The Other Elephant in the Room

At this point, we have all heard plenty about James Eagan Holmes’ mass murder of an Aurora, Colorado audience at a midnight opening of The Dark Knight. We have heard very little about Holmes, however, other than that he was a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado, that he killed twelve people and wounded 58, that he was struggling in his program and was in the process of withdrawing, that he booby-trapped his apartment with explosives, and that, oddly, he left only the barest traces on the internet.

In a way, I have been relieved not to be bombarded with the sordid details of Holmes’ quiet life. I’ve been thinking quite a bit this week about a point that protection expert Gavin de Becker makes in his book, The Gift of Fear: “Reporters usually refer to assassins with triple names, like Mark David Chapman, Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Richard Jackson…Our culture presents many role models, but few get as much hoopla and glory as the assassin.” Add to this list Seung Hui-Cho, Jared Lee Loughner, and James Eagan Holmes.

In the absence of concrete information about Holmes and his motivations, often-acrimonious debates about gun control have proliferated on editorial pages, blogs, and – naturally – facebook. (My favorite facebook feature these days is the “Unfollow Post” button.) Many, many gifted writers have argued eloquently in favor of increased enforcement of existing gun control laws, reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban, and more conscientiousness about background checks.

Other than David Brooks’ column, “More Treatment Programs,” though, I have seen very little about the role of mental illness in mass shootings. In his article, Brooks criticizes those who use the Aurora shooting as a pretext for calling for more gun control, saying, “These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones” and arguing that “The best way to prevent killing sprees is with relationships — when one person notices that a relative or neighbor is going off the rails and gets that person treatment before the barbarism takes control.” Just a few weeks ago, however, The New York Times Magazine featured an article by journalist Jeneen Interlandi, “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind,” describing her and her family’s futile efforts to hospitalize her father long enough for him to regain stability.

Though the Virginia Tech shooting in particular has provoked huge changes in protocols for how mental health issues on campus are addressed, I have noticed an uneasy silence among my colleagues about these mass killings, especially considering that most of the shooters have had some sort of connection to an educational setting. When Jared Lee Loughner – who, incidentally, is still not stable enough to stand trial as of this writing – shot 18 people, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I read with anxiety about the many, many attempts by teachers and students to alert the college of Loughner’s threatening behavior. My first thought was “There but for the grace of God go I,” because Loughner could easily have been one of my own students. Likewise, administrators at Virginia Tech asked Seung Hui-Cho to get mental health treatment, but because he was an adult, the college had no real way to enforce their request.

In 1997, the summer between my two years of graduate school, I worked as a temporary executive assistant for a mental health agency, and the site where my office was located also served as a day program for severely mentally ill patients who could not function on their own and were unlikely ever to recover. In August of that summer, a man with a sword held up downtown Seattle for 11 hours, after which police finally subdued him by blasting him with a fire hose. It turned out he was a client at the agency where I was temping, and one of the administrators and I had a long conversation about what it was like to devote your life to social work with a population of people who would never really be functional. Violence among mentally ill patients is extremely rare, but, in that particular setting, so was recovery.

Many people have commented that what Holmes did is evil, an impression certainly fostered by his emulation of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. My observation is that it seems easier to accept that someone might be evil than that someone might be incurably, dangerously psychotic. It is almost un-American to consider that there are some illnesses that have no cure, or sufferers whose bootstraps are terminally inadequate, or people who cannot keep themselves from harming others. Even when a mental breakdown seems patently obvious, as in Jason Russell’s post-Kony meltdown in San Diego, the default reaction is contempt or mockery. I have had many students with criminal histories in my classes, including occasional sex offenders, and many students with a variety of mental illnesses, some of them serious. So far, fortunately, there has been only one time, years ago, when I felt like I was in danger, though once in a while a student has been, and every time there’s a media blitz about a student assassin, I wonder what I would have done if the student had been in one of my own classes.

This afternoon, Fox News reported that Holmes sent a psychiatrist at his school a notebook with the details of the massacre he was planning, but that it sat in a mailroom unopened for over a week. It’s not clear whether the psychiatrist was treating Holmes or was one of his professors, but it’s yet another instance of clues to a dangerous young man’s mental state being ignored, dismissed, denied, or just plain missed. (As for the news that gun sales have gone up since the shooting, I’m not even going there.) A judge has issued a gag order on the case, so neither the school nor the police will comment on the record.

I am not sure whether Holmes is evil or not, but it seems futile to treat out-of-control situations and people as though they have control. Interlandi’s article about her father makes it painfully clear how difficult it is to get treatment for an adult who doesn’t want it; and the reporting on the Aurora massacre makes it clear how easy it is for a murderer to get guns, ammunition, and explosives. David Brooks blithely talks about “getting [a mentally ill person] treatment,” but without the means to compel someone to get treatment – and adequate treatment facilities for those who need it – we can expect more violence, not less. It is easy to slap the “EVIL” label on senseless violence, but when violence occurs so frequently, it’s not an aberration: Instead, it’s an inevitable collision between lax-to-nonexistent gun law enforcement, a dysfunctional mental health system, and the tragic consequences of letting ideology trump compassion…over and over again.

One thought on “The Other Elephant in the Room

  1. Pingback: Not with a Whimper but a Bang | Paper Balls

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