March 21, 2012
How Invisible Children and supporters responded to the co-founder’s psychotic episode
Well, I was wrong. I don’t mind admitting when I am, but I don’t particularly like feeling this bad about it.
Like many, I didn’t believe that Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell was just suffering from “exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition” last week when he was hospitalized after some really bizarre behavior in Pacific Beach. Moreover, I was surprised to see Invisible Children and many of my friends, several of whom have worked for Invisible Children or are close with the early staff, stand by Russell. In a different context, I thought, this guy would be looking for a new job.
But then news came out today that Russell had suffered from a “reactive psychosis”—and acute reaction to all the sleep he had lost and stress he had endured after “KONY 2012” went viral and every cable news and network morning show wanted him on air. This gibes with what Ford Vox wrote at The Atlantic over the weekend. Vox, a brain injury physician and journalist, wrote:
Now Russell’s family has said the same. The AP reports:
I mention this now because Russell’s sickness, for which he will spend several weeks in the hospital, raises very interesting questions about how organizations should respond to leaders who appear troubled.
The world saw Russell as nuts. In what has been a sadly polarized treatment of the Invisible Children cause, many seemed to cheerlead Russell’s personal and very public breakdown. And Twitter ran wild with wholly offensive mockeries of Russell and the cause that Invisible Children has been fighting for. Inside the walls, though, I saw friends and longtime supporters of Invisible Children standing by Russell and simply asking people to pray for him and for the future of Invisible Children and its efforts in Africa.
I was somewhere between. I had the sense that news reports had a lot of gaps and were overplaying the sensational allegations. (For example, Slate originally ran the headline “KONY 2012 Filmmaker Arrested for Public Masturbation”—which they later corrected because Russell wasn’t arrested; the masturbation detail, which never seemed believable, has disappeared from more recent news stories, and I suspect that it’s because it didn’t happen.
I had my own theories, and they revolved around too much alcohol interacting with too little sleep and hydration, and maybe a weak stomach.
All the while I wondered how so many could stand by Russell even if his behavior had hurt the organization they support. Vox’s article was the first to make me think about an alternative understanding of the situation.
I strongly suspect that the supportive reaction to Russell had something to do with the religious perspective shared by many Invisible Children supporters. As I’ve mentioned before, Invisible Children comes from a very Christian place. They’ve gone out of their way to not be perceived as a Christian ministry, but the people involved, and particularly the leadership, are largely from an evangelical Christian background. And I wonder how much that affected the reaction to Russell’s hospitalization.
Maybe it isn’t something limited to Invisible Children’s Christian roots—maybe it’s the religious roots and the culture of compassion that run through the group. Maybe the same would be seen at any number of non-sectarian nonprofits trying to heal the world from a religious place.
I certainly can’t imagine the same reaction if Russell’s employer was a school board or notable local business. Or a celebrity? No way. But, in hindsight, it seems like the loving reaction, the supportive, embrace, was the correct one.
I’m hopeful for Russell’s speedy and complete recovery—and interested to see how he uses his very public breakdown, on the heels of the biggest week since organization had seen, to tell a different story and maybe address another cause.