People have a lot to say about Elliot Rodger’s YouTube videos, and his long diatribe declaring his wish to take revenge on women. I have decided not to watch or read them. I’ve also decided not to report on them in detail.
Journalists have to see and hear and visit and learn about tough things. It can make us cynical, and it can traumatize us. It can make us numb so that we do not think about what we should hold back.
I could say things about gun laws, and I could say things about mental illness, and I could say things about racism, and misogyny. But I want to say things about choices.
Mental illness or wellness is a continuum. Most of us are mixtures of well and ill. We are also mixtures of good and evil. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
I do not want to perpetuate the false stereotype that mentally ill people are dangerous. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, M.D. and Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, advised reporters to be careful about that, and to “beware the risk of propagating imitators,” by romanticizing killers in any way. They write of a broadcaster’s decision to take down the Virginia Tech shooter’s video after playing it excessively at first.
Mentally Ill Are Not Violent
A person might be stable enough to have a productive life and lasting, positive relationships, yet still wrestle with what singer Bessie Smith would call “Down-Hearted Blues.” My sister once said to me, if everyone with mental illness turned a color, the crowd we were in would look like a rainbow.
Seeking background for this story, I found an old Boston University study “Professionals with Mental Illness Thrive in Careers.” It was unique.
“While past studies have focused primarily on dysfunction, this is the first study of its kind to open a window on a previously unexplored area: how people, despite a disabling mental illness, have fashioned an enduring, well-paying and meaningful professional or managerial career,” stated Zlatka Russinova, Ph.D., senior research associate at Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and co-director of the study.
The people managed their illnesses well. They took breaks, they were flexible, they got help, and they were honest with themselves. One said being successful at work was the best confidence boost.
Missed Chances, Bad Choices
Like the 2013 Navy Yard shooting, this most recent mass murder had missed opportunities to stop it. Police visited Elliot Rodger in his apartment, and failed to find his arsenal, or to discern that he was dangerous.
Rodger had parents who tried to prevent his crime, and he had therapists. He got his weapons legally.
He immersed himself in thoughts of hatred and blame. He fed his mind and emotions with violent stories.
The Newtown shooter admired previous killers, and obsessively read about them.
As far as I can tell, they were not more ill than the people in the Boston study. Those people had serious conditions including major depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. But I think they did not choose to obsess over the red wedding from “Game of Thrones,” or to hate pretty girls.
They chose a different path. Even the most delusional among us has a little thread of free will. We all know what good is. As novelist and butterfly expert Vladimir Nabokov said, every person recognizes what is good. Good has warm brown arms and loves you.
Every one of our American mass killers probably made a long, long sequence of choices, turning away from the good.
Some of them distilled those choices into rants and notebooks, manifestos and videos.
I’m going to turn away. I’m not going to look.