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“As soon as I heard about the shooting I knew why he’d done it.” Amazing words delivered in a matter-of-fact tone—with more than a little authority behind them. Like James Holmes, the speaker was doctoral candidate. Unlike James Holmes, the Brown University student had passed his “prelims,” the oral examinations that determine whether or not a candidate will continue his education or be banished from academia. “I went through a couple of periods of serious depression in the lead-up to the exams,” my cigar store acquaintance admitted. “I don’t know anyone who didn’t.” There’s new evidence that my pipe-smoking Brown friend hit the nail on the head . . .

ABC reports that “accused movie theater gunman James Holmes purchased a high-powered rifle hours after failing a key oral exam at the University of Colorado.”

Of course, this is the first case (that we know of) of a failed doctoral candidate at a prestigious University going postal. And nothing justifies taking innocent life. That said, with a fellow doctoral candidate nodding and adding his own experience, my Brown friend explained how Holmes might have gone over the edge. [NB: I’m writing this from memory.]

“When you’re smart, you sail right through high school and college. You’re used to being the smartest guy in the room. You get to thinking you’re a genius. If you have any social issues you think ‘well I’m smarter than they are.’ You get a letter from the University for your doctorate and you’re really pleased with yourself. And then you get there and it hits.

“Suddenly, you’re struggling. I mean really struggling. I went through day after day of all-nighters. Just focusing on my work. Nothing but my work . . . I had real anxiety that I wouldn’t make it. There’s sleep deprivation. And depression. Bad bouts of depression. Self-doubt. What if I don’t make it? What am I then?”

So Holmes might have started with narcissism and then moved on to . . . what? Self-loathing?

“Could be. When he fails his prelims, he can’t deal with it. He concludes that it’s not him. It couldn’t be him. It’s the system. It’s them. They don’t recognize his genius. He snaps.”

This psychological narrative is speculative, but plausible. It could also be true that Holmes identified with Heath Ledger’s Joker: an outsider who resorted to violence to establish his dominance over the criminal fraternity, exploiting and dethroning the corrupt power brokers who gave it free reign.

Anyway, I asked the Brown guy if Colorado University or the doctoral system itself bears any responsibility for “causing” the spree killing. Should CU be more proactive about its doctoral students’ mental health? What could be done to prevent another incident like this one?

“There’s plenty of mental health resources available at any big school. It’s up to the student to reach out for it . . . I wouldn’t want to be visited by a social worker while I’m in the program . . .

“If anything, I think society is pushing too many people through their education. Everyone graduates high school, right? Everyone should have a college education, right? To make that happen, they lower the standards. Guys like Holmes are passed through thinking they’re king of the world, and then they hit a brick wall. If they can’t make it, they can fall to pieces.”

Again, there is no “justification” for Holmes’ horrific act. And even if we did reform our education system it wouldn’t prevent spree killers from carrying out their evil plans. If Holmes’ hadn’t have made it into grad school, something else—being fired from a job or turned down by a girl—may have served as a “trigger.” We’ll never know.

But we can know that there are social pressure points. Times and places where people are under tremendous stress. We can maintain awareness, remaining alert for those people who cannot cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs. We can pray for our safety, and the safety of our loved ones. And we can carry a firearm for those times and places when we can only rely on ourselves for our own protection.

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  1. Apparently, everybody’s favorite Joker-wannabee wrote a letter to a professor/shrink at his University describing in detail what he was going to do, complete with stick figure drawings. The letter was lost in the campus mail room. And so were a dozen lives.

    For the want of a shoe . . . .

      • For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
        For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
        For want of a horse the rider was lost.
        For want of a rider the message was lost.
        For want of a message the battle was lost.
        For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
        And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

  2. It’s inconceivable this could have been prevented but for the delivery of a package. I’m sure they would have taken it seriously, at least a knock on his door.

  3. Maybe it’s just me, but I could care less about his motivation at this point. I have experienced many failures, disappointments, heartbreaks, set backs, and I never once, being a carrier of both knives and guns, considered hurting someone; including myself or the object of my ire. He did it because he was unstable. Period. I saw some news interview with the staff of the school he went to about how they monitor and evaluate the grad students in the program he was in…sounds like that needs some work.

  4. Oh, come on, we all know he did it because of the guns. He would have calmed right down, snapped his fingers and said, “well, shucks,” and carried on if guns weren’t readily available. Explosives, firebombs, and cars aside, it was all the guns.

    This is modern America, we’ll have none of that “truth” and “the real root cause” here.

  5. Because after sarah palin shot osama bin laden from donald trump’s helicopter and joe paterno told obama that money isn’t real and he never called that chick from twilight, he couldn’t take it any more. Duh.

  6. What can explain or provide insight to the reason an individual choose this path? How does a person decide to attack random people with the intent to kill? He is intelligent and functional. He planned a detailed course of action with the intent of harming others. What variable contributed to his decision? I’m not sure bat shit crazy is a qualitative unit for a diagnosis.

    • Like I said, I could care less…he should have made full disclosure on that adult website he signed up on and mentioned he had little balls in addition to a little member…

      • Agreed. The problem now is he will be run through a gauntlet of doctors to see if he is sane enough for trial. Who cares? It has no impact on whether he should be convicted and put to death. Same with the Tuscon shooter. No sane person would do what they have done. IMHO, any shooter caught red handed, as in no investigation required to figure out who done it, should be questioned for a finite amount of time then executed by firing squad.

        • If anyone can fake being crazy, he should be able to. Neuroscience is pursued through a psychology back ground. Hell, you can mess with doctors if you have ever seen one of their standard questionnaires, imagine what he can do having studied it for 4 years.

    • As Alfred the Butler said in the movie series this POS was apparently enamored with, some men can’t be reasoned with because “they just want to watch the world burn.”

  7. I don’t care. I really dislike, even hate this asshole, he’s giving the entire country a bunch of damn grief we don’t need right now.

  8. The summer before my wife started graduate school at one of the “Public Ivies” in the Midwest a graduate student in her department got caught between two feuding professors one who flunked him on his oral defense just to spite her rival. He was found dead out in the cornfields from self inflicted gunshot wounds. Academic suicides are not unknown.

    Nothing quite fails like a failed academic career. You have geared your entire life up to that point to become a successful academic. It is a devastating experience. Unlike the grad student in my wife’s department Holmes decided that other unrelated people had to pay the price.

    slightly off topic. Has anyone confirmed or refuted that this the James Holmes associated with the “Black Bloc” offshoot of the occupy movement?

    • tdiinva, don’t take this personally when I say so the —- what. I was academically dismissed in my junior year of college. I let some outside incident distract me from finishing. You know what? Life goes on. Suck it up, learn from it, get up, dust yourself off, and keep it moving. I went back and finished without shooting anyone.

      • I don’t take it personally, I was an academic success up to a point and am quite happy that academia and I ultimately didn’t get along.

        • Why would you think I am ashamed? When I look back over my post academic career, which terminates this September 28, I see all the things I got paid to do that that many people would give a fortune for just five minutes of a single experience.

          I went to my last professional association meeting in 1988 just to see my old friends from grad school. One of them asked me if I regret not continuing with my academic career. I told the assembled group damn right I do. When I got up in front of a class I could spout any kind BS that I wanted with no consequences. Now I get up in front of a flag board and if I screw up at the minimum we waste billions of dollars and at worst I get people killed. They didn’t take kindly to comparision. I never went to another annual conference and I haven’t seen my old friends since.

    • OK, so this entire discussion justifies preventive detention of all failed doctoral and master’s candidates. If the committee agrees that a candidate is unsuitable for a higher degree, call the authorities immediately and have said candidate involuntarily committed to a secure facility for potential psychopathic murderers. It’s for the children.

      Plus, that way we would have a lot fewer potential academics, thereby cutting down the numbers of idiotic PhD papers about insignificant and obscure nit-picky subjects no one cares about. Save the trees!

  9. The road to success is littered with failures. Forget who said that – or something along those lines.

    Gotta agree with the “suck it up” crowd. That’s how I am trying to raise my kids. Let them have their share of failures as kids so they learn how to move on.

  10. There could be a lot of merit to this explanation. A former friend of mine had no serious criminal history and then flipped one day committing a serious crime that landed him in prison for 25+ years. As I recall, within a few weeks preceding his criminal act:
    (1) he failed his college classes
    (2) his parents filed for divorce
    (3) his girlfriend dumped him
    (4) his girlfriend announced wedding plans for someone else
    (5) he lost his job
    (6) he received a traffic ticket

    Prior to his crime, I had never heard him mention any dark thoughts.

    That does not in any way, shape, or form excuse his actions. It does give us insight as to occasions when people may need counseling to help them cope with those times when life seems unbearable. I can imagine that the criminal in this case was in the same boat.

    • While not even close to an excuse, those who have never been through such a program will never appreciate the level of stress they create. I’m sure this will be met with all kinds of “suck it up” and “everyone has stress” replies, but it’s different. You work 80+ hour weeks alone in a lab for little pay and your entire future depends on the opinions of a few profs who can destroy you in an instant just because they want to. Those weirdo profs who you just had to sit through an undergrad lecture with run these grad students’ lives for 5-7 years. It’s a cycle of people getting crapped on when they go through as students, so when they’re in charge they crap all over the students coming through under them, just because. It doesn’t create a monster like this d-bag, but in these programs, it’s not a matter of if, but when you’ll be pushed to your limits. Some cope better than others, suicide isn’t uncommon. I wouldn’t wish a phd or md program on anyone, it’s a busted system…

      • This kid got a grant equivalent to a lot of peoples annual salary, plus a stipend…not too bad a gig if you ask me….although that certainly explains why so many PhD’s and MD’s as well as DJP’s are a-holes.

        • yep, took very little time in my program before the light bulb clicked for me and I realized this is in fact why MD’s are generally such miserable people, it’s an integral part of their training…

        • Not all Ph.D. holders are a-holes. I don’t know what college you went to, but my professors were pretty friendly and down to earth. It really depends on the people, not the abbreviation at the end of their name. Of course you know that, but I just had to emphasize that on my own.

          Oh and clinical psychologists are usually Ph.D.’s are they’re not a-holes, generally, or else they wouldn’t be clinical psychologists.

    • I’m sorry, I just can’t excuse what he did, and I’m not saying you are, BUT….all of the deliberation and premeditation he displayed going to the range, going to gander mountain and buying guns, ordering ammo on line….he could have picked up a phone and asked for help….he sat down and wrote a letter detailing what he was going to do? A lot easier to walk into a counselors office…

      • I agree totally. Unfortunately, when smart people go crazy, they don’t stop being smart, they just use their brains to do crazy and irrational things in ways that are more creative and elaborate than your average criminal. I’m perfectly happy to have him punished in cruel and unusual ways regardless of what led him to this point or his state of mind, but I also don’t think it’s wrong to look at things that might push the crazies over the edge and seeing if there’s anything that can be done to improve those situations. Not just for the sake of preventing this kind of stuff, but so doctors don’t treat people like garbage, etc, as well.

    • Oh-oh! I just got a photo radar ticket in the mail. The anguish!
      Maybe I will fail college….or not have enough money to finish school and raise a child….did that 35 years ago.
      Maybe my parents will divorce….they did 51 years ago….and they both died on me.
      Maybe my girlfriend will dump me…. several of them….and then my wife can divorce me after 21 years of marriage because she “doesn’t know who she is.”
      Maybe I’ll lose my job….or the company I built for years.
      And then there’s that damn ticket. I really do hate those photo radar vans.

  11. Robert, the burning $25,000 question is: What did you smoke or purchase for later?

  12. as someone who has now been in grad school longer than undergrad, the only person that can be blamed for not preparing for a exam, written or oral is yourself, period, short of someone…. i dunno burning down your house or destroying your academic materials maybe? I am not in the hard sciences, but in my department, these are such milestone events that you bust MAJOR ass to prepare for them. for example, for my first set of comp exams, my cohort and i studied for 3 months beforehand, and we all passed, imagine that? Holmes is the worst kind of scum, lazy and a coward. not being prepared for what was essentially a “make or break” event in his academic career, went down in flames, and then lasted out on innocent people, when maybe the person he should of lashed out on was himself?

    • I generally agree, but have watched friends fail comps because one committee member has an axe to grind. in one case it hand nothing to do with the student, was just a pissing match between profs…. doesn’t matter, they vote no, student fails and is dismissed, no recourse whatsoever…

    • I think we should arrange a private screening of TDKR, and someone should walk in and blow his head off…..

  13. Nothing excuses this person’s actions, but Robert does have a point.

    As an example, if you look at Japan, they have some of the highest teen suicide rates in the world. A lot of this happens around the exam period for students. Some just loose, it, they have no way of blowing off steam or disconnecting from it. Failure shames your family, which is an Asian custom, but it shows the level of importance education is given within the society. I think we do not see outward faced aggression in this instance because even though it is not custom practice suicide saves face for the family. Attacking the community does the opposite. Of course there are huge cultural differences between Japan and here, but this illustrates a point between “cracking up” and education.

    If the person who I will not name by name had become radicalized by some militant organization, like Islamic Jihad, or given himself over to some sort of organized cult which believed in mayhem, think Charles Manson, then we would be able to rationalize his actions due to outside sources.

    In this instance from a psychological stand point, it appears he was under pressure. The became distant, and dropped out after failing or at least not passing with flying colors some of his exams. Due to his isolation he became disconnected from reality as it were. I still think he knew what was right or wrong, so we won’t call him insane, but he began to hate. One would think he might take it out on himself, like suicide, or possibly act against his teachers, or university staff and students like at VA Tech. In this instance he decided, based on the notebook sent to a psychologist at the university, to act out against the public.

    I don’t know if we will ever know exactly why he made this choice. There have been reports that he has been taking medication, Vicodin was mentioned. I don’t know if this was from a doctors prescription or if he was self medicating. He apparently found some connection with the character the Joker an decided to go with it. Based on the character in some way his actions make sense. Joker preserved himself with no regard to others. Heath Ledger’s portrayal was brilliant in that regard, but if you read the comic series, there are some similarities. The Joker was calm collected, and just did things to shake it up, shock you and went completely against our moral fabric as a society.

    Does this mean he is off his rocker and can’t stand trail, I don’t think so. Does it mean that we condone or give some sort of excuse to his actions, no way!

    I think the bigger question is why? Why kids, with parents, why not against professors, or just off yourself?

  14. Rob, don’t join the anti-gun media by trying to shift the blame off of Holmes. If he did it because he failed a test, he would have used the gun right away, NOT waited two weeks and planned out a big attack on a movie theater. The guy did it because he’s an asshole wanting to become famous, nothing more.

  15. When I was at the U of Arkansas, there was a flunky grad student who killed his advisor… Think it was 2001

    • Eek. When I become a professor, I’ll probably carry something on myself despite any school policy.

  16. If there was something that might be learned from a psychological examination of that Holmes prick that might be helpful in avoiding future incidents, I’d say go for it. No matter what Holmes’ reason, that horse’s ass with the Woody Woodpecker hairdo is just a POS who deserves to die.

    But, like John Hinckley, Holmes will be sent to some hospital where he can further drain a dwindling tax base until he’s deemed miraculously cured, whereupon he will be released to watch as many movies as he wants. Let’s just hope he never develops a crush on Jodie Foster.

  17. I think his narcissism and sociopathy pretty much explain everything in his behavior. Being a narcissist, the failure to pass his exams could easily have triggered the level of narcissistic insult that can lead to violence towards self or others. I work in mental health in a prison, and I see people all the time assaulting others or attempting suicide and self-harm simply out of their outrage that someone else is in control of their lives. Most people don’t appreciate others being in power over them; narcissists literally CANNOT STAND it and they will act out accordingly.

    And narcissists are also almost always sociopaths as well. The cardinal symptoms of narcissism is the misplaced sense of self-importance, ability, and entitlement. The cardinal quality of a sociopath is a clinical-grade disregard for the rights, needs, and feelings of others. In order to have the level of entitlement of a narcissist, you have to have a complete lack of empathy for others as well. This guy had both in abundance, which made him a monster waiting for a serious enough insult to set him on a course for pay-back against all of society for daring to call him unfit. I know lots of inmates like this guy. Nothing about him surprises me in the least. I hope Colorado has the death penalty, because this one is too broken to fix.

  18. I dispute the claim floating around the internet that this guy had the kind of intelligence that allowed him to just float through high school and his undergraduate degree. He did an summer science camp at the Salk institute when he was 18, where his mentor described him as a “mediocre” student. Another former researcher from the Salk institute said he had a reputation as a “dolt”. From the article linked above,

    He said Holmes’ high school transcripts showed Bs and no advanced-placement classes.

    Another article has the same people describing him as “an unusually bad intern” and said they “never got the sense that he understood any of the basic science”.

    It might not change the final analysis concerning the stress of grad school and the stress of failure, but from where I’m standing he wasn’t a brilliant mind that snapped under pressure. He was a faker who was about to be found out.*

    *If my workplace experience is anything to go by, he needn’t have worried. I’ve met several people with advanced degrees who make quite a good living despite having no grasp of the basics of their field, to the point where I’ve ceased to be shocked by it.

  19. I think his narcissism and sociopathy pretty much explain everything in his behavior.

    This rings true to me, though I am not a psychiatrist/psychologist. The failure may have been the precipitating event, but his narcissism/sociopathy was the cause.

    Think of this metaphor: You have a gas leak that causes a buildup of gas inside a closed building. Then someone walks in and switches on a light, and blows the building to bits. Was the switching of the light the “cause?” No, it may have been the initiating event, but the buildup of gas was the cause.

    I hope Colorado has the death penalty, because this one is too broken to fix.

    It does and as a resident of Arapahoe County I would certainly oppose any DA who did not seek the death penalty in this case. This guy may be (in fact, almost certainly is) a twisted sociopath but he is not legally insane. Like a mad dog he needs to be put down for the good of our community.

  20. “As soon as I heard about the shooting I knew why he’d done it.”

    5 minutes of real life Grand Theft Auto?

    • Get Real. Games are not the cause either. Got proof he was a gamer, and played THAT game, or are you another Dr. Phil calling the fault without all the facts? (2007, Virginia Tech shooting, Google it.)

      He snapped, in such a way that hurt others, yes. Game related? Doubt it? Academics related? Evidence show this plausible (as a contributing factor, but not the only factor.) Narcissism? Symptoms exist. A fraud feeling as if he was about to be fully exposed? Plausible.

      Does it really matter? For his crimes, he does deserve the death penalty. Short of a miracle, I see no hope in society for him.

  21. Two things I want I say:

    1. I don’t think I have ever seen Joker with red hair, always green hair. I don’t know where this connection between dying his hair and the Joker came from, but he looks more like Carrottop to me. Actions, maybe a connection. Hair, not so much.

    2. There’s a tiny little secret in clinical psychology that must be said: Pshinks are hardly any better at picking out who could be violent than a random person on the street. Been in the chair myself for depression, wanted to be a psychologist, talked with a lot of them outside of treatment, majored in psych as an undergrad, intended to get my PhD before changing paths (logical fallacy: appeal to authority detected…moving on), and the ones who say they can pick out who will be violent and who won’t are usually trying to sell something to the justice system. Maybe sometime in the future, when we better understand the human mind, it’ll be possible, but for now, it’s a bit of a crap shoot.

    Lesson I take away from it: you do what you can to protect yourself and your love ones, you makes yer choices, you takes yer chances. All you can do is modify the odds, not control the outcome. Nothing is sure. That’s Life.

    …Yay philosophical BS!

    • 2- Its true, I had a Cook Country States Attorney along with a handful of shrinks swear up and down that I was going to blow up my school after Columbine, if I wasnt incarcerated indefinitely. A year later I was working at the high school, a year after that I had a set of master keys and blue prints.

        • Wearing knee high boots and leather trench coat in high school. And being on probation for a unrelated misdemeanor offense which I did not commit, because I was naive enough to listen to my court pointed attorney, and took a plea bargin.

        • Um, apparently you haven’t read some of his other posts. :p

          Implied in what I posted above, but worth explicitly stating is that pshrinks are also bad at telling which suicidal person would go through with it. Best indicator is whether they have made a previous attempt (and presumably survived, but there are plenty of people in many fields who like to make grand proclamations about dead people they never met). Not sure, but I imagine it’s the same with violence towards others: someone who has done it before is more likely to do it again than someone who hasn’t. Key word being “likely”, however, not certain. Worth emphasizing.

        • Why don’t all the kids in leather boots and trench coats with a misdeameanor attract the State Attorney’s attention?

  22. Talk about lame…check out the latest video to hit the front page of CNN:

    “What massacre means for national security”


    These guy’s are grasping at straws and are such morons. Claiming what this guy did could be emulated by terrorists and could cripple our economy? Claiming that there have been more American citizens killed by Columbine/Aurora type shootings than killed by jihadi terrorists. HUH? What data is he citing? Talk about using this story and skewing the numbers in a biased way to push an anti-gun agenda. SICKENING.

  23. I don’t care why he did it, I just wish the cops had plugged his red haired ass and saved us the trouble of a trial.

  24. Carnegie Mellon used to have a lot of suicides, a lot of it stemming from how hard they push the students. Maybe a decade or two back they revamped their mental health services and the numbers dropped. I’m not saying that UC doesn’t provide adequate care, but universities need to make sure they provide the care needed.
    I was lucky that my college (PITT) has excellent mental health services for the students. I had a psychology professor that joked that if there was anywhere to go crazy, it was Pittsburgh.

  25. “Look, when Sarah Palin shot Osama bin Laden from Donald Trump’s helicopter and then it crashed down the Obama statue at Penn State, Joe Paterno told him money wasn’t real. Duh, haven’t you been watching the computer tube?”
    -Thomas Jefferson, 1569 A.D.

  26. This article offers an excellent insight. There is a lot of shame associated with failing graduate oral exams.

    We ought to use the insight of Robert’s friend to assist our own situational awareness in the future. One more type of radar with which to scan our surroundings.

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