Thursday, July 26, 2012

White men and guns: male privilege hurts us all

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in Littleton, CO. Kip Kinkel in Springfield, OR. Luke Woodham in Pearl, MS. Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden in Jonesboro, AR. James Holmes in Aurora, CO. Jared Loughner in Tucson, AZ.

What do all these people have in common? Yes, they perpetrated mass shootings that left many dead and wounded (and scores more, though physically untouched, emotionally scarred). Yes, all share dubious emotional stability. But there's something else that they have in common--something that's hidden, as the saying goes, in plain sight. All of these killers are also young, white and male, and to my mind, that is something important. To (loosely) quote Alison Bechdel, if one of these shooters were black or female, all this discussion about what's wrong with the generic youth of today would get awful specific, awful quick.

But why young, white men? It's not just a numbers game; nearly 100% of US mass murderers in the past twenty years have been white guys, and they certainly don't make up a commensurate proportion of the population. Part of it, of course, has to do with men's greater affinity for guns (the same reason men are more likely to complete suicide than women--they have access to and use firearms more often than the ladies, who are more likely to try pills or cutting and thus survive). Yet something else plays a part: what the sociologist Michael Kimmel calls aggrieved entitlement.

From birth, white guys in America are promised the world. No, there's never an explicit promise made, but look at who's in power in business, in the legislature and on the Supreme Court. Turn on your television and see who's being marketed to, whose tastes are considered the norm, who's courted and flattered. Being white and male in America is supposed to get you power (that dream job), money (that dream job again, a car, a house), love, and perhaps most of all respect. They deserve to succeed.

As a result of this conditioning (see, women aren't the only ones hurt by cultural conditioning), it's not surprising that many white young men develop some degree of entitlement--after all, they've been told for years that the position at the top of the totem pole is their birthright. So what happens when someone stands in the way, cutting them off from "what's theirs"? When a stagnant job market and failure in school forces a man like James Holmes to go looking for an entry-level job (doubtless experienced as degrading)? When he's turned down romantically? When the world just plain doesn't deliver the life of success and respect that he feels entitled to? Most likely, he gets pissed (who doesn't get angry when someone reneges on a promise?), and when he gets pissed, someone has to pay.

When women get angry, they tend (cultural conditioning again) to turn that anger inward. A young woman in Holmes' position, and even with his same constellation of psychiatric symptoms, would be much more likely to self-injure, or fall victim to an eating disorder, or become depressed/attempt suicide. Men, on the other hand, tend to externalize anger--and when that tendency is combined with American society's acceptance of violent masculinity, a sense of thwarted entitlement (and a whole slew of other things, from the breakdown of the mental health system to lax gun laws), you have the toxic stew from which tragedies like Aurora emerge.

This is not meant to be a man-hating post. Nor am I trying to deny the role that mental illness or other extenuating circumstances play in such violence. I'm hoping, rather, to explore and explain the ways in which the current American model of masculinity (and entitlement) ultimately hurts us all.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Batman, Arkham and the Evil/Mental Illness Divide

I had a phone conversation with my dad the day after the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado (for those somehow unaware: a young man opened fire in a packed movie theater during the midnight showing of the latest Batman flick. He was wearing what amounted to full riot gear, and had four guns and two canisters of teargas with him; it appears to have been carefully orchestrated, and scores of people were wounded. A dozen were killed. His apartment was booby-trapped with multiple incendiary devices, apparently designed to kill anyone attempting to access his apartment). “It’s pure evil,” my father said. 

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe. But I also read that he was in the process of dropping out of grad school because he’d been failing, and that he’d gotten pretty reclusive. For a guy in his early twenties, that sounds like it might be a schizophrenia case study to me—and schizophrenics aren’t evil, they’re sick.” He semi-conceded the point (my dad never just concedes anything) and said, “Well, you’re going to be the psychiatrist. It’s your job to figure out the difference, not mine.” This got me thinking: in the 21st century, with our knowledge of mental illness constantly expanding and our willingness to assign absolute values like good and evil diminishing, what does it mean to call someone evil—or, in a deterministic worldview, can we call anyone evil at all? Can an act be evil even if the doer is not? Can a mentally ill person be called evil, or is that the sole provenance of the sane? Do we judge different degrees of illness differently—ie, hold a depressed person morally accountable while excusing someone who’s psychotic? 

Sadly, we’ve seen this before—too many times before. In 2007, the National Review—I know, I know--published a symposium discussion with the title ‘Comprehending the Incomprehensible’ after the Virginia Tech shootings. The subtitle was “Evil is what this is, whatever else can be said about it.” One of the writers, Fr. Thomas Berg, commented:

We’ve had eight years to come to understand how our society produces angry young men like the Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. We’ve diagnosed them as the tragic by-products of practical nihilism — that mix of materialism, sensuality, and meaninglessness that drives young people to the brink. We know that tragically — if our diagnosis has been correct — this will not be the last time that a twenty-something nihilist tries to blow a hole in the world, a scream of existential defiance in the face of nothingness.

Of course, we know he was right—about the fact that there would be more sad, infuriating cases just like that one. On the other hand, I don’t know that we've yet come to ‘understand how society produces [these] angry young men.’ If we have, we sure as hell still don't know what to do about it.

I guess the best answer I can put forward is that we still need the word, the category, of evil to make sense of the world. There are some acts, some impulses and thoughts, that can’t be satisfactorily explained any other way. Perhaps mental illness, or an extreme lack of human empathy, or an overwhelming, angry sense of having been victimized (whether this victimhood is real or only in the perpetrator’s mind), or all of these in concert lead to actions like those we saw in Aurora. After all, in the Batman universe, the Joker is returned to Arkham Insane Asylum each time he’s apprehended, but that makes his crimes no less heinous and his status as villain no less sure.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The OTHER n-word: on women and neediness

So, about a week ago I came across this great article (written by a man—which I found pleasantly surprising)here about how women are made to feel like expressing a need is a major imposition. In fact, “needy” might as well join the ranks of ‘the c-word’ and ‘the b-word’ in terms of gendered power. True, it doesn’t carry the same shock value, but its power to insult and demean women comes from a similar dark place in sexual politics. It was a great moment for me, a prime example of something that we psych folks call ‘generalization.’ So what does that mean—for me and for womenfolk at large? I’ll start by speaking for myself. 

All my life, I’ve held the secret but ironclad conviction that I and I alone am a needy, depraved morass of desperation and longing. Granted, I virtually never display this to anyone; I overcompensate and tend to carry myself like a Teutonic Ice Queen. In the past, and today, I’ve needed to be loved, or held, or comforted, or heard, or celebrated. I ‘ve needed space, time, healing, understanding. However, the idea of looking someone in the eye and saying, “I need you to hold me,” or perhaps less intimately, “I need you to listen,” has always seemed as brazen and insane as leaping at someone shrieking, “Oh God, PLEASE LOVE ME!” I was—still am—terrified that asking someone to fulfill, or even just respect, a need is gauche; overly demanding; in poor taste. That’s the ‘fear of being labeled crazy’ end of the spectrum that’s most associated with the word ‘needy.’ However, there’s also the fear of being labeled bitchy that comes with demanding that boundaries be respected, or with calling others out on bad behavior. 

During my second year of medical school, during the psychiatry course, one of the lecturers had a PowerPoint slide that featured a comic about bulimia. It wasn’t ultra-aware, meta, culture-jamming humor. It wasn’t laughing WITH eating disorder patients, it was laughing AT them. And having spent quite a bit of time in treatment, and knowing women who have died of eating disorders, I didn’t find it funny at all. I felt furious. I felt belittled. I couldn’t believe a psychiatrist, of all people, would mock sufferers of the most deadly psychiatric disease there is. So why didn’t I stand up in the middle of the lecture and say something? Or, failing that, why didn’t I go up to the lecturer after class and state my objection, or even just write an email saying I felt it was in poor taste? Why didn’t it feel OK to say, “I NEED the lecture hall to be a place where no one is demeaned, particularly on account of an illness they can’t control”? You got it—fear of being labeled a bitch (or derided for being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘not getting the joke’—a form of victim-blaming jujitsu which is a topic for a whole different post). 

So what? Well, it’s not just me. Women are conditioned from childhood to place the wants and the needs of others before their own.  Asking for time, attention or affection (“I need to see you more often”) is painted as something selfish and, well, needy, while defending boundaries (“I need for you not to resort to insults when we argue”) is seen as bitchy, entitled behavior. Meanwhile, men by and large ask for their needs and wants without fear of being saddled with negative labels. 

In the end, recognizing this as a societal problem (and not a personality flaw or psychiatric disorder) means not having to carry around the paralyzing fear of monstrous, hidden neediness that I’ve schlepped for the past quarter century. The women who pioneered ‘consciousness-raising’ circles during the 60s and 70s were on to something. The personal is political, and vice versa; sharing our individual struggles will sometimes reveal them to be problems with societal mores and not “ours” at all.

Friday, July 06, 2012


The aliens had arrived. Not, as we had long anticipated, in hovering spaceships or glowing green pods (which my new acquaintance G'ttt'ghax said were "Relics of the past, fuel-inefficient and wasteful--the kind of thing we used before we cared about our carbon blorkprints." It took a while for me to realize that Xorblaxian blorks are analogous to our feet), but on individual contraptions resembling vintage Schwinns with solar-powered thrusters. There were only a few Earthlings left.
"Did you have any warning?" G'ttt'ghax asked. "Do you know what caused it? As I understand it, en masse, their blood simply turned to a liquid too viscous for their hearts to pump. The Sludge, it was called, yes?"
I led the group of alien scouts to what had been the epicenter for The Sludge in our district, and pointed at the sign still hanging on the wall of the now-abandoned building.
"I don't have any proof," I said, "but I have my suspicions."

Remembering old dalliances...

Yes, it IS, as they say, "based on a true story." 


It was July and my skin
was alive with wanting you,
alive the way cicadas buried
age and blossom forth,
humming their hungers.
I was so in love I walked
the four miles to your house
in the boiling that is Kansas
in the summer,
each bead of sweat
an affirmation of desire.
And when at last
you opened your screen door,
dress falling down your shoulders,
two brown hills–
what body could resist your body's pull?
It was July and we spent
the whole long afternoon
wreathed by our heat,
Lazy in one another's arms
atop a quilt your mother pieced herself–
and when your father
came in the door at six,
I crawled out your bedroom window
like a thief,
carrying your need as well as mine
walking alone through early evening's haze
as the cicadas all around
went wild.