September 21, 2023

The Tragic Lives of Mass Shooters

Guest Opinion
By Greg Holmes | June 3, 2023

Another day, another mass shooting. There have been over 200 mass shootings so far this year in the U.S. as we head to an all-time yearly record. The question is no longer if a shooting will occur, but where it will happen next.

Is there anything that can be done to stop these horrific attacks? After each shooting, there is an understandable outcry and debate about whether guns and access to them should be regulated. Regardless of how you might feel about this issue, a deeper, more disturbing question remains: Why would anyone commit a mass shooting in the first place?

When police and mental health experts attempt to shed light on the motivation for shootings, two factors are invariably discovered. First, it is believed that most shooters are seeking vengeance against someone or something they believe has hurt them, such as an employer who has fired them or a lover who has jilted them. A second factor is that the suspect is often times suicidal, knowing they will likely be killed during the shooting.

Obviously, not everyone who is aggrieved and/or left by their lover kills someone. Most people who are mad or depressed experience their feelings without acting them out on others or themselves. Are there other factors that might help us understand the motivation behind the mass killers?

We know people are not born angry or depressed. Important patterns can be discerned during the early journey through childhood and adolescence that can possibly help us identify those vulnerable to committing later acts of violence.

Two excellent accounts of well intentioned beings who ultimately turn murderous can be found in the 1818 book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and the 2019 film Joker. (Spoilers ahead.)

Frankenstein tells the story of a scientist who creates a being whom he calls “the Creature.” Unfortunately, the results of his creation do not go as planned, and Dr. Frankenstein believes the Creature’s appearance to be hideous. He is so mortified by his creation that he abandons the Creature and runs away.

The Creature soon discovers other people hate him and are afraid of him, too. He decides to hide in an abandoned structure attached to a poor family’s cottage. While there, he secretly helps the family with their chores and learns to speak by listening to them speak to each other. As he listens to them through the walls, he believes that because they love each other, they will likely accept him as part of their family.

Sadly, his dream about being loved and accepted turns into a nightmare when the family, horrified, rejects him because of his appearance.

The Creature is spurned by everyone he encounters and eventually gives up any hope for humanity. He goes in search of Frankenstein, who refuses to help him, and the Creature ends up killing Frankenstein’s wife in retaliation.

The film Joker is a story about Arthur Fleck, who is a clown for hire and an aspiring comedian. He suffers from a neurological disorder for which he takes medicine to keep himself from bizarre fits of laughing uncontrollably. His dream is to be a guest on a television talk show, the host of which feels to him like a father figure that he never had.

Fleck is bullied and attacked while working as a clown for hire. When bullied again later, he kills the drunken businessmen who make fun of him. Later in the film, he discovers his mother is not his mother after all, and that she had been lying to him. A report of her hospitalization described her as a “narcissist” who raised him with an abusive boyfriend. She was sent to jail for allowing the boyfriend to abuse him. Fleck becomes so enraged about the truth of his upbringing that he kills his mother.

When his medications for his condition are discontinued by social services due to a lack of funding, Fleck’s attempts at stand-up comedy fail miserably. His routines at the comedy club are filmed by the aforementioned talk show host, who invites Fleck to be on his show, only to humiliate him. Fleck responds to the host’s verbal attacks by killing him on the air.

Both Frankenstein and Joker illustrate the disturbing dynamics shared in the lives of mass shooters. The Creature and Fleck were abandoned, just as most mass shooters are abandoned, either literally or psychologically. Both of the Creature and Fleck were abused and subject to a history of violence in their lives. The vast majority of mass shooters also experience early childhood trauma and exposure to violence. All of them were looking for love and acceptance, only to find rejection, humiliation, and violence.

Yes, the mass shooter is ultimately responsible for pulling the trigger. But what about the responsibilities of others who have neglected their cry for help and ignored signs of depression and hopelessness? What is our responsibility when we encounter the lonely, the disadvantaged, the abused person looking for love?

Greg Holmes lives and writes in Traverse City.


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