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Film Review: In “Crazy Not Insane,” Knowledge Is Power

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 18th, 2020

Film poster: “Crazy Not Insane”

Crazy Not Insane (Alex Gibney, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars. 

What causes homicidal tendencies? Are those who commit murder crazy or sane? These are just some of the questions that have obsessed clinical psychologist Dorothy Otnow Lewis throughout her life and career, studying what makes the fragile human psyche tick and what makes it break. In his latest documentary, Crazy Not Insane, hard-working director Alex Gibney (Citizen K) strays from his usual tradition of examining a central protagonist undone by hubris to offer an insightful portrait of a woman who has made it her mission to understand the brain in all its potential for tragedy. She’s neither crazy nor insane, but an expert in those who are.

One of Lewis’ great contributions to the profession is her research into dissociative identity disorder (DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder), compiled over years of first-person encounters with incarcerated killers or would-be killers. Given that she captured many of her interviews on videotape, we see those conversations, along with medical exams demonstrating the cerebral damage that causes psychopathy and sociopathy. If one combines congenital mental impairment and parental abuse – or if said abuse causes mental impairment – you can find patterns that lead, in some, to violence. If someone has such a disorder and illness, through no fault of their own, and this can be proven, the next step is to address how society should handle punishment for their crimes.

Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis in CRAZY NOT INSANE ©HBO

Lewis is a strong advocate for locking people up who have committed murder (we must be protected from them, after all), but no fan of the death penalty, especially where it concerns those with DID, whether that person be notorious serial killer Ted Bundy (whom she met and interviewed the day before his execution) or lesser-known perpetrators. She and defense attorney Richard Burr discuss how the legal system we imported from England when this country was founded specifically carved out exemptions for those afflicted with madness, seeing that illness as its own punishment; we have since traveled far from those assumptions as we have moved towards stricter beliefs in crime and punishment. Lewis’ goal has been to move the courts back to an understanding that mental illness should be studied (for everyone’s benefit), rather than ignored.

She has plenty of detractors, some of them in the film, including fellow psychologist Park Dietz, who sees DID as a hoax (why is everything a “hoax” when people have honest disagreements?). It has been a sometimes-lonely life – though full of love form her late husband and devoted two children – as she has faced mockery and scorn, but the tides have changed, and more people accept her views now. And given that she backs them up with solid science, it’s no wonder. Yes, it feels good to some to flip the switch on the electric chair, or to inject the killer full of poison, but what is gained? Knowledge is power, and those who reject it condemn themselves to wander forever in the dark. I’ll take the light, please.

Dr. Catherine Yeager in CRAZY NOT INSANE ©HBO
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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