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Policing mental health, finding sexism in science, remembering the other Mrs. Cash

Justin Volpe in "The Definition of Insanity."Courtesy Found Object

Gabriel London’s “The Definition of Insanity” opens with the alarming statistic that every year 2 million mentally ill people end up behind bars. One of them was Justin Volpe, who found himself in the psychiatric ward of the Miami-Dade jail lying on a floor covered with feces, vomit, and urine. Scores of others were “lined up like sardines on the floor.” One night he heard a screaming prisoner being beaten into silence by a guard.

Today Volpe is a jail diversion peer liaison, working for the Miami-Dade Criminal Mental Health Project, the same agency that helped rehabilitate him. Drawing on a network of community resources and the cooperation of the court system and police, the program diverts mentally ill people from the criminal justice system to facilities where they can get help.


London’s film follows the progress of participants over the course of 18 months as they undergo a supervised rehabilitation regimen which if fulfilled will clear them of criminal prosecution and give them a chance to rebuild their lives. Meanwhile the police department has also had officers undergo a Crisis Intervention Team training program that teaches them how to recognize and respond to people undergoing a psychotic episode and avoid potentially deadly confrontations. Instead of arresting people who are ill officers are instructed how to defuse the situation and help get those stricken proper treatment. (Jenifer McShane’s affecting 2019 documentary, “Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops,” follows such a police unit in action in San Antonio.)

Is the program working? Since it started, Miami-Dade county has seen arrests drop from 118,000 a year to 56,000, saving some $12 million that would have been spent on incarceration. It has also, as seen in the film, helped turn around some lives.

“The Definition of Insanity” can be streamed on


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“Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” can be streamed on HBO.

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Jane Willenbring in "Picture a Scientist."Courtesy Uprising LLC

Scientific investigation

As with Hollywood and academia, science has been exposed for its institutionalized sexism and rampant sexual abuse of women.

Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck’s quietly devastating documentary, “Picture a Scientist,” opens with a nightmarish scenario. Jane Willenbring, a brilliant graduate student studying geology, has gotten a chance to join an esteemed researcher and his all-male team for a months-long field research study in Antarctica. At first the researcher just made inappropriate jokes, but soon he was calling her obscene names, belittling her, even throwing rocks at her when she went to relieve herself. At one point he took her aside and told her she would never have a career in science.

Stuck in the vast emptiness of Antarctica with an abusive man who might have her future in his hands, she resigned herself to suffering in silence. Later, she thought, she would be able to report the researcher and have justice done.

But she kept putting it off until years later when her own daughter told her she wanted to be a scientist. Willenbring didn’t want her to have to endure the same toxic environment that she experienced. So she decided to act, challenging the system and demanding change.

Cheney and Shattuck profile several other women scientists, varying in age and scientific field, who faced similar abuse with the same sense of powerlessness and resignation. They, too, decided to act, bonding together and confronting the scientific community with its entrenched, institutionalized bias and abuse.


These women experienced insults, discrimination, threats to career advancement, and sexual harassment, yet they persevered and became leaders in their fields. But as the film points out, many other women felt discouraged and dropped out, depriving the world of unknown discoveries and advances in science because a male-dominated institution riddled with unacknowledged misogynistic bias drove them away or wouldn’t give them a chance.

“Picture a Scientist” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room beginning on June 12.

A virtual panel discussion with the filmmakers and subjects of the film moderated by Molly Webster of Radiolab can be streamed on June 17 at 8 p.m.

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Vivian and Johnny Cash.Courtesy Estate of Vivian Distin.

Cashed out

Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian, did not fit well into his legend. She’s depicted as a wet blanket in James Mangold’s Cash biopic, “Walk the Line” (2005), dismissing his ambitions of country music stardom by saying “Your band is two mechanics who can’t even hardly play.” Otherwise she is mostly forgotten, and people believe that Cash was always married to fellow country music star June Carter Cash, and that she was the mother of his four daughters.

Those daughters — Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara — get together in Matt Riddlehoover’s documentary “My Darling Vivian” to set the record straight about their real mother. With extended interviews, archival photos and clips, and many love letters, the film tells the story of an intense romance that began in 1951 at a roller skating rink in San Antonio. Cash, 19, about to be sent to Germany by the Air Force, bumped into Vivian Liberto, a 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl.


They fell in love, and their passion endured through his three-year absence in the service. When Cash returned they got married, he became a success, and once again he was absent, on tour and seldom at home. Alone, Vivian tended to the family in a giant house he bought for them in the isolated desert town of Casitas Springs, Calif., that was surrounded by snakes and other varmints and constantly visited by fans. Vivian learned how to shoot a rifle and picked off the rattlers threatening the kids. Later, in 1966 when the KKK and other hate groups threatened to kill her and the children after rumors spread that she was Black, she would sit on guard with the gun by a window, conjuring up the image of Lilian Gish in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955).

When Cash was around, the situation was often tumultuous. The two fought, and Vivian became suicidal. Nonetheless, the marriage lasted for 12 years. Though the daughters clearly revere both their mother and father, they admit that it was not an easy situation in which to grow up. As Rosanne Cash, who would herself become a country and pop music star, puts it, “It was not how children should be raised.”

Part portrait of a family, part testimony to the toll taken by fame and genius, “Vivian” adds depth and clarity to the myth of Johnny Cash.


“My Darling Vivian” can be streamed beginning on June 19 at the Film Forum Virtual Cinema and other venues.

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Peter Keough can be reached at