Whereas pictorial art does not nowadays reach a particularly wide public – art galleries being mainly visited by art historians, potential purchasers, parties of schoolchildren, and the elderly – the moving picture has considerable influence as a medium for social and public health education. However, it has also depicted people with epilepsy more graphically and in some respects judgementally. In this chapter we shall consider the portrayal of epilepsy in cinema films and on television. Below is an extract.

“In 1973, Martin Scorsese directed and co-wrote the film Mean Streets, which starred Robert Di Niro and Harvey Keitel, who at that time were unknown but would go on to become household names. Based in the ‘Little Italy’ neighbourhood of Manhattan, the story follows Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young Italian-American man, as he tries to juggle his conscience and Catholicism with his life and activities among the gangs of New York. He works as a money collector for his uncle, a gangster called Giovanni, and spends much time saying Hail Marys to seek absolution from his sins. He has empathy for those in debt, including his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert Di Niro), and tries not to be too hard on them when collecting their dues. Johnny Boy is unaware of the hazards of owing money to Michael, a gangster loan shark, and instead lives for the moment, spending money that he does not have, regardless of the consequences. Charlie tries to keep Michael off Johnny Boy’s back, and to make him more responsible as well as to protect him. Charlie has an affair with Teresa, Johnny Boy’s cousin. Because Teresa has epilepsy, no one – including Johnny Boy – approves of this relationship, which is seen as an obstacle to Charlie’s advancement in the criminal world. Teresa loves Charlie but knows that because of her seizures and the disapproval of Giovanni, his uncle, she is viewed as a burden and will eventually lose him. She is intelligent and beautiful, but because of her condition she is also friendless and socially excluded. On one occasion when she is trying to separate the arguing Charlie and Johnny Boy she starts to have a seizure, and her mother rushes to her aid. Giovanni believes Teresa to be ‘sick in the head’, regards her as tarnished goods, and insists that his nephew Charlie must end the relationship. His attitude to epilepsy is harsh and uncaring, as demonstrated by the following extract from the film script:

Giovanni: This Johnny Boy is like your mister Groppi … a little crazy. It’s nice you should help him out because of his family and our family but watch yourself. … Don’t spoil anything. His whole family has problems … his cousin, the girl who lives next door to you …

Charlie: Teresa.

Giovanni: The one who’s sick, right? In the head.

Charlie: No, she’s got epilepsy.

Giovanni: Yeah. That’s what I said, sick in the head.

Teresa makes it to the door and opens it quickly. Johnny Boy grabs her to keep her from leaving. Charlie rushes towards them and pulls Johnny Boy away. By now, they are halfway down the hall.

Johnny Boy (shouting): Charlie … I always wondered about her … what happens when she comes? Does she get one of those fits? Eh? That would be something to see.

Johnny Boy is interrupted by Charlie’s fist as it lands a solid punch on the right side of his hand. Teresa screams and rushes to separate them.[1]

As pressures mount, Charlie has to make a decision, and does not like any of the options. He tries desperately but unsuccessfully to reconcile the disparate parts of his life, and there is no hope of a good outcome. This film shows no sympathy for Teresa and her epilepsy. It is an unflinching portrayal of the harsh, unforgiving, male-dominated environment that the characters inhabit. It depicts Teresa’s epilepsy as a personality flaw, and promotes the message that it is unwise to take on such an unnecessary burden by becoming involved with a person who has the condition. The fact that Teresa and Charlie love one another is regarded as irrelevant. This is a world where only the fittest survive, and choices have to be made in that context. Scorsese and his colleagues need make no apology for the script, as it reflects accurately the place and time in which it is set. In fact the shocking nature of the attitudes that are depicted might well have a positive effect in causing viewers to question the acceptability of such views”.

[1] From the script by Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin, and Ethan Edwards.