Sunday, July 22, 2012

James Holmes' Academic Frustration and Social Isolation

Folks can make what they want out of this New York Times piece, "Before and After Massacre, Puzzles Line Suspect’s Path." Most of the information is already public, although the Times mentions that sketchy news that Holmes trolled adult sex sites (and notes that the adult finder information is unconfirmed). But I thought this part was interesting:
Apart from a speeding ticket, Mr. Holmes had no previous encounters with the police in Aurora. He had no history of trouble with the police at college in California. He left no easily identifiable online messages or videos that might offer any insight to his mind-set. It also remained unclear how Mr. Holmes was able to afford the large amount of weapons, ammunition and protective gear he had, and how he learned to booby-trap his apartment. He was being held away from other inmates at the Arapahoe County Jail on Saturday because of the case’s high profile, Sheriff Grayson Robinson said. Mr. Holmes is due to make his first court appearance at 9:30 Monday morning.
There will be lots more coming, but I expect the graduate school angle that will be increasingly crucial. For example, the Times notes that Holmes:
...had an appointment at the university under a one-year Neuroscience Training Grant from the National Institutes of Health, a spokeswoman for the university said. The federal grant pays for six pre-thesis doctoral students in the university’s neuroscience program at the Anschutz Medical Campus. Such grants are usually quite difficult to obtain, going to only the top students.
Now, this was at the University of Colorado at Denver, which is a medium-ranked doctoral institution in neuroscience (the prestigious National Research Council rankings are here). The university has a medical school as well. No doubt it's highly competitive. Earlier reports said Holmes was struggling. If so, he probably started having problems right way, the first semester, which might track with his strange behavior. Especially important is Holmes isolation. People at the apartments said they never saw him with anyone else. He didn't have a girlfriend or a love interest, and he spent a lot of time online, apparently --- not just for the adult websites, although we'll have more on that later, but for the bomb-making information, and so forth.. He planned both the theater shooting and the booby traps meticulously.

So at this point, it's academic frustrations combined with social and emotional isolation. Besides that, I'd like to know what kind of family support he had. How often did he talk to his parents? Did he go home to San Diego to visit and how often? What kind of social activities were available in his academic department and did he make use of them? Surely the university had loads of intramural and professional support programs, and Holmes had to be working with academic advisers. Somewhere he slipped though the cracks, and people in Denver and back home in San Diego have some soul-searching to do. You can't prevent everything, but it looks like signs of loneliness or social introversion were in evidence.

That's my take for now. Check back for more.