Film documents the recovery of schizophrenic Sean Clifton

Sean Clifton in the Brookville Mental Health Centre. Pic: Geoff George
Sean Clifton in the Brookville Mental Health Centre. Pic: Geoff George

IT was an October evening in 1999 when 22-year-old Julie Bouvier was stabbed six times outside a Walmart in Cornwall, a small city in Ontario, Canada. She was about to be married and went to the shopping centre, with her friend, to buy nappies and baby formula.

She did not provoke her attacker, Sean Clifton. “The devil told him to stab the prettiest girl that he’d seen,” says Bouvier’s father.

Earlier that day, Clifton had snapped. He went to his local hospital’s psychiatric ward for help, to tell them he was hearing voices again. The hospital was too busy to talk to him. He went to Walmart to attack a woman, any woman. He shoplifted the knife.

Bouvier could hear yelling as she was being attacked: “Die, you bitch.” It felt like she was being punched in the stomach, as she fell. A calm descended over Clifton, who stopped his attack, and asked a bystander: “Do you think the police are going to come?”

Clifton waited for the police, and watched from a police car as Bouvier was taken away in an ambulance. Bouvier underwent two rounds of surgery. The stab wounds were less than half an inch from her heart, and skirted her spine. She had a collapsed lung, and slept upright in a chair for months afterwards because of the pain.

Clifton ended up in a forensic psychiatric unit at Brockville Mental Health Centre, where filmmaker John Kastner began filming him for his documentary, NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, which will be screened next weekend as part of the Cork Film Festival.

Kastner, who in 1978 won the first of four Emmy awards, had unprecedented access to the patients at Brockville for three-and-a-half years, which clarified his misconceptions. He was “spooked” on first entering the hospital, but humour broke down the barriers.

“A lot of my colleagues, even well-informed journalists, were under the impression: there’s so little known about these guys that there’s really nothing much that can be done for them. Well, there is a great deal that can be done,” he says.

“I was present in an institution where guys would come in, having committed their crimes in what they call floridly psychotic states, literally ‘raving lunatics’, spouting gibberish, dangerous and violent, not just suicidal but homicidal. Then, they would give them two or three needles of anti-psychotics, and, in a remarkably short period of time, of two to three months, you see the evil Mr Hyde transform before your eyes into the good Dr Jekyll. You’d see the stages: first, the violence would calm down, and the gibberish would recede, and within about three months, you could have a reasonably normal conversation.

“Then, what would happen in many cases is that they would come to their senses again and it would hit them like a ton of bricks what they had done — that they had killed a mother or father or son or wife, and they would go into such a grief that doctors would often have to intervene, because, in some cases, they would be suicidal.”

Clifton was one of the most difficult cases hospital staff encountered. He suffered from two conditions: schizophrenia and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.

He was consumed with several daily rituals, which took up 10 to 12 hours of his day. At mealtime, he would have to adjust his tray 10 or 15 times before leaving the dining hall. To pass through a doorway, he would count its woodwork for an hour. If he was outside, he couldn’t walk forward unless one foot was exactly in front of the other.

Clifton’s upbringing was troubled. His parents split up when he was six years of age. He lived with his mother, who often threatened to commit suicide by throwing herself off the local bridge. Clifton began to feel mentally unwell from 14 years of age, and had suicidal thoughts.

In Brockville, Clifton was moved from a high-security ward to a minimum-security ward after eight months, and then to a group home, and a shared house, and finally to his own apartment. He does not have a full discharge, which would free him of the restraints of nurses, doctors and the legal system.

The documentary explores his relationships with Bouvier and with her parents. Bouvier’s story, in coming to terms with her attack, is equally compelling. Kastner has a message for the management of mental-health institutions.

“Stop hiding the patients,” he says. “It is a catastrophic failure of community-health policy. It sends a terrible message to the public. It says, ‘these people are such freaks that we can’t even allow you to have a look at them’.”

*NCR: Not Criminally Responsible screens at Triskel Christchurch, Triskel Arts Centre, Tobin St, Cork, 1pm, Sunday, Nov 17. Further information: CorkFilmFest.org.

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