Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Suspect James Holmes No Easy Fit for Mass Murderer Profile

Okay, there's a couple of new articles that relate to Colorado suspect James Holmes' acadmic difficulties (which I discussed here and here).

First, Holmes did indeed take the first year oral exams in his neuroscience department, according to a report from the Denver Post, "CU officials defend academic, personal support available to Holmes (via Bob Agard). Key officials from the University of Colorado Denver are seen at the video below. And according to the Post:

The officials, referring to the ongoing investigation, would not answer specific questions about him or his academic standing. They did say that Holmes withdrew from the program June 10, three days after taking a preliminary oral examination before three professors.
Clearly, officials realized immediately the massacre's implications for the university. They talk about how the support system was the envy of the world, as if it would have been impossible for students to slip through the cracks. And listen to the Graduate Dean Barry Shur at the clip, saying "it's very unusual, very unusual, for a student to withdraw from our program." Also, the department apparently allows struggling students to take their exams over again.

So, I'll refer folks back over to my earlier entry on this, "James Holmes' Academic Frustration and Social Isolation."

What's interesting now is how extremely hush hush university officials have handled their response. Numerous reports indicate that campus personnel were told by administration not to speak to the press, but to refer questions to the university's public relations office. And you get that feeling as well at the clip, when Chancellor Don Ellman erects the stonewall on personal questions about Holmes immediately. So, this is going to be something to watch. Something I didn't mention the other day is that although Holmes may have done well during his orals, he might in fact have been abused by one of his examiners. I mean "abused" in the sense of a particular line of questioning. Research professors can be arrogant pricks and their egos can take over during situations like a formal exam, etc. If Holmes felt as though he'd been condescended to, perhaps that sent him off a bit, even if he did well otherwise. But there's the university gag order now, so we may never know that aspect, or at least not in the near term.

That said, the one faculty member apparently spoke out before the gag order was distributed. According to Jenna Johnson at the Washington Post:
A colleague of mine just spoke with a neuroscience faculty member who said he taught shooting suspect James Holmes in a class at the University of Colorado medical campus.

The faculty member, who asked for anonymity because of privacy concerns, said Holmes was “very quiet, strangely quiet in class,” and said he seemed “socially off.”

When the staff member heard Holmes’s name in connection with the shooting today, he thought that the suspect could well be his student, and he was not surprised to find out later that it was.

When Holmes and other neuroscience students took their comprehensive exams last semester, Holmes did very poorly, he said. The school’s staff wasn’t going to toss him out, the educator said, but they were planning to do something remedial, and contemplated putting him on academic probation.
Given this information, if correct, it appears if Holmes' disaffection could date back to his first semester at the school. Also key is that the suspect had begun to amass his arsenal before his first year orals in June, so whatever rage he felt could have been building up for some time. That might help explain why university officials are keeping such a heavy-duty lock on information. Perhaps Holmes was that one super exceptional case of a student about to be dismissed from the program.

A second piece that relates here is at Reuters, "Accused Colorado killer no easy fit for mass murderer profile." Here's a key bit:
As experts in forensic psychiatry try to figure out from afar what is wrong with Holmes, they are focusing on three details of the shooting: The targets were strangers to the killer, not colleagues or acquaintances; the shooter did not commit suicide or invite his own death at the hands of police; and Holmes warned authorities about his booby-trapped apartment before the explosives he rigged killed anyone.

Murdering 12 strangers and shooting dozens more points to a generalized paranoia and rage against the world rather than a specific grudge, forensic psychiatrists say.

"Most mass murderers kill specific people for specific reasons," said criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, who with colleague Jack Levin has studied every mass murder in the United States since the early 1980s. "They kill the bosses who fired them, the professors who wronged them. These are revenge killings."

One of the many mass murderers who fit this profile is Nathan Dunlap, who killed four employees at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora in December 1993, after he was fired and reportedly felt his boss had "made a fool" of him.

Holmes was in the process of withdrawing from the University of Colorado's graduate program in neuroscience, which has prompted speculation that academic failure might have played into his motives. But he did not target either professors or fellow students.
That he did not target people from the university points away from the hypothesis that the orals or something else like that drove Holmes to violence, but only to a point. As the article continues:
If the victims did not represent a category of people Holmes specifically hated or resented, then he would fall into the category of mass murderers who target strangers indiscriminately, the least common profile.

In such cases, "the perpetrator has a grudge against the world and feels that if it were not for the system, things would have gone better for him," said Fox. "He doesn't care who he kills as long as he kills a lot of people."

About 16 percent of mass killings target complete strangers, said Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern. They are not necessarily more or less severely mentally ill than murderers who target acquaintances or people who belong to a group they resent, but their pathology takes a distinct form.

Wide-ranging suspicion that the world has treated you unfairly can be a sign of paranoid personality disorder. The American Psychiatric Association defines that condition as "a pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent, beginning by early adulthood."

The condition has an estimated lifetime prevalence in the United States of 4.4 percent; schizophrenia affects 1.1 percent of U.S. adults, according to the National Institutes of Health. There is no evidence Holmes felt paranoia, nor have any records emerged showing he was ever diagnosed with or treated for any form of mental illness. But the absence of such evidence does not rule out the disorder, experts said.

"Of all the psychoses, paranoia is the most difficult to detect," said John Jay's Schlesinger. "Unless you broach a particular subject - like work, if someone thinks his boss is out to get him - they might very well seem normal if you sat down and talked to them. In Holmes' case, it could have been an encapsulated paranoia, focused on one particular area of life where he thinks people are out to get him."

If so, Holmes would fit the profile of the mass murderer whose act has been triggered by a severe strain and led him to externalize blame, Levin and Fox's studies have shown.

"They blame everyone but themselves for their frustration and disappointment," said Levin. "Then there is some acute strain, which usually takes the form of a catastrophic loss - of a job, of money, of a child in a custody battle, or of academic standing. ... The catastrophic strain sets the stage for the planning phase of the mass murder."
By all accounts, Holmes displayed no signs of mental illness during his upbringing. At this point the key will be either statements from the suspect himself or more information released though the investigation. Basically, Holmes was a relatively isolated individual, shy buy not completely asocial, who had some difficulties making the transition to the very competitive world of professional education. The exact catalyst is missing, but some kind of stress sent him off on a really dark and terrible direction.