Books: Hopping mad on happy pills

Julia Neuberger is dismayed by the outcome of an American Prozac trial

The Power to Harm: Mind, Medicine and Murder on Trial by John Cornwell, Viking, pounds 18

Prozac is very much within the new pharmacopoeia for depression and any story about it is guaranteed to attract a lot of attention. You'd think that would be particularly true when there is a major court case in the US, alleging that Prozac was at least partly responsible for the change of personality in someone who committed suicide after firing rounds of bullets into his work colleagues. But the timing, from the point of view of Eli Lilly, the Louisville manufacturers of Prozac, was impeccable: the case went to court at the same time as the O.J. Simpson trial and the goings-on in Kentucky were largely ignored.

They shouldn't have been. On 14 September 1989, Joseph Wesbecker entered the printing plant he had worked in for years, with an AK-47 automatic gun and shot 20 of his colleagues before turning the gun on himself. Wesbecker had been on long-term disability leave from the company as a result of mental illness and had been taunted by his workmates.

The nub of this story is: was Wesbecker just a bad guy, fully in control of his actions, or did he not know what he was doing because he was mentally ill? If he was mentally ill, had his disability been caused by an inherited illness that was exacerbated by difficult circumstances in his early and later life? Or was it because Prozac had heightened his aggressive behavioural patterns?

We do not know what causes spree killings. The explanation that someone is not responsible for their actions because of the circumstances of their early life, or multiple personality, or some other form of personality disorder, is well attested in American law. It is also clearly an issue at the heart of psychological and neuroscientific research.But whatever we think becomes shockingly irrelevant in this case because of the way the plaintiffs' lawyers and the Eli Lilly lawyers settled in secret before the trial finished - without telling Judge Potter, the trial judge.

As Cornwell's book went to press in May, the Supreme Court declared that Judge Potter could conduct a hearing to determine whether the plaintiffs and Eli Lilly had misled the court about a pre-verdict agreement. Cornwell quotes Ed West of Eli Lilly, who argued that even if the verdict eventually went to a settlement rather than a finding that cleared Prozac of any blame "it shouldn't in any way reflect negatively on the product...it's a question of legal procedural wrangling."

Not so. It is fundamental. The plaintiffs' lawyer has given up all his other actions for those claiming Prozac has damaged them or their families. They are now considering suing him for betraying their interests. And he has betrayed their interests. For we have still not tested out how much of a contributory factor Prozac was in Wesbecker's behaviour.

Nor has the conduct of some of the clinical trials been satisfactorily examined in court, even though they were raised during these hearings precisely because of the desire to settle. The Prozac case still requires some explaining, as does the conduct of the lawyers who consented to be bought off. The "bottom line" takes precedence over truth, decency, and ordinary kindness, and only John Cornwell's determination to tell the tale makes us ask these questions at all.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'