We are all in shock now, again. There have been three school shootings in the past few days, two of them by adult predators. A sexual element has been introduced into the school violence which was not there before. People are horrified, disgusted, alarmed, angry – and one can't blame them. And they ask, Why?
Why? as an existential question – a question asked of God – has no answer that we can understand. When some tragedy enters our lives, we ask Why? as a means of trying to palliate what has happened. But even if we could know why, to the last decimal place in God's providence, we would not hurt any less. So the only answer to the existential Why? is, "I love you."
But Why? is also a clinical question – a question asked of psychologists and counselors. What is the behavioral spring which issues forth in these horrible actions? And that is perhaps useful to make further inquiry into.
Why do people kill themselves?
People who commit suicide do so for varying reasons, and with varying success. First, there are several sorts of motivations that produce what may be termed "successful" suicides.
1) Some people fully intend to kill themselves, for what seem to them (and some others) fully understandable reasons. They are old and/or sick, ready to go. Whether or not you agree with them, they at least know what they are doing. They almost always succeed in their attempts. They're not coming back, and they know it.
2) Others are damaged in their understanding, usually because of depression. They reach a point of profound despondency from which they cannot imagine emerging. They usually quietly attempt to do away with themselves, and often succeed. There are few warning signs; their loved ones are stunned.
3) Some kill themselves because they are caught doing terrible things and cannot face the consequences – emotional or penal – of their acts. Suicide is a means of escape for them. They almost always succeed in their attempts, unless apprehended first.
Then there are the "oops" suicides.
4) Some people miscalculate in a dangerous game, like Russian Roulette or Auto-Erotic Asphyxiation. These people did not intend to die, but the danger or physical sensations of being close to dying make the game more exciting.
5) Then there are all those who, for various reasons, make "suicide attempts," attempts being the key word. These people are playing out a psychodrama that involves other people. They usually intend to be rescued -- or at least, they aren't thinking clearly about not coming back. Regrettably, sometimes they miscalculate. Most suicides are of this variety. And most suicide attempts do not end in death, but in therapy or further psychodrama.
Understanding the psychodrama is key to understanding their motivation, especially for Types 2 & 5, above.
There are three roles in what is called the Kauffman Drama Triangle, and people playing head games will pick one of the roles. Other people in the drama will fill the other roles. In living out the drama, disturbed people will typically "flip" from one role to the other, in order to justify their view of themselves and disadvantage the other person. The roles are Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.
People who are angry and/or despondent may see themselves as Victims and others as Persecutors. To lash out at others is to switch from Victim to Rescuer (of their inner self). And people will switch back and forth. The drifting youth sees oneself as a Victim of others' uncaring: when Mom gripes at her child to get on with life, she is a Persecutor. When the youth lashes back, then he or she adopts the powerful role of Rescuer. Of course, it's also comforting to adopt the powerful role of Persecutor, which is how Mom perceives the child's Rescuer role, which allows her to be a Victim, too. People bound up in unhealthy relationships will flip back and forth among these three roles and keep each other riled up or beaten down, endlessly.
In suicide, the actor plays all the roles in one's own head. I am a depressed Victim, I can get away from my Persecutors by dying; in doing so, I Rescue myself. It's all about Me, you see. That may be because I am so despondent that I'm not thinking right, and cannot escape the echo chamber of my claustrophobic mind. But if I'm very, very angry, I might appropriate other people as props in my own personal psychodrama, and then we get into very terrible territory, indeed.
For those who commit murder-suicide in combination (Type 6, if you will) have gone beyond the merely personal hell that anyone might wish to escape. They have lost even the boundary that separates their own world from everybody else. They will act out their psychodrama on a larger stage, make a bigger exit. After all, if you just go kill yourself with a minimum of fuss, what meaning will your life/death have? They'll just dispose of your corpse quietly, and you won't matter at all – which may be part of what you're depressed about in the first place, your own perceived insignificance.
Most of those who commit murder-suicide do it among those they know intimately, as in a family. Killing one's children or spouse can be seen by the disturbed person as a mercy, sparing them the hell that the perpetrator feels roiling within oneself. In this way, the Victim becomes a Rescuer of others. But then, having killed those they love, the last shred of rationality says, You have done evil. You are a Persecutor. You must be punished. So they Rescue Society from themselves, acting as Judge/Jury/Executioner of their own felonious self. I suppose they think we should be grateful; though I wonder if they're thinking of us at all, except as an audience. After all, it's all about them.
School as a Stage for Psychodrama
A few years ago, we began a wave of school shootings that shocked us all. Columbine was the worst of them, but there were others before and there have been too many since. Columbine was unusual in that it was intended to be a murder-suicide, but insofar as the school was the chosen stage for the psychodrama of Dylan and Klebold, it was like all the others.
After all, why not shoot up a park? Or a mall? Why choose a school, of all places? And the answer to that seemed to me, at the time, because of what school represents in the minds of the students – not just the perpetrators, but all those of that age.
We have made school an all-encompassing, alternate Society for our children. We provide so many services, we have so many programs, and we cram so many peers together, that school winds up being more "real" to our kids than "real life." One of my friends in the doctoral program in Secondary Education once said the real value of High School was, "Never again in your life will you be surrounded by so many people just like you." I told her I thought that was the very definition of hell.
Part of that response was because I think cramming too many rats in the maze is sure to lead to stress, and stress-related illness. Overpopulated schools are, by my definition, institutionalized child abuse. Putting too many youth in one place also masks discipline problems that would have been spotted in a less crowded environment where every teacher knows every student, at least to talk to.
But an additional problem of the all-embracing, overcrowded school is that the fears and tears of adolescence swell in the souls of our youth, and there is no escape from them. Bullies (to take just one typical school problem) aren't just at school – one carries them in one's head wherever one goes, so even at the beach or relaxing at home, the drama continues. So, when unbalanced persons of that age choose the stage that is most significant for them to act out their rage, where do they go? A mall or park or office building would be irrelevant – everything is viewed through the lens of School. And so, in a way, our society has created the school shooter – at least, we created the stage for anybody who wanted to produce their own psychodrama in real life.
Enter the Stranger(s)
What's new about these recent school shootings is the adult element. Instead of a disturbed student acting out his psychodrama on the school stage, we have had two separate cases of adults unrelated to schools choosing that place to make their awful exits. Why?
One might ask if the sexual element in both crimes is the key (the first shooter groped his victims; the second came prepared with lubricating jelly to violate his girl victims, but got rattled and started shooting instead). Obviously, if you're looking for sexual victims, here's where they are. But those victims would have been available elsewhere. I see these two killers as copycats.
The second killer copied the first. One guy combining sexual molestation with his murder-suicide drama was something new. It made thinkable a thought that had not yet made it to the possibility stage in the second killer. And so, for what seem utterly irrelevant reasons to us, a guy already predisposed to murder-suicide picks an Amish school and kills a bunch of little girls.
But if the second killer was copying the first, who was the first killer copying? And the answer is, all the youthful killers who have made School the societally-recognized place to act out this kind of psychodrama. Before the first school shooter a few years ago, this was an unthinkable thought, and the novelty song, "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun," was considered comedy. That song is no longer funny, because of our awful experiences.
The youthful school shooters, trapped in their own heads on a mental stage called School, made shooting up a school thinkable. Which made using school for murder-suicide rather than simple revenge thinkable to the Columbine shooters. Which made it available as a thinkable thought to someone who decided to add a sexual element to his psychodrama. Which has now empowered another.
I wish I had a solution to offer. But you can't put the genie back in the bottle. These stories are too big. You can't hush them up, and you shouldn't. But the first step to coming up with something to do about it is not a congressional investigation or locking down schools or whatever other "feel-good" claptrap school administrators or politicians can come up with. The first step is to look evil and insanity in the face, and ask, Why did they do it? What did it mean to them? Only then, can we begin to come up with a plan to address this national tragedy and disgrace.
Copyright © 2006, by Arthur W. Collins