The recent horrific (and all too frequent) school shooting in Uvalde is shocking, sickening, and absolutely impossible to understand. I can’t even begin to imagine what the parents of those children are even going through.
Dropping my kids off at school the day after this happened was especially emotional. I wasn’t the only parent wiping tears away from my eyes as we waved good bye to our little ones.
In an effort to try to understand more about these sorts of tragedies, I decided to read about the event (that I feel like) started this madness: the tragedy at Columbine.
I have a vague recollection of hearing about the news. I was in high school myself at the time, and I remember leaving school a bit early for a volleyball match against another school. As we were loading up the bus and getting ready to depart, I heard another student ask if anyone heard about “what happened at a high school in Colorado?”
At the time, we had little information and kind of just filed it away in the back of our mind.
It wasn’t until I got home later that night that I began to understand just how horrific it was. The media was quick to come up with scapegoats: music, video games, trench coats, loners who were bullied, etc.
We tried to comprehend it, even though we couldn’t. We also couldn’t imagine something like that happening again because it was so egregious. It was a random, unfortunate (and terrible) act, designed to inflict terror. We would move past it.
And we did… for a bit.
And then the school shootings kept happening. (And mass shootings in general.)
Dave Cullen’s book does a deep dive into the events around the massacre at Columbine — using journal entries and videos recorded from both the shooters and evidence sourced from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. He creates a detailed timeline of the things that actually happened that day, and how the city has since tried to recover.
One of the things that stood out to me at first was how shockingly… normal Eric seemed. He had a lot of friends, got good grades, had girlfriends, and people generally had nice things to say about him. Deep down though, he was a true psychopath with a deep seated anger toward everything and everyone.
When he and Dylan were caught stealing electronic equipment from someone’s work van one night, they were assigned community service work and ordered to attend counseling services.
According to the counselors notes, he excelled at the program and always said the right things and displayed the right amount of humility and sorrow for what he had done. At the same time, he was writing in his journal at home about how much he hated the world and wanted everything to burn.
Eric was a full on psychopath in every sense of the term. A section in the book dives into this history of this psychological phenomenon.
Psychopaths are distinguished by two characteristics. The first is a ruthless disregard for others: they will defraud, maim, or kill for the most trivial personal gain. The second is an astonishing gift for disguising the first. It’s the deception that makes them so dangerous. You never see him coming. (It’s usually a him–more than 80 percent are male.) Don’t look for the oddball creeping you out. Psychopaths don’t act like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates. They come off like Hugh Grant, in his most adorable role.
In the wake of these mass shootings, people often talk about warning signs and mental health issues (but never the easy access to guns and the carnage they cause, because God forbid we ever talk about those). I myself have thought, “if only this person could have gotten therapy or been helped earlier, it might have changed things.”
Cullen digs into this with a simple answer regarding true psychopaths: it doesn’t work. An excerpt from the book:
Dr. Hare’s EEGs suggested the psychopathic brain operates differently, but he could not be sure how or why. […] Dr. Kent Kiehl wired subjects up and showed them a series of flash cards. Half contained emotionally charged words like rape, murder, and cancer; the others were neutral, like rock or doorknob. Normal people found the disturbing words disturbing: the brain’s emotional nerve center, called the amygdala, lit up. The psychopathic amygdalae were dark. The emotional flavors that color our days are invisible to psychopaths.
Dr. Kiehl repeated the experiment with pictures, including graphic shots of homicides. Again, psychopaths’ amygdalae were unaffected; but the language center activated. They seemed to be analyzing the emotions instead of experiencing them.
So what’s the treatment for psychopathy? Dr. Hare summarized the research on a century of attempts in two words: nothing works. It is the only major mental affliction to elude treatment. And therapy often makes it worse. “Unfortunately, programs of this sort merely provide the psychopath with better ways of manipulating, deceiving, and using people,” Hare wrote. Individual therapy can be a bonanza: one-on-one training, to perfect the performance. “These programs are like a finishing school,” a psychopath boasted to Dr. Hare’s team. “They teach you how to put the squeeze on people.”
To me, that was one of the most frightening passages in the book.
I don’t think this book helped me understand why these sorts of things continue to happen — can anything really do that? That said, it was a fascinating piece of investigative journalism that pieced together material from a variety of sources. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it (because the contents are obviously tragic and heavy), but I felt that it was interesting and informative.