A significant study from Duke, out today, provides the best evidence we’ve had thus far that bullying in childhood is linked to a higher risk of psychological disorders in adulthood. The results came as a surprise to the research team. “I was a skeptic going into this,” lead author and Duke psychiatry professor William E. Copeland told me over the phone, about the claim that bullying does measurable long-term psychological harm. “To be honest, I was completely surprised by the strength of the findings. It has certainly given me pause. This is something that stays with people.”
I’m less surprised, because earlier research has shown that bullying increases the risk for many problems, including low academic performance in school and depression (for both bullies and victims) and criminal activity later in life (bullies). But the Duke study is important because it lasted for 20 years and followed 1,270 North Carolina children into adulthood. Beginning at the ages of 9, 11, and 13, the kids were interviewed annually until the age of 16, along with their parents, and then multiple times over the years following.
Based on the findings, Copeland and his team divided their subjects into three groups: People who were victims as children, people who were bullies, and people who were both. The third group is known as bully-victims. These are the people who tend to have the most serious psychological problems as kids, and in the Duke study, they also showed up with higher levels of anxiety, depressive disorders, and suicidal thinking as adults. The people who had only experienced being victims were also at heightened risk for depression and anxiety. And the bullies were more likely to have an antisocial personality disorder.
The researchers also checked to see if the variation among the groups could be attributed to differences in socio-economic status, or family dysfunction/instability, or maltreatment (which they defined as physical or sexual abuse). All three groups—the victims, the bullies, and the bully-victims—had higher rates of some type of family hardship than the kids who didn’t experience bullying at all. For the victims, the risk of anxiety disorders remained strong even when taking into account family problems, though the risk of depression did not (it dropped just below statistical significance if the victims came from a stable home, Copeland said). For bully-victims, the risk of both anxiety and depression held, and for bullies, the risk of antisocial personality disorder did as well. In other words, these results suggest that bullying scars people whether they grow up in a home with two functional parents or with frequent arguing, not much parental supervision, divorce, separation, or downright abuse or neglect. It’s a finding that’s in line with other work, for example by Judith Rich Harris, who in her book The Nurture Assumption, shows that kids are very much influenced and affected by their peers.
Why does bullying have such far-reaching impact? Copeland and his team suggest the experience may change kids’ physiological response to stress, and their ability to cope. This looked especially stark for the bully-victims. “It was definitely the case that chronic bullying led to worse outcomes, but much more the case that being a bully-victim was associated with really significant problems,” Copeland said. The biggest cry for help is coming from that group. Fortunately, it’s a smaller number than victims overall.” Bully-victims, Copeland and others have found, have more problems at home and the most trouble with impulse control and aggression. Sometimes they do the dirty work for popular kids who bully to curry favor with them. “I don’t think things are working out socially for them in a lot of ways,” Copeland said.
It’s important to point out that Copeland and other researchers don’t define bullying broadly, in a way that encompasses a lot of mutual conflict among kids, or one-time fighting. Bullying is physical or verbal harassment that takes place repeatedly and involves a power imbalance—one kid, or group of kids, making another kid miserable by lording power over him. As Dan Olweus, the Scandinavian psychologist who launched the field of bullying studies in the 1960s, has been arguing for many years, this is a particular form of harmful aggression. And so the effort to prevent bullying isn’t about pretending that kids will always be nice to each other, or that they don’t have to learn to weather some adversity.
If the results of this study are dismaying because they indicate that bullying is permanently scarring, the findings also strengthen the argument for prevention. Copeland underscores this idea. “Consider me a reluctant convert, but I’m starting to view bullying the same way I do abuse in the home,” he said. “I honestly think the affects we’re observing here are just as potent. And that’s definitely not the way American researchers look at things. They want to know all about what parents are doing at home. Peers aren’t considered a priority. But these days, with all the time they spend on the Internet, kids are spending even more time with their peers, and that’s a factor we need to pay more attention to.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
With all the violence in suburban schools, there has been increased curiosity about the sources of social ostracism among youth, painful facts of life about the healthiest and, we presume, happiest of our kids. The focus of this article is on teasing, an almost universal experience with implications far beyond the attention we generally give to it.
Most of us can sympathize with the child who complains miserably of being teased or bullied. Our advice is usually simplistic: “Try to ignore it,” on the theory that the teaser will get bored and drop it when the victim does not react. But this discounts the reactions of the other participants, the onlookers or the audience for whom the bully is performing and who reward the scene with their attention. Besides, none of us is good at ignoring our own feelings, and the feelings that can be triggered by teasing are more powerful and painful than we like to admit, perhaps because we feel powerless to protect our children from this kind of an attack, ubiquitous as it is. The two primary feelings involved are often topics of discussion in the therapy session: shame and anger, or in their extreme: humiliation and rage.
Looking back on it, it seems to me that the relationship between shame and rage should be obvious. When something or someone makes you feel powerless, terribly hopelessly powerless, the thing you crave most is something that will help you feel powerful, or at least safe. We don’t like to talk about these disturbing feelings. Shame is something we hide, or minimize, because exposing our shame only seems to make it worse. So the impact and consequences of teasing, shaming and excessive
criticism remain obscure for many of us. And the resulting rage catches us by surprise.
Many things can make us feel powerless. Whenever we experience animportant loss or disappointment, we feel powerless. When we are shamed, teased, criticized or bullied, we feel powerless. When we are ignored, we may feel powerless. When we are sick, tired, or hungry and as a result, confused, we may feel powerless.
When a young child craves power, there are only a few options. He can reach out for the loving protection of a comparatively powerful parent or caretaker. He can practice those few things that give him a child’s sense of mastery and control. He can exercise power over someone or something smaller or weaker. He can imagine fantasy scenarios of power, or revenge.
Babies are good at reaching out for protection. Though some may be fussier than others, most babies have a powerful way of making most adults feel nurturing and protective toward them.
A toddler is experimenting with a growing repertoire of
movement and communication skills that offer a sense of mastery and control over a small part of his universe. But if you speak sharply to a toddler, you will see the downcast eyes that represent the classic posture and facial expression of the primary affect of shame. Some anguished sobbing will usually follow, and it is not unusual for
the anguish to be followed by rage, as the toddler regroups and assaults you with the worst insult in his vocabulary.
The surge of aggression following the shame of defeat is part of our emotional evolutionary heritage. The two feelings are hard wired together, the sequence normal and unavoidable. But we do have some choice in what to think and how to act in response to the feelings, and these choices are learnable and therefore teachable.
The parent who finds a toddler’s tantrum cute and laughs at it, or the parent who finds it intolerable and punishes it, will see the child’s shame and rage reenacted immediately. With a few repetitions of this scene, the child soon develops a memory for the experience of helpless rage. Another alternative for the parent in this situation is to help the child release the shame and rage, and to begin to learn how that is done. By listening seriously, and labeling the feeling, the parent can accept the expression of emotion, while firmly limiting any dangerous or destructive behavior. Understanding, accepting, and labeling the shame and anger (and predicting that it will soon pass) reassures the child of continued respect and love; these responses help the child learn to get past the feelings of helplessness sooner, an important emotional skill to learn.
A five-year-old entering school is suddenly faced with a much larger world full of dangers and chances to feel powerless. What has he learned about this painful and confusing feeling and what to do about it? If he has not learned how to recover from shame and rage fairly quickly, he may be in for a crash course. Before long, he will encounter a disapproving adult or a competitive peer who will trigger feelings of shame and helplessness, followed by some feelings of aggression or rage. He will practice one or more strategies for dealing with this situation and choose one as his favorite. He may try to bury the rage by taking it out on himself in a damaging flurry of self-criticism. He may fantasize about revenge, and even plan and execute some form of retaliation. He may take his aggression out on someone else, seeking a way to restore status by teasing or harassing another, or by shifting blame. Or he may find a supportive listener with whom to work out this problem, though this requires skill and sensitive communication from the child and the listener. There are so many such episodes in his young life, that a preference for one of the strategies is soon established. It may work well enough in the short term to hide the helplessness and take the shame inside, or to gain back a sense of power. But often it may result in some unreleased shame or anger that grows into a chronic expectation of social danger.
The adolescent lives in a world in which the option of reaching out for protection from a loving adult becomes enormously more complicated and difficult. Even the need to seek understanding and help from an adult can be the source of embarrassment or shame when the primary psychological task is establishing independence. Competition for status within the all-important peer group often takes the form of teasing or hazing, where one youngster seeks to make himself the center of attention by making fun of another. It is a universal game, and within limits, can be a healthy kind of flexing of social muscles. But the limits are not well known, and therefore easy to cross. The young person who is the butt of the joke is in a poor position to define the rules of this game. Shame and hurt rule in silence, and the inevitable anger soon begins to grow. The young person may direct this anger at any of a number of targets. He may define himself as a loser and experience anger
at himself, eroding his self-esteem. He may become angry with the adults of the world for not protecting him, or with the “winners’ of the game for their cruelty or insensitivity. This anger is difficult to express, especially toward the teasers who provoked it. So it is more likely to be turned inward and become the stuff of self-hatred or angry fantasies of revenge. Fortunately, many kids find some way through this minefield without significant scars. But many others do not. Eating disorders, adolescent depression, and oppositional disorders all share a chronic expectation of criticism or shame, with chronic anger focused either on the self or the outside world or both. For some the anger fuels constant fantasies of getting even. Their angry demeanor subtly repels some of their peers, leaving them more isolated, and angrier. They find sympathy with angry lyrics in songs, angry images in movies, and a few angry friends, their fellow misfits. Academic and social failure and isolation add to the shame, and to the rage. Emotion “motivates” us to act. And rage motivates angry or violent behavior, toward oneself or the outside world.
After every act of incomprehensible violence, the world asks whether the killer could have been identified ahead of time. It’s as automatic as the call for more gun control and better mental health services.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have been working for decades to try to figure out whether there’s a link between mental illness and violence, and if so, which people are likely to act. Using an ever-changing tool kit of theories and questionnaires, they’ve made some progress.
It’s now fairly clear, for example, that people with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and some personality disorders, are more likely to commit violent acts than others. But the risk is small. The vast majority of mentally ill people won’t commit assault, rape, arson or homicide, although the risk rises sharply among those who abuse drugs and alcohol.
These insights are proving useful to psychiatrists, psychologists, judges, school administrators and others who must decide whether someone seems too dangerous to be left alone. But they aren’t good enough to identify an Adam Lanza, the young man who killed 28 people, including himself, in Newtown, Conn., last month. (Lanza’s mother told friends that he had Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder, but no evidence has emerged that Lanza was diagnosed as mentally ill.)
“There is no instrument that is specifically useful or validated for identifying potential school shooters or mass murderers,” said Stephen D. Hart, a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver who is the co-author of a widely used evaluation tool. “There are many things in life where we have an inadequate evidence base, and this is one of them.”
Even when someone has a history of threatening behavior, the killing of innocent people can’t necessarily be prevented.
The woman accused of pushing a man to his death in front of a New York subway train on Dec. 27 had been arrested several times for assault and treated in the psychiatric wards of two hospitals. The man who fatally shot two firefighters and himself in Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve had killed his 92-year-old grandmother three decades earlier.
The task of identifying violence-prone individuals is even trickier with young people, who have shorter histories and whose normal development often includes a period of antisocial behavior.
The prospect that the most recent massacre, or the next one, could lead to efforts to find young men contemplating the killing of strangers worries many people. Among those expressing concern are some psychologists and former patients forcibly swept into the mental health system and treated against their will.
“I think people are going toward wanting all their kids to be screened in high school for mental illness and violence risk — and that’s a bad idea,” said Gina M. Vincent, a forensic psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “That’s my biggest fear of what’s going to come out of this.”
“We can’t go out and lock up all the socially awkward young men in the world,” said Jeffrey W. Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. “But we have to try to prevent the unpredicted.”
The best-known attempt to measure violence in mental patients found that mental illness by itself didn’t predict an above-average risk of being violent. People released from psychiatric wards were more violent than their neighbors only if they also had drug and alcohol problems, according to the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, which tracked almost 1,000 former patients in the early 1990s.
Other research has found a link — although not a particularly strong one — between mental illness and violence.
In a 2001 study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers asked 35,000 adults whether they had been diagnosed with a mental illness anytime in their lives and in the previous year. They also asked a long list of questions about the subjects’ personal histories and behaviors. Re-interviews were conducted three years later, asking about violent events in the intervening period.
People who reported that they’d had both “severe mental illness” and substance abuse problems in the year before the first interview had the highest rate of violence; 9.4 percent had committed a violent act. The next most violent were people with other types of mental illness (mostly antisocial personality disorder) accompanied by substance abuse — 7.2 percent of them reported violent behavior.
Groups with lower rates of violence included people suffering only from severe mental illness, 2.9 percent of whom reported having been violent; those only with substance abuse problems (2.5 percent); and those with other mental illnesses alone (1.4 percent). People without any of these problems had just a 0.8 percent rate of violence.
Over the years, researchers have made a particular effort to study violence and schizophrenia, a disorder that emerges in young adults and often includes paranoid thoughts.
An analysis of 20 studies published three years ago found that schizophrenia increased the risk of acting violently fourfold in men and even more in women. The risk of schizophrenics committing homicide was 0.3 percent — more than 10 times greater than the average citizen.
The evidence suggests that “there’s a modest relative risk” for violent behavior in people diagnosed with a serious mental illness, said Swanson, the Duke researcher.
If some of the mentally ill are dangerous, can they be found?
Over the years, studies have shown that psychiatrists’ accuracy in identifying patients who would become violent was slightly better than chance — “obviously not good enough, given what’s at stake for public safety as well as for civil liberties,” said John Monahan, a University of Virginia psychologist who helped direct the MacArthur study.
So Monahan and many others came up with a constellation of “risk factors” and “protective factors” for violent behavior — analogous to the risk factors for heart disease, such as age, blood pressure, smoking and cholesterol — and included them in questionnaires.
Some of those instruments rely heavily on adding up scores. Others put more emphasis on the interviewer’s clinical judgment. The most popular current strategy combines both approaches; it forces the evaluator to include any pertinent issue.
All of the approaches consider the presence of a mental disorder as only a small contributor to risk, outweighed by other factors such as age, previous violent acts, alcohol use, impulsivity, gang membership and lack of family support.
There have been numerous efforts to test these violence-predicting tools in recent decades. For example, Monahan and his colleagues incorporated 106 risk factors into a software interview program and administered it to patients being discharged from psychiatric units in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Of those judged to be low-risk by this tool, 90 percent committed no violence over the next six months. Of those judged to be high-risk, 49 percent committed violent acts.
“From our research, we could quickly distinguish between a patient whose chance of being violent was 1-in-10 from one whose was 1-in-2,” he said.
Last summer, a large study published in the British Medical Journal found much the same thing.
It analyzed the findings of 68 studies that involved about 25,000 people in psychiatric hospitals, prisons or court-ordered detention. (The studies used a variety of assessment tools.) Of the people predicted to “violently offend,” 41 percent did. Of those predicted to be nonviolent, 91 percent were. In practical terms, that meant that if authorities used the tools for the purposes of public health, they’d have to detain two people to prevent one from becoming violent.
The authors of the analysis concluded that “risk assessment tools in their current form can only be used to roughly classify individuals at the group level, and not to safely determine criminal prognosis in an individual case.”
Most of this research has been conducted on populations already “enriched” with the potential for violence: psychiatric patients, drug users, binge drinkers, people who have been arrested. But some mass shooters don’t fall into any of those categories.
For the general public, there’s no screening tool for violence, and nobody expects that there ever will be.
Is what’s known about the relationship between mental illness and violence of any use after events like the mass shooting in Connecticut?
People who study and provide mental health treatment generally say, “Yes.” However, that’s not because people prone to violence can be found and stopped. It’s because if psychiatrists, psychologists and judges become more aware of the relationship between social circumstance, behavior and risk factors for violence, then they might be able to exert influence long before a killer’s plans are made.
At least that’s the current thinking.
“Most people who are thinking about violence are ambivalent about it,” said Hart of Simon Fraser University. “Our job is to find people who are ambivalent and convince them that violence is a bad idea.”
He cited the recent case in Vancouver of a college student who told a friend she was thinking of killing a homeless man. The friend notified authorities; the student was detained and evaluated with an assessment tool called the HCR-20. She had a “death kit” of tools in her possession and had killed a cat and dog for pleasure. She was convicted of animal cruelty but will soon be released on probation, with close supervision.
But some people warn that a more aggressive mental health system would pose its own dangers.
James B. Gottstein, a lawyer in Anchorage and head of the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights, has won four cases in his state’s Supreme Court supporting patients’ rights to refuse to take psychiatric medicines, limiting conditions for involuntary commitment and other issues. He learned firsthand what it’s like to be forcibly drugged and stigmatized by psychiatric treatment.
In June 1982, he had a manic episode that he attributes to sleep deprivation. He was working hard, suffering from jet lag after returning from Europe and living in a place where the sun didn’t set at night. He was taken by the police to a mental hospital, where he spent a month.
“One of the problems that happens when you become a psychiatric patient is that everything that you do or say can be labeled as a psychiatric symptom,” said Gottstein, 59, a graduate of Harvard Law School.
“If the police knock down your door and haul you off and you get upset, you get labeled as ‘hostile’ and ‘labile.’ If you decide that you’re not going to react to these provocations, you get labeled as having ‘a flat affect.’ If you think something is funny and you laugh to yourself, then they write down ‘responding to internal stimuli,’ ” he said.
It’s not that people don’t want help, Gottstein said, but that “the system basically forces things on them that they don’t want.” He thinks it is “entirely possible to create a system where things are voluntary.”
Essential are peer counselors — people once similarly diagnosed who might be able to connect with the mentally ill when the professionals can’t. There’s a largely unknown movement trying that approach. But he’s quite sure that’s not what people calling for “greater access to mental health services” these days are talking about.
And that worries him.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Some have noted a pattern of suspicion followed by silence among those who knew something about Sandusky’s behavior with young boys. Those who work with survivors of child sexual abuse know this pattern all too well and are often angered by it. How do we explain the reluctance of people to talk about their suspicions openly so that something might be done to stop these atrocities?
One of the explanations suggested is that the abuser is a person of power or status who could use that power to punish anyone who dared talk about what they suspected or knew. Though there is some truth to this, especially in the minds of the young person who has been manipulated and sometimes threatened into silence, I think there is a more basic explanation that comes clear in an understanding of the nature of shame and our responses to behavior that evokes shame.
Shame is one of the powerful survival emotions with which we are all hardwired. It is the emotion that compels us to surrender and try to hide when we are faced with an overwhelming threat or defeated in competition. It can save our lives in a primitive battle over status, and it has a complex function in forming our consciences and guiding our moral awareness. But although we use the word in a way that has many complex connotations, it is a fundamental and powerful basic emotion, and shares some characteristics with other survival emotions.
1. Shame compels an immediate behavioral response. Fear compels us to freeze first, then run. Anger compels us to attack. And shame compels us to surrender and withdraw, averting our gaze and trying to hide. We want to become invisible, and anything that draws attention to us makes the shame stronger. So when someone tells an inappropriate joke at a party, everyone wants to crawl under the table. And when someone in your group is behaving badly, no one wants to be the first to call attention to the problem. “For some people, the subject is literally unspeakable.”
2. Shame is contagious. Like the panic triggered in a crowded theater when someone shouts fire, or the rage evoked in a mob when it is focused on a target, shame over someone’s exposure evokes an emotional response in all of us. Depending on our relationship to the person shamed, the emotional response can be one of shame or anger, but if the person is a member of your family, tribe, or a group with which you identify, the shame will come first. When Dad is drunk and making a fool of himself, everyone in the family wants to leave the scene. A secondary
reaction of anger may set in soon, but the initial response is shared shame. If our political leader makes a gaffe, we all groan inside before we go into defensive action.
3. Shame is followed by anger. But the anger may be expressed toward almost anyone. After feeling the sting of shame, we may be angry at ourselves, we may be angry at the world, we may be angry at the easiest person to be angry at – which maybe the victim of the abuse – or we may fear the anger of others that we know is likely to emerge if we make a lot of noise about the shameful situation. So family members enable the alcoholic rather than confront, institutions shield and hide the abusers in their midst rather than share the shame of exposure, and people with suspicions of others, particularly leading members of the group with which they identify, keep their mouths shut and their heads down (the classic posture of shame). The fear of angry reprisals can extend to fear of legal action against the institution involved. But underlying this fear is the naive wish that it will all just go away if we can cover it up or keep quiet about it.
Understanding the nature of our powerful survival emotions, how they compel us to freeze, run, attack, or hide, can help us resist the self defeating behavioral responses that can arise in response to emotionally loaded situations and help us solve problems sooner. Wishing the problems and the feelings would just go away only prolongs the damaging situation.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
About a month ago, Declan Procaccini’s 10-year-old son woke him early in the morning in a fright.
“He came into my bedroom and said, ‘Dad, I had a horrible, horrible dream!’ ” Procaccini says. “He was really shaken up. I said, ‘Tell me about it,’ and he told me he’d had a dream that a teenager came into his classroom at his school and shot all the kids in front of him.”
Procaccini’s son is a sensitive kid, frequently anxious, so Procaccini did what he often does when his son crawls into his bed with a fear or anxiety: He explained why the fear wasn’t rational by simply laying out the math.
“The chance of that happening here are 1 in a zillion,” Procaccini told his son, and then continued with a lesson about probabilities and possibilities. “You know, it’s possible that Godzilla could right now come through the trees? Yes. But is it probable? No. I think we both know that it’s not probable.”
This discussion seemed to calm his son down a bit. He shook off his dream and returned to life as usual.
“That worked out for a little while,” Procaccini says.
And then Procaccini’s community became the “1″ in “1 in a zillion.”
‘I’m Going To Need Help For A Long Time’
The day Adam Lanza shot his way through Sandy Hook Elementary School, Procaccini’s 8-year-old daughter was in a reading room just down the hall from the principal’s office.
She had walked herself to her class early and was sitting there with two teachers when the three of them heard the sound of gunfire coming from outside.
“They grabbed my daughter by the arm and threw her into the bathroom,” Procaccini says. “There’s a little bathroom off the reading room, I think it’s a single-person … and the three of them just sat in there, quiet, ’cause he came into the room.”
Apparently, Lanza didn’t hear them because he left, and everyone in the tiny bathroom survived.
In the days after the shootings, though, one of the teachers who had been at the school and knew Procaccini well reached out to him and his wife, Lisa. She wanted them to know just how terrifying their daughter’s experience had been.
You need to get your daughter help, she told the family. Procaccini recalls her saying, “I was literally in the same area as your daughter, and I know what she saw and I know what she heard, and I’m going to need help for a long time. You need to get her help.”
But since the shootings, Procaccini’s daughter has barely talked about what happened, barely registered any emotional distress at all.
“I don’t know if she’s just disassociated. I don’t know if it’s her defense mechanism. Or I don’t know if she just doesn’t get it. I truly don’t,” Procaccini says.
His 10-year-old son, however, has been struggling. Procaccini’s son graduated from Sandy Hook Elementary last year and now attends Reed Intermediate School, which went into lockdown during the shooting, so the boy had no idea what was happening until Procaccini picked him up and told him about it. Immediately, Procaccini says, his son started crying. “I mean, he was crying like a little baby. I haven’t seen him cry like that, you know? He was so scared.”
And as soon as they got home, Procaccini says, his son made a decision: no more school for him. “I’m not going!” he insisted over and over again.
But when Procaccini’s family went to see a therapist the next day, one of the things the therapist made clear was that staying away from school was a bad idea. The more school his son missed, she told Procaccini, the harder it would be to get him to go back.
And so on Tuesday of last week, when Reed went back into session, Procaccini tried to persuade his son to go.
“I said, ‘Come on, I’ll walk you in, I’ll show you!’ And he just snapped. And it was crying and screaming, ‘I’m not going! I’m not going! You’re not leaving me!’ “
For the rest of the week, Procaccini and his son simply drove to the school and walked together through the halls for hours, Procaccini’s car keys safely tucked into his son’s coat pocket so that Procaccini couldn’t drive away by himself.
This procedure was supposed to convince his son that school really was a safe place, but his son doesn’t seem to be buying it, and Procaccini is worried about what will happen after the holiday break.
“I don’t have a plan, really,” he says.
Since the shootings, Procaccini’s son hasn’t had another dream, but Procaccini is certain that if he does, there will be at least one difference in the way that Procaccini responds. Procaccini won’t talk about probabilities and possibilities again. That argument suddenly doesn’t make any sense.
‘Something Somewhere Will Happen’
Zhihong Yang, another parent of a Sandy Hook student, lives two miles away. Yang tells me to call her Jen, and when I walk in, there’s a small pile of papers spread over the table in her kitchen, handouts for Sandy Hook Elementary parents distributed at a conference the night before.
Yang’s son Jerry is in the third grade and was at Sandy Hook during the shooting. Unlike some of the other kids who were at the school, he genuinely seems to be doing OK. But for her part, Yang finds herself thinking about things she had never considered before.
“Yesterday I went to Costco and I can’t help but think: If there was a shooter here, what do you do? I went to the supermarket: If something happened there, what do you do?” she says.
This makes sense, since death is all around Yang. Take her drive to school. Her usual seven-minute route is now lined with families affected by the tragedy. “At least four families that had victims in that accident,” she says, “and when I drive by I feel the pain and I do cry.”
Yang is from China. She says that in college there, she studied math, and then suddenly — totally without prompting — I find myself in another conversation about possibilities and probabilities. Yang, it turns out, specialized in statistics, and since the shooting has been thinking a lot about possibilities and probabilities, reconsidering her original feelings about them.
Yang tells me that she had always assumed that she was safe because the chance of a shooting happening to her specifically was very small. But since the shooting she’s been focused on this one rule of statistics she learned in college, which she calls the “large number certainty theorem.”
“If the base is big enough,” she explains, “even though the probability is small, things will happen with certainty.”
By Yang’s reckoning, this is how the large number certainty theorem applies.
We know that many people have guns, and we know that a certain number of people have disordered minds or bad intentions, and we also know that this is a huge country. In other words, the base is big.
“So, you know, mathematically, something somewhere will happen with certainty,” she says.
And so though Yang previously depended on the idea that school shootings were so rare they would probably happen to someone else, the shooting has taught her that “we should not wait until it actually happens to us to take action.”
Yang has decided to get more involved with fighting for gun control. This, to her, seems like the logical thing to do.
Still, the logic of many parts of all this are not clear to her at all.
“You can safely predict that this will happen, but why it particularly happened to that class? To that teacher’s room? That particular family?” she says.
This obviously is not a question that math can answer. Math can tell us only that something will happen — not when, not to whom.
And so, Yang reasons, morally she should not distinguish between its happening to someone else and its happening to her. Probabilities just aren’t improbable enough for that.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
When acts of violence against children become national news, it’s natural for kids to worry and wonder what it means for them.
So amid the coverage of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., that have claimed the lives of 20 schoolchildren, what should parents do for their kids?
“The key thing is limiting their exposure to news media, TV,” says Dr. Daniel Fagbuyi, medical director for disaster preparedness and emergency management at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “We’ve found this over and over in different disasters.”
Kids, especially older ones, will have questions. “You do have the dialogue with them about it,” says Fagbuyi, a pediatric emergency specialist.
Be ready to give reassurance and support. “You want to make them feel secure,” he says. ” ‘Yes, this happened. It was wrong, but here’s what we’re doing to protect you.’ “
A guide from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has advice tailored for kids of varying ages.
Infants and toddlers can’t really grasp the details of a traumatic event like this one. But they’re highly attuned to adult caregivers’ emotional reactions and may echo them. Be aware of that.
Preschoolers can understand the basics. “Keep the message simple,” Fagbuyi says. Reassure them, but don’t lie.
Grade-school kids are smarter and more mature, he says. “Be honest with them,” he says. Children this age can handle the facts, but don’t make the details too specific. They may be afraid. “Ascertain what are their fears and then address them,” he says.
Fagbuyi says parents can share their own feelings with kids this age, too, but be sure to explain what adults are doing to keep children safe.
For older children, their own emotional development can come to bear on how they make sense of the news. Some teens may reflexively say everything is OK, even when it’s not.
“For high-schoolers, you have to be upfront and candid,” he says. “They’ll act out. They may be angry.” Let them know it’s all right to express their feelings. “Help them do it in a healthy way that’s not all bottled up.”
If you’ve got older kids, be with them when they are getting information about the shootings from the TV, radio or Internet. Let them ask questions and talk about the coverage. Don’t let them overdo either the talking or the media monitoring.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
It first showed up in my Facebook feed early Saturday morning, and then I saw it everywhere—in my email inbox, my texts, all over the internet: Asperger’s … Asperger’s … Did you hear???? … Asperger’s. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, who had killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School the day before, was allegedly on the autism spectrum. Advocates rushed to respond; many groups, including Autism Speaks, GRASP (the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership) and Autism Rights Watch issued statements expressing sympathy for the victims while reminding a spooked public not to “scapegoat” the disorder or further “stigmatize … autistic persons and their families.”
Although Lanza’s diagnosis has yet to be confirmed, he is only the latest mass murderer whose autism-spectrum status has been speculated about, including Colorado movie shooter James Holmes and Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 77 people in 2011. Even serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski have been retroactively labeled autistic, with the same diagnosis-happy fervor that has caused other activists to claim Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison as members of the Asperger’s nation. But the legitimacy of these diagnoses is less interesting than the question they imply: Did autism make them do it?
As president of EASI Foundation: Ending Aggression and Self-Injury in the Developmentally Disabled, I work with many families struggling to manage their autistic children’s dangerous behaviors. There was a time when my own son Jonah, now 13, was prone to such violent rages that I feared I might end up like Trudy Steuernagel, who was bludgeoned in 2009 by her 19-year-old autistic son Sky Walker, or Linda Foley, who was also beaten to death by her 18-year-old stepson, Henry Cozad. But I was never afraid Jonah would massacre 20 kids with a semi-automatic rifle.
Researchers distinguish between two types of aggression: affective and predatory. Affective aggression is the most common; it occurs when an individual reacts to stimuli in the environment—or, as was the case for my son, internal neuropsychiatric events. These are short but very emotional episodes, accompanied by the increased heart rate and flushed skin of autonomic system arousal. The vast majority of violent crimes committed by individuals with an autism spectrum diagnosis fall in this category, and the details reveal a marked lack of premeditation. A 2006 Swedish study comparing autistic murderers with those who had been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder found that more than 70 percent of antisocial killers used a weapon, whereas only 25 percent of the autistic killers did—and, I should note, this group was very small, consisting of eight autistic individuals who had been convicted of homicide or manslaughter in Sweden from 1996 to 2001, compared with 27 who had been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder. As many autism advocates have pointed out over this past weekend, the autistic population has a lower rate of criminal activity than that of neurotypicals; in all likelihood this is because those who are prone to the most violent rages—like Sky Walker and Henry Cozad—are identified at a very young age. In the best-case scenario, they respond, as Jonah did, to psychiatric intervention. But this population is notoriously difficult to treat. Many end up in residential treatment facilities.
Predatory aggression is very different. Cool, detached, and controlled, it is primarily a cognitive experience of planning and execution. When Adam Lanza donned black fatigues and a military vest, drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School with three of his mother’s guns, and ruthlessly gunned down everyone he found—this was an example of predatory aggression that is generally not seen in the autistic population.
Still, this distinction doesn’t explain why so many autistics are prone to aggression of any kind. Studies have found that up to a staggering 30 percent suffer from aggressive and/or self-injurious behaviors of varying degrees. But it turns out this might not have much to do with autism at all—the primary impairments of which, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, involve socialization and communication, not violence. The violence has and more to do with psychiatric conditions that many people on the spectrum suffer from. One 2008 study by scientists at King’s College London found that 70 percent of their young autistic subjects had at least one co-morbid disorder, such as childhood anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, oppositional defiant and conduct disorder, or ADHD. Forty-one percent had two or more co-morbid disorders.
It is this combination of developmental delay and psychiatric disorders that pops up again and again in the literature on autism and violent crime. A 2008 review by Stewart S. Newman and Mohammad Ghaziuddin reported that “an overwhelming number of violent cases had co-existing psychiatric disorders at the time of committing the offence”—84 percent, to be precise. And Newman and Ghaziuddin couldn’t rule out personality disorders, such as anti-social personality disorder, in the remaining subjects. They conclude, “co-existing mental disorders raise the risk of offending behavior in this group, as it does in the general population.” This academic paper echoes the practical experience of those working with autistic youth; Roma Vasa, child psychiatrist in Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism & Related Disorders, states that children with Asperger’s “usually only exhibit intense anger if they have additional psychiatric disorders.” Even then, “their anger does not typically result in these types of massive violent attacks [like the Sandy Hook shooting].”
It’s no surprise to find the real culprit is mental illness, not autism. As Katherine S. Newman, author of the 2004 book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings observed in a CNN editorial Monday morning, school shooters such as Adam Lanza “are almost always mentally or emotionally ill.” Still, there is a lesson for those of us who care for a person on the autism spectrum: We need to watch for those secondary psychiatric disorders our loved ones are vulnerable to. Often, parents and clinicians assume that patients are anxious or depressed or manic or aggressive because of their autism, when in fact those symptoms may have a different etiology. It isn’t easy to tease them apart, especially in lower-functioning individuals who can’t articulate their feelings well. But it was only once my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated accordingly that the frequent, unpredictable, and intense rages that characterized his childhood finally subsided.
Going forward, we may or may not find out more about Adam Lanza’s alleged Asperger’s diagnosis. But his social awkwardness, his genius IQ, his ability to build a computer from parts—these are all red herrings, reasons why autistic individuals are more likely to be victims of crime. These factors are not even remotely relevant explanations of why Lanza committed this crime. And every time we conflate his developmental disorder with whatever psychiatric or personality disorders he may also have suffered from, we harm the entire autism community.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In June 1999, following the attack at Columbine High School, two agencies–the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education–launched a collaborative effort to begin to answer these questions. The result was the Safe School Initiative, an extensive examination of 37 incidents of targeted school shootings and school attacks that have occurred in the United States beginning with the earliest identified
incident in 1974 through June 2000. The focus of the Safe School Initiative was on examining the thinking, planning, and other behaviors engaged in by students who carried out school attacks. Particular attention was given to identifying pre-attack behaviors and communications that might be detectable–or “knowable”–and could help in preventing some future attacks.
10 key findings of the Safe School Initiative study. These findings are as follows:
• Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.
• Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
• Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
• There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
• Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
• Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
• Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.
• Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
• In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
• Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were
stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School. Most Americans have reached one of two wrong conclusions about why they did it. The first conclusion is that the pair of supposed “Trench Coat Mafia outcasts” were taking revenge against the bullies who had made school miserable for them. The second conclusion is that the massacre was inexplicable: We can never understand what drove them to such horrific violence.
Who Else Was to Blame for the Columbine High School Shootings?
But the FBI and its team of psychiatrists and psychologists have reached an entirely different conclusion. They believe they know why Harris and Klebold killed, and their explanation is both more reassuring and more troubling than our misguided conclusions. Three months after the massacre, the FBI convened a summit in Leesburg, Va., that included world-renowned mental health experts, including Michigan State University psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg, as well as Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI’s lead Columbine investigator and a clinical psychologist. Fuselier and Ochberg share their conclusions publicly here for the first time.
The first steps to understanding Columbine, they say, are to forget the popular narrative about the jocks, Goths, and Trenchcoat Mafia—click here to read more about Columbine’s myths—and to abandon the core idea that Columbine was simply a school shooting. We can’t understand why they did it until we understand what they were doing.
School shooters tend to act impulsively and attack the targets of their rage: students and faculty. But Harris and Klebold planned for a year and dreamed much bigger. The school served as means to a grander end, to terrorize the entire nation by attacking a symbol of American life. Their slaughter was aimed at students and teachers, but it was not motivated by resentment of them in particular. Students and teachers were just convenient quarry, what Timothy McVeigh described as “collateral damage.”
The killers, in fact, laughed at petty school shooters. They bragged about dwarfing the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing and originally scheduled their bloody performance for its anniversary. Klebold boasted on video about inflicting “the most deaths in U.S. history.” Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn’t been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn’t just “fame” they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.
Harris and Klebold would have been dismayed that Columbine was dubbed the “worst school shooting in American history.” They set their sights on eclipsing the world’s greatest mass murderers, but the media never saw past the choice of venue. The school setting drove analysis in precisely the wrong direction.
Fuselier and Ochberg say that if you want to understand “the killers,” quit asking what drove them. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were radically different individuals, with vastly different motives and opposite mental conditions. Klebold is easier to comprehend, a more familiar type. He was hotheaded, but depressive and suicidal. He blamed himself for his problems.
Harris is the challenge. He was sweet-faced and well-spoken. Adults, and even some other kids, described him as “nice.” But Harris was cold, calculating, and homicidal. “Klebold was hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people,” Fuselier says. Harris was not merely a troubled kid, the psychiatrists say, he was a psychopath.
In popular usage, almost any crazy killer is a “psychopath.” But in psychiatry, it’s a very specific mental condition that rarely involves killing, or even psychosis. “Psychopaths are not disoriented or out of touch with reality, nor do they experience the delusions, hallucinations, or intense subjective distress that characterize most other mental disorders,” writes Dr. Robert Hare, in Without Conscience, the seminal book on the condition. (Hare is also one of the psychologists consulted by the FBI about Columbine and by Slate for this story *.) “Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised.” Diagnosing Harris as a psychopath represents neither a legal defense, nor a moral excuse. But it illuminates a great deal about the thought process that drove him to mass murder.
Diagnosing him as a psychopath was not a simple matter. Harris opened his private journal with the sentence, “I hate the f—ing world.” And when the media studied Harris, they focused on his hatred—hatred that supposedly led him to revenge. It’s easy to get lost in the hate, which screamed out relentlessly from Harris’ Web site:
“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? Cuuuuuuuuhntryyyyyyyyyy music!!! . . .
“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? People who say that wrestling is real!! . . .
“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? People who use the same word over and over again! . . . Read a f—in book or two, increase your vo-cab-u-lary f*ck*ng idiots.”
“YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? STUPID PEOPLE!!! Why must so many people be so stupid!!? . . . YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? When people mispronounce words! and they dont even know it to, like acrosT, or eXspreso, pacific (specific), or 2 pAck. learn to speak correctly you morons.
YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? STAR WARS FANS!!! GET A FaaaaaaRIGIN LIFE YOU BORING GEEEEEKS!
It rages on for page after page and is repeated in his journal and in the videos he and Klebold made. But Fuselier recognized a far more revealing emotion bursting through, both fueling and overshadowing the hate. What the boy was really expressing was contempt.
He is disgusted with the morons around him. These are not the rantings of an angry young man, picked on by jocks until he’s not going to take it anymore. These are the rantings of someone with a messianic-grade superiority complex, out to punish the entire human race for its appalling inferiority. It may look like hate, but “It’s more about demeaning other people,” says Hare.
A second confirmation of the diagnosis was Harris’ perpetual deceitfulness. “I lie a lot,” Eric wrote to his journal. “Almost constantly, and to everybody, just to keep my own ass out of the water. Let’s see, what are some of the big lies I told? Yeah I stopped smoking. For doing it, not for getting caught. No I haven’t been making more bombs. No I wouldn’t do that. And countless other ones.”
Harris claimed to lie to protect himself, but that appears to be something of a lie as well. He lied for pleasure, Fuselier says. “Duping delight”—psychologist Paul Ekman’s term—represents a key characteristic of the psychopathic profile.
Harris married his deceitfulness with a total lack of remorse or empathy—another distinctive quality of the psychopath. Fuselier was finally convinced of his diagnosis when he read Harris’ response to being punished after being caught breaking into a van. Klebold and Harris had avoided prosecution for the robbery by participating in a “diversion program” that involved counseling and community service. Both killers feigned regret to obtain an early release, but Harris had relished the opportunity to perform. He wrote an ingratiating letter to his victim offering empathy, rather than just apologies. Fuselier remembers that it was packed with statements like Jeez, I understand now how you feel and I understand what this did to you.
“But he wrote that strictly for effect,” Fuselier said. “That was complete manipulation. At almost the exact same time, he wrote down his real feelings in his journal: ‘Isn’t America supposed to be the land of the free? How come, if I’m free, I can’t deprive a stupid f—ing dumbshit from his possessions if he leaves them sitting in the front seat of his f—ing van out in plain sight and in the middle of f—ing nowhere on a Frif—ingday night. NATURAL SELECTION. F—er should be shot.’ “
Harris’ pattern of grandiosity, glibness, contempt, lack of empathy, and superiority read like the bullet points on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist and convinced Fuselier and the other leading psychiatrists close to the case that Harris was a psychopath.
It begins to explain Harris’ unbelievably callous behavior: his ability to shoot his classmates, then stop to taunt them while they writhed in pain, then finish them off. Because psychopaths are guided by such a different thought process than non-psychopathic humans, we tend to find their behavior inexplicable. But they’re actually much easier to predict than the rest of us once you understand them. Psychopaths follow much stricter behavior patterns than the rest of us because they are unfettered by conscience, living solely for their own aggrandizement. (The difference is so striking that Fuselier trains hostage negotiators to identify psychopaths during a standoff, and immediately reverse tactics if they think they’re facing one. It’s like flipping a switch between two alternate brain-mechanisms.)
None of his victims means anything to the psychopath. He recognizes other people only as means to obtain what he desires. Not only does he feel no guilt for destroying their lives, he doesn’t grasp what they feel. The truly hard-core psychopath doesn’t quite comprehend emotions like love or hate or fear, because he has never experienced them directly.
“Because of their inability to appreciate the feelings of others, some psychopaths are capable of behavior that normal people find not only horrific but baffling,” Hare writes. “For example, they can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern that we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.”
The diagnosis transformed their understanding of the partnership. Despite earlier reports about Harris and Klebold being equal partners, the psychiatrists now believe firmly that Harris was the mastermind and driving force. The partnership did enable Harris to stray from typical psychopathic behavior in one way. He restrained himself. Usually psychopathic killers crave the stimulation of violence. That is why they are often serial killers—murdering regularly to feed their addiction. But Harris managed to stay (mostly) out of trouble for the year that he and Klebold planned the attack. Ochberg theorizes that the two killers complemented each other. Cool, calculating Harris calmed down Klebold when he got hot-tempered. At the same time, Klebold’s fits of rage served as the stimulation Harris needed.
The psychiatrists can’t help speculating what might have happened if Columbine had never happened. Klebold, they agree, would never have pulled off Columbine without Harris. He might have gotten caught for some petty crime, gotten help in the process, and conceivably could have gone on to live a normal life.
Their view of Harris is more reassuring, in a certain way. Harris was not a wayward boy who could have been rescued. Harris, they believe, was irretrievable. He was a brilliant killer without a conscience, searching for the most diabolical scheme imaginable. If he had lived to adulthood and developed his murderous skills for many more years, there is no telling what he could have done. His death at Columbine may have stopped him from doing something even worse.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
From the moment news broke of another shooting, the question reverberated: why? As the tragedies continue, our collective national frustration has boiled over: Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech … Why does this keep happening? Why can’t someone explain?
In the 80 interminable hours it took to get a glimpse at the suspect, a second question emerged: what was a look at James Holmes going to reveal?
When he walked into court Monday morning, one thing was immediately obvious. Something was wrong with this guy. Which was weirder, the dazed expression he wore most of the 11 minutes of the hearing, or the sudden bursts of wild eyes, matching his ridiculous orange hair?
The obvious explanation, which many viewers and commentators embraced, was that he was out of his mind or, medically speaking, undergoing some sort of psychotic break. But a minority view pushed back, and hard: the hair, the eyes, the sensational getup for the attack were a little too cute: a cold-blooded killer, playing crazy.
You will never understand this man if you leap to either of these conclusions. Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn’t exist. Examining all the mass murderers together yields a hopeless mass of contradictions.
Forensic psychiatrists are not baffled by these tragedies. One drive will never explain them. Instead, experts have sorted them into types, which bring the crimes into remarkably clear relief. These researchers find that aside from terrorism, most of these mass murders are committed by criminals who fall into three groups: psychopaths, the delusionally insane, and the suicidally depressed. Look through these lenses, accept the differences, and some of our worst recent tragedies make more sense: Seung-Hui Cho, who shot up Virginia Tech, was delusionally insane; Dylan Klebold, at Columbine, was deeply depressed; and Eric Harris, his co-conspirator, was the psychopath.
Occasionally, there are combinations, or rare exceptions, involving brain tumors or substance abuse. The substance danger has made a resurgence with the abuse of bath salts, recently implicated in many violent crimes.
Mass murderers do share a few common traits. The best meta-study on the subject is an exhaustive report by the Secret Service in 2002, which studied all school shooters for a 26-year period. In this cohort, all the shooters were male, 81 percent warned someone overtly that they were going to do it, and a staggering 98 percent had recently experienced what they considered a significant failure or loss.
Despite this last fact, the ubiquitous question “what made him snap?” leads us astray. The Secret Service found that 93 percent planned the attack in advance. Hardly spontaneous combustion. A long, slow, chilling spiral down. Early evidence in the Aurora case suggests it fits this pattern. James Holmes apparently spent months acquiring the guns and ammunition he used, and it’s likely his descent began much earlier. What set him off down that path?
Psychopaths are the easiest to explain. They seem to be born with no capacity for empathy, a complete disregard for the suffering of others. The sadistic psychopath, a rarity, makes a cold-blooded calculation to enjoy the pain he inflicts. Killing meant nothing to Eric Harris at Columbine—humans were as disposable as fungus in a petri dish. “Just all nature, chemistry, and math,” he wrote.
Harris was witty, charming, and endearing—like most psychopaths—but he artfully masked his hate. “I hate the f–king world,” his journal begins, a year before the attack. Hate roars from every page, but it is contempt that really comes through. “You know what I hate?” he posted on his website. “People who mispronounce words, like ‘acrost,’ and ‘pacific’ for ‘specific.’ You know what I hate? The WB network!!!! Oh Jesus, Mary Mother of God Almighty, I hate that channel with all my heart and soul.” What an ordeal for him to tolerate all us inferior beings.
Harris’s burning desire was a command performance to show us how powerful he really was: “I have a goal to destroy as much as possible,” he wrote in his journal. “I want to burn the world. KILL MANKIND. no one should survive. ”
For those bandying about terms like “evil,” “bad seed,” or “born bad,” this is who you have in mind. Sadistic psychopaths are callous, vicious creatures, probably born that way, with cruelty to animals and a fascination with fire typically showing up by grade school. There is no known effective treatment or cure. It is what the otherwise eloquent Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was describing when he went briefly astray and called the Aurora killer “delusional,” “diabolical,” and “demonic.”
Can we spot these killers? Of the three types of mass killers, psychopaths leave the fewest warning signs. They are master manipulators who delight in deceit. People see them as kind, trustworthy, and endearing. But it is an elaborate ruse. Harris bragged that he deserved an Oscar for duping his parents.
Families who met with Wayne and Kathy Harris told me the Harrises realized in retrospect their boy was a psychopath, but were oblivious to that danger at the time. They knew he had anger issues, and legal run-ins; they were punishing him sternly, restricting his freedom (the surest way to infuriate a psychopath). They thought if he could find an interest or vocation in which to immerse himself, his idle hands would be out of the devil’s playground. How were they to know he was flexing his creative muscles, staging an elaborate death ritual?
Those who saw Holmes’s bizarre courtroom behavior as a calculated ploy to appear insane are describing a psychopath, also called a “sociopath” by clinicians. Psychopaths are not crazy in the sense that they don’t know what they are doing. They are hyperrational—they just don’t care about our pain. Psychopaths are remarkably like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, if you strip away the costume and theatrics. But psychopathic killers have one Achilles’ heel: they revel in glory and like to brag. Look for clues as James Holmes’s history comes to light.
While psychopaths kill for their own amusement, severe psychotics—a very different category of sufferers—are driven to slaughter to extinguish their torment.
Their agony is typically apparent to everyone. The official report on the Virginia Tech killings documented Seung-Hui Cho’s steady disintegration, beginning in third grade and reaching homicidal ideation by eighth. It listed a dozen pages of “aberrant behavior,” from “pathological shyness and isolation” to stalking women in the dorm. Cho wrote weird, angry plays for creative-writing class, which he refused to discuss. He sat silently, spurning eye contact, with his ball cap pulled down to shield his eyes.
Since the tragedy, Cho was widely diagnosed as psychotic—the clinical term for a broad spectrum of deep mental illnesses including schizophrenia and paranoia. Psychotic killers are, most commonly, suffering from schizophrenia, a disease marked by delusions, hallucinations, and loss of emotion, speech, or motivation. Schizophrenia seems genetically predetermined but generally lies dormant until the late teens or early 20s. Alleged Tucson killer Jared Lee Loughner, 22, and Reagan would-be assassin John Hinckley, 25, were both diagnosed as schizophrenics.
Severe psychotics like Cho are delusional, way out of touch with reality. And yet most who suffer from these mental illnesses, even some severely, pose no threat to anyone but themselves. So how does a mentally ill man like Cho make that awful journey to the trigger of a gun? Slowly. Days or months of planning are preceded by years of mental unraveling. As the disease sets in, the victim is typically perplexed and then distraught by the alarming thoughts ricocheting around his brain. Occasional flutters build to a chorus of angry chatter. “Schizophrenic delusions are usually grandiose and persecutory,” noted psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg explains. “There can be terror as a teen or young adult feels he is losing his mind.” Cho was a red-flag assembly line. Everyone around him could see. Cho even checked himself in for a psych evaluation.
What we fail to grasp about killers descending into this kind of illness is the fear. Picture yourself waking up this morning, coherent enough to see that yesterday you were off your rocker. Likewise, three days ago. And two days last week. In and out, but drifting deeper into what you see quite clearly as the crazy pit. Could you get help? That would require confessing. Too dangerous. If you shared what you were up to yesterday, you’d land in a padded cell, electrodes attached to your head, medications administered to obliterate your personality. No way.
Most schizophrenics survive the internal terror, but for future killers, the delusion can be a coping mechanism: I’m not losing my grasp, you people are just out to get me. Arm yourself. Oh God. Which way to point it? Me? Them? For most mass murderers, it will end up being both.
“Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat?” Cho railed in his manifesto before killing at Virginia Tech. “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” Cho found a way to help everyone. He would be the hero of this tragedy.
“There was pleasure in planning such a grand demonstration of ‘justice,’” wrote Roger Depue, former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, in the official report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel. “His thought processes were so distorted that he began arguing to himself that his evil plan was actually doing good.”
These tortured minds can lurch momentarily from one extreme to the next, an exhausting ride. Ochberg explains that the flat affect tends to be rather constant, while the bizarre impulses and behavior tend to come and go in bursts. It can puzzle the untrained observer. Psychiatrists who consider Holmes, the alleged Aurora killer, psychotic, would not have been surprised to see him looking catatonic for most of his court appearance, with fits of crazy eyes. It’s unclear whether Holmes is schizophrenic, but his behavior would fit neatly with the profile if he is.
The third type of killer is the hardest to fathom. Depression, for mass murder? We’ve all tasted depression, or some version of it, so we think. But it’s not even close.
Dylan Klebold, before his rampage at Columbine, felt his soul dying. Hopeless. Helpless. Unrelenting despair. He documented it in a private journal for two years. He also left telling school essays and notorious videotapes. The wealth of information provides one of the most enlightening portraits of the depressive descent to a killing spree.
“Such a sad, desolate, lonely unsalvageable i feel I am,” Klebold confided to his journal. “not fair, NOT FAIR!!! I wanted happiness!! I never got it!!! Let’s sum up my life. the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
Other days, Klebold’s spirit soared. He dreamed of a blissful world, with himself vaguely superhuman, “this tranciever of the everything.” It’s glorious. Tranquil. Radiating with love. Klebold fills entire pages with elaborate hearts. “OH MY GOD,” he gushes between suicidal gasps, “I am almost sure I am in love. Hehehe.”
The despair returns. His writing grows erratic, fevered all-caps: “F–KIN DUM-ASS SHITHEAD…F–K!” He grows quiet, returns to his tidy penmanship to close out the entry: “No emotions. not caring. Yet another stage in this shit life. Suicide.”
A startling wake-up call came three years after Columbine. The Secret Service found that 78 percent of shooters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Sixty-one percent had a documented history of extreme depression or desperation.
The difficulty is not in recognizing a problem, but its severity. An angry, moping teenage boy? That describes much of the high-school population. Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, wrote movingly about her experience in an essay for O Magazine in 2009: “I believed that if I loved someone as deeply as I loved him, I would know if he were in trouble.” She saw only sadness. “He did not speak of death, give away possessions, or say that the world would be better off without him.” Sue Klebold used the piece as a plea to other moms to take what appears like recurring sadness seriously. Good advice. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force estimates that 6 percent of American adolescents—2 million kids—suffer clinical depression. Most go undiagnosed.
With one quick skim of Klebold’s journal, suicide is easy to understand. But why take others with you? Murder instead of suicide comes down to whom you blame. Through much of his journal, Klebold blames himself (he talks about suicide on the very first page). Sometimes God. But slowly, gradually, he focuses the blame outward.
Most vengeful depressives blame their girlfriend, boss, or schoolmates. Some just aim to kill those targets. But the eventual mass murderer sees it differently: it wasn’t one or two mean people who drove him down, it was all of us. Society was brutal, the whole teeming world is mean. We all need to understand what we did to him; we all need to pay. “In 26.5 hours ill be dead, & in happiness,” Klebold finally wrote. “The little zombie human fags will know their errors & be forever suffering & mournful. HAHAHA.”
Two months before Columbine, he wrote a chilling short story for a creative-writing class—after Harris had already assembled the guns and some of the explosives. The story involved a single killer very much like Harris shooting down random “preps” in cold blood, with many of the same atmospherics planned for Columbine. The first-person narrator, apparently a stand-in for Klebold, is just an observer. He watches the gunman intently, and in the final moments, gets a good look and sees right into him. “I not only saw in his face, but also felt emanating from him power, complacence, closure, and godliness.” Sounds pretty appealing. Especially compared to “the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
These seem strikingly similar to Cho’s rants, but Klebold understood what he was doing. Cho had lost the ability to discern reality from fantasy. In his reality, he was helping the world. Klebold knew he wasn’t. He was just getting even.
Most mass murderers intend to die in the act. And most do. James Holmes was an exception, meaning a trial, a psychological evaluation, and answers about why it happened this time.
If Holmes is a psychopath, he probably had a ball Friday. He would have been gleeful through the months from conception to planning and attack. If he’s not a psychopath, he may have spent months or years descending into his own private hell. But which hell? Insanity or suicidal depression? Anyone who claims they can answer these questions this early is ignorant or irresponsible. But we will learn.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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