The Demon in the Shadows: Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and an Adjunct’s Lonely Death

Two very different stories in my newsfeed this morning. Both are tragic. Each gets attention for the questions it raises about law and justice. But each has another, less obvious thread that compounds the tragedy, complicates the law, raises more troubling questions of justice. Each challenges us to respond to those questions, as Catholics, as Americans.

We’ve all been watching the unfolding tragedy of Monday’s mass shooting at the Naval Shipyard in Washington, DC. The victims are being named and mourned. The nation is concerned about the security of our military installations. Americans—including the president—on all sides of the continuing, stalled conversation about guns are using this as one more test case for their arguments.

The other story was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and it’s making the rounds among those connected to higher education—in this case, Catholic higher education, but the questions it raises apply across the board. In “Death of an Adjunct,” labor attorney Daniel Kovalik profiles 83-year-old Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died September 1. Madame Vojtko taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, eking out the notoriously low wages of an adjunct (a contract instructor without tenure or benefits, paid by the class hour) until she died in near-homeless penury. Madame Vojtko, who was also undergoing cancer treatment at the time of her death, had sought out the assistance of Mr Kovalik—who is leading efforts to unionize adjuncts at Duquesne—to see if she could obtain any assistance from the university before Adult Protective Services turned her over to Orphan’s Court, the Pennsylvania body that oversees the affairs of those deemed incompetent.

Mr Kovalik makes an impassioned case for better treatment of adjuncts—a case that very much needs to be made, and heard, in a time when colleges and universities charge sky-high tuition and rely overwhelmingly on underpaid adjuncts in the classroom. In pinning that case to Madame Vojtko’s story, however, I believe he’s missing an even larger issue that deserves our attention.

In the lives of both Madame Vojtko and Aaron Alexis, the alleged Naval Shipyard shooter, the demon in the shadows is mental illness. Not as an excuse for murder, not as a distraction from the injustice of an adjunct’s wages, but as the elephant that still goes so tragically unseen, unspoken, untreated in every room of American life.

We are hearing, this morning, that Aaron Alexis has exhibited florid signs of mental illness for at least a decade. He apparently sought help in the disorganized, crazed, largely ineffective ways it occurs to the mentally ill to seek help: in religious practice (Alexis was associated with a Buddhist temple in the Ft Worth area), in vicarious family (Alexis was a regular customer and occasional worker at a Thai restaurant, where the owner considered him a brother and admired his willingness to learn the Thai language and culture), and in desperation (he called 911 and reported himself to Providence, RI police as hearing voices and being under observation by faceless enemies). For whatever reasons, no intervention ever occurred, and Alexis was able to purchase a rifle on Saturday and use his unchallenged civilian contractor ID to penetrate the Naval Shipyard’s security with that rifle, to end 12 lives before his own was ended.

There is no official acknowledgment of mental illness in Margaret Mary Vojtko’s story—but there are red flags aplenty.

On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.

For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness.

Madame Vojtko, at 83, might certainly have been suffering extreme emotional stress, or side effects of the chemotherapy, or even the onset of dementia. But other details of her story speak of something a little closer to home for me.

With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat ‘n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Margaret Mary Vojtko’s living situation was, I suspect, worsened and to some extent even caused by the mental illness of hoarding disorder. Hoarders can be bright, articulate, and devoted to their work, but with disturbed thinking and very few practical life skills. They can “never miss a class” while their homes fall into ruin around them, bills go unpaid, planning for retirement and health care goes undone. (At 83, as others have asked, why was she not receiving Medicare or Social Security? Did her mental state drive her to neglect even these small safety nets?) They can pride themselves on doing what they love for very little money. They can show up in clean clothes and with every hair in place, even though they have not had running water or slept lying down in years. And they are ferocious about resisting intervention.

I know this because it could have been me, a year ago, dying on the front lawn of an uninhabitable house.

Maybe I’m projecting, but it raises again our need to face down the demon. Aaron Alexis’s Texas landlady said, “I never would have suspected. It’s like he’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” The Adult Protective Services worker Mr Kovalik contacted about Madame Vojtko asked incredulously, “She’s a professor?”

Professors can have a mental illness. Mild-mannered Buddhist government contract workers can have a mental illness. Anyone can have a mental illness. And that mental illness can kill—not only the person with the disease, but others close by or at random. People who are mentally ill are not killers by nature, of course. But mental illness untreated, mental health care unavailable and unfunded, kills the body and the spirit more pervasively than any unregistered gun.

The lesson from this morning’s newsfeed: Exorcise this demon. Advocate for, work for, pray for, pay for real, compassionate, effective mental health care, especially for the indigent. Make this a Church—a national—issue of justice. And when you have the graced opportunity, intervene, intervene, intervene. The life you save may be your own.

  • Scott

    I am Bipolar. But I don’t tell anyone in my work or among my friends, because of the serious stigma with the label. Mental illness is not a demon, and does not in itself cause violent behavior, but it is a medical disorder that needs to be treated that way.

  • nannon31

    The political party more likely to spend on the mentally ill is the party that most supports abortion. Paul Ryan who acquiesced to Romney’s abortion exceptions wanted to reduce over ten years…Medicaid …effectively when one looked closer than the ads and at the numbers. Bleak is the political horizon. Aside from funding (but inextricably linked) is the need for coercive institutionalization in psychosis cases. But wasn’t that lesson within a string of mass shootings…and we don’t learn it. May God help the families who lost spouses and parents…and help them emotionally, spiritually and financially.

  • paylly

    My sister, 48, who lives with my 86 year old mom, has hoarding disorder. She’s also mentally handicapped. Despite my best efforts, she refuses help or to admit she has a problem. We all know a D-Day is coming, but are powerless to prevent it. I understand this article way too well!


  • Victor

    ((( “I never would have suspected. It’s like he’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”)))

    Go figure Joanne! I would never have figured that The Demon in the Shadows were that powerful.
    Let’s keep praying folks.

  • Jane the Actuary

    I found your blog in trying to find more details on Ms. Vojtko. I agree that all is not as it seems — a lifelong professor ought to have more resources than just an adjunct’s salary. I hadn’t considered mental illness/dementia. There are definitely curious pieces to the story.

    • Levedi

      Ought to and does have are two different things. Ms Vojtko’s story just has a particularly dramatic ending and a person willing to tell it to the media. That’s all that separates her from many, many hardworking, highly qualified adjuncts.

  • Michael Todor

    I think she may have been a nun who left an order – just a conjecture.

  • Betty Douglas

    I appreciate your article, but am quite leery of your projecting mental illness onto Ms Voktje. If you gross $35k and live in a metropolis, you are struggling to make ends meet and to buy food, nevertheless repair your home (she would net $2k/month? not a lot if you have a house payment or cancer treatment bills, not to mention both). If its an older home in a cold climate, heating bills could be $300+ per month.This woman is about my father’s age, and children of the depression don’t complain much, try to make the best of things, and to make do. It is possible there were other factors in play, but it is also possible that she was horribly poor despite working for years at a major institution. I am a former adjunct- I left b/c I was making $15/hr, 4 hrs/ week (once I figured in my preparation time and grading time). It is possible to be an impoverished “professor.”

    • joannemcportland

      I am in no way denying she was horribly poor, and horribly poor because of an unjust system. But no amount of pride uncomplicated by mental illness or impairment drives someone in her 80s and in ill health to live secretly without electricity for a whole winter, working in public places during the day and sleeping in an office until she is removed by the police. Adult Protective Services may have been able to offer her a better alternative, had she allowed them to. The possibility (I have nothing but speculation, it’s true) that she was dealing with mental illness does not defame her or lessen the tragedy of her death or the terrible injustice done to adjuncts; it simply adds to it.

  • Cathy

    Your theory that Vojtko had a mental disorder is insulting and cruel. She was poor. That’s all. Wrap your head around it. The majority of American academics are adjuncts, and the majority of them are poor. Dirt. Poor.

    As for the question of Social Security, how much do you think she could have possibly put away in Social Security as an adjunct professor making two or three thousand dollars a course? She made less than $25,000 per year and that was after 25 years of working at Duquesne. If she went to grad school, she lost earning years and possible Social Security accumulation. People who go to grad school and become academics cannot rely on Social Security, especially in the face of mounting medical bills.

    The mentally ill aren’t the only ones ferocious about not accepting intervention. So are poor people, particularly those who work hard their whole lives and get nothing for it. I’m a 37-year-old PhD who has only been able to find adjunct work since completing school 3 years ago. I refuse welfare. I refuse free dental care. I refuse free medical care. I’ve seen a doctor maybe once in the last 8 years. Why? Because the only thing separating me from a welfare queen at the free clinic is my refusal to seek state assistance. I’m determined to maintain my dignity, just like Vojtko was. This is what happens when culturally middle-class people have the incomes of poor people.

    The idea that I might one day live on Social Security is laughable. Hilarious. That you suggest Vojtko could have paid her mounting medical bills with SS is even funnier.

    If any of this surprises you, you have no idea what it’s like to be at the bottom of the academic food chain. What you call “practical life skills” are simply not part of life for those off the tenure track. You can’t do what you want to do or use that degree you worked so hard for if you don’t live like a respectable pauper. I don’t expect you to know that, but I do expect you to keep your judgements and your crazy theories to yourself rather than smearing a dead woman’s name. Given Voktko’s poor health and the poverty that Duquesne subjected her to, especially after it let her go on whim as it has done with so many other adjuncts, her name was all she had. Leave it be. Spare us all the armchair psychology.

    • joannemcportland

      I was in no way intending to be cruel, insulting, or to smear a dead woman’s name. That you would think a question about her mental state would do those things proves the point I was making about mental illness. Nothing I wrote was meant to judge her or to let the university (or academia as a whole) off the hook. I’m sorry if that impression came across.

    • Kevin Osborne

      Yeah, Cathy!

    • Levedi

      I’m telling you this as one PhD to another. Take the food stamps! Go to the free clinics! Accept help with your head held high. I have been there, done that and I do understand that feeling of having nothing left but your dignity. But you are not a welfare queen. You are not lazy. Grad school culture inculcates us with an extra dose of shame at the idea of asking for help (as if our culture didn’t do that enough), but please take the help. I sincerely hope that my tax money will make at least some small contribution to the needs of people like you. You are not taking an undeserved hand out, you are getting a small portion of what you are owed by a community and a social contract that treats you unjustly. I was where you are and many of my friends still are. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

  • Kevin Osborne

    No one has a “mentail illness”. One can believe in a label or attempt to enforce one because it puts money in your pocket.
    A better explanation is that we are all unaware, unconscious, of where we are. We don’t know what is going on the area because our attention is diverted.
    This applies very much to the folks who make money off telling us who is sane or not. What is right or not, what is useful or not.
    A better understanding can be gained by dropping labels and looking at more. There is always more. This is a big place and lots is going on, but it can be figured out.

  • Chris

    Thank you for a very insightful post. The intense responses support the point that mental illness is so frightening and stigmatizing ( that it is considered insulting to suggest it contributes to a tragedy. Serious mental illness are devastating diseases. Psychotic mental illness can kill, and often maims for a lifetime. It suggests reasons for actions that seem without motive (as in the case of Aaron Alexis). Madame Vojtko’s cancer elicits sympathy, but it is a calumny to suggest she had mental illness? No, it simply shows how vulnerable she was, and how badly society sometimes treats the vulnerable.

  • pkomarek

    Mental health and addiction problems are said to be “biopsychosocial”
    meaning they have biological, psychological and social components. If
    one adds a spiritual component, then we have four ways to approach the

    Interventions gain strength when they are stacked up.
    Medication for the biological, therapy for the psychological, the
    comfort of family and friends for the social, plus prayer and
    spirituality. All four, not just one.

    What Aaron Alexis needed
    was a realistic face-to-face discussion about what he was experiencing,
    and about what he might do to alleviate his suffering and stay safe, and
    about what was too risky for him and for others. A positive course of
    action, including accompanying him to a doctor and ensuring that his
    true concerns were revealed to someone who can take the next steps. (Plus a security infrastructure that actually listened to the reports it received).

    spiritual discussion or a prayer or an expression of sympathy is not a
    strong enough dose of intervention for a person in crisis who is
    experiencing paranoid thoughts and who has a history of violent
    impulsive behavior. This is a high risk issue that must be confronted much more powerfully.

    Mental health is not that complicated. It’s thinking
    or feelings that are out of bounds or off the scale, plus issues
    relating to safety and risk. Nonclinicians don’t have to diagnose
    anyone. We just need to do our part to provide support, connect with other
    resources, and help a person stay safe.

  • Jenn

    If you visit Allegheny County real estate assessment site, you will see that Margaret Mary Vojtko owned two houses valued at more than $60,000 in total. Her estate has not been settled yet, so nobody really knows what she had.

  • another educator

    This may or may not be true. But throwing in a diagnosis of a hoarding disorder based on your very scant knowledge of this woman’s life is in poor taste. There is a place to talk about mental illness and there is a place to talk about poverty and lack of medical care. Sometimes (more often than we like) they are found together. But this is speculative and near libelous.

    I also wonder if you ***get*** that this scenario is absolutely real across the USA for academics–significant debt because of the degrees, a glut of educated people with little direct opportunity to work in their field, and no real financial incentive for universities to hire at a living wage. I work at a university (tenured, I am lucky) and see it every. single. day. It’s outrageous, but hey, we can find money to build the new shiny dorm. There may be something else going on in her story. But there doesn’t have to be, and there usually isn’t.

    • Elizabeth K.

      As I said in another comment, people need to be encouraged to get out of the system. Let it collapse of its own weight. I’m a term, full-time, professor; my position works well for me, and frankly, I wish it were the wave of the future and that universities would have to face a more mobile professoriate who refused to work at part-time wages. I can’t see that happening, though, and it hurts me to hear of someone working for that long as an adjunct.

  • Dale

    As readers might suspect, officials at Duquesne University strongly disagree with the op-ed written by Mr. Kovalik.

    The priest who runs the campus ministry wrote the newspaper to say that he had invited Ms Vojtko to live in the community formation house, and that she had done so for a few weeks last year. (He doesn’t mention why she move out.) He also states that Spiritan priests (the religious order which founded Duquesne) regularly met with Ms. Vojtko throughout her illness and that several types of assistance had been offered to her.

    A statement from the university underscored the last point, saying that the “support provided and offered to Margaret Mary Vojtko was broad, involving the Spiritan community, student housing, EAP, campus police, facilities management, and her faculty and staff colleagues.”

    Both the letter from Fr. Walsh, and the statement from the university, accused Mr. Kovalik of trying to exploit the death of Ms. Vojtko to further his unionizing agenda.

  • RachaelM

    Two members of my church are deeply affected (as is everyone who heard about it) by a recent hostage situation of several hours, a brutal attack, and mutilation, of their daughter by their mentally ill son-in-law, using a machete and a knife. He flipped out plain and simple. There was a history of violence and abuse in him, while with others (like me) he could be very charming and respectful. He didn’t succeed in killing himself as he had planned, so he’s looking at life in prison. Mental illness MUST be addressed in this city, state, country, and around the globe. Unfortunately, it’s going to take many more incidents like this and Washington DC and Colorado, and the like, for all of us to wake up to this critical issue. Wake up we must! What I grieve for is all the innocents who are going to be hurt while we are “coming to.”

  • wind_user

    This morning’s shallow NPR story on the campaign using Margaret Mary Vojtko’s name reinforces the reality that Joanne McPortland’s offering is one of the rare writings on Vojtko to show depth of thought. Thank you.

    Criticism of this piece — that it is based on conjecture — is fair enough. Sadly, we don’t yet have anything else in the way of a well-developed story, even though the woman who died on her front lawn deserves much, much more.

    • Dale

      A smidgen of information is available at the website of the Duquesne student newspaper, television and radio stations.

      Fr. Walsh explains that when Ms. Vojtko stayed on campus at Laval House, it was because her furnace was not working, and she asked to stay there during the cold months of the year. Fr Laval said she was treated as a member of the community, not as a visitor. As such she was invited to the community meals and even had meals prepared for her.

      After a month, a new priest arrived and there was no longer room for her to stay, so Fr Laval and others at Laval House offered to quietly pay to repair or replace her furnace. However, she refused. University funds were also available to help her, but she wasn’t interested in that as well. Fr. Laval described her as “a very private person.”

      I think Joanne’s suspicions of mental illness may have some basis.

  • Elizabeth K.

    I realize this is easier said than done; I realize I will probably make people angry by saying this, and I don’t discount any of the other issues you’ve raised re: mental illness, because I think you’re absolutely right. But here it is: people who are qualified to teach at university, but have only received adjunct offers for more than three years, *must* stop. working. for .said .universities.I realize this is unlikely to happen. I am not blaming the victim, either. But what I see is a university system that would collapse if the people it relies on to prop it up left and went elsewhere. There are many reasons why this won’t happen: the current economy is certainly one, but the other is the pervasive notion that one is privileged to be let into the fringes of university culture, and that other jobs out there can never compete with the greatness of the life of the mind. I hate seeing young, bright people throw away the starting years of their careers waiting for the dream tenure track job that is never going to arrive. If it works for you and your lifestyle, go ahead and do it;, and do it for awhile, but make an exit plan, and do it early. To see, year after year, a system of exploitation visited on otherwise really smart people, to listen to a now thirty-year old conversation where the university bemoans its reliance on part-timers and never ever fixes things, breaks my heart.

  • Levedi

    There’s absolutely no indication in what you cite (or anything else I’ve read) that Ms Vojtko’s house was uninhabitable because of hoarding. It was that way because she lacked money to repair it and because in that part of the country a home without electricity or gas for heat is tantamount to living outside. One could freeze to death in it, especially a frail elderly person undergoing chemo who would have few reserves of body fat or energy to keep themselves warm. She was old and it is easy to dismiss the highly distressed elder person as having dementia, especially if lack of sleep and proper nutrition were further impairing her.

    But, having said that, I thoroughly agree that our country does not understand or adequately respond to the needs of the mentally ill.