Forty-eight-year-old George Sodini was a deeply frustrated, bitter man. Yesterday, his anger, resentment and rage finally exploded into the premeditated madness of violence. Sodini strolled into an all female aerobics class at LA Fitness in Pittsburgh, PA, shot three young women to death, wounded nine, and then committed suicide. What was Sodini so angry about? It appears, based on his own self-published blog entries beginning more than nine months ago, that Mr. Sodini was frustrated primarily about his difficulties with women. He complains of an inability to find a girlfriend since he was twenty-three, not having sex for almost two decades and, most recently, failure to find a date during the past twelve months.
Could chronic sexual frustration have caused this catastrophe? To conclude so would be a gross oversimplification of this and other violent offenders' profound existential embitterment, fury and frustration.
This horrific case is reminiscent of so many others we have witnessed in recent decades. (See my prior posts.) Colin Ferguson's massacre on the Long Island Railroad in 1993, killing six passengers and wounding nineteen comes to mind. Ferguson, a black man, had lost both parents in an accident as a teen, and immigrating from Jamaica to the United States, found only frustration in his attempts to find success. He was unable to surmount the apparently immovable obstacles that destiny so indifferently placed in his path. Feeling utterly frustrated, defeated and depressed, Ferguson aimed his accumulated resentment, rage and anger at a random representation of those whom he perceived to be prejudiced against him: middle-class, caucasian commuters. Seung-Hui Cho, the alienated young perpetrator of the Virginia Tech shootings was another frustrated, angry and bitter individual who lashed out against those he felt rejected and hurt by.
Such frustrated loners have also been dramatically depicted in movies like Martin Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver (1976), and Joel Schumacher's quintessential American film, Falling Down (1992). In Falling Down, when Bill Foster (Michael Douglas), an unemployed, divorced engineer finally flips, setting out (like Ferguson, Cho and Sodini) on a violent rampage against society and the perceived sources of his problems, we are reminded that there are limits to the repression of frustration, anger or resentment required by social civility. Feeling helplessly victimized by circumstance, society and fate, perpetrators of "senseless violence" turn the tables, venting their venomous frustration, aggression and hatred on innocent bystanders. In so doing, mass killers, unable to assert their power positively in the world, become--albeit only fleetingly--powerful vicitmizers as opposed to powerless victims.
Social isolation, rejection, alienation and loneliness-even when self-imposed and perpetuated-is a powerful existential root of violence. Existentially speaking, we are each thrown into the world alone, often must walk through life alone, and die alone. Most of us frantically do everything in our power to avoid facing this difficult fact of life. As human beings, we inherit a level of loneliness that can never be completely overcome, though our ability to connect intimately with others certainly serves to assuage, albeit temporarily, this existential aloneness. When we are unable to find suitable companionship, solace, support or love, and are frustrated in fulfilling our fundamental need for human warmth, caring and acceptance, a sullen rage accrues over time, culminating for some in violence. Psychologist Rollo May (1969) observed that "Violence is the ultimate destructive substitute which surges in to fill the vacuum where there is no related-ness. . . . When inward life dries up, when feeling decreases and apathy increases, when one cannot affect or even genuinely touch another person, violence flares up as a daimonic necessity for contact, a mad drive forcing touch in the most direct way possible." This aptly describes Sodini's situation, and that of so many alienated and marginalized members of society today.
Frustration, that exasperating experience of being foiled, thwarted, blocked or baffled in our best efforts to find satisfaction in life begins at birth and follows us for the rest of our days. Frustration is an existential fact of the human condition. Even under the best of circumstances, infants cannot always be fed at the exact moment they experience hunger pangs, freshly diapered when wet, cuddled, held and comforted when distressed, no matter how loudly or persistently they cry. Much of what infants and children want, they cannot have. With luck, kids get what they need to survive and, hopefully, thrive. The same may be said of adults: We are not always able to succeed in our endeavors to attain goals or satisfy our desires, no matter how hard we try. Like infants, children and adolescents, adults are destined to frequently be disappointed and frustrated. And to feel angry about being frustrated.
The direct relationship between frustration and aggression was first postulated by psychologists Neal Miller et al. (1939) in their classic, psychoanalytically influenced "frustration-aggression hypothesis" : Frustration of basic needs tends generally to result in aggression; aggression can typically be traced to some form of frustration. There may be good psychobiological reason for this archetypal human response to frustration: We need to get angry at life's inevitable frustrations if we are to overcome them. Constructive anger or even rage provides the power, strength, resolve and impetus to move beyond the many frustrating impediments life so predictably presents. But what happens when someone is unable to overcome his or her frustration? Cannot use this anger and aggression creatively? Fails to find fulfillment, satisfaction and meaning in life? Discouragement, despair and depression. Nihilism. Not infrequently, he or she angrily chooses destruction and death over life.
George Sodini, a man without any known criminal history, was evidently such a case. No matter what he tried, he felt powerless to change his lonely, sterile life, projecting his own problems outwardly onto the world in general--and women in particular. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness were his only companions. Whether he ever sought professional assistance is not clear right now. "The biggest problem of all is not having relationships or friends, but not being able to achieve and acquire what I desire in those or many other areas," he ranted in a recent journal entry. "Everything stays the same regardless of the effort I put in. If I had control over my life then I would be happier. But for about the past 30 years, I have not." And so finally, Sodini decided to violently end his frustrating, meaningless life, choosing death, evil and infamy instead. But not before taking out his rabid hatred toward an entire gender--and life itself--on his twelve female victims.
Parts of this posting are excerpted from Dr. Diamond's book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity (1996, State University of New York Press).