Soon after an initial outpouring of shock and grief at the senseless murder of 32 members of the Virginia Tech community, we began seeking explanations for the tragedy. By all accounts Seung-Hui Cho, perpetrator and 33rd victim of this rampage, was a severely disturbed young man; the snippets of video released so far by NBC reveal profound paranoia. Inevitably our questions turn to what would lead him to commit such a heinous crime. We yearn for insight into his motives. Why did he do it? What was he thinking?
These questions are familiar to me. I have asked them myself about my own mother, who probably developed paranoid schizophrenia some 15 years ago. I write “probably” because, like water filling a tub, the disease crept over her, imperceptibly, until suddenly it spilled forth in a flood. And somewhere in that tub, the loving woman who had been my mother drowned.
I cannot know, but looking at the face in the video aired by NBC, I would guess that the real Seung-Hui Cho, someone capable of the kind of laughter and anger you and I would understand, perished long before he pulled the trigger on himself.
People of sound mind often assume that individuals with mental illness think like we do: therefore, they must be misinformed, wrong-headed, or just pretending. We are, essentially, in denial. We delude ourselves into believing that we can figure these people out, and in so doing, learn how to “fix” them. In the first few years of my mother’s illness, I challenged her claims that the “Chinese mafia” were spying on and stealing from her. Using lawyer’s logic, I repeatedly demonstrated why it made no sense for criminals to go to such great lengths to inflict such petty wounds upon her.
She would always win these fights, because madness is not susceptible to reason. What I lacked in communicating with her was not logic, but rather imagination.
“Did you want to inject as much misery in our lives as you can,” asks Mr. Cho in one video segment, “just because you can?” My mother asks these sorts of questions, too. She believes that clerks at the local store overcharge her and divert the money to her oppressors. Pedestrians stare at and spy on her. (The first part, at least, is now true due to her disheveled clothing and behavior). Vandals break into her home and move her papers around to prevent her from working. The invisible device in my ear tells her I am aiding and abetting “them.”
These ludicrous accusations infuriated me, but my logical counterattacks could not breach the walls around her mind. Exhausted, I learned to stop fighting her reality and to accept that she truly believes what she says. Only through imagination – a willing suspension of disbelief – could I see her world.
A few years ago my mother was driving her brother around town when she unexpectedly pulled over so that the three black town cars following them would drive past. There was no one behind them, my uncle reports. But I no longer doubt that she indeed saw, in her mind, enemy agents in hostile pursuit.
In responding to the tragic massacre Mr. Cho wrought, the public seeks criminal intent, a “motive.” The media presume they can understand and explain him; the FBI believes the hateful package sent to NBC will shed insight into his motivations. I have given up that quest. The search is vanity, a misplaced faith in reason.
Our criminal justice system assumes we can peer into mens rea, the criminal mind, and presumably extract thoughts and motives. Mental illness and the “insanity plea” have never fit well into this system because crimes committed by the mentally ill defy reason – and reason, it turns out, underlies our concept of justice. Like Job’s entourage, our pundits and lawyers see tragedy and deduce the presence of sin. For if there is justice on Earth, then evil must have a logical human cause.
But we cannot seek solace in reason when dealing with mental illness. My mother is as logical as you or I, maybe more so. Her stratagems for thwarting the spies and thieves and vandals who plague her life are subtle, cunning, and carefully executed. The only piece out of place is that you and I cannot see these tormenters. They are entirely in her own mind.
Insanity is not stupidity, incompetence, or folly. Neither should we confuse it with evil. An important factor distinguishes my mother from Mr. Cho: while she manifests her paranoia through fear, he chose mass murder.
Or is “choice” a concept that we cannot ascribe to Mr. Cho? Perhaps one day science will answer that question, reveal the origins of madness, and demonstrate which faulty wires put voices in my mother’s head, or what lethal mix of hormones induced Mr. Cho to massacre. Science may yet strip the façade of free will from every one of us, revealing nothing but seething masses of neurons. And we would be farther than ever from finding the source of evil.
Lawyers have a formula for calculating guilt that accounts for mitigations like provocation or insanity. That formula may be readjusted now and then, but its ultimate function is to balance the equation of justice and ensure that criminal debts are paid. But we cannot so easily cancel the pain we all feel when a man guns down innocents, or when a mother neglects her family. It is more than the pain of our immediate loss. We suffer because we are separated from mortal understanding; we have peered over the edge of reason and seen the whirlwind beyond.