Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Birthday Tribute to Psychology Today Blogs!

How blogging for Psychology Today helped make me a better writer.

Fellow blogger Dr. Ryan Howes kindly brought to our collective attention the fact that January 31st marks the five-year anniversary of the Psychology Today blog site. Checking the date of my very first posting here, April 4, 2008, it seems I am one of the senior contributors. Readers might be curious about the mysterious process by which PT chooses its bloggers. In my case, I recall several discussions with PT Editor Kaja Perina regarding possible participation and what exactly my own blog would specifically focus upon. At that time, I felt that my expertise and experience as a forensic psychologist for the criminal courts might fill a void and complement what some of the other early bloggers at that time, such as psychiatrist Peter Kramer, were writing about here. But Kaja had her reservations regarding my scholarly writing style and how it would be received by PT readers. After all, I knew nothing about blogging. Though I had written a book, several book chapters and numerous professional articles by then, I was accustomed to writing mainly for other mental health professionals more than the general public. And certainly not nearly so efficiently and compactly as a 1500-2500 word blog posting demands. So, like Aphrodite did with Psyche, Kaja set me to task, requiring me to submit samples of the sort of pieces I had in mind. Fortunately for me, I was persistent: After rejecting the first couple of attempts, she liked the last one well enough to welcome me warmly in to the PT blogger family. My blog, "Evil Deeds," was born. I was very excited about it back then. And I still am. It is truly a privilege to be a regualr contributor to Psychology Today and communicate with such a broad, diverse and intelligent audience.

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Blog-posting is a whole lot harder than it looks. It takes toil and time. Learning to write well about any topic, let alone psychology, within the proscribed size limit of the typical blog posting is intensely challenging. It forces one to be concise, succinct and, perhaps most importantly, clear in speaking to a mixed audience of both professionals and lay persons, some of whom have little or no prior exposure to forensic and clinical psychology. It's a little like the discipline of writing haiku poetry: figuring out how to say what one wants to say and to whom within a finite, pre-designated structure or form. Sure, like the Rolling Stones say about rock 'n roll, it's only a blog. But blogs can inform, entertain and educate. Blogs, I dare say, are a bit of an art form. And blogging for Psychology Today has unquestionably made me, compelled me, to become a better, more readable writer.

In his superb book The Courage to Create (1975), one of my former mentors, Rollo May (see my prior post), lucidly describes the process this way:

"When you write a poem, you discover that the very necessity of fitting your meaning into such and such a form requires you to search in your imagination for new meanings. You reject certain ways of saying it; you select others, always trying to form the poem again. In your forming, you arrive at new and more profound meanings than you had even dreamed of. Form is not a mere lopping off of meaning that you don't have room to put into your poem; it is an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing your meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence you wish to express. How much meaning Shakespeare could put into his plays because they were written in blank verse rather than prose, or his sonnets because they were fourteen lines!" (p. 142)

So, In honor of PT's fifth birthday--as Freud noted, a pivotal point developmentally for children and, I suspect equally so for creative online ventures such as this--I tried to choose a prior posting that characterizes the precious freedom, creativity and timely opportunity to comment, teach, profess and inform that Psychology Today provides its now impressive number of contributors. In the shocking wake of the most recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, here is one of my first postings from back in 2008, commenting on this sobering, chilling and evidently still escalating trend here in America and around the world. Looking back, it sadly seems to have been but a prelude to the horrific carnage to come in Tokyo (see my prior post), in Alabama (see my prior post), at Fort Hood (see my prior post), in China (see my prior post), in Norway (see my prior post), in Cupertino and Seal Beach, California (see my prior post), in Arizona (see my prior post), in Aurora, Colorado (see my prior post), and in Newtown, Connecticut (see my prior post).

Here's looking at you, PT, and all PT bloggers, staff and readers. Happy Fifth Birthday! May there be many more.

 

A WICKED RAGE FOR RECOGNITION

Last Saturday, an eighteen-year-old senior at Chesterfield High School in South Carolina was arrested with ten pounds of explosives and a venom-filled journal containing plans to bomb his school and kill himself. Ryan Schallenberger is described as a quiet but " angry young man," who writes admiringly of the two students that carried out the Columbine massacre. Perhaps not coincidentally, yesterday, April 20, was the ninth anniversary of the mass shootings at Columbine High School. In a chilling trend that was unimaginable at that time, there has been a stunning rash of similar incidents since then, most recently at Northern Illinois University on St. Valentine‘s Day, 2008. Steven Kazmierczak, a supposedly happy, stable, twenty-seven- year-old graduate student in social work, randomly blew away five students and wounded eighteen before offing himself. Why?

Whereas teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold--who killed a dozen fellow students, one teacher, and wounded 24 at Columbine before shooting themselves--were socially isolated, narcissistic, nihilistic, antisocial rebels, Kazmierczak was said to be a model graduate student with a promising future. But despite the early depictions of a well-adjusted, even-keeled, highly functioning, amiable young man, it turns out that Kazmierczak had a hidden dark side.

Unlike the isolated "loner" profile of so many mass murderers, he was involved in a long-term relationship. But Kazmierczak's relationship was, as we now know, not very stable at all, and he is depicted as having been controlling, verbally and physically abusive, and quite angry. At the same time, others portray him as meek, timid and "mousy." So he seems to have publicly projected a kind of milquetoast persona, beneath which a festering rage secretly rumbled. And it appears Kazmierczak had a history of serious emotional problems following high school, being placed in a residential treatment facility for over a year after becoming "unruly" at home. In addition he allegedly engaged in self-mutilation by "cutting," and had been prescribed psychiatric medications which he resisted taking.

In the months preceding the NIU massacre, Kazmierczak obtained a tattoo of a bizarre, bloody image from the horror movie Saw, indicative of his increasingly dangerous inner demons. Twenty-three-year-old Seung-Hui Cho too, had expressed violent and hostile imagery in his creative writing class at Virginia Tech prior to exploding in April, 2007, shooting 32, wounding 25, and then committing suicide. Harris and Klebold wrote graphically in journals of their diabolical plan. Eric Harris had undergone court-ordered anger management a year before Columbine and was also required to take antidepressant medication, both of which were obviously ineffective.

Cho was another extremely passive, introverted, isolated, depressed, and probably psychotic young man with a significant mental health history from childhood. But barely veiled beneath his almost mute, submissive, sometimes bizarre demeanor and ever-present sunglasses boiled a red-hot rage against people and society. He had been briefly hospitalized, ordered by the court to have counseling, and prescribed Prozac, but appears to have followed through on neither. Kazmierczak also took Prozac to what seemed like good effect, until abruptly discontinuing it several weeks before running amok. But which was the real Kazmierczak: the mild-mannered, affable golden boy on Prozac, or the abusive, controlling, cut-throat killer off it? Did medication serve to sustain his deceptive Dr. Jekyll persona and keep his murderous Mr. Hyde hidden? And if so, at what price? What, if anything, can we learn from all this about evil deeds and dangerous states of mind?

What these tragic cases all share in common is the underlying anger and rage, which cannot effectively be treated merely with medication or anger management. What such profoundly troubled individuals need most is intensive psychotherapy that specifically addresses their rage and its origins, and assists them to constructively redirect it. (I discuss such an approach to therapy in my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic. ) Well-known forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner remarks--after reviewing Cho's "manifesto" (see my previous post on the Unabomber) postmortem--that his rabid videos railing vehemently at society "do not help us understand Cho," but rather "distort him." I couldn't disagree more. What both the hateful videos and his homicidal behavior demonstrate --as in the cases of Columbine and Northern Illinois University--is that there are absolute limits to how much anger or resentment a person can repress before aggressively lashing out against the perceived perpetrators of injury, injustice and rejection. Chronic suppression of anger--the daimonic-- is ultimately futile and dangerous.

What we witness in such extreme cases is the once carefully camouflaged face of frustration, fury, indignation and self-assertion, gone mad. Mental illness is not the primary cause, but rather, at least partly, the psychological consequence. We see the desperate struggle and utter failure of these defeated individuals to constructively claim and defend their fundamental right to be themselves, to creatively find and fulfill their destiny, and our own failure as a society-- and as mental health professionals--to help them productively do so. Instead, they settle for facile infamy.

 

Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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