Can Prozac destroy our free will?

The most famous drug of the Nineties was blamed for a mass killing. Establishing its innocence has restored our humanity, says Andrew Brown
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The Independent Online
Joe Wesbecker was a man with a bad life. His second ex-wife was still friends with him, but that was about the extent of his success. One son was a compulsive flasher; the other had an expensive and disfiguring curvature of the spine. Joe himself was off sick after working for 17 years in the Standard Gravure printing plant in Louisville, Kentucky. The work there was unremitting and had grown worse over the years as the seven presses, each 150 feet long, and three storeys high, were worked harder and harder by fewer and fewer men.

In 1986 the business was brought by Michael Shea, a 36-year-old entrepreneur, who paid $22m for it. The first thing he did was to call the staff together and tell them the future would be better. The second was to use $11m from the pension fund to pay back some of the money he'd borrowed to buy the company.

Wesbecker frequently worked two eight-hour shifts in succession for the sake of the overtime, as did many of his co-workers. It would be wrong to call them colleagues, because the word implies friendliness or mutual solidarity. But in the Standard Gravure printing plant the working men treated each other as badly as the owners, bullying, needling, and threatening. Wesbecker called the management style "industrial sodomy". Men would bring guns to work and boast about how some day they were going to get even. Wesbecker once walked around with the curved ammunition clip from an AK47 in his back pocket.

Finally, in August 1988 he was sent home, diagnosed as depressed. He was treated, as usual, with drugs. In the years since 1984, various doctors prescribed him Valium, Percodan, Indocin, Elavil, Norpramin, Navane, Tofranil, Lithobid, Pamelor, Halcion, Desyrel and Restoril. Few of these substances helped. In September 1989 his last doctor, Lee Coleman, tried him on Prozac. This caused him to remember, or to believe he had remembered, that he had had to fellate a foreman at the printing plant to avoid operating one of the more terrible machines there. Dr Coleman told him to stop taking Prozac and come back in a week's time.

Instead, three days later, Wesbecker walked back into the printing plant with an AK47 and three spare clips. He shot 20 of his co-workers, killing eight, and maiming two more, then killed himself with an automatic pistol.

Who could blame him?

Eli Lilly did. The company makes Prozac. Perhaps a third of its $6.5bn revenues were dependent on the drug; and when the survivors of the printing plant shootings, and the widows of the dead, brought a suit against the company in 1994, the company's lawyers set out, by a minute examination of every detail of Wesbecker's life, to prove that he was bad, not mad. Now John Cornwell, one of the best living writers on the changes that science is making in our understanding of humanity, has written a book about the trial - from which all the facts have been lifted without shame.

Quite a lot of the story is still unclear. The jury in Louisville found in favour of Eli Lilly, but only after the plaintiffs had decided not to introduce some of their evidence. This they did after reaching a financial settlement with Lilly, which is rumoured to have been immense. The terms of the settlement are still secret, though we know that one of its terms was that the beneficiaries could not talk publicly about it.

Even the fact that the settlement had been reached was kept from both judge and jury until after the verdict was announced. This so enraged Judge Potter, when he found out, that he decided to conduct a hearing into the deal. This move was resisted by Lilly; the state supreme court, however, sided with Judge Potter, saying in its judgment: "There may have been deception, bad faith conduct, abuse of the judicial process, or perhaps even fraud." Judge Potter's findings are due to be announced this autumn.

In the meantime, the Prozac trial has raised in its sharpest form the question of whether the American courts, and thus American society, actually have any satisfactory theory of what it means to be a moral being. The jury, according to Cornwell, was forced to decide between two equally unsatisfactory models of Wesbecker's nature. Either he was a victim or a criminal. Either he was wholly responsible for everything he did, riding alone through society like some Clint Eastwood figure, a man whose every act was his own, and who could never be touched by the ties of community or love. Or he was no more than the outcome of an argument of chemicals.

When Wesbecker stalked through the plant where he had worked for years, maiming and killing everyone who had offended him, was his motivation no more than bad reactions in a chemical soup? Could he have helped himself? And if so, who is the "he" who could have helped himself?

Both stereotypes, the victim and the criminal, have deep roots in American culture. This is shown by a bizarre moment in Cornwell's account of the murders. Halfway through his rampage Wesbecker, spattered with blood and clutching his submachine gun, met a co-worker he had always quite liked, and told him to get out of the way. "Go to it, Rocky", replied his friend, and ran, and survived. "Go to it, Rocky": of all the ways we might react if confronted by a crazed gunman, perhaps that is the most shameful. Yet anyone who has seen films about a lone avenger, or who has enjoyed computer games like Doom, will know exactly what he meant, and why he said it. Go to it Rocky, smash all our cages for us.

This spectre of complete wild freedom, wholly unbounded, grows stronger the more we see the ways in which science and economics conspire to rob us of even the smallest spontaneity. The workers at the Standard Gravure printing plant were steadily ground down as more and more scope for initiative and fun was removed from their lives.

The parallels across the industrial world are easy to see.Each successive heat in the rat race is run over a longer, tougher course at higher speeds. And this crushing of individuality probably does as much as fear of crime to explain the hold that guns have on the American imagination. If guns were not a totem of freedom for everyone, it would seem simply insane to sue the firm that made Wesbecker's tranquillisers and not the shop that sold him an assault rifle and $137 worth of ammunition.

Still, freedom diminishes every year. Science - or the marketing departments of chemical companies - holds out the hope that more and more of human behaviour will be predictable and ultimately controllable. The science behind Prozac is still remarkably imprecise: it works by affecting the levels of serotonin in the brain: a neuropsychologist once told me that this was like trying to improve the economy by fiddling with interest rates - but of course economics is a much more precise science than brain chemistry.

None the less, there are researchers who believe that studying the workings of the brain will soon put us in a position where free will and responsibility will evaporate as real explanations for human behaviour in the same way as witchcraft has. The brain, they say, is a physical system, obeying physical and chemical laws. We know what these laws are already. All we have to do is to discover their detailed application to brain events. Even without that detailed knowledge, argue people like Colin Blakemore, an Oxford psychologist, we can be certain in principle that free will is an illusion, because thoughts are brain states, and brain states, like everything else in the physical world, change according to physical laws we know and understand.

The idea underlying this is that a suitably equipped outside observer could know my own mind literally better than I could. The argument does not convince everyone. It frightens those judges who have thought about it. If we take seriously the idea that free will is an illusion, some crimes, like rape, must disappear completely; and sentencing policy will become extremely odd, though perhaps no odder than it is at present in America.

Yet in real life we are neither wholly victims nor wholly criminals, and the ideas we use every day bear this out. In everyday life, we have an idea, however blurred, of what it means to be provoked beyond endurance and of how we normally are not. We know what self-control means, even if we can't define it. Something important about being human is missing if it is reduced to the choice between being a victim and a criminal.

These may seem abstract points. But billions of dollars rode on them in the Louisville trial. If Lilly lost, one senior executive said, the whole company could go down the tubes. Prozac was worth a third of its revenues. And the case was being decided by an ordinary jury whose members could probably not even now explain what a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor is or why it is supposed to work.

How, then, could they decide whether such a chemical was responsible for tipping Joe Wesbecker over the edge? By making the settlement they did, Lilly's executives may have risked accusations of "deception, bad faith conduct, abuse of the judicial process, or perhaps even fraud". But I think we should be grateful that they chose to do so. Human beings are not mere victims of their brain chemistry. Free will and responsibility are social ideas, which have been laboriously hammered out in every human society. They describe us in our inescapable character as social beings. Without them, there would be no societies and no human beings.