Monday, April 23, 2007

The Nature of the Beast

Alright, I feel that enough time has past that people will be willing to explore what could lead someone to do something like the massacre at Virginia Tech, and yet it's still fresh enough of people's minds that they care. Of course, I suspect there are still people who won't be able handle any reality other than the shooter being possessed or inhuman. If you're one of those, then for your own piece of mind, I recommend you don't proceed below the fold.

It takes one to know one

What I'm going to talk about today is what could possibly lead an individual to the depths of insanity seen in the VAT shooter, Cho Seung-hui. But before I get into it, I should explain why I feel qualified to discuss this. Simply put, it takes a certain type of mind and a certain mental state to do what he did. I have that type of mind, and I've come closer to that mental state than is healthy.

My parents suspected me of being autistic for a while, but I didn't quite fit in with any form of it. I had some of the developmental disorders commonly associated with autistics, such as lacking normal social instincts and savant-like intelligence, but too much of the picture didn't fit. There's no real diagnosis for what I have; I've come to believe it's just some unique mental state. For brevity though, I call it pseudo-autism, as thinking of it being like autism makes a lot of things in my life make more sense.

Many people with disabilities like this nowadays are fortunate enough to get adequate help, and come through alright. In my case, since I was never diagnosed with anything in specific, I couldn't get the right type of help. I bounced from psychologist to psychologist and none could ever really do anything for me. On top of my other problems, I faced clinical depression (image manic-depression, except instead of bouncing up and down, you bounce down and down). They tried to medicate me for this, but they couldn't find anything that worked until just last year.

As such, I shared many of the experiences growing up that Cho did. I was a social outcast. I had trouble fitting in with others. I faced emotional crises of my own, and the ways in which I responded bear a striking similarity to how he did. I even reached a breaking point which I'm sure he did too, and it caused both of us to twist - and this is importantly where the similarity ends, as we twisted in different directions here. But I'll go into that in more detail later.

Life at the bottom

To set the stage, there are a few things you should know about his early life. He was at first seen as cold and uncommunicative by his family. When he arrived in the US at the age of 8, this was diagnosed as autism. However, despite this diagnosis, he apparently never received any instruction to help him overcome the drawbacks of it.

Imagine yourself in his position. You're eight years old, and your family has just moved to another continent where nobody speaks your language. On top of that, you've got a developmental disability which makes it seem like no one speaks your language even when they do. So he has tons of trouble communicating to others, and nobody is teaching him how to in a way he can understand.

So, go back to your own experiences in elementary school. What happens to the kid who can't speak English well, lacks normal social instincts, and has trouble learning? He's designated the official target of not only the normal bullies in the school, but all the other students who need someone to bully as well. This is, of course, what happened to young Cho.

No one responds well to being bullied. The ones who come out best are those able to pass the bullying on to someone with an even lower social status than them. But there has to be someone at the bottom, and what are they to do? Some withdraw into themselves and avoid social contact as much as they can. Some lash back, and are then usually penalized by an oblivious administration for it. Some of them find groups of people in the same situation, and stick together with them.

The latter group often comes out of the experience relatively alright, but the other types of kids aren't so lucky. Those who lash back get in trouble constantly, and take up a role of the outsider, the trouble-maker. These kids aren't to be confused with the popular "bad boys," who break the rules and either get away with it or are applauded for it. Instead, these kids are the criminals. They break rules and are caught and/or reviled for it.

Worlds inside

And then there are those who withdraw, which is where Cho fits in. Socialization is a big part of human life, and someone deprived of it will do whatever they can to fill the void. Sometimes these people will be picked up by cults and find their acceptance from them. Others will try to get involved in organized religion. Both of these types of groups are particularly attractive to a kid in this situation simply because they aren't going to refuse him. But the problem is that the ideals and beliefs of these organization often won't be compatible with the kid's, so it just won't work.

One other substitute that many drift to is a one-sided relationship. Generally, this tends become an obsession with a certain type of music, often from a single artist who the child feels some amount of empathy towards. The messages in the music tell the kid that there's someone that understands their situation (or something similar to it), and they aren't so alone. This doesn't completely fill the void from a lack of socialization as there's no give-and-take, just receiving the messages, so problems will still remain.

Some of them (particularly autistics) go into a maelstrom of creativity within their own minds. They imagine up worlds, and generally find a place for themselves within them. Many write this out, giving the world a window into their minds. Others keep it all within their heads. Sometimes these imagined worlds are obviously fantasy, but other times they're very closely tied to reality. In these cases, as the child spends more time interacting with their imagined world than the real one, the line between reality and fantasy can start to blur.

So where does Cho fit into this? His parents tried to bring him into religion so he could find acceptance there, but the cycle just repeated. Other members of his Christian youth group bullied him as well, so he had to withdraw from this as well. He didn't withdraw entirely from religion, though, but just the community within it.

He then went into a period of internally fantasizing. Being rejected by others of course caused him to be angry and feel persecuted, so this colored his fantasies. When he was asked to do creative writing in school, this anger came out and it scared the teachers involved.

One other potential development within him was the development of a new persona. It's quite possible that he also started to hate himself for being different, and as such wanted to distance himself from himself. The resolution to this would be to try to change himself into someone else. This alternate persona would have to differ from his old self in key ways. For instance, instead of withdrawing, it would be one to fight back. It seems quite possible to me that this persona was the "Ishmael Ax" found scratched on his arm.

Cho was in pain, and he saw others who were enjoying life. This wasn't fair; it wasn't just. How is it that they were able to take enjoyment while he was forced to suffer? He hated those who were rich, who could afford the luxuries in life his family couldn't. He hated those who were in relationships and could find love (notably the physical side of it) from another. Hence, his railings against "rich kids" and "debauchery." As for the "deceitful charlatans," that's most likely rage against those who preached alternative religions. They were the ones who caused people to not get the message that what they were doing was wrong.

And then the dogma of Christianity, which he still believed in, started to color his fantasies. He saw himself as a Christ figure, being persecuted by the sinful. A lone good man in a world of sin, forced to suffer for it.

The breaking point

At some point, he must have faced severe stress from some source. Maybe he saw the girl he fantasized about from afar in a relationship with another man. Maybe it was a particularly nasty bout of the same bullying and persecution. Either way, something put tremendous pressure on his already-fragile psyche.

This breaking point is another fork in the paths of different people who have undergone this type of past. Some of them implode and take their own lives in suicide. Some of them explode back out at the world in a crazed attempt at revenge. Others twist, but I'll describe this last one later. For now, let's talk about what happened with Cho, one of those who exploded.

The crack that happened in his mind occured at the delineation between fantasy and reality. Religion itself had probably weakened this slightly, leading him to believe that the supernatural was possible, but eventually the line went further than that. In his mind, it wasn't just all possible, he was at the heart of it. In his mind, he became Jesus Christ reborn, with the mission to execute justice on the sinners.

Aside: No, I'm not blaming religion here, just describing what likely did happen in this case. If the religion were removed, I have no reason to believe things would necessarily have been better. He could just as well have gone on the same rampage if he were an atheist, if his mind found some other justification for taking this type of revenge.

Judging by the timeline, this probably happened a fair amount of time before the actual attack. He was clearly out of touch with reality for a fair bit before it, as he was planning it and falling deeper into insanity. He wrote up a "manifesto" to tell the world why he had done this. He made a DVD of various pictures of himself that the news would just love to show off, giving him even more fame. After all, as much of the world would have to know of the second coming as possible, right?

And then, at last, he executed his attack. He made an apparently targeted strike against a particular girl, Emily Hilscher. Perhaps she had inadvertently jilted him somehow. Then he went on to take out as many people as possible in the second shooting, ending with himself. After all, you can't be a martyr if you don't die.

Taming the Beast

Now, it wouldn't be fair to talk about how I went through much of that myself and not tell you how I've resolved it and gotten past it. Hopefully if anyone out there is facing a similar struggle, they might be able to learn something. Now, this isn't a full descriptor of what I've gone through, but there are some aspects that I might fill in later.

Not everyone who reaches a breaking point implodes or explodes. I reached that point myself, and I took a third option. In one of my severe attacks of depression, I fell down far, and came face-to-face with the beast within. This is the beast that leads to the uncontrollable rage seen in shooters like this. It's also the source of many primal urges within humanity that nowadays aren't compatible with our society and often are simply unjust (ie. instinctual racism).

Most people (so I believe) have this beast deep within them, and they spend their lives denying it. No, they aren't violent people, they aren't petty, they aren't xenophobic, they say to themselves. They're civilized. But this civilization is built in contradiction to the beast, and they have to deny it as being part of them in order to keep functioning in a civilized manner.

For those who reach the breaking point, the civilized persona has failed them in some way. Those who are capable of giving it up do so, and the beast is released. Those who can't break down and take their own lives. Some people retreat from it and go back to the person they were - often just leading them to face another breaking point in the future.

In my case, I faced the breaking point and retreated many times. I saw the beast within me, and I couldn't accept letting it loose (I was able to acknowledge that many other people were decent and didn't deserve an "explosion" from me). But the civilized persona I'd built up as I grew up wasn't working; it kept leading me back into bouts of depression, so something had to change.

What I chose to do in the end was to rebuild myself. I started out deep down, where I shackled up the beast securely. I wouldn't be able to deny it, but I would be able to build beyond it and create a persona better than what my instincts would have led me to be. This new persona would be based on logic and ration. It would be calm, intelligent, and it would be willing to correct itself when it was in the wrong.

The process wasn't easy; not by a long shot. It started back when I was in my second year of high school, and it hasn't finished yet. It probably never will end, just as most people never finish growing up. But it's only very recently (in the last year) that I've been able to accept myself and be proud of who I am.

The most recent step in this was accepting the mantle of the skeptic. It actually matched up with my goals very well - skeptics acknowledge the flaws in normal human reasoning and work beyond them. They've shackled up the beast of unreason, and built a system of logic and reasoning to operate in its place. I took this on myself, filling in one of the last big gaps in who I am.

On one last note, I have to recommend to anyone who wants a bit more of an idea of what the beast is like that they pick up a copy of the Discworld novel, Night Watch. One of the major themes in is exploring the inner struggles of Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch. He too faces a constant struggle with the beast he sees within him. To keep it in control, he created the persona of "the Copper" (also called "the Watchman" in Thud!). He uses the symbol of his badge to keep himself in control, symbolizing the rule of law over anarchy. I'm much the same way, though with a slightly more intellectual bent to the struggle.

1 comment:

TheBrummell said...

Thanks for posting this.