I suspect it would strike most people as ‘mad,’ particularly perhaps, to those who know me, to identify any sort of kinship, any common bond, with James Holmes, the “Batman shooter,” mass killer, and “psychotic son of a bitch,” as Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter has put it. After all, I cry even over the deaths of the small birds my cats carry in from the deck.
And yet school shootings, or acts of extreme violence in which the perpetrator is or recently was a college student, have punctuated my life in strange & powerful ways. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia just a month after Steven Kazmierczak (quickly identified as “schizoaffective”) shot six people to death on the campus of NIU, just an hour north of Chicago. Undoubtedly primed by this shooting, wary, uncertain, without enough time to think, my doctoral adviser suspended my graduate assistantship, banned me from the university, and alerted all faculty, graduate students and staff to forward all emails to her and, under no circumstances, respond. It was not until a few weeks had passed that I learned—from the Dean of Students—that she had been operating under the assumption that it had been my plan or intention to bomb one of the buildings on campus. She never apologized.
Although her (clearly illegal) decision was reversed within a week, it set in motion a chain of events that were to forever change my life, perhaps as profoundly as the “diagnosis” of schizophrenia itself. Friends—my doctoral cohort, as is often the case, were a close and tight-knit group—abandoned me overnight. Students and faculty passed me in the halls, staring ahead blankly as if I were an undergraduate they had never seen and would never see again. Parties were announced, talked about, and I was never invited. Never again.
As if the psychosis were not enough, I developed an entirely expectable paranoia about my classmates and former adviser (and other involved faculty). I studied their schedules and timed my entrances and exits from the department with obsessive precision, forced to “hide” in bathrooms and side rooms only on a handful of occasions. I no longer attended departmental events (a fact that, with so many others, would eventually be held against me). I did not, could not, finish any of the papers from courses I had been taking, and the themes of those last lectures—the relationship between the work of Winnicott and Melanie Klein, Lacan’s reading of Antigone—followed me like hungry ghosts for years.
For a while I struggled through classes, overwhelmed, perhaps in equal measure, by delusions and this new and unprecedented isolation. Voices took the places of both professors and friends. Following a hospitalization (and consequent withdrawal from a semester’s worth of classes), I descended into a state of the most stunning dysfunction, unable (or simply unmotivated) even to walk from my bed to the bathroom. I could not read, I could not write—words rearranged themselves on the page, and my own thoughts became so hard to follow that I simply could not make it to the end of a sentence; suspended linguistically, suspended in life.
In the fall of what would have been my third year in the program, I had to face an annual review (I had simply refused to participate the year before, and the graduate director had let it slide; an exception that would not be repeated.)
And now let me interject: James Holmes, a phi beta kappa graduate of UC Riverside, an honors student, a scholar. Enrolled in the University of Colorado’s neuroscience doctoral program. Voluntarily disenrolled, apparently, following near failure on a significant comprehensive exam.
Academics, hopefully, are well aware of the standard “cultivation” of promising undergraduates. They are reminded, repeatedly, of their “brilliance,” promise and potential; their grades are perfect; “we would tell other students to consider careers outside academia, but not you. “ None of the realities of graduate school or the professoriate have yet sunk in: the politics, the intellectual prostitution, the cronyism, the often vicious competition. The very narrow chance that any of them will ever actually become the tenured academics they aspire to be. And then comes the graduate admissions and recruitment process: offers and counteroffers, “we’ll match anything they can.” Calls to their old adviser.
Finally, after two of these gossamer years, I enter the room in which my “annual review” is to be held. I only remember bits and pieces—within five minutes, perhaps less, I had to bite down hard, dig my nails into my forearms, to keep back the tears. First, the decision: we are dismissing you, in fact you may not, even as an unfunded student, enroll in any further classes. From a professor I had, until that point, trusted completely: “the decision strikes the committee as simple—you clearly do not have your act together and we have no reason to believe you ever will.” Another professor: “you are a burden on the instructors.” And then some additional reasons, faculty talking more to each other than me: “look at all the withdrawals;” “she hasn’t attended a departmental lecture in almost two years;” “unambiguously uninvolved in the life of the department.” Someone (I’m not looking at them) interjects: “perhaps allowing her just one more term….?” Another “…keeping in mind that if we do this she will immediately lose all her health coverage…” Then: “Absolutely not, but we can discuss the reasons after she leaves.” Clearly she will not succeed. Now or ever.
Me: Everything I have ever been told was a lie. My one way out—of poverty, desperation, madness—was never more than an illusion. And then disbelief. And then, how will I ever explain this to anyone, to family, to old mentors? And then betrayal. No language this time, no thoughts; crying, crying for hours. Alcohol, unconsciousness, unbidden dreams. Even there: repeating their words, over and over and over again. Isolation so intense, there is no way I will ever bridge it. I am lost. Days go by, weeks.
And then anger.
Now the confession: in the weeks and months that followed, penniless, delusional, and in a state well beyond “depression,” I fixated on a single vision, me, sometimes hanging, sometimes with gun in hand and a pool of blood on the floor, outside “her” office. Once one of my most beloved professors, a paragon of brilliance, beautiful, lovely, kind,; but “we have no reason to believe you ever will.” Those words. Impossible, ever to recover from them. Suicide, yes, obviously, but also something more: revenge. Murder, no, a mass shooting, no, but psychological violence, symbolic violence of the most relentless and premeditated kind, yes. And even now (but N, we don’t admit to these things), it is hard to think about either them—the graduate affairs committee—or me, my “career,” without this understory of revenge. A different kind of symbolic retribution perhaps: I will succeed, in the end; they were wrong; someday they will know how wrong they were, and how cruel, how much they hurt me. They will feel remorse, regret; still it is revenge.
We do not know whether or not James Holmes was or is experiencing psychosis of any kind. It seems possible, certainly; difficult to imagine how or why someone with such intellectual promise would, suddenly and unexpectedly, fail so completely. And then this.
I discovered the story of Michael Laudor after my involuntary “departure”; Laudor, a supposedly brilliant (and, of course, “schizophrenic”) Yale JD, stabbed his pregnant fiancée to death in the late-90s. Following the murder, Laudor drove directly to Cornell’s Telluride House; like Laudor, I too had been a TASPer in my teens. And there, at TASP, I’d met the second “schizophrenic” I would ever know, an amazing young man, a poet, obsessed with Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. Too “sick,” ultimately, to remain in the program. Terrifying, familiar: these links, these ties to individuals who are more hated, more reviled, than anyone. Who any “normal” and “productive” ‘schizophrenic’ would and should instantly, reflexively, disavow.
The Laughner shootings took place during the winter of my first year in my “new” psychology doctoral program. I blogged about them a bit here; what I did not blog about was the period of almost total disintegration (mine) that followed. Everyone, everyone without exception, it seemed, saw a monster. Such unambiguous monstrosity, in fact, that it must be burned into the memories of an entire generation through a relentless barrage of images: one image, actually, Loughner leering, triumphant, unremorseful; incapable of remorse. Inhuman. Bare life. Or not even that.
The academic blogger “Dr24Hrs” today reposted a very moving reflection on the Loughner shootings (in light of last night’s events). “Maybe there is no blame here,” he writes, “maybe this was the act of a man too far removed from humanity to be assigned a place as a moral participant. Maybe this was simply, unfortunately, a terrible thing that happened.” And it was and it is. And yet to me that is not quite all of it. There are reasons, there are events, influences, however arbitrary, necessary or unavoidable. Feelings; affect. Grief. And ultimately the tragedy is perhaps not that some of us are too far removed from humanity, but rather, still too human.