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. [Read more…]