Manhood, Mental Illness and the Aurora Massacre

Kevin Powell

“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 one another 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’s “Accident Murderers” from his new album, 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 supposed 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.”


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 (Lulu.com).

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larrymoniz's picture
Respectfully, I have to disagree with you on several points. The first is that there's less spousal abuse in which men are the targets. As a writer and journalist for decades, I know there are far more husbands abused than incidents that are reported. However, not all it is physical abuse. Spousal abuse by women often constitutes verbal and psychological abuse. Second, historically and perhaps even genetically, men have always been the fighters and protectors of the women and children in any clan, family or tribal unit. I suspect that predisposition has been enhanced by today's young adults having been feed a steady diet of violence on television, in movies and even via video games. Third, I disagree with your premise that more gun control would prevent violence. Long before guns, people killed other people with anything convenient. As a crime reporter I've covered stories in which a man killed his wife with a bowling trophy during a domestic dispute. I also have seen people killed with kitchen knives and personally new a female attorney who ran her husband down with an expensive Jaguar car. Should we outlaw bowling trophies, kitchen knives and automobiles? I think not. Historically, perhaps women don't kill as often is they tend to be more methodical, with poison as a significant method they employ. It's hard to become a mass murderer under such circumstances. However, one point you made I am in total agreement, and that's " 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 supposed to be has been spread, since we were boys, from school history lessons to our religious institutions..." I'm able to personally identify with that. I remember attending the funeral wake for my father who had died after a long illness. I was then eight years old and had a sister who was six. I had a relative comment that now it was time I assumed the role of "man in the house." That dumped a tremendous burden on me at that age, one I had no idea how to fulfill. Making it even worse, my mother then became incapacitated due kidney disease and died six years later. Even then, at 14, I had no idea how to be the "man" of the house. That was nearly 60 years ago and I'm still not sure what constitutes "manly." Is it being "macho" or sensitive? Fortunately, I had moral values instilled at an early age. Responsibility was something I learned working after school and courtesy of the U.S. Army. Times have changed and 75 years ago it was the man's responsibility to provide family sustenance and the wife took care of the hearth. Two world wars changed all of that forever, with women discovering self-sufficiency and outside employment rather than child-rearing and housekeeping alone. It's neither right nor wrong, it just is. Unfortunately, such cultural change, coupled with immense pressures to "belong" or achieve may be the real reasons murder is on the upswing. With Aurora now in the record books, it could just as easily be argued it's something in the Colorado air or water. Or perhaps it's just the lifestyle in Denver. Aurora and Columbine are, after all, easterly and southerly suburbs of that major community and, yes, I realize such a rationale is absurd. But being neither a pyschologist or social anthropologist, I don't pretend to have answers. I just hope my family is never put in close proximity to the that kind of violence. As for both the Colorado massacres, I do wish some civilians with pistol carry permits and sidearms, or armed police officers had been present. In both cases, an immediate response might have resulted in a completely different outcome. Calculated mass murders such as these RELY on the perpetrators knowing it's highly unlikely they will encounter armed resistance. As a final note, wisely, none of the weapons involved, not the Glocks, the AR-15 nor the shotgun have been indicted in the Aurora incident. Our founding fathers recognized that guns are tools of defense, sport and providing food and wisely protected them in the Bill of Rights. Historically, shortly after assuming positions of dominant power, tyrants do two things; disarm the populace and jail/slay writers and journalists.
rodvanmechelen's picture
Regarding the comment, "Women do not sexually harass men the way we sexually harass them." Technically, that's correct, but the implication is that women do not sexually harass men to the degree that men harass women. As sexual harassment is defined by the precedent setting case of Ellison v. Brady, women actually harass men on a monumental scale. The degree to which women sexually harass men is quite literally at least a million times greater. Why don't we know this? Because men are socialized to accept the harassment the way that a starving man gratefully accepts leftover scraps of food.
nightrain's picture
Seems to me there is indeed a difference between a crazy white boy who goes on a killing spree versus a colored. The difference, I think, is the former does it without any purpose; he usually leads basically a charmed life, middle class, no real concerns or difficulties. The latter usually has a purpose (at least in his own mind). For example Nidal killed in the name of his religion, Cho had an "aggressive" (whatever that means) brain tumor. Inner city kids kill each other for turf, drugs, ego, etc. Ultimately, I think Chris Rock was spot on. If I see a black male approaching me, I go (fast) in the opposite direction coz the probability of some sort of violence is likely. On the other hand, I have to work on a daily basis with a bunch of white guys and, like Rock, I just don't know when or if they'll snap and go medieval.
thebyzantine's picture
SUPPOSE TO SUPPOSED TO Because the D and the T are blended into a single consonant when this phrase is pronounced, many writers are unaware that the D is even present and omit it in writing. You’re supposed to get this one right if you want to earn the respect of your readers. See also “use to.”
editors's picture
Thank you for your comment! The typo has been corrected.
Xmonk's picture
In order to have a conversation about what it "means to be a man" I think we will need more facts. If men are being abused at the rate that rodvanmechelen says they are, then why are they not reporting it? Point is, I think the conversation needs to be had, but I'm sure that we will never get to the "cause" until we realize how bad the "symptoms" are.
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