Thoughts & Musings

“Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?”
Nuts by Tom Topor (2008)

© 2011 by Eileen Warburton

“Sanity is a cozy lie.” Susan Sontag

What is sanity anyway? Is it some kind of consistency in one’s individual vision that jibes with reality? If your vision apprehends the world differently, are you insane or just inspired? Or an artist maybe?

Actually, sanity and insanity-at least as legal terms-have nothing to do with what goes on inside the individual person’s head. Sanity (legally) is about functioning in society, so it has to do with social norms and agreed-upon conventions of behavior. And who gets to decide if a person is insane? Society, in the form of doctors, judges, parents, teachers, and other “authorities,” gets to decide if the individual is sane or not.

If a person’s behavior is aberrant or destructive (to self or others), the critical question is “Do they know it?” Do they recognize that the actions are transgressive of accepted behavior? Are they fully conscious and taking responsibility for their actions? Can they: a) predict the results of their actions, and b) act in their own best interest?

If the act is deliberately destructive and they know it, the individual can be held accountable. They could, as Claudia ultimately is, be charged with a criminal offense. If, because of some mental defect of reason, the individual does not know that the action is wrong, then we’re in the realm of insanity.

Claudia, the central character of Nuts, wants to be considered responsible for her actions. Indeed, her entire survival requires that she be judged sane and responsible-even though this will put her in legal jeopardy and she will have to stand trial for manslaughter. But the alternative is worse. If Claudia is judged insane and unable to stand trial, she can be labeled and conveniently put away for the rest of her life.

On the surface, her behavior, her whole life style, is aberrant and destructive. She’s a high-priced call girl with a precisely refined schedule of fees for specific services. She won’t accept help or shelter from her apparently loving parents. She won’t accept help from the ex-husband she still loves. She’s angry at the world. She imagines conspiracies-from her parents, from the examining psychiatrist, from the district attorney’s office, from the judge. Isn’t it nuts to follow such a lifestyle when there are loving or concerned people who want to help you? Isn’t it crazy to act as Claudia does when authorities stretch out a helping hand? “We’re not talking about a girl from the streets,” exclaims the psychiatrist. “We’re talking about a nice, bright middle-class girl who couldn’t cope and broke down. When a girl like this becomes a prostitute and kills one of her own customers, we’re talking about breakdown. Breakdown.”

As the courtroom drama unfolds, however, we come to think that maybe Claudia is the sanest person in the room. The bullying examining psychiatrist prejudges her for her line of work and is mightily offended by her tough-girl survivor’s attitude. She does seek her confinement in a mental hospital. Her parents, for all their genuine tender feelings for her, have terrible secrets, secrets on which their entire lives and relationship is founded. If Claudia goes to trial, their lives will unravel. And so, yes, there is a conspiracy to have her put away.

Living the life of a prostitute is, for Claudia, freedom. It’s money she earns herself and she takes pride in her abilities to satisfy. It’s acting responsibly and independently and refusing handouts from her mother and step-father. She can even put herself through law school at NYU! What could be more sane than this?

But as the hearing continues, we become aware that the motive is more complicated than independence. Claudia’s sexual abilities and her capacity to earn serious cash through them are not recently acquired skills. She was trained to be a whore from the age of four. Her step-father presents himself as “a businessman . . . to me, running a home is just like running a business. You want somebody to do something, you give them something to do it. . .either you punish them or you reward them. . . my hand is itching and my dollars are twitching.” In her marriage, Claudia was the sexual doll of a man who the step-father (ok, not the most reliable witness) judges a gold-digger, a husband who also insists that she get an abortion lest she get stretch marks. One who stands in the way of her professional ambitions by explaining that she’s too stupid and “lovely” to understand the law.

So, what seems to be an independent, self-determining choice is really just living out the life Claudia was shaped to live, the creation of other people (mostly men). The saving difference, if there is one, lies in Claudia’s honesty about her financial motives and in her career ambitions. She is a survivor and one feels that she’ll pull herself through somehow.

Nuts was the breakout play for playwright Tom Topor (b. 1938), who was born in Austria, raised in London, and came to New York in 1949. His first career was as a reporter for the New York Post, where he covered stories in police stations, courtrooms, hospitals, and psychiatric wards. No surprise that his plays and screenplays tend to focus on these elements. The insanity hearing plot for a prostitute indicted for manslaughter was derived from a true-life incident Topor had reported on in the early 1970s. Searching for a motive for his character’s life-choice, the playwright questioned his own wife, who revealed her own history of childhood sexual abuse. After a little run off-off Broadway, Nuts ran successfully on Broadway and was developed into a star-vehicle film for Barbra Streisand in 1987. This success launched Tom Topor’s career as a screenwriter.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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