Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
Information for this column came from various media reports,
including the Denver Post, the London Telegraph, AP, Reuters, and others.
A little time has passed since we all heard about the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. The initial numbing shock has started to fade, and the question on everyone’s mind has begun to shift from “what happened?” to “why?”
Unfortunately, this question is much harder to answer.
Details about the life of James Eagan Holmes have begun to emerge, but it is hard to detect the trigger that drove him to kill.
By all accounts, his life until recently was a solid string of personal success. A pretty good soccer player, he quit the high school team in order to concentrate on his studies. That dedication apparently paid off. Four years at Cal-Riverside produced a degree in the demanding field of neuroscience, receiving the highest academic honors. He was active in the Presbyterian Church. People who knew him used words like shy, quiet, pleasant, and really smart.
In other words, normal.
But they also used other words, like recluse, introvert; a loner. Fellow students have said, “No one knew him. No one.”
After graduating, his non-stop run of success hit the wall of reality erected by an economy mired in recession. Nobody wanted to hire this bright, accomplished young man. After an apparently fruitless job search, he returned to academia, earning acceptance into the PhD program at the University of Colorado – Denver, no small accomplishment. But after about a year and a half, he began to withdraw from that program.
Then in April of this year, he began to acquire firearms – two pistols, a shotgun, and a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. According to the law enforcement personnel who have gotten a peek inside his booby trap-laden apartment, his acquisitions included buckets of ammunition and explosives, including a live mortar shell. When he left his apartment to attend the movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” he left behind music playing very loudly. When his downstairs neighbor went to complain, she found the door unlocked. Fortunately for her and all the other residents of that building, she didn’t go in. Suddenly, about 1:00 a.m., the music stopped. A few miles away, James Holmes had already begun killing.
After the shooting stopped, he then quietly left the theater, sat down by his car and waited calmly for the police. He didn’t resist arrest, and is now in custody. He initially cooperated with police up to the point of telling them about the dangers in his apartment. He has since gone silent.
I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. As far as I’m concerned, the inner workings of the human brain are a mystery that exists somewhere in the netherworld between science fiction and witchcraft. But I’d like to think that I’m a fairly canny observer of my fellow humans.
I think when someone enjoys a lifetime of unbroken success, unrealistic expectations set in. The rest of us are forced to deal head-on with the inevitable disappointments and failures that are part and parcel of life. Learning to survive that adversity is necessarily a survival skillset.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen people whose early lives were nothing but good news, but when suddenly faced with the gritty reality of life on the streets, were utterly unable to cope.
Experiencing failure is inevitable. It should never be an ending, but a powerful learning opportunity. Unfortunately, some children are never taught that hard lesson.
For Jimmy Holmes, it would appear that his transition from academia to real life was abrupt and harsh. After being honored and feted by teachers and fellow students, he found that in the primordial environment of the business world, he was without tangible value. In short order, he had gone from the Belle of the Ball to the Last Call leftover. Could it be that reality, for which he may have been manifestly unprepared, was simply too much for him?
But if that was the case, why did he take out his frustrations on strangers? For that answer, we only have his strong identification with the violent, psychotic character of the Joker, painting his hair and beard red, and spitting at police and fellow prisoners. There are those who still say that it was the dark nature of that character that drove actor Heath Ledger to his death.
People who blame others for their problems are usually not shy about their complaints. But others, who feel that the responsibility for failure is theirs and theirs alone, are uncommonly quiet.
The Samurai had a saying: A sheathed sword rattles. A drawn sword is silent.
In 1974, Elton John did a song called “Ticking,” the disturbing tale of another young man whose brain suddenly, and for no apparent reason, snapped. In the last verse are the words,
“You’ve slept too long in silence, Mama said,
Remember mama said
Crazy boy, you’ll only wind up with strange notions in your head.
We want so badly to understand, because the “why” will help to bring meaning to the otherwise senseless deaths in that theater. And just as importantly, so we can prevent future tragedies by learning to hear, and heed, the ticking time bomb inside someone else’s mind.