Civil Commitment Through the Lens of “The Novel and Police”

I have used D.A. Miller’s “The Novel and the Police” as a lens to while reading Heather Willis’ article, “Creeping By Moonlight: A Look at Civil Commitment Laws or Sexually Violent Predators.” (below I have included a small slide by Chrystal Ford that gives a quick explanation on what civil commitment is) Miller’s article describes policing with a source of power that stems from the upholding of a social norm. This idea spreads through “an ideal of unseen but all-seeing surveillance, which, though partly realized in several, often interconnected institutions, is identified with none.” It also describes a “regime of the norm,” in which normalized societal practices and perspectives hold power and governance. The article “Creeping By Moonlight” argues that civil commitment for sexual offenders creates the same mental decline that Jane experiences in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The article starts by introducing and summarizing the main plot and messages of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and then goes into detail on the power dynamics behind civil commitment and it’s implementation.

The enforcement of discipline, according to Miller’s article, “entails a relative relaxation of policing power. No doubt this manner of passing off the regulation of every day life is the best manner of passing it on.” (Miller, 16) This idea can be seen when looking at the points of Willis’ article. There is a distinction within the text made between prison and civil commitment. Civil commitment is supposed to be treatment of mental disorders behind sexual assault. It is a step forward into returning to society as a “functional member.” The relaxing of restraints is supposed to allow opportunity for the convicts to learn to act as they should. They taken out of a highly controlled prison system and are placed into another one, where they given a false sense of freedom and choice. Their escape from civil commitment relies on whether society, or the assigned doctor, deems they are functioning up to societal/normalized standards.

Miller expands on the modes of discipline and the institutionalized ways that they can discretely emerge. “Disciplinary power constitutively mobilizes a tactic of tact: it is the policing power that never passes for such, but is either invisible or visible only under the cover of other, nobler or simply blander intentions (to educate, to cure, to produce, to defend.)” (Miller, 17) The civil commitment that Willis describes falls under this mode is discipline. According to Willis, the true intention in many (but not all) sentences of civi commitment is continued punishment, but it hides under the intention of curing the convicts and protecting society from harm. Therefore, it is actually a mode of discipline, not mental treatment. Willis draws back to “The Yellow Wallpaper” when explaining how there is no mandated medical treatment for these individuals and that credible proof of a “medical illness” is blurry to begin with. “Sexually violent predator laws also create a class of convicted criminals outside the criminal justice system who have been infantilized and told they cannot control or take care of themselves in society.” (Willis, 182) Willis suggests that convicts are convinced of the fact that they cannot control their own actions to fit society standards. Under the best of circumstances, being able to fit into societal norms is the main policing power and deciding factor of their freedom. Many more of Willis’ points could definitely be viewed though the lens of “The Novel and Police,” especially because both prioritize social standards as forms of power.

One thought on “Civil Commitment Through the Lens of “The Novel and Police””

  1. I’ve never read the Willis article and I have very limited knowledge on this subject, but from what I gathered from your post, I find it interesting that Willis chooses to put “The Yellow Wallpaper” in comparison with civil commitment for sexual offenders, while the narrator has not posed any harm to other people (as far as we know from her narrative), nor can readers be certain that she is in an asylum or is hospitalized. But when the story was written, there wasn’t any widely accepted definition of mental illness; to “diagnose” someone with some fort of “nervous condition” is to literally put them up against the societal norm. I’m interested to know following this train of thought, if Willis would consider hospitalization (for criminals or not) and sometimes involuntary hospitalization, a form of discipline or punishment for deviating from societal norms under the façade of providing aid and protection.

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