COUPLE FOUND SLAIN
After a Family Murder
By Mikita Brottman
Mikita Brottman is one of today’s finest practitioners of nonfiction that explores the uncertain truths revealed when violence crashes into human life. Her 2018 book “An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere” was more a meditation on the city of Baltimore and what it means to go missing than it was about any crime, even revealing that Brottman herself was once convinced she had become invisible.
Her new book, “Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder,” embarks on an urgent and worthy task. Dispatching with the titular murder, in which a man in Maryland with a schizophrenia diagnosis kills his wretchedly abusive parents, in the first few pages, Brottman offers a precise and rarely seen accounting of American hospitals for the criminally insane. She argues, via her subject Brian Bechtold, that the system we have to shelter and heal people like him not only does not work, but is in fact far more damaging than incarceration.
While institutionalized, Bechtold experiences a staggering list of traumas: incompetent psychiatrists who require absolute compliance, being medicated against his will to the point of stupefaction and incontinence, and witnessing the murders of three fellow patients. At several points, Bechtold decides he has no other option but to break out of his hospital, the Clifton T. Perkins Center, and attack several workers with the explicit goal of being shot or sent to jail. “Perkins is supposed to be a hospital,” Bechtold tells Brottman, “but it’s worse than a prison.”
I wondered how well this claim would hold up to larger-scale reporting or if applied to cases of criminally insane patients who are not physically fit white cisgender men like Bechtold. Yet Brottman never asks this question. In a choice that bummed me out, she shoves her own smart, nuanced and questioning mind to the back seat in this work, giving the wheel over almost entirely to Bechtold’s perspective and judgment.
The result is an answer to an important inquiry that does not always feel journalistically rigorous or emotionally complex. “Brian’s attempts to accommodate his treatment team had backfired,” Brottman writes. “He just couldn’t win.” And, when a psychiatrist at the hospital who has wronged Bechtold turns out to be seriously mentally ill: “That, at least, was a small dose of justice.” Bechtold’s beliefs that women in general had it easier in the hospital and that Black hospital workers unfairly targeted him are also reported as plain facts.
Brottman also seems to defer to Bechtold even on the most sensitive details. When Bechtold recounts how a fellow hospital inmate, a transgender woman named Shawnté Anne Levy, came out to Bechtold as trans using her now defunct name and “he” pronouns, Brottman makes the same mistake and even doubles down on his regressive worldview. Bechtold, Brottman writes, “knew El was deeply confused, especially when it came to gender. The man was a paradox.”
“Couple Found Slain” is most powerful when it shows the compounding injustice that results when the criminal mental health system is layered on top of mass incarceration. The courts are not set up to determine competence or understand the issues involved in medicating people against their will, and thus tend to offload judgment on all important elements to psychiatrists. This gives these mental health practitioners, often overworked and with a decided interest in outcomes that make their lives easier, the final say in complicated legal and ethical matters.
Unfortunately, the book suffers from a similar lack of an engaged arbiter. Nonfiction writing is never objective, but so much of the pleasure of reading literary reportage for me comes from the space between the writer and her subjects, space that allows for the tension of empathy, disgust, distrust, projection, fellowship or hate to enter. I am not talking about clichés of journalistic “distance” but rather the differentiation of one way of seeing the world from another, and the ways that an author can subtly draw a story with integrity, a kind of line of best fit, through the chaotic scatterplot of thousands of human data points. In the absence of this centering vision, what is lost in Brottman’s “Couple Found Slain” is insight.