likely in the abstract to blame a defendant with a biological illness, they were more inclined to see them as dangerous, and less likely to believe they could change. Social science and public-opinion surveys backed this up.
Then and Now
The glowing narrative of an imminent medical victory over mental illness has definitely taken some hits in the past twenty years. In 2004, faced with mounting evidence of an increased risk of suicide on SSRI’s, the FDA authorized a Black Box Warning to this effect – although it was limited to children and youth under 25. In 2012, Pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline paid a $3 billion fine for illegally promoting its antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin – including for use in children – in the largest healthcare fraud case in U.S. history.
Public trust in “Big Pharma” was at all-time lows. (Companies are now hoping the vaccines have changed this).
Perhaps the greatest buzz-kill, however, has been familiarity. As use of antidepressants has exploded among adults and teens alike, the number of people disabled by mental illness has gone up, not down – and suicide rates have risen steadily for the past decade. Whatever else we may think of psychiatric medication, most of us know from everyday experience that they are not miracle cures.
That may be why most mental health advocacy campaigns no longer mention meds, even as calls for expanded mental-health services become ever more urgent. Instead, activists demand access to scarce psychotherapy resources, especially for communities hard-hit by the Covid-19 crisis. School counselors, suicide-prevention hotlines and even therapy dogs inspire more grassroots enthusiasm than pills to treat Chemical Imbalance.
Therapy Dog being used at Highland Park after July 4 shooting
Yet as those who have been granted “access” can testify, mental health remains largely drug-centered. The most common “service provider” nowadays is not a therapist, but a family doctor or nurse practitioner handing out medications once prescribed only by specialists.
Issues of suicide and violence are if anything more urgent now than in 2001. Drug overdoses, suicide and gun violence have all risen sharply since 2020 – and a wave of mass shootings in 2022 has shaken American society. The crisis has led to even greater demand for mental-health services. But in many cases, the shooters had been “in treatment” already.
It’s time for a closer look at the nature of that treatment. It might also be a good time to take a second look at Marilyn Lemak’s story.
This was part two of a four-part series on Marilyn. Part three next week.