Who in society is predisposed to crime? Many of us are familiar with cultural narratives that trace criminal behavior to some cognitive defect in the perpetrator. For instance, we might recall the persistent media allusions to Adam Lanza’s Asperger Syndrome after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, despite evidence that individuals on the autism spectrum are, on average, not more likely, and are quite possibly less likely, to commit serious crime in their lifetime. Similarly, popular narratives about the relationship between “mental illness” and violence are pervasive, despite the broad meaning of the terminology and a deeply-misunderstood relationship between psychiatric disability and crime.
From Batman to Bundy, narratives in popular culture that explain crime through allusions to developmental, intellectual, psychiatric, or psychosocial impairments are ubiquitous. In one popular idiom, the disabled offender is “imbecilic” or “mad” to the point of lacking moral volition or free will. In another, the disabled offender is “psychopathic,” antisocial and personality-disordered, but also competent, volitional, and accountable— sometimes terrifyingly so—to the point of evil genius or predation. Tellingly, within these stories and the idioms they render, childlike incompetence and psychopathic aptitude can be difficult to parse, leading to the befuddlement of law enforcement or the courts.
Stories are inherently intrigued with cause-and-effect, and so is law. Existing scholarship has highlighted the important role that criminal law, and the carceral state more broadly, have played in constructing the modern understanding of cognitive disability in the West. In particular, tenuously-biomedical constructs of insanity as “disease of the mind,” incompetence, and dangerous mental abnormality in civil confinement under state police power have themselves become cultural memes, helping to form societal understandings—and myths—about the interactions between neurodivergence, criminal predilection, and moral culpability.
Law is a social institution that relies heavily on language to develop idiosyncratic models and constructs of reality, defined by consensus from within various legal communities about how a “closed linguistic system should best reflect the outside world.” The title of this essay is attributable to Fiona Campbell’s observation that disability fictions in law—in collusion with biomedical discourses—often construct difference in liminal space where no literal referent exists, “deploy[ing] . . . a ‘compulsion towards terror’ . . . of ‘falling away’ and ‘crossing over’ into an uncertain void of dis-ease.”