Editor’s Note: This is the final essay in a series written by Sean Gunderson, who was detained by the criminal justice system for 17 years after receiving a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict. The series documents the life of a forensic psychiatry patient—a world that few know, and which has rarely been written about by a former inmate. New pieces will be published the first weekend of each month. The full series is being archived here.
For this month’s essay, I would like to shift gears. I have spent the better part of this year writing essays on my experiences while detained for nearly 20 years in the Illinois forensic mental health system. At this point, I would like to transition to sharing some details of my life outside of the forensic system. This month, I will begin with a story of my youth. Then I will explore what my life has looked like since my release from custody. Finally, I will offer my own perspective on the country’s problems with gun violence, articulated from my unique positionality.
You see, I was born and raised in a place we will call Underprivileged World. This is not the Privileged Land that most people with my skin color call home. For this essay, I intend to promote “reppin’ my Hood” (i.e., representing my neighborhood) as a legitimate scholarly activity. By reppin’ my Hood, I provide useful contextual information to assist my audience in understanding my unique positionality.
For those unfamiliar with the term positionality, it is used to describe the social position that we each occupy. This grants access to unique knowledge. The reason the stories of my experiences in the detention center (DC) are so powerful is due to the concept of positionality. My unique social position allowed me access to situations normally unavailable to most. Furthermore, these experiences have shaped who I am. I have applied the concept of positionality for my essays on the Illinois forensic system. They mean something because I actually went through it.
After publishing monthly essays on Mad In America (MIA) for all of 2022, I have received plenty of compliments and even some astonishment. People often wonder, “How did you survive the DC for so long?” My answer is that I identify as an extremely resilient person. In order to understand how I came to identify as so resilient, I will rep my Hood and share the story of my youth.
The Story of Dee, Zee, and Me
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the Northwest side of “Chiraq.” For those of us who live here and know its streets, we may call it Chiraq. Outsiders know it by its official name: Chicago. However, the term Chiraq better captures the state of affairs in the third largest city in the country. We will begin this story with an integral part of “Chiraqi” culture: the game of avoiding one’s assigned school. The Chiraq Public School system (CPS) leaves something to be desired, to say the least. While there may be more privileged areas of the city where families do not have to play such a game of long-term consequences, the Steinmetz school district on the Northwest side was most certainly a part of Underprivileged World. Steinmetz earned its infamy, and it was my assigned high school.
Steinmetz entered into the public consciousness in 1995 with the cheating scandal that led to the 2000 movie Cheaters, directed by John Stockwell. This film accurately depicts real life in my Hood growing up. For a more nuanced version of the story, check out this article from a local newspaper.
A few simple twists of fate allowed me to escape Steinmetz.
Growing up in my Hood, gangs and crime were an everyday part of life. As children, we had to grow up way too fast. I became emotionally mature early on and perhaps this is in part what saved me from the adverse effects of my Hood. As a young child I befriended a neighbor, Dee. He was my age and just like me, he wanted to avoid the street life. My other friend from the Hood was Zee. Zee was more connected to street life than Dee or me, but both he and his older sisters respected my space. That is, they treated me like family and did not pressure me to participate in street life.
As we say in the Hood, “get in where you fit in,” and for me this was studying at home, removed from Hood politics. My intelligence and emotional maturity were enough that the local kids who were “affiliated” tended to let me stay home and study without trying too hard to drag me into Hood politics.
When it came time to choose a high school, Zee got stuck going to Steinmetz. His parents were immigrants, and he did not care all that much about school. Due to where he lived, his street smarts far exceeded his book smarts and he fit in well at Steinmetz. Dee was the youngest of three siblings, and his parents did not have the money to send all the kids to private schools.
You see, there were a few options in this game of avoiding one’s assigned school by any means necessary. One option was to send the child to private school, which had far more control over gangs in the school. Then there was getting admitted to specialized schools within CPS. There were schools for smart kids like me; also, there were other specialized schools, such as technical schools. Dee was not as smart as me, so applying to Whitney Young was not an option. Instead, he applied to Lane Tech, which was not a school of general enrollment. This was somewhat better than Steinmetz, but still had its obvious problems. Dee was admitted to Lane, and he too avoided Steinmetz.
At the time my parents considered trying to send me to Whitney Young. However, due to its high quality, there is extreme competition to get in. The film Cheaters highlights how there was corruption linked to applications for Whitney Young. Even if I applied with high grades, due to Chiraqi politics a less qualified but better-connected kid would likely get my spot. My parents decided to allow me to choose a local private school.
I was an only child and mom had a decent teaching job at a local community college, so there was enough money to send me to one of the country’s most academically rigorous and prestigious high schools, Fenwick High School. The standards for admission to Fenwick were high. Furthermore, there was somewhat less corruption than in CPS. Doing well on the entrance exam for Fenwick pretty much guaranteed my admission. Indeed, in 1998, I began high school at Fenwick.
While I fit in academically at Fenwick, I did not fit well socially. I went to school with hundreds of kids from Privileged Land. I was intimidated by their wealth and did not make many friends at the school. I was made fun of as “the Poor Kid.” Indeed, to save money, my parents did not even have cable TV. I was focused on school and sports, so I did not care. However, as I grew up, I realized that people made presumptions about my social class based on this.
My way of channeling negative emotions was to just outsmart the wealthy kids from Privileged Land. I was the Poor Kid, yet I was so obviously smart that I intimidated the wealthy kids. It created this unusual power relation. I was simultaneously at the top of my class and starting goalie on the school’s successful hockey team, yet I found it hard to make friends because of my socioeconomic status. Perhaps I had few friends at Fenwick because I was ostracized due to where I lived. However, I was far from socially isolated. I had Dee and Zee, as well as numerous friends from the working-class private elementary school I had attended.
Despite my socioeconomic status, I still garnered respect from my peers. I was so smart that I received numerous accolades for my grades. They just did not like the idea of hanging out in my Hood, so it was hard to befriend people at school. I recall sophomore and junior years when kids began to get their driver’s licenses. I went to the DMV the day I turned 16 and my parents were gracious enough to pass down their decade-old car to me so that I could begin to drive to school. As other kids got their licenses, they would begin to drive to school, too. I was grateful as can be for my jalopy. It got me from point A to point B. However, I saw kids come to school with brand new Mercedes, BMWs, and other luxury cars.
Zee respected the desire of Dee and me to remain outside of the street life. We all knew each other’s boundaries. There were numerous attempts by other Hood kids to get Dee and me into the street life. We could not avoid it completely; sometimes it would find us.
The closest shopping mall to me was the Brickyard Mall. Those on the Northwest side know its infamy. When I was growing up, it was a large indoor mall. However, the local criminal organizations took it over. That is, street gangs would patrol the mall so vigorously that the owners of the mall razed it, and had it rebuilt as an outdoor mall, designed to minimize the ability of gangs to patrol it. While this seems to have had the intended effect, it remains a mall in Underprivileged World—not what some readers may be accustomed to experiencing in Privileged Land.
One evening, I was driving my car with Dee, Zee, and two other friends inside. We were near the Brickyard when I decided to take a shortcut through the mall to get to the next main street. Quickly, a van full of young men pulled up alongside of me; we both continued to drive next to each other. As I approached the main street, I had to stop to wait for traffic to let me in. One of the men in the van got out and began shooting at us. I took fire such that it left a bullet hole in the trunk. Fortunately, all my friends and I escaped without injury. While we each knew that such things happened regularly in my Hood, the kids at Fenwick were rather shocked.
I was already ostracized as “the Poor Kid.” Now I had to go back to Fenwick and take more flak for being the “Poor Kid with a bullet hole in his trunk.” Indeed, it was an indelible mark of my Hood.
While I could not hide where I lived, I could always outperform 95% of the class. This helped maintain power dynamics in balance while at Fenwick. Even though I got made fun of, it never turned into bullying because I was just too smart in a school that catered to smart kids. The rich kids preferred to keep me close so that they could cheat off of me or otherwise use my intelligence to their advantage.
Dee was able to avoid the street life, by and large. He secured a decent working-class job, yet still lives in the Hood.
Zee survived Steinmetz and went into the U.S. military after high school. I too wanted desperately to go into the military. You see, where I’m from, the military represents freedom from the Hood. Many of us growing up near Steinmetz never had the relationship to the police that kids from Privileged Land may have. For us, success was found in the military, a good job, or college. I wanted two successes to propel me out of the Hood. That is, I wanted to become an officer in the military, which requires college. This would give me access to resources and give my “street skills” an outlet for legitimate expression.
I was kicked out of Fenwick in my senior year for hustlin’ while at the school. However, I was still allowed to graduate under special circumstances. I can only imagine how I played right into the gossip surrounding me at Fenwick when I got kicked out for hustlin’. I was the Poor Kid, with the bullet hole in his trunk who got kicked out of one of the country’s best high schools for behaviors common to my Hood. While this may be how I survived my Hood, the story does not end there.
I went from the Northwest side of Chiraq to “Elginistan.” This is a comical term that I and other inmates used to talk about the infamous Elgin Mental Health Center (EMHC). The term is used to describe the politics of EMHC, which resemble an autocracy in central Asia more than a hospital in the world’s leading democracy. My time there is the subject of the previous essays in this series.
After Elginistan, I returned to the Hood in Chiraq.
Upon my release, I first went to the “deeper” West side of Chiraq into a group home run by a community mental health agency. Habilitative Systems, Inc. (HSI) was one of the bright spots in my experiences with the court system. Despite its location, I was not intimidated. Furthermore, they treated me like a real person with inherent value. They did not care so much about psychobabble, but rather were focused on the successes of their clients as well as providing refuge in the Hood. For someone with my upbringing this is exactly what I needed to begin my journey of healing.
Once the court saw my sustained stability in the community at HSI, which is located in perhaps the single most dangerous neighborhood in all of Chiraq, the judge was eager to grant my full and unconditional freedom in April 2021. During this time, I have been devoted to healing and advancing myself in society. Between my Hood upbringing and near 20-year detention, I have more strikes against me than I can count. My primary hope for future success is to heal my body and make a living sharing my story and my insights on the mental health system.
I was “buried alive” in the forensic mental health system for nearly two decades. Despite my sustained stability and general success in the Illinois forensic system, nearly all the staff at the DC were reluctant to sign off on anything in support of me. While they acknowledged my stability to my face frequently in the DC, we knew that securing my freedom was not as straightforward as the bureaucratic rituals made it appear.
At the end of the day, we all had to contend with the prevalence of the fiction of a yet-to-be-discovered brain disease and the public’s unquestioning consent to said fiction. The court system and the broader public had been indoctrinated for decades to believe that unusual behavior could be explained away with a fictional story of a broken brain; ironically, one that required brain damaging therapeutics (BDTs) to fix.
At 38, I have been more than disillusioned by the institution of science; indeed, I was victimized by it. I have survived science’s ugly stepchild: the biochemical imbalance hypothesis. Here is an ugly body of knowledge born of fervent belief, not the scientific method. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I am not too impressed by science. When properly applied, the scientific method is a valid epistemological tool which may be able to provide us with useful knowledge and advancements in technology. However, I do not esteem science the way that many people in broader society do.
As a result of my lifetime of experiences, I have come to esteem epistemology. I become giddy over properly produced knowledge. The reality is when knowledge is properly produced, it can be built upon and advance our society. When knowledge is built upon shoddy foundations—such as the biochemical imbalance hypothesis—it tends to lead nowhere. We still cannot find real brain diseases despite decades of looking with the most interesting gadgets that modern science can offer us. While science may urge us to continue believing in brain diseases, it is epistemology that offers us clarity in the form of properly produced knowledge. Indeed, how many readers understand the circumstances in which to apply the inductive side of the scientific method? Certain situations may favor a deductive or inductive approach, and it is imperative to epistemology to choose the correct one, even if it is not all that important to “science.”
Where Do I Go from Here?
In addition to being intelligent and emotionally mature, I had another advantage that helped me to avoid Hood politics. Due to my high intelligence and access to private education, Standard American English (SAE) became my native English dialect. I not only have the skin color for Privileged Land, but also, I speak advanced SAE. Growing up, I spoke SAE, while most of the kids in the Hood adopted a different dialect as their native tongue. They spoke Hood as a dialect; linguists may refer to this as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). In my extensive journey through the criminal justice system, I learned to speak Hood as a second dialect for survival. While SAE will always be my native dialect, I am confident speaking Hood, too. Furthermore, I taught myself Spanish while detained in Elginistan. This is invaluable as it has opened so many doors of opportunity, both within and outside my Hood.
I currently live in the same Hood in which I grew up. I still have to deal with complex Hood politics and hear gunfire on a regular basis. Much like my youth, I have developed survival strategies which are integrated into my daily routine. Due to my severe back injury, I am on a journey of healing. My life looks like that of an elite athlete who is also working to support himself. I use my free time to engage in Yin yoga, a form of yoga in which the poses are held for extended time periods. I also place emphasis on balancing exercises to realign my body. Finally, I do a lot of “studying stillness,” which is how I prefer to conceptualize meditation. This practice advances my state of equanimity.
I work part time for a law firm focused on realizing justice on behalf of the so-called mentally ill. Kretchmar & Cecala is an amazing firm which deserves positive attention. Additionally, I put myself through college; I was able to secure numerous scholarships and grants to pay for my education. I graduated from Chiraq’s Northeastern Illinois University in May of 2022. I earned my Bachelor of Arts (B.A., no BS degrees for me!) in Global Studies with a 4.0 GPA, earned Summa Cum Laude honors as well as additional honors for successful completion of a thesis within the University’s Honor Program. The thesis addresses the fictions that buried me alive.
I also have dreams of moving out of Chiraq to a safer part of the country. Last month’s essay detailed various forms of sexual abuse that are inherent to any DC. I could not escape the inevitable sexual abuse and now I am uncomfortable with human touch that is remotely sexual. I am optimistic, however. You see, in my Chiraq apartment, I have an incredibly cute little bunny named Sage. Sage helps me to learn that touch does not have to hurt. I can pet Sage without the complications that come when two humans touch, especially when those two humans are sexually attracted to each other. I have dreams of moving out of state and living in my own “Bunny Ranch” where I can have more bunnies. I am hopeful that they can teach me that other forms of touch are safe, too. Yes, Sage is eagerly searching my entire apartment for a girl bunny. Maybe one day I can buy a house where he can find the girl bunny of his dreams.
As I move forward, I seek opportunities to help improve our national mental health system. I have seen the worst side of our system, but the lessons I learned are applicable to any part of the system. The fiction of a brain disease is not limited to secure forensic facilities. Rather, it is found in college classrooms, media advertisements, and has even become “common knowledge” to some.
Perhaps it is time to spice up our national discourse on mental health by actually listening to the United Nations (UN), the very international diplomacy organization whose creation was backed by the United States. I find it concerning that important information from the UN has not made its way into the social conversation on mental health. Do we not delegitimize the UN when we ignore inconvenient communications from them? Do we not set a precedent for other countries when we ignore the UN?
My thesis highlights a very significant document from the UN. The full text of the document is within my thesis. This document points out that there is rampant human rights abuse and torture within our mental health system. These are the very human rights abuses and torture that I survived and from which I am healing. Furthermore, it frames the biomedical model as the foundational problem and offers meaningful solutions.
As a society we have a responsibility to be aware of what the UN says and, when it concerns a major issue of broad national significance, we each have the duty to have a meaningful social conversation on it. I cannot fathom how the director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), or even the office of the NIMH, has not initiated such a conversation.
Thank you for allowing me the forum in which to share very personal aspects of my life. I have shared the story of where I’ve come from and where I’m going. I would like to now turn to a salient topic in our national discourse: gun violence.
Compassion, Not Conceptual Models
I do not esteem science, so I will leave that domain to the scientists. Furthermore, I offer my perspective from my unique positionality. I have lived in Underprivileged World my entire life. I was born into a gang-infested Hood on the Northwest side of Chiraq. I was taken into custody and sent to Elginistan for the fight of my life. Now that I am free, I can see a double standard when it comes to gun violence.
Growing up in the Hood, kids tend to develop a relationship to guns early on in life. My attitudes about guns are about as ingrained as they can get. Whether we like it or not, guns and violence will be part of our lives in Underprivileged World. We make decisions on how we will attempt to interact with guns, crime, and violence. These decisions are reinforced through moment-to-moment choices in the Hood.
I consistently chose to turn toward education and away from street life. Knowledge is my path out of the Hood, not violence. I knew this before I was 10. While I cannot speak for others on their unique relationship to guns and violence, children of the Hood naturally make choices early on and tend to stick to them. For some, this means turning toward street life and acquiescing to what comes along with that, including guns and violence. For others, it means minding one’s business and spending free time acquiring knowledge, the real key to freedom in the Hood.
When there is gun violence in the Hood, the story may be lucky to get 30 seconds on the evening news. We never get to know the intimate details of the shooter (most likely because they cannot even find them in Chiraq). We never learn about the victims and their lives, hopes, and dreams. We do not have access through the media to the survivors of gun violence in the Hood. As a survivor of gun violence in the Hood, I know for a fact that there are numerous stories of courage under fire, heroism, and resilience among its survivors. Furthermore, once the police secure the situation after instances of gun violence, they leave. Those of us in the Hood return to the same toxic power structures that perpetrated the gun violence in the first place. This is gun violence in Underprivileged World. It contrasts with media coverage of shootings in Privileged Land.
When four or more people die from gun violence in Privileged Land, we call that “a mass shooting.” When four or more people die from gun violence in the Hood, we call that “the weekend.” Each time a mass shooting occurs in Privileged Land, the global news media descends to tell an international public all the ugly details of the shooting. We get to know the shooter, victims, and survivors like they are long-time friends. In the Hood, we may say in response to such details, “Too Much Information” (TMI). In other words, such details can be seen as unnecessary by those who have dealt with gun violence their entire lives.
Additionally, the emotions we express have become rote. They do little to meaningfully address the root causes of gun violence in Privileged Land, if any can even be found. However, they seem to help reorient people after such tragedies. Indeed, gun violence in any location is tragic. It is not more tragic when it occurs in Privileged Land and less tragic when it occurs in Underprivileged World. However, I question the need to express rote emotion when the gun violence occurs several hundred miles from where one lives. Surviving gun violence in Underprivileged World looks rather different. Speaking from personal experience, one simply confirms that they and those around them are not wounded and then we go on with our lives. The reality is that in the Hood, we do not have the luxury to fully relax once the police have secured the situation. We must be on guard for the next instances of violence.
What can be done? I suggest that in the intervals between mass shootings in Privileged Land, we focus media attention to the same degree on incidents in the Hood. Let us find the national heroes among the survivors of gun violence in the Hood. Countless children from Underprivileged World have survived gun violence. They have wisdom to teach us, if we bother to listen to them.
One of the cultural phenomena associated with mass shootings in Privileged Land is the focus on heroism after the situation has been secured. There is a national curiosity to learn the stories of individuals who survived. Indeed, this is probably the most interesting part of any mass shooting media spectacle. We can deal with our complex emotions as a society by finding stories of national heroes. We need not wait for the next shooting in Privileged Land to find national heroes to inspire us. Indeed, we can simply look in the Hood.
Over 20 years ago, I survived a mall shooting. However, due to its location in Underprivileged World, I never received the frenzy of media attention that my counterparts in Privileged Land have received. Furthermore, I am confident that I have plenty of wisdom to share with my audience, no matter how small or large it may be. The night of the shooting, I displayed courage under fire to get five white bodies home safe and sound that night. I knew well that had any of my friends or I got wounded or killed that night, we would have been scapegoated, and the culprits may never have been found. That is, we would have been blamed for being at the Brickyard mall, especially after dark. I am still waiting on my national hero status. While this may never come, I can offer the wisdom I have gained in my mere 38 years on Earth to anyone who is willing to listen.
Next time that we hear of a mass shooting in Privileged Land, I encourage you to suspend rote emotions at least for a few minutes. Pause and reflect on the unsung heroes of Underprivileged World whose stories of bravery, heroism, and resilience remain inaccessible to the public. Share some of those emotions with kids from my Hood, and put your own suffering into proper perspective.
The city of Chiraq does not need criticism and condemnation from the rest of the country. The problems of Chiraq are unique to us. The gangs are so splintered here that there are more factions than anyone can keep track of. What we need is compassion and kindness. We need caring infused into our city. I do not care what pundit offers their “expert” opinion; it is not pundits but rather community leaders who hold the keys to heal this wounded city.
Pastor Corey Brooks founded an organization called Helping Others Obtain Destiny (H.O.O.D). He and other community leaders know their respective Hoods well. It is community leaders like Pastor Brooks that hold the keys to healing the violence in Underprivileged World. Our police can no longer simply react to events. We need them to be humble and follow the directions of community leaders who can work with government to resolve the structural issues that facilitate such violence. Indeed, an emphasis on structures over subjects is imperative to understanding the dynamics of the Hood.
Next time you are looking for a national hero to spruce up your day, look no further than the Hood. I know blocks upon blocks of survivors of gun violence in Chiraq. However, you may be expected to actually listen to these kids if you hope to learn their wisdom.
The wisdom of the Hood shows us that our gun violence is related to structural issues. Our community leaders are trying to apply their wisdom to address structural deficits. However, they require significantly increased cooperation from government in order to truly bring healing to their communities. We offer our Hood wisdom to Privileged Land. Perhaps subjects are not where the attention needs to go in response to mass shootings. Instead, learn from Underprivileged World and look to structures.
I can say with confidence that an ideal place to begin are the structures surrounding the body of knowledge that we refer to as “mental health.” As knowledge, it has been poorly produced. This further skews subsequent attempts at understanding any phenomena related to it.
I invite the leaders of Privileged Land to identify which structures in their communities may be at the root of gun violence there. However, only they can answer that question, not I.