Beyond the Gates of Gomorrah is the true story of a psychiatrist who is beginning a new job in the forensic unit of a mental health hospital in California (which he refers to as Gomorrah). Every day he walks among rapists and murderers, all there because the justice system deemed them not responsible for their actions due to mental illness. Despite being terrified to go to work, being the target of threats of and witnessing violent attacks he is able to see the humanity in his patients and even misses one of them when gone.
Dr. Seager also deals with several current issues, most notably proposed gun law changes after the Newtown, Connecticut shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school. To target those who have been treated for some kind of mental illness would do nothing to reduce mass shootings, he says. Those who commit this type of crime are a specific, small subset of those afflicted with a mental illness: paranoid, but organized (are able to hold down a job, handle money, etc.).This type of person will refuse treatment and would be less likely to be picked up by a background check. The assumption that the mentally ill are, as a whole, dangerous is false; they are more likely to be victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators.
I was drawn to this book because I did a co-op at a similar facility in Toronto when I was in school. I could relate to the duality of feeling that even knowing you are speaking with someone who has committed a terrible crime, in that moment you can still get past what they have done and relate to him. Although some of the things he describes can come off as surreal (for example the staff vs. patients baseball game), it made me remember things like pick up soccer games in the courtyard during recreation periods.
In the book, Dr. Seager continually tries to figure out why he stays despite his fear. I remember the feeling of helping to care for people in the margins of society, of giving compassion to people who probably haven’t seen much compassion in their lives and I think I know why he stayed. The time I spent at my “Gomorrah” was an experience that really changed my mind about mental illness, crime and the law – and if this book is read with an open mind I think it too can make a difference.