Making Sense out of the Senseless . . . in Newtown

I am sick at heart. Coming at the same time of the Christmas story, events raise the deeply unsettling specter of King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, which sent Mary and Joseph in flight to Egypt. We are all in flight – mentally and emotionally – from the shock and horror of it.

This post is my attempt at self-therapy, and my attempt to find some sense amidst the anguish and absurdity. When the term “empathy” is used in this discussion it does not refer to sympathy or compassion but rather to a method of access to the experience of the other person. More on that shortly. We will look in turn at how empathy can give us access to the victims, the survivors, the shooter, the shooter’s Mom (also a victim), and those who tend to be passionate and assertive about their relationships with guns.

When Dr. H. Wayne Carver II of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was asked if the victims suffered, he replied: “If so, not for long.” The anguish of the surviving parents sets a high bar to our empathy and we are nearly overwhelmed with empathic distress from too much identification with loss. We turn to Gustav Mahler’s Song Cycle KindertotenliederSongs for Dead Children – which invoked the poems, never intended for publication, of Heinrich Rückert who had lost his children to scarlet fever in the early 1900s:

In this weather, in this storm,

I would never have let the children out,

I was anxious they might die the next day:

now anxiety is pointless.

In this weather, in this windy storm,

I would never have sent the children out.

They have been carried off,

I wasn’t able to warn them!

In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,

they rest as if in their mother’s house:

frightened by no storm,

sheltered by the Hand of God.

A high bar indeed. Later, after finishing his work, Mahler lost his own four year old daughter Maria to scarlet fever, and he wrote to Guido Adler: “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more.” In other words, in doing his artistic work, Mahler had the advantage of having a healthy child and working top down, being able imaginatively to place himself in the shoes of the one enduring the loss without having the full weight upon him. The full weight crushes the artistic impulse. One is pushed down, pushed back, into survival mode. One hopes against hope until hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates. One clings to hope. Though life is inalterably changed, one hears remotely from others, according to Ronnie Walker (Alliance of Hope), that it is possible to survive such harrowing experiences – if one does survive, say, by playing dead – and someday to claw one’s way back and even to flourish again. But from here that seems a long way away. Nothing in this post is the truth with a capital “T.” In the face of suffering, in this case, enormous suffering, we humans seem to want to make sense out of it. Since that is not going to be possible in this case, the fallback position is to try to make sense of the consequences and causes.

The shooter reportedly had a history that put him somewhere on a spectrum of mild to severe disorder of empathy – or more exactly, an absence of empathy – that lies between Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism. It is important to acknowledge that such a characterization of the role of empathy is controversial, and other explanations of this spectrum are to be found in a dysfunction in joint attention (see Hobson 2005 in the References below), a lack of mindedness (Baron-Cohen 1995), and complex neurological hypotheses.

A comment on empathy will be useful. The short definition of empathy is that an individual knows what another person experiences (feels, senses, perceives) because one experiences it too as a trace affect or sample of the other individual’s experience. Empathy provides access to the other’s experience as a vicarious introspection of the other individual’s experience (see Kohut 1959 in References below). Empathy operates through a temporary, transient identification with the other that does not merge or over-identify with the other, but provides a vicarious representation of what their experience may be like. Under this interpretation of Asperger’s, empathy is lacking or otherwise short-circuited so that the person is challenged to connect emotionally though he may be quite intelligent cognitively. The person is challenged to understand – to “get” – that others have rich emotional lives and are centers of intentionality. Arguably this is because the individuals so afflicted are insufficiently in touch with their own emotions and intentions and are challenged to conceptualize that others are both different and similar to themselves, depending on diverse, simultaneously changing variables and clues.

A report in the New York Daily News has Adam Lanza, the shooter, sitting in his room playing video games.[1] A lot. A real lot. He was reportedly under pressure from his Mom to get out of his room and engage socially. Get a job. Go to school. This hardly seems sufficient provocation to kill the Mom and twenty-six other people. Here our empathy give us a clue – a dark and difficult one to be sure – that for the shooter the experience was rather like being inside a first person shooter computer (war) game – only with actual, horrible consequences. The suspicion – once again, we will never know for sure – is that it all had an air of unreality for the shooter. The monster was actually an avatar in a video game – no less horrid to the victims and survivors for all that. For all we know – and we will never know – the shooter may have imagined as he put the gun to his own head that it would be like rebooting the game. He was in the movie – a horror movie if you will – but still not entirely real. “Game over” takes on new a chilling meaning. The shooter unwittingly – definitely not consciously – recreated the numbness and emotional emptiness that afflicted him in the survivors and in us. He put the emotional numbness and emptiness that was in him in us in a kind of projective identification, arousing our counter-transference. Not to in any way diminish the tragedy and the suffering all around, I can think of better, easier ways. Nor is any of this hypothetical reconstruction in any way intended to justify or excuse the heinous crimes. It is designed to answer the question, which our suffering compels us to ask: How could anyone do it?

It requires a degree of depersonalization, de-realization, and, for want of a better term, theatrical remoteness from the consequences of one’s actions that are characteristic of being inside a computer game. A word of caution. Do not confuse cause and effect. Under this interpretation, the shooter sought out computer games because the games aligned with his already emotionally empty, depersonalized, de-realized state. The games did not cause the depersonalization. They were attractive because they already corresponded to the existing state. However, neither did such material put the perpetrator back in touch with reality. They were not a wholesome solution or approach such as might have been represented by team sports or even ping-pong. It is worth noting that the killing began with an act of domestic violence, admittedly of the relatively unconventional form of a son against his mother. Parents note well, a single-minded preoccupation with computer games is a sign that all is not well. A bold statement of the obvious – there is some issue that is being avoided. This is where a parent has a job to do in setting limits. First you do your home work, then play on the computer. First you do your chores, then play on the computer. You get the idea.

It is an inaccurate  cliché in certain branches of psychology that the mother is to blame, and the audience of psychologists at the Conference boos upon first mention of her. A more moderate version is to blame bad parenting. Nothing even remotely like that is being proposed here. More likely scenarios are that of a profound temperamental mismatch of an extroverted, vivacious parent with a laid back, introverted child or vice versa; an actual neurological fault that “takes down” emotional parts of the brain that regulate affect or comprehension of intentionality; failure of joint attention required for intimate communication; actual psychological disorder due to the environment; or a complex, entangled combination of all of the above. I now recall a discredited theory of autism, attributed to Bruno Bettelheim, founder of the renowned Orthogenic School for Emotionally Disturbed Children. Though it is controversial whether Bettelheim ever really held this view as more than a hypothetical straw man, the idea attributed to him is that autism is caused by the Ice Box Mother, an emotionally unresponsive care-taker, unwittingly setting off a downward cycle of withdrawal by the infant, followed by further emotional withdrawal of the care-taker, resulting is a developmental disaster. The parents of autistic children rightly felt unfairly blamed when they were already struggling with much self-sacrifice and dedication to adapt to children challenged with difficult issues. Empathy towards this Mom suggests, if anything, that, by the time the boy was a teenager, she was fearful and uncertain, not necessarily knowing exactly of what, not knowing how to get the guidance and help that was needed.

The Mom reportedly owned six guns and was the first one murdered first. Six guns? More is less. Several commentators have pointed out that it is common sense that a woman living alone in the country would own a gun. I can see that. It makes sense. However, six guns, including the civilian version of an M-16? This “hobby” was an unconscious cry to be unburdened of more than the standard amount of insecurity, uncertainty, and angst. Without in any way blaming the victim, I suspect that her being an “avid shooter” as a hobby was a psychological defense – a disguise – for living with fear, in fear. We may never know exactly fear of what. There are many things to be afraid of. Being alone? Of bad guys coming up from the big city? Of the disorder that lay within oneself = X, or, more likely, within the son? Once again, we will never know. Yet we suspect that all was not right in a way that, once again with 20-20 hindsight, comes into view. She was the first victim. It was an act of domestic violence. Guns are not a good solution to a lot of things, but especially not good for emotional distress or mental disorder. It is perhaps a deeply cynical thought, but not entirely without merit, that all her guns did not give her sufficient protection, because guns are not a good defense against emotional disorder. A single gun carefully stored under lock and key combined with an electronic home security system would have been the best protection against the external “bad guys out there”. Against the dangers that lurked within, no amount of fire power was sufficient. A sustained gracious and generous listening by an empathic individual over a period of time might have made a difference. Sustained empathy as part of an empowering therapeutic conversation for what was possible might have provided the recommended way out of the profound isolation that exploded with the results we now have, but, alas, such a conversation was not available, not imagined, and apparently not requested.

I wonder if Wayne La Pierre of the NRA would acknowledge that he is afraid. Afraid perhaps of the monsters next door, planning the next crime. He does not look afraid. He looks dedicated and speaks passionately about an interpretation of the Second Amendment. Here my empathy fails me. What is he thinking? Feeling? He’s got an engaging job, thousands of followers, more power than many US Congressmen or Senators, who his organization grades and can target – I use the term “target” advisedly – for electoral defeat, and a great reluctance to hold a press conference and answer questions. Of those questions perhaps he is afraid. Yet my empathy suggests that he is not really afraid – he is rather driven by fear. Therefore, in wrapping up, some historical empathy is recommended.

When the Founding Fathers crafted the language of the Second Amendment of 1787 that “a well-regulated militia being necessary … the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” the standard issue was a single shot musket that could discharge one or two shots a minute – not a second – with rapid reloading of black power and shot. Given the world today and the headlines – eleven girls blown up by a landmine in Afghanistan, seven polio workers (all women) executed by the Taliban for distributing polio vaccination in Pakistan, the reports out of Newtown – one must acknowledge the world is a frightening and objectively dangerous place. Buying guns and ammunition is a way of dealing with fear. Rapid reloading and extra large ammo clips come to symbolize security – unfortunately, I suggest the illusion of security. Do more guns create more security? I am skeptical, and my empathy suggests that more is less. More guns outside the hands of the police and Armed Forces (thanks to whom I lead a sheltered life and whom I acknowledge) add up to less safety.

Thus, the debate is joined. Please move over Justice Scalia, as I am a STRICT constructionist on this point. No one imagined the gun technology available today back in 1787 or even 1941. Any member of the Armed Forces – and any hunter – will tell you the purpose of a gun. The purpose of a gun is to kill. A gun is not a tennis racket or a soccer ball. Dogs bark; cats meow; guns shoot – to kill or maim. Elementary school teachers teach ABCs and counting. Empathy is not required to understand this – virtual insensitivity will suffice. Gun training is not on the check list in training first grade teachers. That gun training seems to be now required to be added to this checklist is the reduction to absurdity of the approach of [concealed] carry laws. Armed guard(s) at schools is an idea that (sadly) has merits – at least as a temporary expedient in this time of trouble. However, the results will be unpredictable in so many ways and not necessarily what the advocates planned. Schools are financially broke, and guns and the associations that promote them may reasonably be taxed and assessed the necessary fees so that the burden may properly fall on the gun owners and promoters, not the teachers or children. The reduction to absurdity in this case is that armed guards will also be needed at public libraries, movie theaters, hospitals, grocery stores, restaurants, and so on where the “bad guys” may next be driven and congregate. But wait! Isn’t that why government was invented in the first place – according to Jefferson, to secure “domestic tranquility” through the action of the police and defend against foreign enemies through the army? Makes me think of the job that is customarily required of the local cop on the beat. What did I miss? An alternative may be useful. An alternative point of view. Do I dare say it? Issuing titles for guns like we issue titles for automobiles? The purpose of gun control is not to eliminate all violence; it is to raise the bar against violence and make violence more difficult to commit or to limit the damage if violence does break out. Damage control has its merits.

In conclusion, since it is difficult to imagine that we Americans will ever allow anyone to come between us and our shot guns or six shooters, I choose to speak truth to power. I call for community action, and I have a request. Imperfect and strained as my own empathy may be, I reach out. I have a request for/ to the empathy of Wayne LaPierre, Executive of the NRA: Turn in your guns. You do not have to do it. No one can make you do it. Therefore, you are being asked to do it voluntarily. That is the request – do it voluntarily as an example to the community. Do it for the children. Then apologize and resign.


Lou Agosta (1984). “Empathy and intersubjectivity,” Empathy I, ed. J. Lichtenberg et al. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.

Lou Agosta. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave/Macmillan.

Simon Baron-Cohen. (1995). Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Jean Decety & P.L. Jackson. (2004). “The functional architecture of human empathy,” Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, Vol 3, No. 2, June 2004, 71-100.

Jean Decety & C. Lamm. (2006). “Human empathy through the lens of social neuroscience,” The ScientificWorld Journal 6 (2006), 1146-1163.

Thomas Farrow and P. Woodruff, eds. (2007). Empathy in Mental Illness. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Heinz Kohut. (1959). “Introspection, empathy, and psychoanalysis,” The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 7(July 1959): 459-83.

Peter Hobson. (2005). “What puts the jointness into joint attention?” in Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology, eds., N. Eilan, C. Hoerl, T. McCormack, and J. Roessler. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.

This post and all contents of this web site © Lou Agosta, Ph.D.

[1] “Inside the mind of Newtown killer Adam Lanza: he was like a ghost” by Matthew Lysik. New York Daily News, Dec. 19, 2012.

Categories: autism, Empathy, empathy consulting, empathy trends, Ethics, gun violence, Mental illness, mindreading, sympathy

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