Berkeley’s Naked Guy and Columbia’s Mattress Girl: Roles that Lead to Madness

I have followed the stories of Columbia’s “Mattress Girl” with an increasing sense of horror. Regardless of the circumstances that led her to carry a mattress around her campus in the name of artistic expression, the fact that this led to national news was devastating. People eagerly fall into the roles that garner them attention from their fellow human beings, and once this young woman came to be recognized for this act, it was as if she couldn’t stop.

The art class for which she’d created the “performance art” was over. The young man she had called a criminal lodged a lawsuit against her and the university. For most people, it would be a good point to stop or pause the performance, but she kept on going. Subsequently, she carried her mattress onto the stage at her graduation, despite the fact that the university explicitly crated a rule against carrying such objects on stage, exactly because they feared they couldn’t stop. And then she released a pornographic video recreating/re-imagining her inspiration for her art piece. I don’t know what’s next, but I fear there’s more, and it’s just going to get worse.

It reminded me of another university student who got national recognition for going beyond the bounds of normal behavior on his college campus. Back in the 1990s, a Cupertino football player started going to his classes at UC Berkeley naked. It may have been a joke to begin with, but by the time he was getting known for it, he explained his continued behavior as a protest. Protest noted, national attention gained, but the act went on – and on. His act became to disruptive and notorious that both the school and the city of Berkeley, both of whom are known for being fairly loose on weirdess, banned nudity. (In fact, at the time fat, ugly, naked buskers were a regular staple on Telegraph Avenue.) Now known more as The Naked Guy than by his real name or for any of his other life’s accomplishments, he couldn’t put his clothes on, and resume going to classes.

Instead, the Naked Guy dropped out. He went on talk shows and posed nude for a adult magazine. He was arrested (in Berkeley) for violating the anti-nudity ordinance which had been created explicitly for him. But, as with any kooky behavior, and as will be the case with Mattress Girl, the public got bored of the Naked Guy act and moved on to other temporary diversions.

So Naked Guy finally got dressed again. But he didn’t go back to school. And he couldn’t get a job. He began to show signs of mental illness and difficulty functioning in the community at large. Was it because he played a role society no longer paid attention to? Or had it been nascent mental illness that had made him incapable of dropping the role before it consumed his whole identity? A little more than a decade after his time of infamy, the once Naked Guy got into a fight at a halfway house which got him placed in the county jail, where he committed suicide. It was a tragic end, and something unexpected for someone who’d once been a student-athlete smart and accomplished enough to get into Cal; but not so unexpected for anyone you just know as “Naked Guy.”

I can’t predict what will happen to Mattress Girl, but the pattern doesn’t bode well. But when you’re gone so far that you disrespect rules that have been set up to help you protect yourself from further embarrassment, and when you find yourself doing pornography, the role has already been taken beyond the bounds of normalcy. And that is not healthy.

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