Reading about Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, in today’s New York Times brought to mind Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who set off bombs and murdered at least 76 people back in 2011. These two men have several features in common, including social isolation, a fascination with Call of Duty (a war-oriented video game) and a history of having been bullied.
In this earlier post about Breivik, I highlighted the role of basic shame in psychopathic behavior. Adama Lanza appears to have suffered from some kind of autism spectrum disorder, which suggests early and pervasive psychological damage — the kind that might leave a person with a core sense of defect or shame. On the other hand, Lanza’s mother and father didn’t divorce until he was 17 years old and, according to court records, appeared to be caring, involved parents who divorced without much animosity. Perhaps as we learn more, we might uncover a history of family discord and evidence of early trauma. We do know that Adam had broken off relations when his father began dating and eventually married another woman, suggesting that the divorce had troubled Adam deeply. Then there’s the mother who let her son amass his own private arsenal of lethal weaponry. Surely we’re not dealing with your average American family here.
Lanza had been an object of ridicule and subjected to bullying throughout his school years. Breivik had also been bullied and, according to this scholarly article, the perpetrators of the Columbine and other school shootings had also felt themselves to be outsiders and were overly sensitive to taunting or insults; the authors found a correlation between social rejection and later acts of aggression. Although this might not explain everything about these different school shooters, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to believe there’s a link between them.
My guess is that this type of violence stems from unbearable feelings of helplessness and impotence; I imagine that a profound sense of shame is also involved. If you feel small, unworthy and unable to do anything to increase your social status — to grow up in a realistic way to become a successful adult member of society — you can at least get big by destroying something. In a culture such as ours, where achieving fame is seen by 51% of teenagers as their primary goal in life, a young man like Adam Lanza might feel he has no chance of ever reaching such a goal. He might feel helpless and impotent, like a total loser. But although he might never become famous, he might at least become infamous through destructive violence — that is, by committing some spectacular crime. The news clippings about other well-publicized school murders found in the Lanza home suggest he was focused on achieving some kind of celebrity. It seems likely he determined that the horror of a pre-school shooting would bring him the greatest notoriety.
This isn’t a particularly brilliant insight; the idea has probably occurred to some of you already. You might also have made the leap, as I did, to the hijackers who brought down the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. If you live in a culture where young men have no economic future, where the United States “bullies” and humiliates your country (at least from your perspective), you might feel powerless to make any constructive difference in your life, so much so that you opt for violence instead. When the experience of helplessness becomes unbearable, when all paths to constructive action feel cut off, when you feel small and powerless, you can always take the “nuclear” option and destroy something big and impressive. Virulent envy might also give rise to such violence: if you perceive that another person (or country) has so much more than you do and you can’t stand it, you might feel moved to destroy the object of your envy.
One other place I find an understanding of the helpless/destructive link to be useful is in my practice. Some very ill clients who struggle with feelings of helplessness, impotence and unbearable neediness will sometimes ward off those feelings by attempting to destroy their own treatment: in order to escape from being the “small” and needy client, they may become a very big and dangerous threat to themselves and to their therapists. This is a particular danger when shame and envy permeate the transference. On an unconscious level, the client may want to prove that his or her destructiveness is more powerful and impressive than the therapist’s creativity. This can be a difficult-to-detect factor in suicidality. It may also lead to malpractice suits if you’re not careful. When such feelings began to become conscious for one of my clients, he viciously threatened to sue me and “bring me down”; fortunately we were able to work through this difficult aspect of the transference and productive therapy went on for many years thereafter.
Another deeply shame-ridden, envious client abruptly terminated his treatment in a rage, just as he had “fired” many therapists before me. All too often, in the consulting room and in the world at large, destructiveness really does prevail over creativity, especially when shame and feelings of helplessness are quite literally unbearable.