Dear Claire Dunphy: About your 'Insane Asylum of Horror'

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modernMorning Zen Guest blog post ~ Liza Long ~ 

Dear Claire DunphyFrom one soccer mom to another, here’s why your Halloween Insane Asylum of Horror was anything but awesome 

You may remember seeing me at the soccer field, the grocery store, the PTA meetings. Like you, I’m pretty Type A when it comes to raising my kids; for many years, I viewed birthday party goody bags as a competitive sport. But then something happened to my family that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: my second son began to show symptoms of a serious chronic illness. 

By the time he was in preschool, we knew something was not right. At first, they said maybe it was autism. Later, they would tell us it was Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. There were so many labels and different medications! We took parenting classes, got on wait lists for specialists, and restructured our entire family’s life around the child who had an illness, as many families in our situation do. We also became increasingly isolated from our friends and community, as it became harder and harder to manage our son’s behavioral symptoms. 

In the midst of the struggles to find an answer, my marriage disintegrated. It was not my son’s fault. But the stress of raising a child with a serious illness can prove overwhelming sometimes. And suddenly, like many other single moms, I was doing it alone. I remember one time at the soccer field, when my son’s shoe came off, and he couldn’t fix it, and he collapsed, wailing and screaming. I will never forget the look of absolute disgust on your face and the faces of other parents that day, the look that said, “What’s wrong with that mom? Why can’t she control her kid?” 

Or the time in the grocery store when my son was screaming “Child abuser! Child abuser!” at me and you threatened to call the police and took down my license plate number. Fortunately, the store manager protected me. “I understand,” he whispered to me. “My nephew has autism.” 

Or the time you stood at your front window and gawked when I called the police on my own son, because in America, that’s what we have to do when our children have an uncontrolled brain attack. You stared as three policemen put my son in handcuffs and carried him twisting and screaming to the back of their car. You didn’t hear the policeman say to me, “You’re a good mom, ma’am. Never forget that. We know your son needs help, and we will help him to get it.” (God bless our crisis intervention team-trained police department!). 

When you found out my son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital, you didn’t offer to watch my other children so I could visit him. You did not bring me a casserole. Mental illness is not a casserole disease, I guess. Fortunately for us, after nine years, my son finally got the correct diagnosis. I was relieved when I found out he had bipolar disorder, because I respect and admire my friends and acquaintances who are successfully managing their bipolar disorder and living productive, happy lives. This was the future I had thought my own child could never have. Suddenly, we had hope. 

I’m a soccer mom like you, Claire. And what happened to my child could happen to your child. Mental illness is not a choice or a character flaw. This is why your Insane Asylum was so offensive to me and to my son. It’s not funny to ridicule people who are sick. Worse, the image of mental illness you portrayed is not remotely what mental illness really looks like. 

You seemed to recognize your cruel mistake when your neighbor Ronnie lied to you and told you his wife had spent six months in the “cuckoo farm” (lovely words, those). But what about all the real people—children included—who could have been harmed by your Halloween “joke”? What message did you send your own children? My son has worn a straitjacket too, but his was during a behavioral episode. And like many children with mental illness, he has been institutionalized, though we don’t really have insane asylums anymore. We have something far worse: prison. My son was in juvenile detention four times before he was 12 years old, not because he's a bad kid, but because he had behavioral symptoms of a brain disease. 

Claire, here are some truly scary facts about mental illness:

Many people have defended your actions, saying “It’s Halloween! She was just having fun!” Others have accused me of focusing too much on political correctness. But I don’t think I’m out of line in asking for some basic respect from you. We talk a lot about the word “stigma” when we talk about mental illness. But what we really mean is “discrimination.” Your unrealistic and negative portrayal of mental illness perpetuates that “us vs. them” mentality that allows those of us who are not living with it to continue thinking mental illness is a choice, or that it is caused by bad parenting. 

So Claire, as a fellow soccer mom, I’m officially asking for an apology. Your Insane Asylum of Horror, had you let it stand, would truly have been the most frightening house in the neighborhood. But for different reasons than you think. 

P.S. To the writers of Modern Familyone in five children in the U.S. will suffer from a serious and debilitating mental disorder at some point before age 18. You have five children on your show. I challenge you to introduce mental illness for one of those children into next season’s plot line. You could use your platform to change people’s perceptions about mental illness in real and meaningful ways.

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lizaLiza Long, aka the Anarchist Soccer Mom, is a writer, educator, mental health advocate, and mother of four children. She loves her Steinway, her kids,and her day job, not necessarily in that order. Her book "The Price of Silence: A Mom's Perspective on Mental Illness" is now available in bookstores.


  1. Cyndi's avatar
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    Very well done. Thank you for speaking up and out!
  2. Barb T's avatar
    Barb T
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    Thanks for sharing your story, which is basically our story, except replace he with she, but it's all the same. Neighbors saying you're a bad mom, school administrators telling you that your child needs a good spanking, doctors saying "we know it's bipolar disorder but we try not to diagnose that at such a young age." Although it made me cry to read this, it felt so good to feel not alone, someone else has the same story.
  3. Rachel J.'s avatar
    Rachel J.
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    Your words are like they come straight from my life book. I am Bipolar, and wear the illness proudly. I am glad to hear there are others that are navigating this neurological brain disorder successfully. We need more Bipolar roll models, and we need them in the lime-light. My diagnosis was also a weight off my shoulders, and medication works fabulously for me. I also have a son who inherited my bipolar, and I have to say it is way harder watching someone suffer an illness than living through it. Don't get me wrong, before I got the diagnosis it almost killed me, but watching someone in the pain when you know what it feels like is way worse.
  4. Barbara Washington's avatar
    Barbara Washington
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    thank you for writing this! The only thing I would add is 80% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosed mental illness and suicide is the third leading cause of death in our youth and 10th in adults!

    It'd be great if they introduced a cast member with mental illness for sure.
  5. Brenda Dillon's avatar
    Brenda Dillon
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    I must say as someone who has struggled with mental health issues since the age of 6 (I am 36) your response was spot on. However, while I understand that you are writing from your perspective as a mom, your casual use and dismissal of what once was insane asylums is not quite accurate. I speak as the great-granddaughter, and granddaughter of two gentlemen who spent long periods of time in these institutions. I have no doubt that prison and juvenile detention is not the answer for the mental health epidemic, but please do not dismiss the suffering of those who came before us.
  6. Kerri Zeblisky's avatar
    Kerri Zeblisky
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    Thanks for the response, I live with bi-polar disorder. as a child I was moody and was told I'd grow out of it. They were very wrong, I wish I got a correct diagnoses as a teen and got the help I needed before adulthood. I didn't
    another scarey fact: most people with mental illness are Victims of crimes (yes Hollywood Victims) not the perpetrators of them. I'm not saying that they're not any that don't but not all the perpetrators of esp violent crimes have an illness. I'm more afraid of the person who doesn't admit that they need help when stressed (only crazy people see shrinks attitude) they are more likely to 'flip their lid' or 'go postal' then a person like me who see they need help when overwhelmed and seek it.
  7. Elizabeth's avatar
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    I wish I could know you personally. This was such a wonderful message. My son is also Bipolar and I have experienced many of the things you spoke of here. I wish you all the best!
  8. Kathy Levenston's avatar
    Kathy Levenston
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    Thank you for this heartfelt commentary! We all need to be sensitive to the struggles of parents with children who have serious mental illnesses, and do everything we can to fight the stigma.
  9. Kristina Hannon, MSW's avatar
    Kristina Hannon, MSW
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    I appreciate most of your response. It was spot on. This is also one of my favorite shows and I found this episode to be very offensive. I agree that an apology is in order. However, I don't believe that the writers should write illness, mental or physical, into the plot line. This show is a sit com, and it should remain focused on providing comedic relief to a world with 24 hours news cycles focusing on negative information and narcissism promoting reality television. People need to laugh; and sitcoms are not the place to insert issues. This is what ruined the Roseanne show decades ago.
  10. Maricella M. Sherwin, Ph.D's avatar
    Maricella M. Sherwin, Ph.D
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    Excellent response. Thank you for raising our awareness of how we relate to and depict people with mental illness. I hope the writers take you up on the challenge!
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