On the night of July 19, 2012 my wife and I decided to sleep outside in our side yard to stay cool. We live in the Stapleton neighborhood, in east Denver where the airport was located before the city opened DIA. Late that night, I heard sirens wailing. And wailing. I couldn’t sleep and remembered worrying and wondering what it could be.
By morning, we knew. All the stations were covering the story non-stop.
The terrible chapter in Metro Denver’s history drew to a close (or semi-close) earlier this week when Judge Carlos Samour Jr. sentenced James Holmes to the maximum time in prison possible for the unimaginable massacre at the Aurora movie theater. The sentence spans millennia. There is no possibility of parole. He killed 12 people, including one six-year-old. He injured 70 others, including one four-month-old hit by gunfire. Pure, utter horror.
How we actually wrap our heads around this crime is something I don’t understand.
Of course, the story isn’t over. And, of course, this was in no way, shape or form an “isolated incident.” As the Holmes’ trial was winding down, in fact, another shooter killed two people in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. Locations of the shootings aside, we are in the middle of an epidemic—something that Stephen and Joyce Singular make all-too-painfully clear in their new book, The Spiral Notebook—The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth.
It’s a must-read for all thinking citizens about the kind of society we have built for ourselves and what kind of society we can leave for our children.
A review follows. First, Stephen and Joyce Singular kindly answered some questions about their work. Full disclosure that they are both good friends but I stand behind every word of my review and, friends or not, think this book is something every voter, citizen, taxpayer and policymaker should read. And absorb. And develop a plan so we can do better.
Question: Well, since the book came out before the trial was complete, I guess the first obvious question is, what did you think of the a) verdict and b) the jury’s decision regarding life in prison?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: The final verdict of life in prison was stunning. Joyce was in the courtroom when this was announced and said it was one of the most dramatic legal proceedings she’d ever witnessed. The prosecutors looked downright shocked, as they’d basically spent three years and many millions in order to put James Holmes to death. Because the jury had voted not to accept any mitigating factors in the sentencing phase of the trial, it seemed like a slam dunk that Holmes would be given death. One juror held out against this and that’s all it took. We too were very surprised and somewhat relieved, despite the carnage Holmes had created. One of the most interesting quotes in the book came from a Denver therapist saying that Holmes, the former PhD student in neuroscience, should not be executed, but put to work — examining and articulating how he came to commit his crime and perhaps being able to help others. We thought this was a good idea and the verdict kept open that possibility.
Question: Colorado Public Defender Doug Wilson said in an interview (in the Denver Post) that “there are no winners” with the result of the trial. Do you agree?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: There are no winners, except perhaps for one. This case has given America a chance to look more closely at the issue of mental illness and at how many times it’s been the underlying reality behind these mass shootings. In the months before the crime, Holmes tried to help himself by seeking out therapy and returning to these sessions seven times. Each time he told his psychiatrist that he had thoughts of killing “a lot of people.” Amazingly, this high-level mental health professional did not take this threat very seriously – or seriously enough to have him held for the mandatory 72 hours so he could be detained and examined. Holmes told others that he had these same thoughts. We’re gradually learning, or trying to learn, that when disturbed people talk about committing violence we need to listen and then to act. This case is the cautionary tale of what can happen when people simply ignore the problem. The good that can come from the Holmes trial is that it can raise awareness around the mental health issue, as it has already done in Colorado. That at least is a starting place.
Question: One of the themes that comes out in The Spiral Notebook is that generation born in the 1950’s and 1960’s has no idea what life is like for those who were born in the 1980’s and 1990’s, given a host of changes. There’s a sense of numbness to the violence among the younger generation, at least based on your son’s reaction to the Aurora theater shooting, and also a sense that these events can be anticipated and are part of a broader “cultural perspective” as you write in one interlude. If it’s cultural, in fact, isn’t that a bleak prospect for where we are headed with these kinds of events?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: Rather than seeing it as bleak, or just bleak, we’ve seen as a wake-up call for the culture as a whole. We believe that the killers are trying to tell us something about their inability to cope, and that it’s time to listen to them rather than simply dismissing them as evil people. This certainly holds true for Holmes. He not only actively sought therapy, but sent his spiral notebook to his psychiatrist on the afternoon before his crime so that she could perhaps help the next troubled and potentially violent young man who came to her seeking help. These are not crimes of passion or for any personal gain. They are social crimes, committed by people who can’t find an alternative to violence within themselves. It would be very good to see a politician or even President Obama himself stand before the country after one of these events and not talk just about gun control, but also about alternatives to violence throughout our culture. There’s still a stigma about talking like this for fear that others will see you as weak. Holmes didn’t tell his parents what he was going through in the run up to his crime. Instead of showing them his vulnerability, he showed them mass violence. It’s time to address the stigma and start to break it down.
Question: From the morning after the shootings to today, I’m wondering what was the most rewarding aspect from all the research and writing you put into this project? Like the victims who survived, the families of those who were killed and all those involved in the case, you’ve had to live with this for a very long time. What was the benefit, the good side of digging into this issue and spending so much time thinking about it?
Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.
Stephen and Joyce Singular: One good side was communicating in depth with our son about all of these issues, which we did throughout those three years of writing the book. We didn’t know what he thought and felt about any of this until we began a dialogue with him. Another good thing was getting to know a number of mental health professionals who feel strongly that throwing drugs at every problem or person who comes in the door is often not the most effective treatment. There’s more resistance out there to the onslaught of pharmaceuticals than we realized – and that’s encouraging. A third good thing was interviewing a many very bright and concerned young people who want social change and want to see new thinking and new solutions around these issues. They may have been upset about certain things, but they weren’t cynical. Their intelligence and creativity were heartening to see and speaking with them was one of the most rewarding parts of researching The Spiral Notebook. You get the feeling, in fact, that they are far ahead of the politicians today. Anyone with this understanding could make political hay.
Question: The list of mass shootings linked to psychotropic drugs that you include on pages 238 and 239 is, to say the least, depressing. The combination of these prescriptions along with the fairly access to weapons is, obviously, beyond toxic. We know how intractable the gun rights issues have become, did you find any evidence of improving the process for prescribing these drugs to certain types of individuals?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: As noted above, we met a number of mental health experts who questioned the overuse of these drugs. This was very encouraging. What we were trying to do in the book was not to provide all the answers, but to start a conversation about this subject and this ongoing American tragedy. These events occur, they are followed by shock, everyone decries the shooting and the shooter, and then we move on. Moving on is not helping solve the problem. We want politicians, teachers, media people, clergy, and others to look at the endemic nature of the violence in our culture. We want people to see their own connection to this reality. We were trying to explore the subject as a social phenomenon, not as just an individual problem. As we’ve said again and again, when mass shootings happen, we tend to look at the aberrant individual. But what in our culture may be aberrant and is contributing to this new and deeply disturbing reality?
Question: What’s changed in your relationship with your son Eric?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: Doing the book, we began speaking to him more openly and freely than we had in years. He told us about his inner life – the thing that James Holmes could not do with anyone — and that was good for all of us. The point of the book is right there. Until you talk to people about all of this, you don’t know what they think or feel — and they often don’t see their connection to the issue until the communication starts. We wanted to try to create this dialogue on a bigger level because the emotional piece of this subject is too often ignored. Gun control is a good thing. So is self-control and self-awareness. We’re all a part of the mass shooting phenomenon and can all be victimized by it.
Ignoring the mass violence issue, as much of our culture has done, hasn’t made it go away. Talking about this difficult topic, as we did with our son, opened up whole new realms for us to explore as both parents and journalists. That was very rewarding.
Question: What advice would you give parents who are trying to be more in touch with their children today?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: Simply ask questions and then listen. Go below the surface, which is where we live now in too many circumstances. Don’t be satisfied with the first answer. Or the second. Dig a little. Dare to imagine that you can learn things you never envisioned learning. Your children are growing up in a new world from only a few years before and they may be able to teach you a lot.
Question: The damage being done by these kinds of shootings is more harmful than an external terrorist group, but we hear of no major political leader or candidate putting together a package of ideas to address it. What’s it going to take?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: Courage and vision. The politicians are so far behind this curve that it’s startling. A vacuum exists around this subject and someone stepping into that vacuum and being willing to speak about it openly would likely find an audience. The issue isn’t just mass shootings. It’s about trying to find alternatives to the gun violence that permeates America and kills tens of thousands of our citizens each year. We still have a macho mentality around the value of violence to solve complex problems, from the very top of our government on down. This could be the next big door that some public figure pries open. There are reasons that America is so much more violent than many other developed countries. It’s time to explore this in a public way.
Question: Overall, what has the reaction been to The Spiral Notebook?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: It’s been good and thoughtful. People might think this is a book about violence, but it is far more about our culture at this time and the social forces that are shaping these shooters and the young. When people read the book, they frequently comment on how it is not what they expected. As said earlier, we’d like to kick the dialogue around the book into the political and educational and religious realms. All of these people abhor mass violence – when do they start addressing these issues?
Question: With Holmes facing life in prison, do you think there is a chance he might one day be able to communicate about his thought process that led up to the shootings?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: That is our hope. That is why not giving him the death penalty could be a good decision. He is probably the brightest of all the shooters and the most educated – and one of the very few who survived his crime. He might be able to tell us more about his descent into violence than any other shooter has. He might be able to end his isolation – and someone else’s who starting down that same path.
Question: What’s next for you?
Stephen and Joyce Singular: St. Martin’s is publishing our book, Shadow on the Mountain, in the winter of 2016. It’s about an infamous case involving a renowned Denver doctor and a socialite murdered in Aspen in 2014. For those who like mysteries and a few dangling threads at the end of the story, this one fits the bill.
Previously reviewed by Stephen Singular:
The Wichita Divide (also published as A Death in Wichita).
Unholy Messenger – The Life and Crimes of the BTK Serial Killer
Review: The Spiral Notebook
When the trial finally drew to a close on Wednesday, Aug. 26 (2015), the judge who sentenced James Holmes to 3,318 years in prison did nothing to stop the applause and cheering. Twelve individuals had been killed, including one six-year-old girl. Seventy others were hurt, including one four-month-old baby. More than three years had passed since the awful night in July of 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. “Get the defendant out of my courtroom,” said the judge in a rare display emotion. The applause began. The judge, for once, did not ask for an orderly courtroom. The case was over.
If only this was a rare event, we might be able to move on.
The Spiral Notebook—The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth, by Stephen and Joyce Singular, starts with the James Holmes case and steps back, in a very big and very helpful way, to examine “the cultural and emotional forces” driving young shooters across the country.
Read the book and you will have a good overview of the events and timeline leading up the night of horror. More importantly, you’ll come away with a growing awareness of the complex array of factors, influences and pressures around this particular incident. (Incident sounds so minor; I mean in one in a series and in this case one in a series of utter tragedies.)
Holmes’ case is fascinating in one particular aspect—he was in the process of studying the brain and its functions at a very high level at the University of Colorado’s Nueroscience Program. Six months or so before the shooting, in fact, James Holmes gave an oral presentation about the nervous system of the lobster and how neurons create behaviors in the lobster’s stomach. A professor tells the Singulars that Holmes “was good at conducting complex scientific experiments and analyzing data.”
This fact alone makes Holmes’ case unique but in so many other ways, his act of violence was typical, as the Singulars point out. His age was typical, his skin color was typical, his involvement with psychotropic drugs was typical, his heavy immersion in video games was typical, his easy access to weapons and bullets was typical, his ability to live two completely separate lives was typical, his hidden depression was typical. About the only unusual detail? He surrendered easily and without hurting or killing himself.
At least one “authority” was aware that James Holmes was displaying “increasingly disturbing signs” a few months before he carried out his attack. In 2005, Dr. Lynne Fenton entered the psychiatry residency program at the University of Colorado-Denver. In fact, she became the chief resident at UCD. Later, she was hired as the director of mental health services for students at the Anschutz Medical Campus (University of Colorado) and later still made an associate professor of psychiatry. Schizophrenia was her primary interest. James Holmes was one of her patients and it was her name on the address when James Holmes wrapped up his detailed diary, the spiral notebook itself. Holmes broke off his relationship with Dr. Fenton shortly before enacting his horrific plan.
Dr. Fenton knew James Holmes was dangerous and took steps to protect the university. She had his key card deactivated and he left the program. Holmes’ last meeting was one month and nine days prior to the attack. “Holmes was no on his own—untethered from his research and his school and no longer under the care of a psychiatric professional,” the Singulars write. “He was isolated to a degree he’d never been before in Aurora, if not in his whole life. The daily interactions with classmates and professors were gone, and he had no known social circle or close friends. His attachment to a normal routine had been severed.”
In beautiful, calm and straightforward prose, the Singulars explore how Holmes bought 6,300 bullets. They talk with a CU professor who realized the shooter was the young man he knew from campus. They look at the stew of drugs that Holmes took—some self-prescribed, some prescribed, including the antidepressant Zoloft. They talk to a mental health clinical pharmacy specialist and pscyho-pharmacologist about the Attention Deficit Disorder so-called ‘epidemic’ and the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin. And they quote, sometimes extensively, from teenagers and young adults today who view these issues through a different prism.
In one of several powerful “interludes,” they take a cue off their son’s words like “isolation” and “dystopian” and write a beautiful essay about the state of cultural violence in the United States today. They explore the definition of sanity and they make keen observations about the legal process and its protracted, deliberate and ultra-careful processes—including the delicate balance of patient’s rights in the context of such a trial involving such a horrendous crime.
“Never had lawyers worked so hard to keep the general population from learning anything about the mind or the emotions of a mass killer,” they write. “Never had it been more difficult to get beneath the façade of a crime in which nearly every pertinent physical fact was already known and there was no question of guilt or innocence: James Holmes was the shooter. Never had the public interest been greater, because the American populace not only paid for the legal system, and was not only called upon to serve on juries, but it kept getting terrorized and maimed and murdered by those with significant health issues.”
If for some reason you don’t believe there is really an “epidemic” along these lines, I suggest opening The Spiral Notebook to pages 238 and 239 for a reconsideration. The Spiral Notebook asks, and asks in convincing fashion, for us all to step back and take a much bigger look at a complex and deeply disturbing trend that has shaken far too many communities to their core. When a shooter opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana as the Holmes trial was winding down (in that case, two people were killed), the mayor asserted something to the effect of “We are Any Town, U.S.A. This doesn’t happen here.”
And that’s just the point. It does happen “here.” Or anywhere. The Spiral Notebook makes a compelling case that “here” is everywhere. And it’s time for everybody to stop and decide if we’re going to keep on enduring these kinds of horrors or, perhaps, do something about them.