In the aftermath of youth tragedies such as the murders at Springfield, Oregon, a lot of people in this country are asking: "Could it have been prevented? Can we stop it?"
Good questions. To some degree they are the right ones.
The querents are also scratching their heads trying to figure out how it got this way in the first place. Incomprehensible, they say. 'We just don't understand.'
I do. For there went I one day, and had I been pushed much further, I would have been Kip. I deplore the attack, of course; I've been an adult long enough to wear out the 'I was bullied' crutch. But I remember.
The basic nature of childhood is dependency. Society permits children to do little at their own behest, and less now than ever before. They rely upon their families and family friends to guide, support and teach them. They must trust their schools to create a healthy, safe learning environment. They depend upon the weight of civil authority to enforce the law. They look to their religious preference, if any, to impart values. They learn interactive skills from their schoolmates.
If all of the above are working as intended, kids aren't likely to commit multiple, premeditated murder. Maybe there are still congenital psychopaths, a few no matter what you do. But we never had this many before, now, did we?
More often than not, one or more of these entities fails the child. One such failure is unlikely to create a murderer. If all of the above fail the child, however, and the child realizes it, the conditions for transformation are in place. A child who realizes that he or she cannot turn to anyone, and is entirely alone in the world, has one natural reaction: take matters into his or her own hands. If no one is on the child's side, what more natural conclusion than 'I have nothing to look forward to but misery and persecution'? Such a life has little value. The one place we can never put ourselves into with any effectiveness, no matter how hard we strain our empathy muscles, is that of greater age. Telling the child 'it won't always be this way' is like explaining the concept of sight to a person born blind; children can hardly visualize adulthood until they approach it, and some not even then.
This is the danger child: the one every support group has failed. The kid who no longer cares about living or dying.
Wise people should fear that child. If people are callous to a child's suffering, that child is unlikely to learn empathy for the suffering of others: my non-clinical definition of a psychopath. No one to trust, no interest in living, no compassion. Outsiders may not detect it, because persecution is an excellent acting school. The child may talk a good game, because he or she has more or less been ordered to be compassionate. It doesn't necessarily mean any actual compassion is felt.
Now let us take it one step further: let's say the child is bright, even brilliant. With a healthy upbringing, the child might someday cure a terrible disease, pioneer social reforms that bring justice and comfort to millions of people, or develop a new environmentally friendly energy source: creative and positive uses of the intellect.
These uses may not occur to a psychopathic child. It is more natural for that walking raw nerve to use that brilliance for self-defense, revenge and spite. The child to be most feared is the brilliant one gone bad. That child will probably never get to write an essay on bullying for psychology students. More likely the child will come to a bad end: murder, imprisonment, suicide, drug or alcohol dependencies, joining hate groups, prostitution, incontinent childbearing, and other self-destructive behaviours; maybe more than one of the above, and occasionally all of the above.
I consider myself a survivor. I can look over my shoulder and see the bodies--dead, wounded, and ruined--of most people who walked where I walked. I mourn them. I nearly joined them. With that, I offer you my story. If by some chance it saves one child of my kind, it was time well spent.
I was born in 1963 of middle-class Midwestern parents: a self-made father who was raised dirt Kansas poor and a mother from a modestly prosperous, stern household. My birth was sensibly planned and very much desired. Both parents came from bright families and were themselves gifted; by all accounts I was more so. I was a bit of a dilemma for the school system of Hutchinson, Kansas, but the combined efforts of the support system paid off. I excelled in school but they contrived never to bore me; I got on well with my classmates. I was never given any reason to think myself better than others, just highly gifted. The outlook was bright indeed.
Then we moved to Colorado for three years. I started third grade in the intellectual slum of Cache la Poudre Elementary in LaPorte, near Fort Collins. I was immersed in violence. I found myself abandoned by the school system; which didn't care about my development. My schoolmates were there for me, but not in healthy ways: they taught me to fight and steal, and I started to get pretty good at both. I grew sociopathic; I had always been as obstinate as I was bright, and I finally learned to stop cooperating. My schoolmates and educators had begun to fail me, and I was unhappy.
My parents had not yet failed me. Alarmed, they jerked me out of CLP and sent me to Heritage Christian School in Fort Collins, at the time a breeding ground for religious fanatics and sadists. (I understand there have been reforms since.) Students, including myself, were routinely whipped with a 1/2" dowel stick by the principal, paddled, and tied in their chairs when they failed to sit erect. I am not exaggerating or making this up. I can and will name names.
Why? Well, it glorified Christ. He was coming back Real Soon Now, and we'd all better be ready. The dominant theology was the book of Revelation-or at any rate Heritage's warped interpretation of it. Even so, I got along well enough with my schoolmates. All was not lost; now only the school system and my religious faith were failing me. The signs were there, though; I underachieved in a school with nauseatingly poor academic standards. My grades were a disgrace. My parents seemed to assume that it was a temporary phase; in any event, at least I was being brought up with healthy spiritual beliefs.
Right after my parents finished their degrees we moved again. We alit in a small, inbred, pitiless lumber town in Washington by the name of Klickitat. The problems began during the summer even before school began. Suddenly I was a target, at first simply because I was new and later because I was different. I was bright and had never learned to apologize for it or dumb myself down. I was bewildered by the physical and emotional assault of Klickitat even before I began sixth grade there. I hadn't yet learned to get angry; I simply was not an angry child up to this point, just a bit contentious. Only in Klickitat did every support system fail me at once. To go into detail:
I got bad grades; by Klickitat standards that was justifiable only by severe mental retardation. My parents were angry enough at my underachievement; when I defended myself against physical violence, I faced harsh punishment at home. And I was often defending myself. Rarely did I step into a school hallway without facing intimidation; the locker room was a torture chamber.
About this time my father Found Jesus. The rest of our family was required to Find Jesus immediately and in precise theological conformity to my father's discovery. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church justified his every edict and policy. My mother's prayers were answered: her life's dream of a Christ-Centered Family was now coming true, and she blissfully accepted her position of Biblical subservience. (Somehow, before Dad got religion, her Bible did not require this subservience. Maybe its words changed.)
I had once known the warm embrace of parental love and support, backed by a love-teaching faith. Now in its place hung the grim Damoclean Sword of a Jealous God--enforced literally, physically and harshly. I could no longer turn to church or family for support; in their view, all difficulties and traumas could be solved by praying and going to church. If I were suffering, that was okay, because I was storing up treasures in Heaven, see. If I were really really suffering, I should be glad, because just look at Job and how great that worked out. Above all, I must not fight back--the Lord abhorred violence. Where my faith broke apart was the point of realization: it seemed God only abhorred violence when I used it. When someone else used violence to beat the crap out of me, God didn't seem to get too riled up.
The school had no support or defence to offer. I vividly recall an older teenager who routinely pushed me around: his name was Billy-Bob Moss, and he had leukemia. Still holding to a belief in authority, I complained in person to the principal. I received a sob story about Billy-Bob's illness, and why we should let him do as he pleased. I continued my career as a punching bag.
Billy-Bob Moss died a couple of years later. A town mourned. Well, not quite the whole town. I rejoiced, though I had the subterfuge to keep it to myself. He would never bother me again and he had died in great pain.
Here I crossed a line. Never before had I rejoiced at human suffering and death. Had anyone known what was going on in my mind at that time I would have been put under immediate psychiatric evaluation. Compassion was no longer a part of my psyche; I could no longer feel it. A lot becomes permissible once you slip the anchor cable of compassion.
Naturally, I continued to be punched and slapped daily going between classes and on the way home. This was, of course, punctuated by steady flows of verbal abuse and ridicule, of course; isn't that the purpose of school? That, good reader, is my experiential understanding of the purpose of school: to break the free and gifted spirit. Sure, I know better now; the intellectual and experiential understandings need not agree. How was I to conclude otherwise at the time? Klickitat had no police force; there was absolutely no reason to expect action from the county sheriffs. They would have laughed; fifteen years ago they had been the bullies. Civil and academic authority existed to protect my abusers; protecting me was not their job.
All the support entities expected to guide a child, or at least not screw him or her up, had gone on hiatus. This process took four years to sink in. By my sophomore year in high school it was a done deal, as they say. That year I fought the last of ten fistfights, many staged by older children as gladiatorial contests for public enjoyment. I had lost nearly all of them. Finally at 15 I realized why I was getting clobbered:
I simply had not gotten angry enough. Well, I thought to myself, that at least can be fixed...
I made a vow to myself. I would never fight again until I was angry enough to kill, and when that day came, I would most certainly kill--if not on the spot, then later. The next kid to hit me was going to die. If I lost the fight, I would hunt him down at the first opportunity with the deadliest weapon I could get my hands on. We owned a shotgun and a rifle, but I also had some other creative ideas. I loved chemistry and became somewhat of an authority on explosives and incendiaries. A little canister of potassium cyanide sat in the chemical cabinet in back of the science classroom; a beaker of dilute sulfuric acid would have transformed any classroom into a literal gas chamber. I could have done it any day. I whiled away many an hour in that science classroom trying to decide which classroom most deserved to become a place of execution. It would have to be the one with a) all the jocks, and b) one of the stupidest and worst teachers. Since only the teachers were kind to me, I drew the line at taking out a decent one. Compassion? No. Practicality: kill the decent ones and you'll end up with only lousy ones.
Sidebar. How many of you are thinking: "Oh, my God, we have to have tighter controls on their access to chemicals. That was insane."? If that was your first reaction, you are in the process of missing my point. You do not solve this problem by taking away every weapon; there will always be weapons. You most especially do not solve it by making it harder for scientifically gifted students to learn. You solve it only by changing the heart and the mind. The problem was not that I had access to enough cyanide to kill the whole school. It was that I would want to, and that I could contemplate it without compassion or mourning.
Please hear me: YOU CANNOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM BY TAKING AWAY THE TOOLS.
When I wasn't pondering poison, I spent a lot of mental energy on the fine art of arson. My reasoning was that my schoolmates' families were as guilty as they and should be punished harshly. Everyone knew where everyone lived. For the actual schoolmates themselves I spent time dreaming up the sickest imaginable torments. My intellect was now applied to evil, revenge and hatred, and I grew quite proficient at all three. After all, not only had school taught me how to be sadistic, it had shown me how to get away with it. The key was to be extra sadistic. Being soft wouldn't cut it. I'd get thrown out of school if I cursed the principal, but if I killed a couple dozen kids, I would be considered crazy. I would get respect, maybe sympathy, certainly not punishment. I experienced a perverted renaissance of wickedness.
For whatever reason, I never had to fight again after I made that internal vow of murder. A sense of sadism led me to go out for football my junior year: I had determined that practice would be an excellent opportunity to legally hurt my schoolmates. I was small, but I no longer cared whether I lived or died; that will get you places in football. I was gifted with huge bones and a thick neck. My equalizer was the hardshell helmet, which I rammed into any vulnerable spot presented to me. I took solace in the fact that most people who broke their necks spearing people with football helmets did not survive, so my odds of paralysis were small. I discovered the joy of getting away with violence. For the first time in my teen years, I gained a grudging respect from my schoolmates as someone easily surpassed in ability but never in viciousness.
I was sick-and business was good. I got a lot less abuse, even though many of the girls in our school were taller and stronger than me. I had a purpose in life: kill, and die doing it. It was not limited to mere contemplation and football practice acting-out. My father pushed me too far one day, and I shoved a freezer over on him. The frequency of domestic violence in our household declined quite a bit. The school gym with its lovely paneling burnt to the concrete slab one winter day; I refused to help the volunteer firefighters, watching instead with a mirthless grin of pleasure. (I cannot take credit or blame for it. I castigated myself at the time for not thinking of it myself. To go by the big pile of kerosene or paint thinner cans I saw in the smoking ruins, I assume it was arson; the town had wanted a new gym for years, but balked at the cost. And how convenient that the cans were piled as far from the high school as possible.)
Astronomy was one of my passions; my folks bought me a telescope. I aimed it at people's houses from my bedroom window and tried to figure the elevation corrections that would be needed for rifle fire at that range. Had the Springfield murders occurred at that time, my reaction would have been scorn: yeah, they all probably had it coming, but the kid was stupid. You don't do it that way; you torch their house while they're asleep, starting with the exits and throwing in something toxic. Make sure you set a trap for the fire department; anyone trying to save them is just as guilty. And so forth. I would have sympathized with the killer. It is amazing that I never committed a felony given the number of them I contemplated.
At seventeen my unpleasant transformation was complete, and off to college I went. I began a slow about-face, a long recovery process. Just as I was used to suffering in mental solitude, I healed in mental solitude. I took personal responsibility for my life of the moment, refusing to blame my past for the present. I either overcame my faults or decided I liked and needed them. At the faux millennium (the one where some of you celebrated, and others built sandbag bunkers and bought Honda generators) I was a computer jock and professional writer aged 37. I speak four languages conversationally and can be understood in three others. I loathe drugs and drink only moderately. I own four guns, yet never carry one. I attract friends easily and have a lovely, intelligent wife who has finally found a man who is incapable of striking or even threatening her.
I have no faith in the legal system that failed me so miserably, but I've learned to protect myself in more sensible ways than by threat of force. I have renounced Christianity; its more vocal proponents have learned the hard way to mind their manners or keep away. The mean streak is still there, and when aroused it is the remorseless one of my late teens--with the caveat that it is only to be directed at the guilty rather than at everyone in sight. It wasn't easy, but I relearned compassion. Today I am known as a tireless, stolidly loyal friend, difficult to alienate but implacable in the face of betrayal. I learned to value my friends and allies at an early age.
After all, I didn't have many.
Now you know what might have happened to Kip in Springfield, and perhaps to others.
For those living in the same Gehenna I once knew, I will spare you the usual high school counselor crap, the parent crap, the minister crap, and most especially the peer crap. I can say only these things:
I hope you make it.
You have a right to feel like going all Kent State.
I hope you don't act on it. If you do, you won't make it. I'll probably never know you except as a tragic headline.
If you do make it, someday I might meet and know you, and welcome you to the ranks of those who survived. I hope it can work that way.
May you, patient reader, someday be given the opportunity to help divert a child from such a course, be it your own child or someone else's, and may you succeed in the endeavour. Take my word: innocent lives may be at risk. Please don't do it for me; don't do it for yourself. Do it instead for the living, and in remembrance of the dead.
(Please note: the original text of this essay was composed before the Columbine shootings, and first edited shortly thereafter. I think it still holds up-when children are allowed to assemble collections of dangerous weapons right under their parents' noses, it seems to me we can call that a failure of the parental support system.)
(Last edited 4/2004.)
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