Rosalind Russell and John Qualen in “His Girl Friday”
A fast-moving episode from Howard Hawks’ 1940 film, His Girl Friday came to mind this morning, just four days after Adam Lanza, a young man with mental health issues and an arsenal of weapons shot and killed 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut.
In the scene, Hilde Johnson, the fast-talking reporter played by Rosalind Russell, is interviewing a suspected cop-killer, Earl Williams, played by actor John Qualen:
Williams: He [the soap-box speaker] said everything should be made use of.
Hildy: It makes quite a bit of sense, doesn’t it?…Now look, Earl, when you found yourself with that gun in your hand, and that policeman coming at you, what did you think about?…You must have thought of something…Could it have been, uh, ‘production for use’?…What’s a gun for Earl?
Williams: A gun?…Why to shoot, of course.
Hildy: Oh. Maybe that’s why you used it.
Hildy: Seems reasonable?
Williams: Yes, yes it is. You see, I’ve never had a gun in my hand before. That’s what a gun’s for, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why.
Hildy: Sure it is.
Williams: Yes, that’s what I thought of. Production for use. Why, it’s simple isn’t it?
Hildy: Very simple.
Williams: There’s nothing crazy about that, is there?
Hildy: Nope. Nothing at all.
Williams: You’ll write about that in your paper, won’t you?
Hildy: You bet I will.
Williams: I liked talking to you.
I probably would not have thought about this scene, which for some reason had persisted in my memory after all these years, had I not been reading a book by British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, called “The Master and His Emissary.” On page 90, he writes,
“‘Environmental dependency’ syndrome’ refers to an inability to inhibit automatic responses to environmental cues: it is also known as ‘forced utilisation behaviour.’ Individuals displaying such behaviour will, for example, pick up a pair of glasses that are not their own and put them on, just because they are lying on the table, involuntarily pick up a pen and paper and start writing, or passively copy the behaviour of the examiner without being asked to, even picking up a stethoscope and pretending to use it.”
McGilchrist cites a study in which four out of five cases of forced utilisation behaviour were associated with a lesion in the right frontal lobe of the brain. “In each case the patient explained that ‘you held out objects to me; I thought I had to use them.’”
Adam Lanza’s mother was a gun enthusiast and had collected the guns that Adam used in the shooting. She had often taken him out for shooting practice. She knew that he had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.