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We take a look at the San Diego man accused in the movie theater. Were there signs along the way, is mental illness are part of the equation?

July 23, 2012 1:21 p.m.


David Peters, San Diego marriage and family counselor

Wendy Patrick, SDSU School of Business, lecturer and career trial attorney, co-author of the revised version of the NY Times bestseller Reading People

Related Story: Massacre Suspect James Holmes Appears In Court


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, as you heard on NPR news, Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes appeared for the first time in court this morning. He was quiet and subdued. We've learned that Holmes is a San Diego native, a brilliant science student entering a PhD. Neuroscience program in Colorado while still in his early 20s. Most former friends and classmates express complete shock. Some may look for what made the suspect snap before this horrific massacre, but that's not what the newest law enforcement research is telling us. Mass killers don't want snap. They plan. Wendy Patrick, SDSU School of Business, a lecturer and career trial attorney.

PRACTICK: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: David Peters is a licensed psychologist who practices in mission valley. Welcome.

PETERS: Always good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Wendy, if people can be read, it doesn't seem therein many people doing it with this suspect. What's your initial impression?

PRACTICK: It would be nice if we could talk to some people who had contact with him in the immediate couple of years. We've got interesting footage of when he was 18 years old, where he doesn't appear to be giving up any red flags that would immediately alert anybody that this is a dangerous man. All we seem to have is that e-mail and what was described as a creepy, bizarre voice mail message on his answering message. So it would be nice to have contact with some folks that have seen him in the last couple of months to see if in fact his behavior exchanged to an except that we would consider it a red flag.

CAVANAUGH: One thing we have heard is when the suspect's mother was told of the shootings in Colorado she reportedly said you have the right person. What does that tell you?

PRACTICK: If most of us, getting that kind of news, we would say we knot the wrong guy. But the fact she said what she did leads us to believe that this was some underlying current that she was aware of. In other words this aberrant behavior, may be the red flags for there forked reads if we had more contact with him.

CAVANAUGH: As a family psychotherapist, if a mother has that kind of reaction with this news coming across that your child might have been involved in this mass-shooting, and that kind of reaction, what does that tell you?

PETERS: Well, certainly it means this woman has probably been suffering from fear of what was going to happen for some time. Note this is not her child. It's a young man now. She has very little ability to influence his behavior. She might have been known for months that things were going bad. We might have already been diagnosed with an illness some time ago, and she might have known that he was going off his medications. One can only imagine the sadness and shock that she has. He's never committed a violent act before.

CAVANAUGH: This seems to be not somebody just losing it, so to speak. But of course we're hearing this took months. It was a very methodical, well-planned attack. Doesn't that kind of planning rule out a lot of mental illnesses?

PETERS: It rules out some. Certainly the possibility that it was a dug-induced state. And the fact this was building over time would indicate that he was pulling away, becoming more socially isolated, literally over years. If you read the news carefully, he did have friends in high school and college. College friends said he was pretty much a lone or, and as a graduate student, no one knew him. Someone saw him as a little awkward, quiet. We know he's got no Facebook, twitter, another social media presence when about 95% of people his age do have that. So you picture this guy who's already struggling, and he does very, very well through his academic life, but in this last year or so, perhaps things are going sour. Maybe he's off the medication he should have been on, or maybe with some mental illnesses, they do come on at this age. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, most often they show up at age 15-25. So he might slowly be moving in this direction. Then you see him become more socially isolated. Then we've got the report from the gun range where he heard him on his voicemail making strange voices, guttural voices, and it's a slow disintegration possible here. But it's entirely possible with many illnesses that no one would know it was thousand. A schizophrenic can drive a car, they can operate machinery, they can study, but they have delusions. And he carried out a mirror of the Batman trilogy. The joker is a wild nutcase who's throwing bombs and destroying things.

CAVANAUGH: What David said was that if we have a situation here where someone was deeply dalutional, and planning out this attack, in your access about reading people, do you go beyond the surface and try to figure out what is going on deeper down in the people we meet on a daily basis

PRACTICK: Oh, absolutely. You meet someone on one occasion, you have no idea whether that behavior is out of character. And that's a very good point with respect to this story. Because we will know people that are just withdrawn. You can't seem to draw them out of their shell, they're loner. It doesn't necessarily mean anything. And it certainly doesn't mean that it's a red flag. So we really have to know a lot about somebody, who do they do, what do they surround themselves with? Their voice, their body language. How do they dress. And how is the behavior changing over time? One of the most fascinating things about this case, you get criminal profilers saying oh, he's a psychopath. Then we hear from David, well, he also is exhibiting signs of paranoid schizophrenia. So people are just fascinated with, gosh, when you hear paranoid schizophrenia, we think of the movie the beautiful mind. There are some people who have an illness not necessarily associated with violence commit an act because of it.

PETERS: We should also note here that the vast majority of those suffering from mental illness are victims are crime. They're not perpetrators of crime. It's extremely unlikely for most people with a mental illness to plan and perpetrate a mass-killing like that. Most of the time they're barely able to function and take care of themselves. I want to make sure we're not stereotyping here. It is a small population that manages to do this or is motivated to do this by delusion.

CAVANAUGH: That's a very good point. On the phone is another frequent guest. Jean Twanke is coauthor of the narcissism epidemic. Thank you for joining us.

TWANKE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: You wrote a blog post saying the shooter should be called a coward, not made into some kind of infamous celebrity.

TWANKE: So often the pattern, say at Virginia tech, is the loner who slowly over months plans these types of attacks, and then in that case, sends their media package. So in that case, he took a pause between killing people in dorms, an hour and a half, and the police couldn't figure out why. It was because he was delivering his media package. The attention-seeking involved here suggests that this pattern is so much media attention, that that seems to almost be motivates some of these cries.

CAVANAUGH: That's fair to say there's a lot of cowards among us. That word doesn't explain what happened, does it?

TWANKE: That is very true. I just hesitate when I hear the descriptions of Virginia tech shooters, they have this brilliant plan, and the same thing here, Holmes being described as a brilliant student. He's a brilliant student; I hope he's not a brilliant killer. Because it's this glorification of he's got the body arm gone, this guy in a video game, and it scares me to hear that description. It makes it sound glamorous. Not the message we should be getting across.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks a lot. I think a lot of people are kind of -- it's growing up, being a teenager or a young adult. What's the difference between a young person going through a hard time and someone who is spinning into a scary downward spiral?

PETERS: Well, there's two factors. One, are we integrated into a social network that is supportive? Those of us who come from families who are in tact and supportive or networks of friends that are supportive, we can go through a really bad time, but people will gather around us and encourage us to do the right thing, to take care of ourselves, to take our medication if necessary. Those of us who are more socially isolated, there's far less support, and the social isolation is a very big factor. Once you pull yourself away and cut yourself out of a normal social network, we're more able to believe things that are not true. Especially if there was a mental illness going on in this case. We do know, adlesepts who are picked on at school can be so humanitiated and disturbed, they literally become angry killers in a temporary of age. It's very, very different than this case.

CAVANAUGH: Let me talk about how this is going to affect the rest of us as we continue to think about this mass-shooting. Do you think going to the movies is going to change?

PRACTICK: I can tell you that I know a number of people that already have been to the movies over the weekend, and they spent most of the time watching the emergency exits. The enjoyment changes for those of us who attend movies, and the theatres are asking what can we do to shower our patrans that we are taking this seriously? Not every theatre has the money to install detectors and live scans. But there's training going on where they're letting the people know where what to look for, how to detect it, what new procedures are they going to implement. A couple are saying no masks, no costumes, we're going to search purses. Around a lot of patrons don't want to be thinking they're going through TSA at a movie party.

CAVANAUGH: And people are rethinking the whole idea of midnight screenings. There seems to be a hyper element, everything seems to be exaggerated because people are overtired and so forth. What do you think about the fate of midnight screenings?

PRACTICK: I think for a while, just like any other scare, you're going to see a lot of measures that may not be permanent. A lot of cancellations already. There's a lot of theatres that think that's a WISE idea. Midnight shows to begin with are problematic. I grew up in the age of the rocky horror picture show, and that's a different segment of society that is up at this hour, as much as anything else.


PRACTICK: So I think we're going to see alot of measures that let the people know we're taking this seriously.

CAVANAUGH: What about people who are hesitant?

PETERS: I would hope they're not. I think a movie theatre is one of the safest places to be because we're so hyper aware. But the overreaction is far more likely. This is not a trend, not a fad. We don't have a history of late-night movies that end up this violence. And what could be more wonderful than going to a midnight showing dressing up as your favorite comic book care? This is part of American culture that's fun, and it's like Halloween. Children especially shouldn't be going to these movies, great as it is. With small children, the rule of thumb is you explain to them as much as they are capable of understanding. You ask them if they've seen about it, what they heard about it, what they think, if they don't think much about it, don't talk about it. If they're scared, just explain to this that this is a very sad person who had a very sad life, and we don't know what happened but we will. And they're going to make sure he gets help and we have to make sure other people get help.

CAVANAUGH: On TV just yesterday, I was seeing a lot of people starting to say we've got to move on, we're got to start healing, etc. Isn't that demanding too much? This hardly happened 72 hours ago.

PETERS: Yes, yes. I think it's appropriate as a society to have joy together and grief together. Having a number of days where people talk about it and speak respectfully, it's perfectly appropriate. But we don't want to change society because of reaction to a single incident. But I think we should be practicing reverence to tragedy, and moving through this in a different manner.