James E. Holmes’s spiral notebook helps us understand his descent into madness. Holmes, a neuroscience graduate student who killed 12 people in a 2012 mass murder spree in a Colorado movie theater, had covered page after page of his notebook with the single handwritten word Why?
In repeatedly writing Why? in his notebook (illustrated here), Holmes was desperately asking a question he couldn’t answer. Evidence suggests he was asking imponderable questions such as why do we exist, why does life exist, why should we matter in the great scheme of things. (His notebook brimmed with what his defense lawyers called “a whole lot of crazy”—delusions about death, human worth, and “negative infinity.”) Anyone who struggles relentlessly to come up with definitive answers to such questions faces the prospect of feeling painfully, profoundly helpless. (That’s why religions encourage people to deal with such questions on the basis of faith.)
Psychologically, we can make sense of what happened to Holmes. We can see clearly what he was doing to himself in the lead-up to his shooting spree. In a process of mental and emotional breakdown, he was falling into the passive side of his psyche and spiraling into a painful sense of utter helplessness. In doing so, the danger existed that he would flip to the other side and become manically aggressive.
This existence of inner passivity is not peculiar just to people with mental illness. We all have a passive side of our psyche, and it can lead us into emotional weakness and self-doubt, thereby creating serious behavioral difficulties. We benefit greatly by seeing and understanding this part of us. In the case of Holmes, meanwhile, we are able to study the role that this passivity plays in the development of mental illness.
In trying to answer imponderable questions, Holmes wasn’t necessarily interested in producing an answer. He was very likely using imponderable questions as part of a masochistic descent into a deepening spiral of helplessness. While it defies common sense to say so, he likely pursued such questions for the unconscious purpose of feeling his helplessness more acutely. The psyche operates according to such contrariness: We are unconsciously determined to a compulsive degree to experience whatever is unresolved within us, while taking little account of how painful that might be. Helplessness is a primal feeling from childhood, and it lingers in the adult psyche, ready to be experienced again and again as we face different challenges in everyday life.
There’s an important distinction, of course, between the actual physical or human limitation of being helpless in some situation (a given fact), versus our unconscious willingness to embellish the feeling of being helpless (a negative emotion). This latter experience is both painful and very widespread. People don’t realize the degree to which this negative emotion influences them and the degree to which they identify with it.
Almost everyone at some point gets bogged down in one or more of a variety of difficulties that relate to this sense of helplessness. These difficulties include indecision, procrastination, confusion, failure, regrets, loneliness, moodiness, fearfulness, cynicism, excessive worry, suicidal thoughts, obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and addictions. These emotional and behavioral problems arise out of inner conflict: On one hand, the person consciously wants to feel strong and competent; on the other, he retreats to an inner default position (a negative identification with self) associated with weakness and self-doubt.
The difference between Holmes the killer and an everyday neurotic person is mostly a matter of degree. Holmes would have wanted, on a conscious level, to feel strong and competent. He must have known that pleasurable feeling, at least occasionally, as an outstanding student who obtained a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. (A long Wikipedia entry provides many details of his life and the outcome of his trial.) Unconsciously, though, he was drawn emotionally toward a weak, uncertain, negative, and passive side of his psyche, even to the degree that the attraction to this passive side was masochistic in nature. At this point, he began to fixate on acts of aggression, specifically impulses to kill people.
Why would acts of aggression appeal to a passive person? The deeper Holmes descended into a painful sense of powerlessness and helplessness, the greater the likelihood that he would come under the influence of harsh self-aggression from the other side of the inner conflict. Much of our inner conflict is a battleground between a passive side of the psyche (inner passivity) and an aggressive side (the inner critic or superego). Further understanding of this universal dynamic can be found here and here.
According to this theory, Holmes’s killing spree was, in conjunction with likely neurological anomalies, a manifestation of the degree to which he was the target of a particularly harsh inner critic or superego that viciously condemned him as a worthless person, using his passivity as evidence for this accusation. This aggressive side of human nature was needed by early humans for the survival of our species. It can now manifest in the adult psyche as self-aggression, as Sigmund Freud famously pointed out.
This aggressive superego or inner critic springs into action whenever openings or opportunities present themselves. Holmes’s unconscious embrace of a profound sense of weakness and helplessness provided that opening. The extent of his inner passivity meant that he could not protect himself from self-aggression. Because of his extensive passivity (along with genetic and other biological or neurological anomalies), he eventually gave up on himself, capitulated his humanity, and became a surrogate, instrument, or manifestation of the cruel, aggressive side.
This inner dynamic is made more comprehensible when the underlying psychological defense is exposed. In his unconscious, Holmes defended against realization of his inner passivity and its masochistic nature. His inner defense, an outright denial of inner truth, likely proceeded along these lines: “I’m not passively and masochistically embracing the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. Look at how aggressive I feel. I’m even considering getting an assault weapon and shooting and killing people. That feels good. That kind of aggression feels good.” To make the defense work, and thereby carry on the inner charade that he was really aggressive and not passive, he had to become increasingly serious about carrying out this evil intent.
As the evidence suggests, he did not become so psychotic that he no longer knew the difference between right and wrong. His notebook was filled with deliberations suggesting that he knew the wrongfulness of his plot. After the shooting, he expressed the “wish” that he hadn’t murdered any children. Leading up to the event, some semblance of rationality had remained in his psyche. This fact gives credence to the idea that we must look to inner conflict and inner passivity, which operate according to their own primitive dialectic, as factors that drive people into mental illness and into acts of self-destruction and evil.
Psychology has long addressed the topic of helplessness, but primarily from the point of view of an individual’s actual helplessness rather than from the person’s emotionally embellished experience of it. Writing this year in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Axel Hoffer and Dan Buie, training and supervising analysts with the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, say that “helplessness is the most intolerable” of all the feelings that humans suffer. The authors say that analysts have glossed over the experience of helplessness, naming it but declining to consider it in depth. They suggest that analysts themselves are reluctant to address their own counter-transference, meaning the sense of the helplessness (painfully feeling “helpless to help”) that arises in them when treating passive patients.
The authors, unfortunately, do not recognize the degree to which their patients have formed a deep identification with their inner passivity, even to the point that helplessness has become a masochistic attachment. As a form of therapy, the authors encourage analysts to become more empathetic with their patients, including a willingness to share with their patients their own feelings of helplessness. Empathy certainly does have some benefit for the patient, but it’s not as beneficial as teaching the patient about inner conflict and the powerful pull of inner passivity.
The patient’s inner predicament must be analyzed. Patients need to be taught the principles of inner conflict. They need to see their own psyche more objectively, more clinically, in order to break free of these emotional attachments to the negative side. They need an analyst who can show them, through their reactions to everyday experiences and through correct interpretation of their psychological defenses, precisely how they continually revert to their passive side and how they cover up the fact of doing so. Analysts, in other words, need to raise the quality of the insight they provide. Empathy alone might validate the impression that a chronic sense of helplessness is somehow a normal response to modern life.
Acts of wanton violence such as Holmes committed are becoming more widespread throughout the world. Is this a harbinger of what lies beneath in the collective unconscious? It’s conceivable that many members of our race are increasingly entangled in helpless feelings in the face of “future shock” involving rapidly changing economic, social, technological, and environmental conditions. Before the strain worsens on our social fabric, we need to recognize that our psyche is prepared to embellish the feeling of helplessness, and thereby to accentuate the sense of victimhood and to heighten our dissension.