CLR INTERVIEW: Jonathan Fast, Ph.D. was educated at Princeton, Columbia and Yeshiva Universities. He is currently an Associate Professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, at Yeshiva University. Dr. Fast is also the author of eight novels. His latest book, Ceremonial Violence, examines the psychology behind school rampage shootings, such as the Columbine High School massacre. Below is Dr. Fast’s interview with the California Literary Review.
- Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings
- Overlook, 336 pp.
Imagine you saw only a headline that there had been another School Rampage (SR) shooting at a high school somewhere in the United States. Based on your understanding of the causes and commonalities of these horrific crimes, I’d like to go through the exercise of filling in the most likely details of this fictitious event and the reasoning behind your thoughts. First of all, was this a male or female perpetrator?
Of the 15 SR shooters described in my book, only one of them was a female, and to my knowledge, she is the only one to date. So statistically we can assume it would be a male. Obviously boys and girls have different gender scripts. Boys tend to show aggression directly by punching, kicking, slamming the victim into his locker, etc. Girls tend use what Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus has referred to as “relational bullying:” gossiping and spreading rumors.
In what type of community did this happen?
In a rural, evangelical community. Again, this guess is statistical. Evangelicals tend to give children a choice between being good or bad—you are with Jesus or you are with Satan. If a kid feels he can’t be good enough for Jesus, he goes the other route. He may also decide that the adults who support this belief system are crazy or hypocritical, both of which only further alienate him from adult society.
People often ask me why school shootings never occur in urban schools. In urban areas the center of the community is the street rather than the school, and the students are often poor minorities, whose acts of violence the news media finds of little interest.
What was the shooter’s family life like? How would you describe his relationship to his siblings and parents? Where did he fall in the birth order?
He was a younger sibling of an over-achieving brother or sister. The three final cases in my book—Michael Carneal, Kip Kinkel, and the Columbine kids, Harris and Klebold—all were younger sibs. Failing to live up to the older sibling, and disappointing the parents alienates the child from the family. This is one of the feelings that leads to suicide—a sense of alienation, of belonging nowhere.
Did the shooter have any noticeable signs of mental illness? How was it manifested?
He had what Otto Kernberg called “malignant narcissism.” This person is impulsive, fragile in situations involving rejection, engages in overly dramatic gestures, and demonstrates indifference to the feelings of others.
He also suffered from depression and paranoia, which feeds violent behavior. Finally, he had a severe learning disability that got him stuck in the “resource room” for much of the day with other LD and emotionally disturbed kids, who seemed thuggish. He felt stigmatized, like he was damaged goods.
How would you describe the shooter’s friendships and relations to women? How would classmates describe him?
As a freshman in high school, the shooter tried to date girls but was always rejected. Some of the girls found him too clingy and controlling, and others said he was scary. A couple of classmates found him smart and creative, but most kept their distance. He had a small clique of guys and a single female friend whom he hung out with, who dressed in black and had multiple piercings. Two of them were expelled sophomore year for breaking into the school and stealing a laptop and a video projector.
Although this was a lone shooter, were others aware? Was anyone else somehow complicit?
Initially he had planned the shooting with the group of friends previously mentioned, but as the day drew near they had backed out one by one. This was okay with him because he alone planned to commit suicide afterwards. Because he was under 18, one of his friends had helped him procure a weapon for the shooting.
Did the shooter espouse any particular ideology? Were there songs, books or films that guided him?
The shooter had convinced himself that killing was gutsy and masculine. Based on his misreadings of Nietzsche and from repeated viewings of the Oliver Stone film, Natural Born Killers, he had convinced himself that the killer was a kind of superior being, and that killing constituted a form of “Natural Selection.”
With 20/20 hindsight, what could have prevented this act? What can society do, moving forward to decrease the number of these incidents?
The shooter had been arrested twice and suspended on three occasions. Furthermore, he had dropped numerous “hints” about what he was planning, and had even once “accidentally” shot out the star on top of the Xmas tree his parents kept on the patio. Early on they might have improved the situation by getting him a therapist who was particularly skilled with adolescents and transferring him to a small private school where he could be protected from aggression and closely monitored. An adolescent day hospital, or “partial hospital” program might have also been a good intervention. At the eleventh hour, a therapeutic boarding school might have helped. The only facilities our society provides for violent teens are reform schools and boot camps. The former teach teens to be adult criminals and the latter simply magnify the level of bullying and the experience of shame.