Kevin Powwell`s blog

Manhood, Mental Illness, and The Colorado Massacre

“How come all these crazies are White boys?” my White male friend Michael Cohen asked me via email in the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting. It is something I have been hearing nonstop these past few days since 24-year-old James Holmes murdered 12 and wounded nearly 60 people in a horrific mass shooting at a screening of the new Batman film.

The question also makes me recall that Chris Rock stand-up routine where he said he fears angry White males more than he fears angry Black males because you simply don’t know what the White dudes will do when pissed off. Or something to that effect.

However, to reduce this to mass murderers being “White” and “crazy” would ignore that an Arab-American man, Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan, killed 13 soldiers and civilians and wounded more than two dozen at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009. Or that South Korean-American Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people, and himself, on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007.

But, too, very defensive folks in America’s Black and Latino communities will have you believe that we do not do things like that. Case in point is a conversation I had with a Black police officer in my Brooklyn, New York ‘hood just last night where he swore, up and down, we Black and Brown folks ain’t like them White folks when it comes to killings. How then, I asked, do you explain the record numbers of Black and Latino young males shooting maiming paralyzing killing each other from New York to Chicago to Oakland and pretty much every other large or small American ghetto this very bloody Summer of 2012?

The officer, who ought to know better given his line of work, maintained it was different. What really is the difference between one violent White man taking out a dozen at a time and a dozen violent Black or Latino men in the same ghetto killing one person each? Is not the total still 12 people dead, senselessly? While many of the reasons why White males shoot people are very different from why Black and Latino males shoot people, the bottom line is that murder is murder.

But, for sure, these “mass murders” happen daily weekly monthly yearly in neighborhoods of color but those stolen lives barely make the news, if ever. If not for the oral reporting of hip-hop and brilliant songs like Nas’ “Accident Murderers” from his new cd, we’d have no idea that life is the complete opposite of good in the ‘hood. So while I have complete and total compassion for the lives that were taken, wounded, and altered by what happened in Colorado, it also saddens me extremely to know that when it comes to Black and Latino people being murdered rarely are their lives given much public attention. It is that unfortunate and painful reminder that in the eyes of our America their lives don’t matter as much.

Beyond the above, I feel the problem is that we in America are not only unwilling to engage in real and raw conversations about the root causes of violence, but we also are ducking and dodging any dialogue about how we define manhood and what, exactly, mental illness is, and how dangerous it is for everyone when warped notions of manhood collide with someone who is very emotionally unstable.

Put another way, Albert Einstein once famously said insanity is saying or doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. When you look at the massive media coverage of the Aurora theater shooting, you could easily be watching the same coverage of Fort Hood, or Virginia Tech, or Columbine, in Colorado, way back when Bill Clinton was president.

What we gloss over or completely ignore is that there is something profoundly wrong with how we define manhood in America. The definition is as old as this nation. And we know that definition begins with immigrant men from Europe ransacking the land of Native Americans and enslaving Africans. And that definition of manhood means the long American journey has been one riddled with men and boys who think it their birthright to use brute force to achieve their ends. Yup, there is a straight line from so-called explorers to cowboys to gangsters to rock stars to whichever rapper is hot this current moment to the hate-baiting mouthpieces on the Fox News Channel. 

It means our notion of manhood is actually based in myth-making, in mythology, and these myths of who and what the American man is or suppose to be has been spread, since we were boys, from school history lessons to our religious institutions, and practically in every kind of book, magazine, tv show, film, or video game we absorb.

That is why when you look at the ever-expanding list of the worst mass murderers in American history, you cannot find a woman. They simply do not get down the way we men do. Women do not sexually harass men the way we sexually harass them. Women do not rape men the way we rape them. Women do not commit acts of domestic violence at the level we do to them. Most women do not wind up in seedy extramarital affairs as often as we men do. And women do not cover up the rape and abuse of children at a major university the way the men of Penn State did, just to protect a storied football program.

So the problem, to me, is that we are in denial about who we have been taught to be as men, how much of what we say we are is addicted to violence, to twisted ego trips and narrow-minded visions of power, to mindless competition that leads us to destroy each other (and ourselves) over and over again. Where it ends, always, we know. It is called that theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. It is called certain types of male police officers gunning down Black and Latino young men who are unarmed with names like Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, or Ramarley Graham. It is called what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin. It is called the tragedy of Penn State. It is called the bloodshed on the streets of urban America.

And it is called mental illness, y’all, for what else are violent behavior but the work of someone, well, who is simply not well? On the surface James Holmes appeared to be a genius and nothing more than a shy and introverted young man. He was an outstanding undergrad student at the University of California-Riverside, and many of his former classmates from high school and college talked about what a good person he was, and how shocked they are by this eruption.

I battled depression, low self-esteem and, yes, violent and physical outbursts in my past lives, and I know that we males, particularly, have not been socialized or encouraged to discuss our true feelings. Only because of years of therapy and involvement in multiple men’s groups and healing circles was I able to think about the root causes of what was bothering me, of what was triggering specific actions and reactions in my life. Most men do not go to therapy, and never will. Men are taught to be “strong,” to hold back emotions, to talk little about our internal struggles. Instead, like James Holmes, we will repress, hide, and even create a cover for what is often seen on the surface as just anti-social behavior. Again, in Holmes’ case, he was just dismissed as shy, as socially awkward. And only someone whose identity is that fragile will be driven to recreate himself as a new person entirely. For Holmes that new person was the fictional Joker character from Batman. Where he felt completely disempowered previously, to the point of even giving up on grad school, he now was omnipotent, emboldened by 6000 rounds of ammunition, four guns, tear gas, and an all-black costume just like the character Bane’s in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Call it self-creation through violent means, because that is exactly what it was for James Holmes.

We still do not know what the tipping point was for James Holmes. Was it his struggles with grad school? Was it the ending of a relationship? I think often of a former friend of mine, who lost his cushy corporate job and his marriage around the same time about six years ago. Many had always considered him a bit of an outcast, but the twin traumas of career and marriage collapse pushed him over the edge. So much so, in fact, that many people avoid him and have joked that “he seems like one of those guys who will snap at any moment and shoot a bunch of people.”

Yeah—

But it is not a joke. Not when the path to personal pain and low self-esteem is layered with resentment that becomes paranoia. And if that man starts to retreat into a self-made world of rage and self-pity, he becomes more isolated. I saw my friend who lost his job and marriage spiral into that universe of thoughts and fantasies of revenge, of intentionally scaring people, because it made him feel powerful. As a matter of fact the last time I was ever with him, he drove 100 miles an hour across one of New York City’s bridge, with me in the passenger seat, for no reason other than he felt he could. I thought we were going to die that very day, and I have not seen nor spoken with him since. I was suddenly that terrified of him.

But it is simplistic to reduce men and boys who may have emotional problems and past pains they are coping with, to being crazy or weird, to medicate them with drugs, without rolling back the layers of who they are, without creating spaces, once and for all, where men and boys can open up, talk, share, and, yes, own what it is that is causing them pain or trauma. I cannot tell you how many emails and private Facebook and Twitter messages, for example, I get from American men and boys of various backgrounds every single week asking for help in some way. For some it is because they have battered or abused a female partner. For others they simply do not know what a man is, are terribly confused, and are seeking answers and guidance, or some word to move them from their state of arrested development.

And those answers will only come, in America, if we begin to have the kinds of conversations women and girls have long had to talk openly and freely about all that is happening to us. That is not to say murder, including mass murder, will stop, nor that men who committed violent acts should not be held accountable for their actions, because they should be. Nor is it to say we do not need better and tighter gun control, because God knows we do. The mere fact that James Holmes was able to purchase so much of his ammo online is disturbing beyond words.

But how many lives could we save in our entire nation if that national conversation on violence we so badly need to have also includes an honest and open discussion about manhood, about mental health and mental illness?

Kevin Powell, writer, activist, public speaker, is the author or editor of 11 books, including “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays” (www.lulu.com). Email him at kevin@kevinpowell.net or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell

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  8. Manhood, Mental Illness, and The Colorado Massacre « Kevin Powell Blogs
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  9. BS Eater says:

    This caught my attention until it started picking apart men. If you’re going to spout some biased slander against a gender, race, person, group, etc., even if it represents a group you can consider yourself to be a part of, you better provide research to back up your personal opinion.

    There have been numerous female mass murderers. Check the link below for a few gruesome ones:

    http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/women/index.html

    Keep in mind that female murders rarely make the news like these “white people” you’re talking about, similar to the black and hispanic “facts” that you’re referring to.

    In addition to your comment about slavery, keep in mind that it was not just the white man that let this occur. Warring African tribes often times sold their enemies into slavery if they did not simply kill all they opposed.

    I do not support any of these heinous acts that any of these individuals or groups may have been a part of, but when supplying information to the masses, even personal bias, it is your duty as a journalist to supply both sides of the picture. It is not men that must be changed, but an entire system that teaches everyone to repress their feelings.

    Please provide actual research next time to prevent confusing those that believe everything they read and to those taking a stance on this topic about taking the rights of individuals away to keep criminals at bay, keep in mind that criminals don’t adhere to laws.

    Good luck.

  10. Thank you for this well thought out piece! The first time I heard the phrase “crisis of manhood” about the topic you are discussing, it was in the book The Events of October by Gail Griffin. That book is about a domestic violence-related, very gruesome murder/suicide that occurred on my college campus. We truly have a major cultural crisis with masculinity that desperately needs to be addressed. Our boys and men need to know how they can be strong and masculine in ways that are positive and pro-social. Our culture is seriously lacking a clear vision of manhood that is healthy and functional.

  11. Pristine says:

    I am so glad you “went there”. Thank you. I will make sure all the men I know get a chance to see this.

  12. Pamela Rice says:

    Excellent & thought- provoking…

  13. David Smith says:

    Great and very timely. You continually use your voice to add sense tot he national dialogue. As a Life Coach here in Atlanta, a big part of my practice is Anger Management and we as males have not learned how to be less angry in this society.

  14. Susan Silkwood says:

    Kevin,
    I admire the sensitivity and poignancy of your post, and will bookmark you (and follow you) for future reading. I have recently become more familiar with the work of Langston Hughes and your commentary about males and race, particularly the latter, articulately echo his themes I’ve so recently read and appreciated. You are very insightful too about the struggles of male social and cultural conditioning and what that implies. You certainly can’t leave our patriarchal system out of this conversation and you rightly brought it in.
    I did want to home in on one thing, to address your assertion that there is less media interest in killings that afflict minorities. I tend to agree and consider this appalling, but what makes the Aurora tragedy so remarkable is that Aurora (which is not far from where I live) has a high African-American population relative to other Denver suburbs and much of the city of Denver itself. It is known to those of greater Denver to be so. It has a very diverse population, in fact, and that diversity was reflected in the human composition within that movie theatre. People of color suffered and what must be understood is that before the world knew who had been taken or who had been injured, the local media knew that Aurora had that diversity and did not minimize the event on that basis. In fact, as you well know, it was world news of the highest import before many Americans had even awakened from sleep. In my view, what can be taken from this horror is that one positive, heartening element: that color and class was not relevant in the sadness, sympathy, empathy, and pain that the multitudes felt. That the dead and injured were mostly white did not become clear until later, and it was genuinely surprising to those who know the makeup of the Aurora community and the broad appeal of the Dark Knight trilogy. And many persons of color were affected by this tragedy directly or indirectly. What became clear was that the Aurora community coexists in harmony and diversity and rallied around the victims, who were their own regardless of background.
    Many who were injured and who died were not wealthy, often had no insurance, and by certain yardsticks not of “consequence” (ugh). But the love and concern that has flowed towards the sufferers from the world shows me that class and race and wealth were irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of us. We all just felt pain for those who suffered, and saw ourselves in them. To me this is progress; despite the emphasis by so many that society is at fault for producing a what’s-his-name (I refuse to acknowledge him by name) what I experienced was a level of color- and class-blind compassion that gave me hope.
    I know our society is far from color-blind and the construct of race is still a destructive presence, but I do appreciate what I observed on the world stage as a result of this tragedy. We are all connected and I felt that this past week.
    God bless and keep sharing.
    Susan

  15. Rob W says:

    Thanks Kevin!
    My mind went in a lot of different directions after reading this. I don’t want to be general but there is so much here to talk about.
    There definitely needs to be a better line of communication amongst the men in this country. We do need to make a better definition, as well as example, of what “manhood” is. There are so many factors that come into play here upon a true definition. It would change the face of our society. It may even change our very ethnic family dynamic. While I’ll leave out my theory on the whole conceptualization of a new US society, there is no question that we need to start somewhere.
    Pointing fingers at particular races and/or ethnic groups won’t do much in the way of minimizing the violence or heinous crimes. Dealing with the issues will be our starting point.
    Thank you again Kevin for standing up.

  16. Diane D'Angelo says:

    Here’s another take — these young men are NOT insane; rather they are following a cultural script: http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2012/07/24/inside-the-minds-of-mass-killers/

  17. Scottie Lowe says:

    My uncle lost his off and on lady friend of 20 years and his father within a month. He quit his job with the hopes that he would be able to work some sort of scam and get unemployment and that didn’t work out. He is penniless and intent on portraying to the world that he’s Mr. Money Bags, Mr. Got-it-all-Together. Feeling under pressure and unable to maintain the facade, he snapped. He had a psychotic break, ranting, raving, yelling, screaming, punching, throwing things, and he tried to blow his brains out. Or at least he made an attempt to look like that was what he was going to do in order to get attention. They hospitalized him for 2 days, he convinced them he was fine, and he walked out without any counseling, medication, or help. So the fact that he now is facing the loss of two people in his life with whom he had poor relationships, he has NO money and he’s dependent upon other people for his daily survival (apparently, getting a job is out of the question for him) and he’s a danger to himself if not other people makes him, in my estimation, a ticking time bomb.

    He is, has always been a narcissist, the world has to revolve around him. In all of his relationships, he is self-centered and they end horrifically because the women can’t tolerate his selfishness and he blames them for not “catering to him”. He has always been emotionally immature and extremely superficial. It is my very strong belief that he is reflective of the way we socialize Black males in our culture to be emotionally immature. We do not teach them to take ownership of wrongdoing, how to process their emotions, to be introspective. It’s conceivable that white men are socialized in similar ways, and perhaps their conditioning is even more detrimental because they are led to believe they are the center point of the universe and all goodness stems from them, but men of color are my primary concern.

    I said all of that to say this. If we don’t start having conversations, workshops, retreats, whatever we need in order to facilitate some serious emotional evolution in men, we are going to continually face these sorts of tragedies, on a large and small scale, because their feelings of insecurity, pain, and depression are eating them up with no healthy outlet.

  18. Kevin, brilliant, honest, and raw! Just what we need in order to begin to discuss and address earnestly, this very serious and complex issue at the very highest levels of our global society.

  19. K says:

    Indeed, murder is murder. However, the difference is that the white man killed a dozen of completely random innocent men, women and children (a 6 year old was shot) inside of a theatre, which can be assumed to be a safe environment. I’m not saying that there aren’t innocent casualties; people being in the wrong place at the wrong time during the shootings in Chicago and Oakland, but most people wouldn’t compare these instances because of the different settings they occurred in. I can somewhat understand the officer’s reasoning there. It’s sad, but it is what it is.

    Your paragraph on manhood was beautifully composed, and it is definitely obvious that many people (including women) think that they can get what they want if they use force or manipulation.

    Back to the main situation at hand, what exactly did the aurora man want?

    Everyone has highs and lows. Some people are obsessive and possessive about certain things in their lives, and often people are confused about what is reality and really isn’t. Many people have times where they just want to be alone and have time to think. This is what it means to be human, thus, everyone exhibits characteristics of being “mentally ill” in some shape, form or fashion.

    My issue with this is that so many people want to blame violent behaviors on mental illness. Was the craigslist killer mentally ill? Some say no, some say yes…but he knew exactly what he was doing REGARDLESS. He was also in medical school, was not a social outcast, star of his classes, and wasn’t shy. He tortured, and killed simply because he liked the thrill of it. It’s as simple as that. He got a rush out of doing it. The same goes for the revered Canadian Air Force Officer, Colonel Russell Williams…well respected among everyone, and was married. There are plenty of people with severe mental illnesses that would never (or could never) plan or think about such things (many would usually rather harm themselves). What we REALLY need to accept is the fact that there are simply people in the world that have evil hearts and simply get a joy out of seeing people suffer. We can’t keep using mental illness as a scapegoat for them.

    • Miss C says:

      So K, You really feel there are people that are literally born evil> That it’s just a adrenaline rush, or a sick thrill for them to kill other humans just for fun? Seriously? My .02 well…NO. It’s silly even nuts to think that we are ever born evil…we are products of our environment. We are taught everything from morals to sexual preference to spiritual beliefs from our parents, caregivers, role models in the first 5-7 years of life we are pretty much programmed to be whatever those individuals chose for us. And if they are screwed up then alas..we end up screwed up. And this bloggers entire post is right ion about how the problem is compounding and that it will take great amount of open minded conversing and sharing among-st us all to start to figure out all the things we will need to do to start healing as a nation and start reversing what become the normal as far back as we know.

  20. Valarie Sanders says:

    Thank you so very much Mr. Powell for sharing this much needed information. It was so mind-boggling I had to read it twice…..GREAT BLOG

  21. Devin Leake says:

    Kevin very good article, I too have issues, as we all do. There are things in my life that I’m not happy about n would love certain things to b different. So. Many topics u touched on in this piece r very true, the fact that we as black males don’t openly talk to each other is disturbing, when so many of us have similar struggles. Dialogue, is a key startin point to rectification, or partial healin or progression toward a better feel. Dialogue could change race relations in amerikkka. This I’ve said several times over the years n I’m no activist, I’m a black man workin to make a difference.

  22. Devin Leake says:

    U

  23. Nana Ashhurst says:

    Thank you for this, Kevin. Of course I noted that there’s renewed discussion about gun control (thank God), but none on lack of public resources for mental health problems. What recourse did you have to get help for your friend who lost his job and marriage? Most likely none. Was his job required to provide counseling when they let him go? No. Is counseling required for divorcing couples? No. People “going postal” is totally predictable, rarely out of the blue. Soldiers returning from multiple tours in Afghanistan are not only not required to get counseling, they can’t even get appointments at VA facilities for months. Violence indeed needs to be discussed including manhood and mental health.

  24. Another great & timely blog. America seriously needs an open dialogue on gun control/violence.

    On another note. I would love to see you nominated for Black Enterprise’s Black Blogger of the month see attached link:

    http://www.blackenterprise.com/blackbloggermonth/

    Skee-Phi!

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