fter Charles Whitman shot and killed 14 people from a tower at the University of Texas in 1965, mass media settled on a single detail: that he had been the youngest Eagle Scout in Texas history. The coexistence of bright light and extreme darkness troubles rational minds. Decency should repel its own unhinging, whether the unhinging leads to murder or suicide. A boy or girl, man or woman, remembered for cheerful babysitting and college adroitness should not be a mass murderer. A killer is best seen as a loner, alienated and aloof, if not openly hostile to society — which some are.
Yet the Whitman “contradiction” persists. Serial killer Ted Bundy’s courtroom charm troubled some observers. Bundy — who slaughtered at least 20 women — was once a suicide hotline operator in Seattle where he was describe by a colleague as “kind, solicitous, and empathetic,” and later by his politician employer as “smart, aggressive … and a believer in the system.”
The contradiction also appears with suicide.
I am not a psychologist, social scientist, therapist or anthropologist. I have no schooling in the science of the mind. I have also by chance known a man who killed his parents and two suicide victims, both intimately — though not at the time of their acts.
All three radiated remarkable energy and charm. The killer was seemingly (and actually) patient and considerate. Both suicide victims were well schooled, intelligent, upright, respected, and gifted in communicating a secure, full-throttle vision of life many found attractive if not inspiring.
When inspirational figures end their lives the natural responses are disbelief, denial, rage, coupled with a visceral conviction that the act wasn’t — could not have been — voluntary (all the more so if the circumstances are murky). The image of “brave” people feeds on admiration that rejects anything that might disprove it. The admired ones are often deprived of gloomy inner linings since the outer ones, which project confidence and a sense of command, are what give inspiration its contagious dimension.
It’s a balancing act for those on the pedestal: Collegial enthusiasm is ramped up to keep weariness at bay while a can-do attitude and its accompanying good cheer paper over emotional mini-strokes. Long-honed “tough cookie” exteriors hold fast until a small, perhaps even tiny tipping point transforms the same toughness into an enemy of the assured self, which in fact was never so sure.
Those who entertain suicide rarely announce their misery. Their actions can be sudden, subversive and self-contained, like bravery in reverse. The seemingly boundless esteem others confer those willing to work in harm’s way — my friend Jacky Sutton among them — would collapse if that same enthusiasm were associated with harm’s way pathology. The intelligent and the “fearless” segregate fear and doubt, using gregariousness as a foil. They know the perils of their own ghetto but keep it to themselves.
Until they no longer can.
Before he began shooting, Charles Whitman typed out an extremely lucid letter for post-mortem reading. It began: “I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the action I have recently performed [after murdering his wife and mother, he shot 46 people, 14 of whom died]. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately … I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”
Despite social media’s new role as a conduit for public diaries and irrational hyperventilation, most intelligent, gifted and socially adept people still keep their doubts boxed up. Hopeful loners seemingly in full control of pride and persuasiveness are inevitably the first casualties of the doubt they work to conceal.
Bluster is now public.
So are criticism and disdain.
So is praise, which is easy and often fleeting.
Even self-doubt has a trendy if not casual dimension, repairing therapy with it.
But cumulative sorrow, a breakdown in waves, is insidious and immeasurable. It can seize on a wedding or a funeral — or even a missed flight. Optimists seen by admiring peers as thick-skinned or unflappable are most susceptible to a stricken sense they’ve reached and passed the point of no return. Suddenly overwhelmed by pent-up trepidation the strong and sovereign soul cannot neither inwardly rationalize nor outwardly show, woe forages for a sword, and falls on it.