Anatomy of a Monster

For those of us with even a passing knowledge of psychology, Virginia Shooter Seung Cho's plays read like a fictionalized retelling of DSM IV, the bible of psychiatric disorders. The characters exhibit signs of everything from paranoia, to pedophilia, to anti-social personality disorder, and psychopathy.

Lucinda Roy, one of Cho's English professors was so alarmed by his writings that she referred him to counseling. Cho declined to go. Ms. Roy then contacted campus police. They did nothing. Distressed, Ms. Roy contacted university officials, who gave her two options: She could drop Cho from her class, thereby making him someone else's problem, or she could tutor him. She decided to give him private lessons. But the prospect of spending one-on-one time with Cho was so frightening to Ms. Roy that she "worked out a code with her assistant: if she mentioned the name of a dead professor, her assistant would know it was time to call security."

If this had been the only warning sign that went unheeded that would be one thing. But it wasn't. Cho was admitted to the university's mental health unit in late 2005, after receiving complaints from two female students. In fact, Cho had become such a problem on campus that "police told a news conference at the university that Cho was well known both to campus authorities and local law enforcement agencies." But their hands were tied, because Cho never made any "explicit threats."

This, my friends, is the system at work. And it's a tragic example of just how horribly wrong things can go when bureaucratic regulations trump human instinct.

Many of us have spent the last three days obsessively reading accounts of the slaughter at Virginia Tech. We do so not out of morbid curiosity or voyeurism, but because we want answers: How could this have happened? And what can we do to prevent it from happening again?

I spent all day yesterday digging through the literature on school shootings in the hopes of finding some answers. The deeper I dug, the more haphazard and contradictory the information became. The only thing experts seem to agree on is the "school shooter profile." What type of young man is most likely to go homicidal in the classroom? According to testimony given before the House Judiciary Committee Oversight Hearing to Examine Youth Culture and Violence in 1999, violent youth can be broken up into three major categories:
* The mentally ill
* Juveniles with "a long history of delinquent of disruptive behavior, with problems evident in early childhood," and
* "Normal youngsters whose acts of violence surprise us . . . emotionally troubled and conflicted-alienated, angry, and depressed, [they] may be intelligent and capable, but they are not satisfied with their achievements and often feel unfairly treated by others."

The other trait common to most school shooters is what psychologists call malignant narcissism, "a syndrome characterized by a narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and ego-syntonic aggression [often accompanied by] an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and a sense of importance."

But one wonders how useful this information really is. By all accounts, Cho was the walking embodiment of the "school shooter profile," but recognizing that didn't enable us to avert disaster.

Should we blame the parents?

The more I learned about Cho's twisted inner world yesterday, the more I found myself wanting to find someone (or something) to blame. J. William Spencer, a sociologist at Purdue University, thinks that when it comes to young adult violence, the onus should be placed largely on parents. "We know that the quality of the parent-child relationship is a good predictor of whether a teenager will participate in delinquent behavior. That's why all the discussion following school shootings about installing metal detectors, or even banning backpacks because weapons can be hidden, is off the mark," Spencer says.

Now, Cho was not a child. He was a man of 23. But after reading his plays, it's difficult not to jump to conclusions about his childhood. His writing is riddled with references to sexual violations by male authority figures. Is this a sign he was molested? Maybe. Maybe not.

It would be so easy to blame Cho's parents for his obvious mental distress, but we don't know what part they played, if any. I'm inclined to think that, at the very least, his parents are guilty of supreme neglect. True parenting doesn't end at the age of 18 -- particularly if you have a child this troubled -- so where were Mr. and Mrs. Cho in this picture? Right now, we don't know, but assigning guilt is premature.

Who else might be the culprit? America's gun culture? Rampant violence in the media? The Me-first culture run amok?

Is it the guns?

Katherine Newman, the editor of Rampage: The roots of school shootings thinks pointing the finger at guns is a cop out. Why? Because gun availability hasn't changed enough to explain the spike in these types of crimes, according to Newman:

I know it seems as though that's an odd claim, [because] there are many more guns in American society today. However, those guns are held by the same number of people. We have the same number of gun owners who now own more guns, rather than more gun owners. And so it's hard to credit that as an explanation for why school shootings have suddenly become such an issue, unless you believe that somehow the possession of more guns by the same number of people is having a tremendous impact. And I don't credit that explanation.

I'm inclined to agree with her. But I still find it unfathomable that someone with Cho's history - someone who'd caught the attention of authorities around town! - was able to waltz into a store and purchase two handguns within the space of a month. Guns may not be the driving factor behind these crimes, but lax gun laws certainly aren't helping us. As a purportedly civilized country, it's our responsibility to get a better handle on gun control.

Is the media brainwashing our kids?

The other cultural factor that frequently gets blamed for these types of killings is violence in the media. There are so many conflicting reports out there about the effects of media on children that it can be hard for the skeptically inclined to pick a side. But the evidence is mounting in favor of the theory that watching violence really does encourage aggression in children.

It can be difficult for us Gen-Xers to accept this. Many of us are not above the occasional game of Halo ourselves and you don't see us opening fire at the local mini-mart. The difference is that we aren't children. Those of us in our late twenties, thirties and beyond grew up in a time when we didn't spend all of our leisure hours parked in front of the television or the Play Station. Or brains were given time to ripen without near-constant media interference. This isn't the case today. In an era when workaholics are running the world, the Boob Tube and gaming consoles often end up playing the role of surrogate parent. Today's kids spend an average of 17 to 18 hours a week on television alone. We can't expect this to have no effect.

Unlike some doomsayers, Katherine Newman doesn't believe there's a direct correlation between watching make-believe violence and acting it out. She attributes the rise in youth violence to our on-going love affair with what she calls "the cult of the masculine, violent anti-hero." We may say we're looking to raise empathetic, emotive, peace loving boys, but that's not what we pay to see in theaters: We pay to see Clint and Arnold and James Bond. If you were misfit kid, who spent his entire youth feeling sidelined and bullied and weak, who would you aspire to be?

What to do? Ban violence in the media? Don't hold you breath, folks. As long violent content makes money, media moguls will continue pumping it out--and it makes a lot of money. We can gripe about excessive violence in American media, but it's not going to go away any time soon. So in the immortal words of Crosby, Stills, and Nash: Teach your children well.

It's all about ME

When researching school shootings, I couldn't get the "Werther Effect," out of my head, The Werther effect took hold in Europe after the publication of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. The story tells the tale of a well-heeled, self-involved fop who is spurned by his lady love, and sees no recourse but to commit suicide. Werther's story so resonated with European youth that it inspired a rash of copycat suicides--some say as many as 2,000. It was like a cultural virus.

On one level, the school shooting epidemic can be seen as a similar sort of cultural virus. Each shooting seems to galvanize more disaffected youth. It's as if seeing their fantasies writ large, they become convinced that the only way to empower themselves is to replicate the carnage on a larger scale. One event begets another and another, each worse than the one that came before.

The key difference, of course, is that Werther's acolytes only punished themselves for their malaise, whereas this new breed of malcontent thinks we should all pay for their unhappiness. Why? Because our culture has become almost malignantly individualistic. In our rush to prepare our children to compete in this alpha dog-eat-alpha dog world, we have imbued them with an unhealthy sense of their own importance. Americans have always been success-driven, but somewhere along the line, the "Pull Yourself up By Your Bootstraps" mentality metastasized into the "Gimme" mentality. We have inculcated our kids with the idea that their needs are paramount. When their needs go unmet, they aren't just disappointed, they're angry--and far more inclined to blame others than they are to blame themselves.

One of the central messages that allows humanity to keep chugging along, appears to be getting lost in translation. Our children need to understand that their wellbeing is contingent on the happiness of others. Put simply, they need to hear: "It's not all about you."

The Fix

I have little doubt that all of these factors fed into Cho's explosion of rage. But they can't be assigned all the blame. After all, millions of Americans contend with these cultural forces every day without cracking up. So, we are left to wonder: What was the catalyst?

It's possible that Cho was simply born evil. I don't mean evil in the biblical sense. I mean neurologically and morally defective: The kind of man born with a hole in his head and his heart where empathy and human feeling normally resides. It may be that he was one of the small percentage of human beings biologically engineered to become an interspecies predator.

If this is what the evidence points to when all is said and done, it will be both the scariest and the easiest explanation. The scariest because there's nothing we could have done. And the easiest, because it implies there's nothing we can do.

In the meantime, I cling to the idea that more monsters are made than born. And I hope that we can find a way to ensure that America stops breeding them so efficiently.


More like this

Re: the parents.

While I understand the urge to blame, I really cringe in horror at jumping immediately to blaming his parents, particularly in a public forum, and even more particularly in writing. And of course, there's the 'maybe/maybe not' disclaimer. It's shameful, insensitive behavior.

You are armchair diagnosing based on the most salacious (as that's what gets the most airtime) bits of information that leak out. All the while, the parents are coming to grips with not only the violent death of their son, and the magnitude of his crime, but the media attention, and the revulsion of the people who jump to this same conclusion.

It turns out he has a sister, who, evidently seems well-adjusted enough to have graduated from Princeton, and hold down a decent job. Are you going to rope her into the web of guilt? Her success, of course, is not 'proof' of good parenting, but it certainly points in that direction as much as his failure.

Anyone who has a smattering of clinical experience should know that there are psychotic people out there, and while there are certain risk factors, they are just that. Sometimes there is no good explanation. Taking comfort in blaming someone else is your own concern, until you turn into the spreading of baseless rumor.

There are two possibilities-- you're right, and they were bad parents. In this case, that cold comfort exists that maybe a bit more attention could prevent this crime. And of course,OUR children couldn't every be perpetrators, as we're not abusers, and we are good parents. Of course they could still be victims, so this is small comfort, indeed, and doesn't change things a whit.

Or you're wrong, and you've taken the occasion to add to the suffering of already suffering folks.

I'd err on the side of caution.

Forget metal detectors, we need meNtal detectors. I bet people will take English teachers a bit more seriously now, when they report a student's morbid writing. This is also a wake up call for all those Goths or whatever they are (sorry if it's not the Goths) who are into self-torture, dark make-up and trenchcoats (trenchcoat mafia).

Gun control and restraining order conditions for non-criminal mental health issues sounds like a great idea. Hell, if I could, I'd put my own name on a "not allowed to buy guns" list. But profile-based incarceration is pretty scary.

I suspect the biggest problem is the decline in public access to mental health resources. That is probably the biggest reason these things have become more common. As a user of mental health services, you would not believe how bureaucratic, untimely, and utterly demoralizing it is to get into the system. Or how easily they let you disappear from it (not that you can blame them, since there is often a waiting list to get in).

I can certainly relate to the selfishness, sense of self-importance, high-pressure expectations, a general sense of being wronged by the world, and also the confused, incoherent rage stuff. I am extremely adverse to physical violence however (despite even playing video games and having seen some violent movies). Maybe society has changed and made that stuff more common, but at least for myself, the problem is some combination of neurochemical defiencies and some bad cognitive habits.

I know that, and I try to address that, but I'm also paying for my pharmaceuticals, psychologists, physicians, and lab work out of pocket. Even with that, if I have a really bad day, generally the only immediate care available is the nearest ER.

Anyway, I doubt we have significantly more troubled/evil people these days, and I also don't suspect the availability/killing-power of weapons has changed that dramatically in the last few decades. But an interesting statistic is that, over the last few decades, the percentage of the US population in state institutions has remained fairly steady -- however, it used to be 25% in prison and 75% in mental care, and it's now 90% in prisons and 10% in mental care (or something very close to those figures, I forget exactly -- I saw it in Harper's recently).

I remember one day, while waiting an hour or so to meet with a city official to get a referral to a substance abuse program, I shared the waiting room with a distraught, but seemingly sober, homeless man with his girlfriend seeking a referral to an in-patient program. Perhaps he just wanted a bed and decent meals for a while, but he was at least willing to lay off the drugs for a bit in exchange.

But although he had long been homeless in this particular county, his original introduction to the state system occurred in a nearby county. So this county simply referred him to the other county and gave him bus fare (actually, it was a voucher).

This is a perspective from the bottom, of course, and while these people are unlikely to shoot their classmates, they do pose the minor public risk of untreatable infectious diseases (thankfully, my TB was treatable with a year of isoniazid!). And the same poor treatment of mental health occurs across the socio-economic latter. I personally entered mental health treatment as I was unsuccessfully exiting my doctoral program.

With a modest change in temperament, I certainly would have killed myself. But that temperament knob could have been dialed a lot higher, but just to various "aggressive, but acceptable" levels in sane people, and in me there's the chance it would have ended in a mass-murder-suicide.

If you are looking for an answer, I think it's simply that some fraction of us are going to be fucked up to some degree or another (whether biologically, chemically, parentally, or societally) and we need to deal with that inevitability effectively. All but a few of us are treatable, or at least minimally dangerous, so I don't think profile-based presumption of guilt is the most constructive. However, I am certain that there is room for improvement.

(ps. I'm finishing that doctorate shortly, and right now I'm waiting for proofs on a paper that I hope will be bouncing about scienceblogs soon!)

Of course, it's all of these isn't it?

Some people are born with a genetic makeup that causes them to have a huge range of anti-social and sociopathic behaviors.

Some of those will be more inclined towards violence if confronted by some environmental, social and life experiences than if they didn't have them.

A few will kill no matter what.

The goal is to minimize those environmental, social and life experiences whatever they are.

But that won't answer the question of whether even absent those experiences this particular murderer would have killed anyway.

Va. Tech gunman sent material to NBC

The package was sent by overnight delivery but did not arrive at NBC until Wednesday morning. It had apparently been delayed because it had the wrong ZIP code, NBC said.

A loser to the very end.

By Mustafa Mond, FCD (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

This, my friends, is the system at work. And it's a tragic example of just how horribly wrong things can go when bureaucratic regulations trump human instinct.

Wait, what? How do you figure? You had teachers who identified the problem, offered him individual attention, who called police and referred him to counseling. You had roommates who responded to when he did do creepy stalking things. What more could possibly have been done? Are we advocating pre-emptively jailing creeps?

Sorry, but people still do have to commit a crime before being incarcerated here. He was a sociopath, sure, but there's no law against sociopathy. If we proactively jailed sociopaths, who would run our corporations?

Today, one of my teachers went off on a tangent. She explained that she had once had a deeply disturbed student. I mean frickin insane. However, school policy prevented her from telling the college this guy was about to attend that they were about to have a nutjob on their hands. She wasnt able to tell us his name, because after so many years it was STILL against the rules to give any information on him.

Thankfully, there was a happy ending: he flunked out of college, got a job, and has so far managed to not kill anyone.

One of the things that disturbs me about these shootings is the idea of profiling shooters. Something just tells me that it will lead to excessive dehumanization of certain socially challenged kids that could easily exacerbate the problems they already experience. My personal experience with this suggests that it is so, teachers would often just stick me in the social workers office to talk me down instead of actually dealing with the problems I telling them about. This was because, to them at least, I fit the profile of one of these kids. I played the violent video games, kept to myself, wrote the material that teachers found "disturbing", etc.

Of course, teachers seemed inclined to take these as problems in and of themselves, and didn't seem to consider that the problem was the attitude my fellow students took toward me. The isolation and alienation I experienced was just a lifestyle choice.

People to this day make a big deal out the fact that Eric Harris' journal opened up with the line "I hate the fucking world." The thing is, that isn't unusual or peculiar in the least. When I was writing angry rants in my journals, I opened with it many times. When writing angry rants it should stand to reason that you fish for something that encompasses all the verbal violence you want to get out on the page, and the sentence is so simple it fits. When you start going down the road of picking out behaviors that you think fit the profile, you're going to end up with quite a few false positives, which makes things worse and not better.

Yes, I'm rambling. But the point I'm trying to make is that we should look more into the environmental factors in the schools that such kids attend daily to see what could be causing the uptick in these sorts of crimes.

ome such a problem on campus that "police told a news conference at the university that Cho was well known both to campus authorities and local law enforcement agencies." But their hands were tied, because Cho never made any "explicit threats."

This, my friends, is the system at work. And it's a tragic example of just how horribly wrong things can go when bureaucratic regulations trump human instinct.

ome such a problem on campus that "police told a news conference at the university that Cho was well known both to campus authorities and local law enforcement agencies." But their hands were tied, because Cho never made any "explicit threats."

This, my friends, is the system at work. And it's a tragic example of just how horribly wrong things can go when bureaucratic regulations trump human instinct.

I'm with mark on this - it's a good thing that the police detain people based on bureacrautic regulations rather than human instinct. You know, habeas corpus and all that.

The way the media covers this kind of event -- "The greatest mass killing in America" -- makes copycat killers more likely. I was at the gym today for over an hour and it was Virginia Tech, all the time on all the different stations. Somewhere out there is another sick person thinking that he can be the "greatest mass murderer in America" by killing 34 people. Yet in all the discussions of why this kind of thing keeps happening, there is nothing about the role of the media in perpetuating this "meme."

Unfortunately as rational beings we are obsessed with finding rational reasons for horrible things. The blogosphere is abuzz right now with reasons and explanations - society, guns, lack of guns, video games, Iraq, liberals, conservatives, rap music, God and Satan, to name a few.

As one worked in the mental health system for a long time, it seems pretty obvious to me that this guy was psychotic, probably with either paranoid schizophrenia or major depression with psychotic features. He certainly had paranoid delusions, and though we'll never know for sure, I would bet he had auditory hallucinations also.

People with schizophrenia can engage in very complex behavior - I've seen them cover black boards with meaningless equations, turn on every light and light every candle in a house, gather garbage into complicated shapes. There was no underlying reason for this beyond their mental illness.

It is tragic that this guy slipped through the cracks of the system, just as it is tragic when a cancer patient fails to get an early screening that might have saved them, but to find some deeper meaning in his writing and actions is tremendously counter productive.

Mental illness kills people. Usually, it is the person with the illness, through suicide (which can run as high as 10 percent in some illnesses) or self neglect. In this case mental illness killed many people. If we are looking for rational reasons, I would guess that most of them are happened on the molecular level.

I don't buy that argument that gun availability isn't an important factor in the increase. Although the number of available guns hasn't changed much, the availability of high-throughput rapid reloading weapons has. These sorts of weapons can have a big influence on the number of casualities in these incidents.

One of the problems on the mental health front, is that people with even mild illness tend to be shuned by their peers. I suspect this social isolation is an important factor in escalating their pathologies.

I am a PT Hokie prof and want to share with you something that a recent alum wrote, that I think says what Hokies feel:

Hokies In Need Of Each Other;

We are Hokies United, we are one Hokie nation, one family, one community united by Ut Prosim��That I May Serve.�

The Virginia Tech community has recently been attacked and wounded by horror and affliction that none of us asked for. We were tormented last semester, teased with bomb threats and now deeply wounded by a sword of torment and misery.

Think of Virginia Tech as one body who just got attacked and we�re lying in the hospital bed. We need to use all the energy of our body to heal our wounds. What does a person go through who has just been maliciously attacked? Shock, vexation, confusion, anger, sadness, grief, disbelief, denial, etc. We�re trying to survive and make sense of what happed and gain clarity and perspective. Many questions are asked and some we will never have the answers to.

Some people are at our bedside asking us �shouldn�t have Tech done this or that? Why didn�t someone do their job?� I hope people are not intentionally trying to cause more distress but we need all white blood cells on the wound, we do not need to be wasting energy dealing with more confusion and second guessing.

We need love, healing, comfort, consolation, forgiveness, and service to each other.

The worst thing we can do as a Hokie Nation is to let the toxicity of the second-guessing and doubt to invade our own body and have our own community turn against itself. In a time like this where community members have confusion, vexation, and anger, it�s easy to mistakenly want to place blame. We cannot blame the administration or ourselves; Virginia Tech did NOT ask for this tragedy nor bring it upon herself, it�s not our fault. I believe our administration and police leadership did the best they could, but that is beside the point. Right now we need to band together and support EVERYONE in our Hokie Nation. Please encourage each other to serve one another and come together.

The spirit and love that is found deep within the wisdom of our motto Ut Prosim��That I May Serve� cover over a multitude of the toxic inundations that could seep into our community.

Right now my Hokie family needs me to be supportive and serve them. I need to support Dr. Steger and the entire leadership and not let anything divide us against one another.

Let�s not be remembered as the massacre university, but the university who embodied her to her motto, Ut Prosim and came together as community. I hope and pray we can serve one another in patience, kindness, goodness, forgiveness, and gentleness in our time of great need and agony.

Please feel free to pass along this message to anyone it might help.

God Bless and Ut Prosim,

Drew Lichtenberger

Virginia Tech, B.S. 2000

While it goes without saying that persons who have suffered or are suffering from institutionalizable forms of mental illness should absolutely not be discriminated against, I can't see why it would be objectionable to limit their access to firearms.

If someone has been diagnosed with a pathology that makes them a danger to themselves or others - even if they've been fixed - they should not be allowed to buy a gun. Period.

I can't even see the NRA realistically opposing such legislation.

When confronted with evidence that a student is possibly mentally ill and potentially dangerous, I don't think anyone's civil rights are diminished if the college requires a medical note declaring the student fit to attend college. The student is then given the opportunity to access professional help. Should he or she refuse, faculty and campus security are alerted and have the power to remove the student until they are compliant. Such measures can't guarantee safety, but they would go a long way to address the claims of impotence expressed by campus authorities at Virginia Tech.

By alan towers (not verified) on 21 Apr 2007 #permalink