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James Holmes: An All-American Mass Murderer

I have something I want to say about James Holmes, the young grad school drop out who opened fired on innocent victims watching the premier of the new Batman movie in a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, taking the lives of twelve people, some of whom were children, and injuring at least 58 more.  People are shocked and angry, feeling helpless, and understandably so. 

But as we look at the news coverage, the images of a dazed Ronald MacDonald look alike with his shock orange hair, as we look at this man who fails to grasp the immensity and darkness of his deeds, let us not lose sight of one thing: he is a human being.  He was until a few months ago the kind of young man we wanted our kids to emulate: a smart young man, an achiever, a scholarship recipient, someone we expected to succeed. 

Before the pictures of the new orange hair I had emblazoned in my mind a picture the Times ran, of him perhaps at the start of grad school, with a dimpled, somewhat awkward smile and intelligent eyes.  I see him as young, and vulnerable. I see him as a victim, too.

Maybe it’s because I have seen this before, up close and personal, someone seemingly at the top of their game going off the deep end. 

All this summer I’ve been wearing the expensive and incredibly stylish summer wardrobe my sister purchased for herself in the height of a drawn out manic episode that had been heretofore unprecedented. After three weeks in the psyche ward where she hardly ate and lost pounds she didn’t need to lose from her already fit frame, she hadn’t lost sight of the fact that how she looked was important to her.  She was a beautiful woman with a delicate, almost elfin face and straw colored hair.  She was a businesswoman by day, and by night she was tragically hip, rocking a ghi on the Aikido matt, or stylin’ in some Free People threads in a pan-Asian restaurant.

Up until the bitter end, she hadn’t let go of her need to be beautiful. She would show the world that she wouldn’t be reduced to that flimsy hospital gurney with its soul-less print and the awkward gaping slit up the back.

This is the thing: long before she committed that final act, flying swanlike (in my mind) over the “hapless heads of the people walking below” (as she had portended in a facebook note at least a week before she did just that) my sister cried out for help, and no one helped her.

When she flew the paper airplane into her boss’s office during an important meeting (an airplane made of the chart he had requested), she was crying out for help.

When she wrote about the incident on facebook she was crying out for help.

Her firm had protocols in place for handling this sort of thing, protocols involving the offering of help, the availing of therapeutic services, recognizing that a job like hers could be extremely stressful, and that, given the circumstances and the lousy economy and the rounds of layoffs and the need for secrecy in the form of “I know my friend, who’s worked here far longer than me, is about to get the axe, but my lips are sealed” played over and over and over again like a scratched record, could get to anyone. ANYONE! 

They kicked her to the curb. They had her arrested. All the protocols went out the window.  And a few weeks later she was dead.

Why did James Holmes’ circle of family, colleagues, professors and friends fail to help him? 

I’m dismayed when I read news reports that people think Holmes is faking his insanity. I’m so dismayed.  We are so quick to turn him into a monster.  It seems easier for us to demonize him than to see his suffering…to think that maybe there were signs that we might have picked up on… that everyone could have played a role…in saving him, in saving the community…instead of turning our backs…instead of running from something that makes us uncomfortable. So we end up further alienating the alienated. So we end up with bodies broken. We end up with death and devastation. Because we feared the recluse, the strange and unpredictable behavior. And we tried to make it go away by ignoring it.

I wish the media, instead of selling out our rage, would help us find a way to look in the mirror from time to time, and see ourselves in that young man, and perhaps become better equipped to help the next James Holmes.

But isn’t it easier to just turn on the DVD player and slip in another Batman movie and believe that our troubles are slipping away?  Isn't it easier to believe that he's not our problem? That he doesn't belong to us, and never did?  He does though. He is someone's son, someone's nephew, someone's grandson. People that knew him probably called him "Jamie."  They are asking themselves, "What ever happened to our Jamie?"


Compassion is the answer. Compassion to the troubled person would have gotten that person the help he needed and prevented the tragedy. But sometimes the most compassionate act is not the easiest. Someone needed to get involved, someone needed to express something unpleasant. And usually that someone gets villified. But don't we wish someone had shown that courage?

Rachel Dowling's picture

I agree, Georgen. Compassion and courage are needed. But also education.  At the family level, at the level of businesses and corporations and institutions of higher education. If there were more education, there would be more undertanding, and less fear. And people would be better equipped to intervene, and intervene sooner.

Mei Zhang's picture

Your story is very poignant, I am sorry for your loss..However your story and that of a mass murderer are very different.  I can't have any sympathy for James Holmes, He didn't commit suicide..he's alive.

Dear Mei:  If I may make a small comment regarding sympathy.  James Holmes may be physically "alive," but if he were in his right mind, and were able to comment on the James Holmes who committed this tragic act, HE would probably be the first to tell you he was anything BUT alive.

People who have never had a loved one struggling their way to balance will usually lack any "sympathy" for the afflicted soul.

Sadly, those of us who have had this experience have something in addition to sympathy.  We also have "empathy" for the afflicted and their loved ones.  We "get it" in a Been-There-Done-That way that others do not - yet.

Mei, thank you for reading Rachel's poignant words, and taking the time to comment.

If you could bring yourself to do so, please offer a prayer for my family as we are again struggling with this sorrowful experience.


Rachel Dowling's picture

Oh, Eenie, I have tears as I read your comments. I was coming on here to try to offer a response to Mei, but you have already done so with such eloquence! I'm so sorry to hear that your family is going through this, and I am hoping and praying for the best possible outcome for the afflicted and for you and your family.

Mei, mental illness is at the center of both stories. It may have manifested differently, and resulted in homicide, in the case of James Holmes, rather than a suicide, but the underlying imbalance is essentially the same. In fact, more people die from suicide than from  homicide. Yet suicides are sadly overlooked.

And mental illness, when it goes untreated, worsens and grows like any other illness. These illnesses of the mind are terrifyingly cunning. They know how to evade all who try to intervene. And they often afflict the very brightest among us. 

It was not for lack of trying that my family failed to help my sister. We tried like hell.  And I wouldn't be surpurised if we were to learn that there were people who did try to intervene on behalf of James Holmes. But we need to be more coordinated in our efforts. And we need to be more compassionate. There is a tremendous stigma associated with mental illness which intereferes with our helping the afflicted, and which also interferes with the afflicteds' receptivity to getting help.

Maybe James Holmse could teach us something about mental illness, about mass murderers, about how to understand how this happened so that we could maybe stand a chance of preventing it in the future. Maybe he could even be rehabilitated.  If we keep him alive. If we kill  him he'll just be another casualty of our own indifference.  


Rachel, my heart holds Hope for Mei, that she nor any of those she loves would ever go through The Dark Night of the Soul.

I've been there myself, a couple of times, so I know what it looks and feels like. 

With appropriate medication, and effort to understand on my part, I discovered that there CAN be great  happiness grown from despair.

Something I discovered:  if you look closely enough, you will find that there are those in YOUR family's "past" who were "different,"  "weird," or "crazy."

Oftentimes, the "craziness" can manifest itself as an addiction - to alcohol, narcotics, gambling, etc. - ANYTHING that will bring respite from the constant, earnest, assaulting thoughts that YOU are less than you should be, or COULD be.

And, for how many generations back? When I looked into it, it was four generations for me.  Before that, who knows?

So.  Instead of keeping silent about those relatives' divergence from standard societal parameters, give thanks for their spirits.  Pray that they send you strength from The Other Side.  Ask them to send wisdom, enlightenment, and compassion to those around you.

The answer to the question, "Why am I different?" that I realized?

"SO The Hell What? I am good enough, JUST AS I AM, and BETTER than most!"

And, I AM!

And, if people are wigged out that I am less than "perfect," Oh, well.  People who are "different" are the ones who "think outside The Box."  They've brought you the light bulb, the internet, the entire collection of "must-read" classic literature, the cotton gin, the television, and Magic in general!

(Shoot.  We don't even realize that there IS a "box.")

It is heartbreaking to me that James Holmes, or ANYONE, would ever be so lost, or ignored, or whose entire fragile psyche would be discounted by Society At Large that he felt - however fleetingly - that he was "justified" in his assault on others of his own species.

But, I can TOTALLY understand how any James Holmes arrives at that incredibly desolate island.

God spare, and save us, all.


Rachel Dowling's picture

Eenie, have you read any of Kay Redmond Jamison's books?  She is a doctoral professor of mood disorders at Johns Hopkins.  She wrote An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, as well as other books on the subject of mood disorders and especially bipolar disorder, from which she herself suffers.  An Unquiet Mind is brilliant and I can loan it to you if you're interested. I haven't read the others, but I'd like to read more of her work.     I recommend her writings to anyone who wants to gain more insight into mood disorders, how they work, and how to treat them.