Q&A: Understanding the Mindset of a Shooter’s Parents

In the wake of tragedies like the Colo. theater shooting, we often forget that the families of the perpetrators are victims too. A forensic psychiatrist lends insight into the suffering on the other side

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Evan Semon / Reuters

A woman weeps outside Gateway High School a few blocks from the scene of the Century 16 theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012

In the wake of a purposefully executed tragedy, like the theater shooting early Friday in Aurora, Colo., the public’s thoughts go immediately — and rightly — to the victims and their families. But what about the family of the perpetrator? More often than not, the shooter’s parents are viewed as the source of the violence, the root of the blame. We’re quick to point fingers, but we often forget that whether or not the parents played a role in engendering such brutality, they’re grieving too.

On Friday morning, a woman who identified herself as the mother of the suspect in the Aurora shooting, James Holmes, 24, spoke with ABC News just after the theater massacre. Contacted at her home in San Diego, the woman said she thought her son might be involved in the shooting. “You have the right person,” Arlene Holmes said. “I need to call the police … I need to fly out to Colorado.”

San Diego’s police chief, William Lansdowne, told San Diego’s FOX 5 News that officers were with the family to provide security. A police spokesperson offered a statement from the Holmes family, which began: “Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved.” The spokesperson said further that the family was “very upset” and that the incident “has taken everyone by surprise,” ABC News reports.

To shed light on the unique heartache suffered by the families of those who carry out such deadly attacks, Healthland spoke with Dr. Harold J. Bursztajn, a forensic psychiatrist and co-founder of the program in psychiatry and the law at Harvard Medical School.

(MORE: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Colorado Theater Shooting)

What is likely going through the minds of the parents of the alleged Colorado shooter?
Very often it goes in one of two extremes. Either parents get overwhelmed with feelings of shame or feelings of guilt. It is often said that no one can break your heart as much as your own child. There is a great deal of truth to that especially when you have been watching a child, for whom you had great hopes and who had a brilliant mind, slowly losing his or her grip in reality.

When the tragedy occurs, there is often self-incrimination of ‘I should have done this and I should’ve known’ [on the part of the parent]. This happens especially when you’re dealing with [a child] who may be more paranoid. In general, the more paranoid and less in touch with reality a child like this is, the less likely they are to communicate any specific plans to the parents. Instead, [you have] a feeling of general apprehension that you’re watching someone deteriorate and move out of any social reality.

What determines whether parents feel shame or guilt? 
It depends largely on whether the parent is a part of a supportive community, as opposed to a part of an attributive community. If the parent is a part of a supportive community, they will primarily have feelings of guilt. People are not judging them so harshly, so they judge themselves harshly. If the parent is instead exposed to finger-pointing — blame the mommy or blame the daddy syndrome — then the parent is likely to react on a defensive level which is to feel shame, without allowing for the grieving that needs to be done.

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Do you find that parents of people who perpetrate violence are typically surprised by their child’s actions?
Paradoxically, they may be both shocked and, since hindsight can be 20-20, not surprised. Yes, you’re shocked, but in retrospect, you’re not surprised.

No one likes to feel helpless. Very often when these families feel helpless, they will take upon themselves a sense of guilt because they would rather feel like they could’ve prevented it from happening than realize they couldn’t have — because that leaves you feeling both helpless and overwhelmed.

How can parents cope after their child commits a horrific act?
First, they need to recognize that they are part of a grieving community. Just as other people are grieving for their children, they have every right to do so. As much as their own child may have been a perpetrator, they also have reason to grieve. Grief is not mutually exclusive between the parents of the victims and the parents of the perpetrators. No one has an exclusive right to grieve here.

The next step is to get some help for themselves. This is too much of a massive psychological trauma to try to do it alone. Parents like this need to talk to someone where there is a sense of safety and confidentiality.

I would also counsel parents not to reach for an easy, quick fix like drinking or reaching right away for some drugs to calm themselves down. Because even though in the short run the general anesthesia may deaden the pain, what I have seen in the long run is it is just a way to make sure the grieving never gets done. Then what’s in essence a massive psychic trauma on an acute basis becomes a chronic, complicated post-traumatic stress disorder. The pain is overwhelming, of course you want anesthesia, but the price for it is too high to pay.

(MORE: Who Is James Holmes, the Aurora Shooting Suspect?)

How can we as a community learn to be compassionate to these parents when we want someone to blame?
Our knee-jerk reaction is to blame the parents, but that kind of solution to our feelings of helplessness in a community is no solution either. We need to address the fundamental questions that need to be asked that we still don’t have answers to at this point, which is why what happened happens. We all need to avoid quick fixes at this point.