Arrested Development: Bob Dylan, Held for Questioning under Suspicion of "Autism"
Lubet, Alex, Fordham Urban Law Journal
This Article discusses an encounter Bob Dylan had with the law and its meaning in the context of the social constructions of mental disability, in general, and on autism in particular. I do not, need not, and should not speculate on Dylan's autism status--something few people could possibly know and that is a private matter.
On July 23, 2009, Bob Dylan was taken into custody by police in Long Branch, New Jersey, after complaints from residents that he was "suspicious" and perhaps "homeless." (1) According to arresting officer, Kristie Buble (twenty-two years old at the time of the incident), "We see a lot of people on our beat, and I wasn't sure if he came from one of our hospitals or something." (2)
Buble's remark implies that Dylan had a mental disability, rather than a physical disease. She continued, however, "He was acting very suspicious.... Not delusional, just suspicious. You know, it was pouring rain and everything." (3)
While Buble claimed later to have known who Bob Dylan was and simply not to have recognized him from photos she had seen, one of her colleagues offered a different account. After Buble asked Dylan for identification, which he was not carrying:
He assumed she would at least recognise [sic] the name if not the face. But she ordered him into the back of her car and took him to his hotel to check his story. Then she radioed her older colleagues at the police station to ask if anyone knew who Bob Dylan was. "I'm afraid we all fell about laughing," said Craig Spencer, a senior officer in Long Branch, New Jersey. "If it was me, I'd have been demanding his autograph, not his ID. The poor woman has taken rather a lot of abuse from us. I offered to bring in some of my Dylan albums. Unfortunately, she doesn't know what vinyl is either." (4)
Race was also a factor:
He was strolling along a residential street in the Latin Quarter of the seaside town when police received a call reporting an "eccentric looking old man".... It was an odd request because it was mid-afternoon, but it's an ethnic Latin area and the residents felt the man didn't fit in. Let's just say he looked eccentric. (5)
I would be remiss not to note that someone was arrested and commanded to produce identification because he did not look Hispanic. It is just too funny.
Dylan was driven to his hotel, identified, and released without charges being filed. Many reporters, readers, and commentators on the numerous online accounts of this incident were outraged that anyone could be arrested and asked for identification simply for taking a walk in the rain and being unusual or even shabby looking. It seems that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart would have concurred. (6) In a landmark decision concerning the forced confinement of the mentally disabled, Justice Stewart wrote for a unanimous court:
May the State fence in the harmless mentally ill solely to save its citizens from exposure to those whose ways are different? One might as well ask if the State, to avoid public unease, could incarcerate all who are physically unattractive or socially eccentric. Mere public intolerance or animosity cannot constitutionally justify the deprivation of a person's physical liberty. (7)
This story chronicles an important Dylan narrative that has persisted over the years, though mainly through oral tradition. Let me begin, though, with what this narrative is not.
Many authors working on Dylan pursue themes that cast Dylan as their kindred spirit or at least someone with common interests. For Seth Rogovoy, Dylan is a Jewish sage; (8) for David Pichaske, Dylan is a Midwesterner; (9) and for Steven Heine, Dylan is a Zen master. (10) Even Sean Wilentz sees Dylan as a New Yorker and fellow student of history. (11) These authors also tend to be "Dylanesque" by using language far more cleverly than their projects demand. …