Dear SPLC: you have no clue about schizophrenia, but you’re not alone.

Dear Southern Poverty Law Center,

You are experts in many things, but clearly, severe mental illness is not among them. I’d like to help. I’m not an expert except in the way life tends to draft us, involuntarily, for expertise: I’m the mother of a paranoid schizophrenic. And you have Jerry Drake Varnell all wrong. More importantly, you have schizophrenia all wrong, which means you’re getting it wrong for thousands more. More importantly still, you’re only repeating ignorant mistakes that millions of people believe and repeat all the time. It’s not just you and Jerry Varnell, it’s millions and thousands. It matters.

Your interest in Mr. Varnell is understandable: he looks like another full-blown Oklahoma City bomber with an unbelievably florid set of beliefs about the world and his place in it. There may be others who share those beliefs, but in this case, “unbelievably florid” is just what his beliefs are: they are too extreme to be sane because he isn’t sane.

When his family released a statement explaining his diagnosis, here’s how you talked about it:

The suspect’s family issued a statement following his arrest, claiming he is mentally ill, and that the FBI knew that during its investigation. In contrast, charging documents show the suspect was repeatedly asked if he wanted to follow through with his plans to retaliate against the government — something the documents say he steadfastly reaffirmed over the months-long investigation.

As you frame it, there are two opposing possibilities. On the one hand, he might be mentally ill and the FBI knew it. On the other hand, he “reaffirmed” his intentions every time he was asked by the FBI agents whether he wanted to keep going. In your telling, these possibilities “contrast.” You imply that if he had been mentally ill as his family “claimed,” he could not have “reaffirmed” his intentions when asked. Therefore, since he did reaffirm, his family’s claims are thrown into doubt.

Look, I get that you want this to be true. You are sure that bombers are out there, and you are happy that one was caught. I’d feel that way too, except that the family’s statement meant much more to me than it did, apparently, to you. Let’s unpack it.

  1. The family says that he has paranoid schizophrenia, but they go further than that, they claim something that is not just opinion, it is a legal finding of fact. “The State of Oklahoma found him mentally incompetent and we, his parents have legal guardianship over him by the Court.” Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get a civil court to find a mentally ill person incompetent and in need of a guardian? Courts do it routinely for individuals with IQ disabilities, but they are very reluctant in the case of mental disease that doesn’t impair IQ. If Oklahoma really called Jerry incompetent, it’s a big deal. And although the records are sealed, it’s still a fact that could be verified, not an opinion claim.
  2. “The FBI clearly knew that he was schizophrenic because they have gathered every ounce of information on him.” Yes, if a judge gave permission for the FBI to carry out this sting, surely the same court could have and probably did give the FBI permission to see the sealed records of Jerry’s legal competency hearing. Not only that, “He has suffered through countless serious full-blown schizophrenic delusional episodes and he has been put in numerous mental hospitals since he was 16 years old.” How many of us have worried about medical privacy? We worry that going into a psychiatric hospitalization will go on some kind of record, right? So how plausible is it that Jerry could have “numerous” hospitalizations without the FBI having those records?
  3. “What the public should be looking at is the fact that the FBI gave our son the means to make this happen. He has no job, no money, no vehicle, and no driver’s license, due to the fact that he is schizophrenic and we; his parents do everything we can possible to keep him safe and functional.” My son with paranoid schizophrenia does have a driver’s licence, and he’s a good driver apart from the disease. Jerry seems to be enough further disabled by the illness that his family judged it better for him not to have the opportunity, or else he simply wasn’t capable of coordinating himself to pass the exams. Either way, this is a man who, apart from FBI actions, could have sat in his bedroom dreaming of making bombs, and it could never have happened. His family was keeping him safe by making sure he could not obtain the means to carry out any crazy plans.
  4. “The FBI came and picked him up from our home, they gave him a vehicle, gave him a fake bomb, and every means to make this happen none of which he had access to on his own.” An individual who is legally incompetent and under a guardianship has the legal status of a dependent child. Would you let the FBI pick up your child at your house or give him cars and bombs?
  5. “On June 15, 2017, Jerry’s Father told the criminal informant “that he was not allowed back on our property and if he returned we would have him arrested for trespassing and drugs”. Apparently, he continued to sneak onto our residence. The FBI paid him to continue this operation and I believe they have cleared his criminal record.” The family’s efforts to protect their disabled son from bad influences were actually undercut by the FBI! They told the man not to return, but the government paid him to do it anyway.
  6. “The FBI should have filed conspiracy on our son and had him committed to a mental institution.” I’m not sure what “filing conspiracy” means, but clearly, if a paranoid schizophrenic person is telling the government that he intends to harm people, there is already a remedy at hand. Threats constitute evidence of danger. The FBI agents had a responsibility to assist the family in committing Jerry to a hospital for treatment, as soon as they learned that he was making threats. Nothing more needed to be done!
  7. “I realize that many will say my son could have found another person to commit this act.” Jerry’s parents are probably right that people will say this, but nobody who understands paranoid schizophrenia would say it. People with paranoid schizophrenia that is untreated — or for which the treatment has apparently become inadequate — don’t come across as typical guys. They aren’t team players; they don’t make sensible plans or stick with schedules. If they happen to have a scheme that someone else shares, it’s like a stopped clock being right twice a day, and if you wait a bit, they’ll embellish the plan with some weird detail that nobody sane could agree with. They may have conspiracy theories, but they’re terrible conspirators. Pro-tip: do not include someone with paranoid schizophrenia in your anti-government bombing group. They will totally mess things up. As Jerry did. So: NO, Jerry was not capable of finding others to carry out his plans.
  8. “…there is no doubt in my mind that this informant began this hate against the government and my son followed along because others easily influence him.” We don’t know the background on “the informant,” so we can’t make this judgment. But if you have a family member with some kind of disability, you probably know how lonely they are. Just how possible would it be for someone to pose as a friend and lead them into trouble? What if the disability is intellectual or directly affects their ability to tell when someone is trolling them along? Yes, it’s very easily possible for this to happen. What if THE GOVERNMENT threw its resources behind the false friend, the troll? What if the friend promised a fake ID and then actually produced one? Promised a briefcase of cash and then actually brought it? Wow, it’s real! If you have a disabled family member, you should be very agitated as you read this scenario.
  9. “We have unconditional love for him, we are heart broken by this event and wish we had been made aware by the FBI, and we would have committed him into a mental institution for help.” Is there any worse betrayal than for our own government to work against family guardianship of a legally incompetent person?

Friends at the SPLC, this is not the droid you’re looking for. I think the fundamental mistake you’re making is that you assume that someone with this degree of mental illness should not be capable of saying “Yes” when an FBI agent says, “Are you sure you want to keep setting up this bomb?” But that’s naive. Of course Jerry could “reaffirm” his paranoid plans. It’s also likely that the FBI agents heard him say flat-out-nuts things and either jotted them down but kept going, or just omitted to mention it. If Jerry’s “yes” is taken as evidence that he’s not mentally ill, wouldn’t it be fair to find out what else he said that would be evidence that he is?

Can a person with florid paranoid schizophrenia still tie his shoes, read a book, or talk on the phone? Yes. The illness produces neurological and social symptoms that can make these tasks less likely, just as ill individuals are also less likely to wash or eat properly. But it’s patchy. If a guy’s shoes are tied, if he remembers a fact, it doesn’t mean other evidence of illness gets thrown out.

Why attack the family by casting doubt? They’ve made verifiable claims about Jerry’s legal status. This isn’t “making excuses” for an evil doer. It’s time that we took this diagnosis seriously, as seriously as the family does, and as seriously as an Oklahoma judge did.

If federal law does not exclude a legally incompetent man from participation in a sting, it should. If it does not require an agent to take action when he hears obviously paranoid-schizophrenic conversation, it should. It’s not rocket science to work out the difference between an active anti-government militia cell and a legally incompetent man who lives under parental supervision.

If federal law doesn’t already provide for these things, it’s high time it did. I’ll be contacting Representative Tim Murphy’s office, as well as my own Congressmen. I hope you will too.

I'm the author of Re-Modeling the Mind: Personality in Balance; and sometimes I write from family experience about better ways to treat schizophrenia.