Grappling with the Inexplicable – A Psychologist Looks at Newtown CT

A Reason to Kill

It was a quiet afternoon, when the man walked in, holding a gun.

He was looking for his wife’s therapist.

He was angry, and was convinced that it was this therapist, not his wife’s own decision-making, that had led her to decide to divorce him.

By the time he was finished shooting, one therapist was dead, another shot and permanently blinded.

The man was a good shot. He was a police officer.

I began working with couples in that same clinic several years later.

There is a certain edge to a place that has experienced gross, unpredictable violence, even years earlier.

That agency was lucky in some ways, because it had some excuse, some explanation for why it happened. The shooter was a violent, angry husband. He came gunning for his wife’s therapist, although he never actually shot at her therapist. It didn’t matter. Once you walk into a place looking to kill, anyone becomes a target. I don’t know of a case where a person just leaves, unable to find their target. Once the decision to kill is made, the rage propels an outburst, a blood lust.

“I Can Talk Him Down”

Another colleague, a former teacher of mine, told us a teaching tale. He was doing crisis work, and a patient of his had a gun and was threatening people. My teacher was the patient’s therapist at the time. He was convinced that, being the therapist, he could “talk the man down.” After the first shot missed him, he changed his mind.

In this post, I would like to acknowledge the death of the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, who was murdered in Newtown, CT.  Like my former professor, perhaps she believed she could reach the person, and stop the violence.

I would also like to talk about a similar incident that killed a number of innocent children in Great Britain, and how, in our desperate need for a solution, any solution, we pick one, and convince ourselves that this is the right one. This will stop senseless acts. This will stop the insane, or those bordering on it, from doing insane things.


We can focus on a target, when none is presented to us. We need a target to focus our own terror, fury and grief.

Back in March of 1996, Great Britain targeted the legal ownership of handguns, after a former Scout leader fired his registered handgun in a gymnasium, killing 16 children and their teacher, before killing himself. Eleven other children and 3 adults were badly wounded. The gunman had enough ammo to kill everyone in the building. He was heading for a school assembly, but was misinformed about the time it began. Instead, he fired 105 rounds in three minutes into two buildings, from the four pistols he carried with him.

It remains the deadliest massacre in Great Britain.

They were five- and six-year olds.

The Community

It was unbelievable to so many people. Violence was expected to happen to children in urban areas, where assaults of all kinds are commonplace. It seems to be all but dismissed there, where we have an explanation. But Dunblane, Scotland was a prosperous community, far away from urban cares. Parents had a pact with their world. They chose the town because of its good schools. They sent their children to a “happy” and “safe” place, and no one doubted that they would return home safe at the end of each day.

The Age Group

Many can explain away violence of teens toward teens.  But so few can grasp why rage is directed at 5 year olds.

Parents who lose small children live in a persistent psychological torment.

Children at 5 and 6 years old begin to get a grip on the world in a way 3-4 year olds can’t. They tell stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. They have a clear sense of right and wrong, and the “rules.” They like school, and they like to please. Sometimes they tell “stories” of the way things “should” have happened, instead of the way they actually did. Adults call that “lying” but that word is too harsh for a 5 year old. It’s just a good story, with a “correct” ending. They also like a good joke or riddle. Five year olds develop greater empathy, prefer their own gender, and have best friends. They can begin to talk to themselves to calm down, but can also get easily upset when things aren’t “right” or are “not fair.” They begin to understand the concept of death and have many questions about it.

In a documentary about the Dunblane Massacre, there is a heartbreaking scene, where a father of one of these children talks about his delightful five year old, Sophie, who was taken from him 10 years earlier.

“She liked drawings, she liked videos, she liked going to parties and playing in the [garbled] pool…various things like that… she liked playing swimming, she was a bright, intelligent, talkative, friendly, girl, and a pleasure to be with.”

Sophie’s mother had died of cancer two and a half years earlier.  He knows it is unreasonable, but blames himself for Sophie’s death because he promised his wife he’d take care of Sophie after she was gone.

It is remarkable how much pain one individual can bear.

The Outcry

The town florist in Dunblane spoke of the continuous calls from people all over the world, people with no connection to the family or the town, ordering flowers with poems, quotes, words of support. They sent stuffed animals.  Then money.  We can’t bear our own grief, and want to show the bereaved that we feel pain, too.  We want to reach out and comfort ourselves and them.

At first, these gifts lined the streets. Then were transferred to the grave sites  Sophie’s father remembered the rustling of “cellophane flowers” he called them.

Flowers enclosed in cellophane…. it is an auditory memory that brings back that traumatic time whenever he hears it.

The Murderer

Sophie’s father asks a question that we all want the answer to:

“How does society deal with somebody who is on the margins, but has never committed a crime, that can actually be seen by the legal system, as a crime?”

The man who had done the shooting was murmured to have acted in sexually inappropriate ways with the children under his care. He wrote the Queen, protesting that people thought of him as a pervert. As a result, his business in this area of small towns began to falter, and then failed.

He was angry that he had been removed from contact with children.

However his other passion, hand guns, was still alive.

No one in the documentary could say the word “pedophile.” The best they could express was that the man took children into his van, and there were complaints against him to authorities, but “nothing was ever done.” Instead, he was shunned by the community.

We don’t know why he loaded his guns and went to kill children that morning. But we do know what happened afterward.

The Response

The lives of the families of those dead children were forever impacted. Their enormous grief mutated into rage, as they realized that the man who had killed their children practiced his aim, and carried his handguns legally. He had a firearms license for 19 years, and held memberships at three target shooting gun clubs in the area.  They took united action to give meaning to an otherwise senseless act.

The Snowdrop Campaign

A campaign was begun, entitled The Snowdrop Campaign, after the only flower that bloomed in that part of Scotland in March. By July, over 700,000 signatures had been gathered. A united grief was mobilized. Within 24 months, the Campaign was successful: there was a complete ban on handguns in Great Britain (with a few areas like Northern Ireland exempted).

It was the tightest legislation on guns in the world.

The gymnasium was later torn down and replaced with a garden. Churches in the town put up stain glass windows with doves and snowflakes representing the dead and injured children. Ted Christopher added an additional verse to Bob Dylan’s song “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,”  with the siblings of the dead kindergarteners singing the refrain.

The island was now too small a place to allow those “on the margins” to have access to weapons. Anyone wanting to carry a gun was guilty, and look upon with hostility and scorn.

School Shooters

In the old days, three groups of people harmed others in elementary schools: unrequited lovers who killed the school maiden who rejected them; teachers or students who killed other teachers or students; or members of the school board. There were rare exceptions.

Today, the phenomenon is so common the perpetrators are given a name: “School Shooters.” Guns are used in the USA, but in China they have a phenomenon of School Stabbers. The accelerated rate of stabbings of elementary school mass stabbings in China since 2003 is remarkable. There were seven attacks on elementary school children in 2010 alone.

School Shooters are profiled by the FBI. One of my former supervisors is an expert on the phenomenon of school shootings. The typical profile is a kid who is “on the margins.” Often bullied, left out, angry. These are also sometimes kids that can achieve in other ways, but not socially.

Socially, they are miserable.

They don’t do the heinous act spontaneously. They acquire their weapons and carefully plan their attack.

If we could somehow outlaw social misery, we could probably solve a great many more social ills than School Shooters. In the meanwhile, another predictable result of these tragedies is a moral panic that settles in those of us who bear witness.

There will continue to be a lot of discussion about what causes such terrifying outbursts of violence against the helpless and innocent. It is so intolerable for us to believe that such unpredictability can exist in the world. Some will blame guns, some mental illness, or the lack of available mental health services. Others, because we are talking about a 20 year old, will blame his mother or her political beliefs about the future, claiming that she was a paranoid survivalist waiting for the end of civilization as we know it.  But we need to blame.  We need to explain.  We need to settle ourselves that if we know, if we understand, we can re-gain control.

But whatever reason we use to comfort ourselves, we need to have a reason. We need to be convinced that once we know why things went so wrong in such “right” places like Dunblane, Scotland or Newtown, CT, we can right the wrong, and we can rest easier.

I  honor you, my colleague, Mary Sherlach, and to all of those in grieving, may the memory of each of the dead be a blessing to you.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.

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