The Seattle #ManInTree Situation: How Iatrogenic Helicopter Culture Is Ruining Everything

“How much taxpayer money are you wasting? It’s not an emergency!” #ManInTree

A Quick Word: After 25+ hours in the tree, our as-of-yet unidentified protagonist is safely on the ground and receiving medical care. This piece features a number of updates and inserts that were added as the situation progressed. I could edit to make a more cohesive piece, but I prefer that it remain just as stream-of-consciousness as the entire arboreal-odyssey was itself. 


*Update: It’s 11:00pm and he’s been in the tree for 12 hours. This is a truly astounding case of resilience. We can assume that he’s having some kind of mental health crisis and that there are likely drugs involved. He hasn’t eaten, had any water, he was rained on, the wind is strong and it’s now cold, and he ran out of cigarettes a long time ago. He’s been laying reclined on a single branch and almost seems to be sleeping. He’s most likely coming down off some drug or another, which is painful and disorienting in itself. Now Phoenix Jones–Seattle’s local superhero (I’m not joking)–has shown up to try to talk him down. This whole thing is amazing. We are living in a movie.*

*Update 2: It’s now midnight. The police have been backing off then cut the spotlights–darkness. He responded by building a fort then screaming something about “over his dead body”.

*Update 3: We’re well past 24 hours. This is beginning to look like a Revenant-style test of endurance.


The #ManInTree situation is unfolding as I type, and while no one should ever rush to judge before the facts are in, that’s exactly what I’m going to do—drugs are probably involved. This being the case, I would like to posit that the authorities have handled this all wrong.

Why am I qualified to make such an assessment? As a graduate of the wild, weird, and heavily wooded Evergreen State College in Olympia, I have spent my fair share of time climbing trees, oftentimes under the influence of one or more substances, more than once while evading police detection.

I understand what he’s thinking all too well. Humming-high and surrounded by the concrete jungle, he decided to connect with nature by communing with the first green thing he encountered. Up the tree he went, and now no one knows how to get him to come back down.

So what should the police and firefighters—who continue to gather as if strength in numbers will somehow win the day—have done? They should have left him alone.

That’s right—let him climb the damn tree. Yes, there are probably liability issues involved, but look where the rush to “fix the situation” has gotten us—dozens of police and firefighters standing around wasting time, news helicopters burning gallon after gallon of fuel to get the latest scoop on what isn’t really much of a story, and one agitated dude in a tree who has stripped the top of said tree of the majority of its branches.

It’s been around five hours now, and #ManInTree is showing no signs of budging. All of this because some guy decided to have a climb.

The Dangers of Iatrogenics

There is a word for when a supposed remedy causes more harm than good—“Iatrogenic”.

Usually it’s used in a medical sense, as when an intended cure brings about further illness. But this is a perfect example of iatrogenics—when the rush to save the day further complicates things.

Iatrogenics can pop up in a variety of situations. It can be something small, like when you pop a pimple hoping to make it go away, only to have it become all red and swollen. Or it can be something tremendous, like when the U.S. rallied for war immediately after 9/11 without taking the time to examine the circumstances closely, and we all know how that turned out.

This silly Seattle tree situation again shows how the first response is often not the correct response, resulting in exacerbation rather than a solution.

So What About #ManInTree?

Right now in this very moment, #ManInTree seems to be attempting to construct a platform (of almost certainly dubious stability) on which to spend the night. In other words, he’s in this for the long haul.

So what should the authorities have done? Nothing. They should have kept an eye on him and let him enjoy some tree-time. My bet is that he would have been back down within an hour.

Instead, they blocked off the street, raced up a fire ladder, and commenced to try to talk him down.

Any experienced tree-climbing-drug-imbiber will tell you that his response to all of this was predictable—a moment to moment kaleidoscope of humor, skepticism, fear, and eventually defiance. Now he won’t come down because he doesn’t trust the authorities involved, and he’s decided to make his stand and try to wait them out. The tree, he’s thinking, is safer than down on the ground with all of those cops and flashing lights—at least that’s what would be going through my mind.

You know that term “helicopter parent”? Well, in this case #ManInTree is being both figuratively and literally helicoptered, by the authorities, by the news choppers, and by the crowd of onlookers. A non-situation was turned into an ongoing ordeal, all because a guy decided to climb a tree—behavior which is, apparently, strange and illegal.

I ask you—why do we live in a society where climbing a tree warrants such a response? Sure, it might be “weird” to climb a tree in the middle of a city, but is it wrong? Was this person asking for help or harming anyone? Sure, he put himself in danger of being harmed, but there is potential for harm every time we get behind the wheel, or go into a disreputable part of town, or drink water from old piping systems. Hell—waking up in the morning comes with risks.

This unnecessarily =response took the situation from “tripping guy climbing a tree” to “drug-crazed standoff” for no reason at all.

Yes, drug use can be a problem, and yes, there is likely a mental health component to this that shouldn’t be ignored. But as a society we need to start slowing our pace and considering how our reactions will pan out.

Oftentimes patience is better than action.

Now—following a failed attempt at action—the authorities have no choice but to be patient, and #ManInTree is doing the same. And as he grows increasingly tired, hungry, and sick from the drugs wearing off, his situation is only going to become more dangerous.

An Addendum 

I’d like to clarify that I’m not trying to blame the authorities for the situation. Their response was an expression of how we treat mental illness as a society. Any behavior too far out of the norm is considered suspicious, the proper authorities must be notified, then they must respond. We as a people feel that those who cope with mental illness should not do it out in the open, that if their behavior becomes too visible then and only then should we decide to step in, and only to patronize. To patronize and restrict.

Consider this: there is no intervention into the lives of the homeless mentally ill as long as they are quiet and hidden. The demons they grapple with don’t concern us a bit, nor do their living conditions. But the moment we are forced to deal with their madness–the moment it elbows into the awareness of our agreed upon sanity (whatever that is)–we decide that action must be taken immediately to stop the intrusion.

If this is what it takes for a mentally ill homeless person to be noticed, maybe it’s time for more people to act out.