Frontline a Place for Madness

The question on the table is a troubling one: individual vs. community rights. In its search for an answer, "A Place for Madness" finds there are only more questions.

The question on the table is a troubling one: individual vs. community rights. In its search for an answer, “A Place for Madness” finds there are only more questions.

Northampton, Mass., is a relatively progressive community where the local college, Smith, has, for most of this century, shared a common fence with the local mental hospital. Behavior considered interesting on one side was locked up on the other.

And that forms the conundrum at the heart of this provocative hour. Though “A Place for Madness” focuses on the town itself and its liberal policies toward mental illness, it never strays far from the notion that the line between safe and dangerous behavior can be a thin one indeed.

“As long as you’re not hurting anybody, you should be allowed to be as eccentric as you want to be,” says the colorful Joel Stanley, whose lifestyle, to say the least, is somewhat unconventional. “You shouldn’t be put away for it.”

In the late ’70s, Northampton agreed, enacting a consent decree mandating that the state mental hospital discharge more than 90% of its residents and provide them with community service programs as a bridge back into society.

The heart of the ruling rested on the foundation of civil rights. Theoretically, it’s hard to argue with that. But 15 years later, there are many cracks in the foundation. Liberty and insanity don’t necessarily mix well.

Producer DeWitt Sage has done a fine job letting his camera bear witness to former patients, both those who are able to cope with their illnesses and those who can’t.

And he allows representatives of the legal and medical communities to have their say as they explore questions of intervention, preventive detention, the ramifications of not guilty by reason of insanity pleas, and at what point a person becomes a danger to himself and the community.

All of those questions are harshly illuminated as they are filtered through the lives of the Rev. Tex Moser and his wife, Jane.

From the beginning, the Mosers were avid supporters of deinstitutionalization. However, the very rights they eagerly upheld came back to harm them — literally — when one of their sons, an artist, became psychotic and physically abusive.

Though his parents were at first able to get him the help and hospitalization he needed, the law gave him the power to refuse treatment. He petitioned the courts for his freedom, and won. His history since is the story of a life lost and opportunity squandered.

Good intentions don’t always reap good results. And important questions rarely lead to easy answers. “A Place for Madness” does well in making that point.

Frontline a Place for Madness

(Tues. (18), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

Production: Filmed in Northampton, Mass., by Frontline. Executive producer, David Fanning; producer/writer/director, DeWitt Sage; associate producer, Rebecca Berman.

Crew: Camera, Bob Richman; sound, Eddie O'Connor; editor, David Hanser; second editor, Dena Seidel.

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