I don’t have to write many words to describe the thoughts we’ve probably all had about what happened in Aurora, Colorado just after midnight Friday morning. The only word I have to write is “Why?”

But whomever may answer that question one day will need many, many more words. Any belief to the contrary serves no purpose except to dismiss the horror and find comfort in that dismissal, if nowhere else.

We have likely all imagined – whether it was for a moment or for hours, once or several times over the last few days – what it must have been like to be in that movie theater. To be disoriented by the booming sound of the movie mixed with the booming sound of the gunfire. To be stunned and scared and spurred on to act. To be frozen. To be wounded. To lay dying, with the surreal images of a comic superhero looming large somewhere nearby, casting the only light into what has become an unfathomable kind of darkness.

We have likely all imagined what it must have been like for the families of the people in that theater when they learned about what had happened, when they got a call that one of their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers had been shot. When they sat beside the hospital bed trying to make a doctor’s words into some sort of syntax they could understand.

We may have even imagined what it was like for the police, the SWAT team, the paramedics to show up at a scene so chaotic and unexpected that it’s a miracle they managed to react as well as they did.

Did we imagine what it was like for the gunman?

No one wants to do that. No one wants to put themselves in the shoes of someone who would carry out carnage so horrific, so brazen, so indescribably savage and callous and wrong.

No one wants to think that it could ever, ever be them.

A year ago… ten years ago… twenty… do you think James Holmes thought it could be him?

Nothing I say in this post is meant to excuse or absolve his actions (and herein, I assume his guilt). I do not believe that is possible. Nor do I intend any moral relativism. I want that to be clear. It’s not that I don’t think he’s guilty. It’s not that I don’t think he deserves to be locked up somewhere. It’s that I think he is unwell, and there is good reason the unwell should not be regarded as anything less than human.

At this point, there is much we do not know about what happened in Aurora. We know even less – almost nothing at all – about what was happening in Holmes’ mind. It is tempting to think him a monster, a cold, cruel, heartless, evil being devoid of humanity or courage. Those whose lives have been forever altered by his actions have every right to feel that way about him.

But it doesn’t mean it’s true.

Once, he was a child. Once, he was a college student. Once, he was a son.

This is not the writing of a bleeding heart, but of a broken one. Because it is in our trashing of humanity that we show our inhumanity, and that works in more than one way. The calculated killings of 12 and woundings of 58, the careful traps and triggers laid out in Holmes’ apartment, are not the only symptoms of a disregard for life that will come of this tragedy.

Because there will be many of us who will dismiss him as a demon. A misfit. A coward. A rogue. A psycho. And never again think about his humanness.

Because it’s so, so much easier that way, and isn’t this hard enough as it is?

As a nation, every time a mass murder happens, we talk for days about what’s wrong with the country. What’s wrong with its young people, what’s wrong with society, what’s wrong with the laws. And then we do almost nothing. We put up crosses and teddy bears and floating balloons and we light candles and we leave the victims and their families to deal with the hole in their lives and the vacuum it’s created in their sense of what’s ordered in the world. And then it happens again. And again.

And again.

We could talk about gun laws, and I personally believe there is good reason to talk about that, because I believe they’re insufficient and I believe that any logical 2nd amendment protector could agree that no one needs assault weapons and no one needs six thousand rounds of ammunition, much less someone who’s never owned a firearm or been hunting before. We could talk about violent video games and violent movies and a lack of discipline from parents and from teachers. We could talk about drugs. We could talk about a thousand things.

What we should also talk about is the nature of mental illness and personality disorders, and how to deal with them.

But when that subject comes up, suddenly, we all get very, very quiet.

Again: we do not know what went on in James Holmes’ head. And it’s understandable that some of us can’t abide the implied degree of forgiveness that comes with acknowledging an issue of mental health. But today I saw the full video of Holmes’ hearing, and though I’m not an expert, my sister is well-trained, and she thinks the same thing I think: this is a man who is mentally ill or has a personality disorder.

My sister is a licensed clinical social worker with years of experience treating the criminally insane. She worked with men who were locked up not in a prison, but in a criminal forensic psychiatric facility, because their crimes, though grave, were spurred by mental illness or personality disorder. One of the most important reasons that people with these conditions should be in a psychiatric facility instead of a prison is that, if their condition is not treated, they will likely become more dangerous even to other inmates or correctional officers, and more dangerous to society if their crime did not carry a life sentence.

There are those who would argue that someone who’s crazy couldn’t have plotted out their attack so carefully as Holmes appears to have done. That’s not true. Psychosis of some kind – schizophrenia, for example – can drive an unwell person’s judgments and actions for as long as it lasts. It is entirely possible that psychosis dictated Holmes’ months of calculation, including ordering his ammunition and chemicals, and buying his weapons.

There are those who would argue that if he were truly that disordered, there would have been some sign, but so far we know of none. Also not necessarily true. Holmes happens to be at the right age for what clinicians call an initial psychotic break. It is possible that the break began, and thus his plot began. There are numerous cases of vicious crimes – though few as vicious as this – committed by someone in their early 20s with absolutely no criminal or psychological history prior to the crime. My sister alone has treated several such criminals. She treated someone who was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy – ECT or shock therapy as it’s commonly known – and saw him slowly begin to realize just how disordered he was. She was a witness to his horror at who he had become.

Holmes fits a psychotic profile in another way: he was a graduate student in neuroscience who recently faced what the University of Colorado called an “intense” oral exam. Significant stress can trigger a psychotic break in a person in their early 20s who has never shown signs of mental illness before.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if Holmes says he doesn’t remember what he did. When we do something traumatic to this degree, the brain shuts down the memory-making or memory-retrieval system. It does so to protect us, so we don’t have to live with what we’ve done. It’s simliar to blocking out bad memories of something that happened to us in childhood. It’s inconsistent, but again, my sister worked with someone who had forgotten part of what he’d done. He wanted to see surveillance video because he couldn’t remember a specific part of his crime. (She didn’t allow it – she knew it might have fulfilled a fantasy for him.)

When we forget, or refuse to acknowledge, these very real things about the nature of the human mind and disorders, we ignore part of our humanity. When we dismiss someone as a nut or a monster, we remove their humanity. That is what allows crimes like these to continue. When we ignore the reality of mental disorder, we ignore what causes mass murder. Just as a criminal may disregard humanity in favor of killing, so too do we disgregard humanity in favor of a simpler, more satisfying, less painful answer to a deeply disturbing question: how could a human do such terrible things to other humans?

The answer, however complex, however dark, however impossible it is to put into words, lies in all of us.

Just like it lies in James Holmes.

22 thoughts on “Aurora

  1. Thank you for finally putting into words what I feel strongly in my heart. I was just saying to my husband today, as I saw the suspect sitting in the courtroom on TV, why can’t we finally be brave enough to address the crux of the problem: mental illness. Only then can we as a society start to chip away at the reasons for such madness and hopefully one day prevent these things from happening in the first place. Just labeling him a ‘monster’ or ‘pure evil’ does nothing. I’ve seen firsthand what mental illness can do to a person’s psyche and how it affects their behavior. These are the things we need to face if we want to make a difference. Gun control is one thing that needs to be addressed as well, of course. But why can’t we examine why a young man would do such a thing in the first place?

    • I think it’s difficult and no one wants something time-consuming and difficult. It’s understandable that those most directly affected would want a quick resolution so their pain can begin to ebb, but I think we have a moral responsibility not to ignore the effects of mental disorder. I don’t think it could stop every crime or save every life, but it could help.

  2. I have shared much of your way of thinking about this event, which touched me closely in many ways other than physical proximity. I agree that James Holmes is ill, and while that does not excuse his behavior, it helps to explain it. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever get to the true core of why he did this, but we will learn nothing if we don’t try. And I am learning that our own sense of humanity is relected in our sense of compassion, even for someone who appears to deserve none.

    • Bud at Older Eyes brings up the notion of free will and God. Sometimes I wonder, when all other explanations fail, whether the answer lies in the comparative humanity of those who act to save the wounded, and those who grieve from thousands of miles away, and yes, those who might find a way to approach an understanding of the gunman. I don’t believe God “tests” us by causing calamity. When I heard 1 Kings 19:11-12 in a reading at church one weekend, I found it to be a confirmation.

  3. As horrible as the events a Aurora were, it should come as no surprise that humans can do such horrible things to other humans. History is full of horrific cruelty to our fellows and on a scale too large to be a product of mental illness. Was everyone running the German concentration camps insane (in the clinical sense)? Under certain circumstances, ordinary humans seem capable of awful acts. Read the comments sections on line and you see the sort of disregard for others that, as you say, lies in all of us. I wonder whether mental illness makes us capable of worse or just removes the inhibitions to follow our baser instincts, much as mass hysteria does.

    I agree … Holmes is a sick man. I happen to believe that Jerry Sandusky was, too. Seeing Sandusky come out of that court room after his conviction, the bewildered look on his face, convinced me of that. But then isn’t the fact that he was raping boys enough? I don’t feel much compassion for either. I do however, feel compassion for Holmes family, particularly his parents because you are right in this respect … mental illness is grossly misunderstood and people will to some extent blame them for bringing up a monster. You can probably guess that I’m ambivalent on the death penalty, so I can live with the notion that a sick man should not be put to death. If a maximum security mental health facility with no possibility of release is more compassionate, then maybe I can be that compassionate.

    I think things like this became possible when God decided to give us free will and let things like human the human mental condition be governed by probability and the bell shaped curve. He must have seen the benefits of the positive side of the curve as outweighing the damage from the negative. I wonder sometimes if He regrets the choice.

    • Bud, I’m amazed at how much your thoughts mirror my own, right down to our thoughts on Sandusky and even God. I had debated including a parallel to Sandusky in this post, but decided it was already going to be lengthy enough.

      And yes, I wondered about mass atrocities like the Holocaust as I wrote, as well. I don’t know the answer – maybe it’s a difference between individual relative insanity and groupthink led by one insane individual, denial of reality on the part of the followers, disassociation… through history, no one has really been able to explain Nazi Germany, so I can’t pretend to be able to do so.

      I agree, too, on the complication of free will. Perhaps it’s because we’ve both spent a lot of time thinking about why bad things happen to good people and framing it in a spiritual perspective. But I’m not sure the mentally ill possess the free will possessed by those of us with better degrees of sanity. As you point out, given human history – caveman brutality, tribal wars, bloody imperialism, religious conflict – there is no doubt that all of us are capable of horrific acts at our basest levels. Whether mental illness makes it worse or simply removes the socialized inhibitions is a fascinating question. I suspect it may be both.

  4. While I certainly feel sorry for the victims and their families, my head has been stuck on what the shooter’s parents are going through. I can only imagined it’s equal parts shock, disbelief, heartache, denial, guilt, anger and self-blame. And while the victims’ families can lean on public support and outpouring, there are probably as many people who want to blame Holder’s parents and claim they could’ve prevented it. It has to be a very lonely place – to not only lose your son, but to lose him in a way that alienates you from any public support system.

    The whole thing is heart-wrenching for everyone involved. Even the shooter. Because I don’t believe anyone can take that kind of action without completely losing their connection with humanity. And that is a shame.

    • I agree with you about his parents. It must be absolutely hellish for them to see this happen with their son. I have wondered, too, whether he has siblings, and if so, how they are feeling. And I have been struck from time to time by the realization that, if Holmes is, as we suspect, insane in some way, he must have had many fearful nights, himself. I do empathize with that. Not with his actions afterward, but with that.

  5. I remember reading an article about the parents of these shooters, who are often not what you’d imagine the parent of someone who does this sort of thing must be. Just normal parents, for the most part. But they become monsters by extension, and must live with what the child they raised has done – especially when the shooter has died in the rampage.

    • I’ve never seen an article about the parents of someone like this – that’s interesting. But I don’t recall ever hearing that a mass murderer had come from a bad home or had been abused. I’m sure there are cases like that, but as you and Pithy pointed out, it’s such a terrible tragedy for them, and we never hear from them… I’m sure because it’s impossible for them to put into words what they feel, and to defend what their sons (almost always sons) have done.

  6. Very thoughtful post. A lot to think about for sure. The mental illness aspect is a huge part of this tragedy. Maybe the biggest part. I don’t think this is necessarily a gun control issue – see Timothy McVeigh who committed his crime with explosives.

    And there is no quick-fix solution. It’s very sad and requires in-depth discussion and working together, which at this point in our country, we’re having a difficult time doing; on both sides of the aisle.

    I did a post on this yesterday, but from a different angle:

    • My only quibble with the sentiment about this case not being a gun control issue is that if he hadn’t had an AR-15, or if he hadn’t had four guns, or if he hadn’t had 6,000 rounds of ammunition, fewer people would have been shot. I don’t think that stricter laws would end all unnecessary deaths, but they would help decrease the number of incidents and the number of those killed and wounded. They would foil plans. I think that in most cases, there’s a reason people choose guns. Portable, transportable, reloadable, easy access… 40% of gun purchases are through gun shows or private dealers, which means no background checks. That doesn’t even count online purchases, most of which also forego background checks.

      My larger issue with it is that, in every instance, 2nd amendment advocates (not you, necessarily, MJ) insist that “it’s not really a gun issue – this is an issue of a depraved individual.” The second part is certainly true, but as to the first: when IS it a gun issue? When IS it the right time to talk about more common sense laws?

  7. Whenever someone does something so horrible like this, something I cannot comprehend, I always think about the person as a child. That they were once somebody’s bright and shining, well-loved angel, if they were given such an upbringing. I cannot imagine the pain of this young man’s family at what he did and what he became.

    • As a child, yes, and as a friend, too. I wonder about everyone who loved him. And – this is not someone who loved him, but I think of it – there was a girl who lived above him who, the night before the shootings, got mad because he was blasting his music too loud. She went downstairs and banged on his door, but he didn’t answer. She tried the handle and found that it was unlocked and considered going in, but didn’t. She must be thinking that she could have been blown up right away… or that she could have stopped the whole thing from happening. Poor girl.

  8. I really, honestly, do not see this as a type-of-gun or gun control issue. He had the background check done and waited the required amount of time before getting his gun/s. He hadn’t been arrested; there was nothing in the check that would have raised any kind of flags.

    It’s easy to forget that criminals will ALWAYS find (and use) guns, regardless of whether or not they are outlawed. It’s a complete myth to think that gun restrictions = lower gun crime. ( yes, I recognize the source is biased, but look at the resources they are using).

    Another shooting that I think of often in terms of the parents (besides Columbine, of course) is the Amish schoolhouse shooting. He took the lives of 5 children with a handgun. Sure, he didn’t booby-trap his apartment, and he didn’t send a quasi-manifesto to a psych department, but he still unexpectedly killed people in an unusual setting.

    His mother, as we can imagine, was shocked and grieved by everything. While this is clearly a different kind of situation, there are similarities. The Amish community has forgiven the shooter, and the mother of the shooter has been caring for one of the victims of the shooting; visiting her weekly.

    I think this situation is exemplary in so many ways. I could just not imagine. (this is a link to the article on the mother:

    I really hope this shooter gets the mental health he needs. I don’t know if there is a way to be able to accurately predict this kind of thing.

    I do wonder, though, what would have happened if someone in the theatre had been carrying and would have been able to shoot back………..

    Just my .02, of course; ymmv. I’m sure it’s not a popular opinion. 😀

    • I respect your opinion even though I disagree. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed to own handguns or shotguns if they pass background checks; I simply think we could do a better job of regulation, and I don’t think assault weapons are necessary. And though banning them might not stop all crimes like this one, I believe it would reduce the number of deaths and injuries – saving some lives would be better than not. Barring an assault weapons ban, there might not have been a way to stop this shooting, I agree. I happen to be one of the people who believe that others carrying weapons in this situation could have resulted in other injuries or deaths; highly trained law enforcement officers only hit their targets in real-life situations 1/3 of the time. And this guy was wearing bulletproof armor from neck to toe, plus a gas mask. It’s just a terrible tragedy from every angle.

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  10. Very thoughtful post, as always. I “read” recently (actually an audiotape by a neuroscientist) that a large percentage of prisoners convicted of violent crimes have probably suffered brain damage. Just think of how many ways a child or an adult can be subjected to brain damage – falling, beating, malnutrition, sports, drugs and/or alcohol, even the hazardous process of birth itself.
    Having survived the rigors of obtaining a PhD in the biomedical sciences, I also understand how the whole process of graduate/science education can drive a person slightly (or completely) bonkers. I once wrote a short story with this as its theme, based on a few personal experiences, observations, and newspaper articles.

    • Thank you Joanne. It is a fascinating field of study. I tend to be very cerebral (no pun intended) and academic about things like this because I tend to reject the theory that someone is just “bad.” Again, no excuse for his behavior… but you do have to wonder what went wrong… and you certainly have the credentials to grant insight!

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