“Brady, I think it’s safe to say if you kill 18 innocent kids, you’re pure evil, totally sick, deserve to be vilified!”
When the Columbine High School shooting occurred, I was a junior in high school, studying journalism. I was told to no longer wear my long coat by my school administrators, because they wanted to prevent something like that from occurring in Porterville, California. My trenchcoat kept me warm on those frosty mornings, but I was informed that it would be better if I, “didn’t look like that.” I didn’t want to challenge the administration, so I left my coat at home from there on. I didn’t think much about the reasons why someone would become violent, because I was more interested in the facts of the matter, and at our high school we didn’t talk a lot about violence, but we did complain school regulations for a while. Shortly thereafter, we as a school stopped talking about those people, and an unsettled sense of safety returned to the classrooms.
When the Virginia Tech shooting occurred, I was studying psychology in graduate school, up in San Francisco, and I could see fear and suspicion move across the open faces of my professors. Their unnamed emotions were not hidden from us, nor were any edicts given to the student population about dress code, safety regulations, or what to do in the event that something like that would happen here; we simply spoke about the fragility of life in somber voices, which I would think is typical of colleges full of budding psychologists. I had spent a little over a year seeing patients and was still finding my footing as a clinician navigating my way through the uneven emotional landscapes of others. I thought about my still new role as a clinician and that I had become, “that professional,” that people are sent to talk to when things are bad. I started to think personally and professionally of my role in protecting potential victims of violence, and what calming words I would say in the event of a tragedy. I borrowed heavily from Erich Fromm for those words. I felt safe, powerful, and somewhat competent in my role of protecting the innocent.
When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred, I had recently gotten off the phone with a patient of mine after spending a long night in the emergency room. Since the start of my professional career I have been to hospitals, others’ homes, juvenile detention centers, the gates of a prison, the bleachers of a high school, and the typical consulting room to be with people in pain. I have tried to be a compassionate and helpful presence in those places of hardness and pain, realizing that my profession asks me to be in those difficult places and somehow be a source of comfort and support, not simply to victims of a tragedy, but to perpetrators. I have found that others’ words of comfort sound hollow when I say them, so I find myself more speechless these days when tragedy strikes.
As that Friday arose, my body was still tired, my wordless mouth still tasted of 2:00am hospital coffee, and a familiar feeling settled into my stomach that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years when tragedy arises: powerlessness.
As a society, therapists are instilled with a seemingly sure sense of power and responsibility. At best, we are in a position to identify those who would harm others and address a situation before it becomes violent. At worst, our mandates to protect those entrusted with our care is limited by the systemic barriers to care, diagnostic criteria to warrant treatment, stigma about receiving help from a professional, and the malignant idea that you must be sick to receive help. However, more often than not, we are approached by persons looking for answers in times of tragedy wanting to understand the situation without wanting to actually understand the situation at all.
I’ve been asked those questions: “What would drive a person to do this?” “Where were the parents?” “Didn’t anyone notice that something is wrong with them?” In all of those questions, there is an unspoken assumption that a nameable answer exists, that I can speak that answer, and that that answer will somehow solve the problems and offer some kind of healing. The answers wouldn’t provide that comfort, but the questions are asked anyway.
Sure. I could cave and frame conversations about violence from this clinical position of power and speak about pathology and sickness. I could say what many people would want me to say, which is that a person must be sick, must be evil, must be unbalanced and ill to commit these monstrous acts. Yes. I could brazenly respond that the only consistent markers that would suggest a pathological profile in these tragic circumstances is gender [male] and race [white], more than any formal psychiatric diagnosis. Fine. I can frame a conversation solely about the assailant and overlook the larger cultural issues at play, if you want me to. If we want the psychological community to issue tidy statements about profiling, then that’s what we are in the position to do. We can define and diagnose those people that are likely to be violent, hiding the fact that all people have the potential for violence, and we would be doing our job. We would be giving the understanding that most people want to know, but it wouldn’t be understanding at all; it would be a name.
Over the course of my psychological career I have learned to name many things: psychiatric disorders, thought processes, personality clusters, symptom constellations, maladaptive defense mechanisms, attachment styles, intersubjective alignments, and lots of other jargon. Naming something has given me some sense of formal power that I know what it is I am doing on the other side of the couch, and that the letters after my name mean something special. I’ve also been trained, that when someone comes to speak to me and there is a suspicion of violence occurring, whether suicidal or homicidal, one of the first questions that I ask is, “Is there a gun in the home?”
It is a question that I am terrified in asking because of the reality of the answer, and yet it is a question that I must ask so that I can do my job of protecting both the potential perpetrators and the potential victims. How is it that a therapist can protect a person? How do I get a person to not harm themselves? How do I help a person not harm others? How do I address the anger, the pure rage, the vile contempt, the blinding pain, the constant hurt, the unending torment, the fearful loneliness, the scary thoughts, the unquiet emotions? As a first step, I help in removing the means; the primary means of violence, as I’ve encountered it and as my training has shown, is guns.
The rest, at least for me, requires me to work with a person and try to understand them as much as possible to figure out the safest course of action for everyone. Helping out also means being willing and being able to sit with all of the emotions involved. My role involves not taking convenient sides nor by only empathizing with victims. In taking sides, we professionals would be caving into the temptation to pathologize tragedy. We would be giving into the idea that those people need professional help, that those people are sick, and that the “mentally ill” are the real cause of tragedy. Never mind that major mental illness doesn’t make someone more prone to violence. Never mind the fact that any person, at any given time, could be diagnosed with a mental disorder for their actions or thought processes. In truth, we professionals often admit to ourselves, or to our loved ones when the weight of being that professional is too heavy, the terrifying reality that we cannot control another person’s actions even though we are responsible for their actions, that we can never truly know how far a person will go to end their own suffering, and that we are largely powerless.
What I do know, and what I like to remind myself in this work, is that there is something utterly human in the desire to be violent, in the desire to have our thoughts, our feelings, and our very selves, matter, and to have some power in our lives. When that familiar feeling of powerlessness comes up, it helps me connect more when a tragedy arises and to be a safe presence for others. That feeling helps me be compassionate to those that act violently, and it helps me be compassionate to those that are inflicted with violence. In that space, ideas of evil, monsters, and villains ring as hollow as words I had tried to memorize to sound somehow more caring.
Publius Terrence Afer, the playwright in his work Heauton Timorumenos (The Self Tormentor), insightfully wrote “humani nihil a me alienum puto” which loosely translates as, “nothing human is foreign to me.” It is a sentiment that I remind myself of every time I encounter someone’s actions that I struggle to understand. It is a sentiment that helps me be with those suffering, those inflicting pain, those that have lost loved ones, and those wanting to hunt down those monsters.
(Originally written December 19, 2012)