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Experts: Don't blame killers' families

11:59 AM, Jul 26, 2012   |    comments
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Television news crews set up for their live reports in front of the home of Robert and Arlene Holmes, parents of 24-year-old mass shooting suspect James Holmes, on July 20. Getty Images

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Americans are mourning along with victims' families in the wake of the Aurora movie theater shootings. But what should our feelings be toward the family of James Holmes, the shooting suspect?

MORE: Obama addresses gun control for first time since Aurora shootings

Experts who study shooting rampages and killing sprees say we should mourn for them too.

"We have lots of sympathy for the families of the victims, as we should," said Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, "but we generally don't have much sympathy at all for the family of the perpetrators - whether their loved one is dead or alive."

MORE: Theater security: What will be done?

Just a few hours after last Friday's midnight shootings, TV satellite trucks began arriving at the red-roofed, mission-style San Diego home where Holmes grew up - and where his mother, Arlene; father, Robert; and sister, Chris, still live.

Reporters were looking for clues to how Holmes' family life led the 24-year-old graduate student to allegedly don body armor and open fire on a crowd, killing a dozen people and wounding 58.

Holmes' family quickly issued a statement saying, in part: "Our hearts go out to those who were involved in this tragedy and to the families and friends of those involved." It added, "We are still trying to process this information and we appreciate that people will respect our privacy."

Fox, who studies mass murderers and serial killers, says it's misguided to blame perpetrators' families for their crimes.

"We're a nation of finger-pointers," he said. "We blame them for having raised a monster." But often, he and others said, families are just as surprised as the rest of us - and just as traumatized.

When young people turn violent, we naturally turn to parenting to explain what went wrong, even though research suggests that hidden, often undiagnosed mental health problems - as well as perpetrators' relationships with peers, teachers and others - can play a much bigger role.

"Obviously parenting has an effect," Fox said. "But to create this kind of outcome, the parent would have to be ... a tremendously bad parent. And you generally don't find that."

Fox, whose research has included interviews with family members of spree killers, said young people turn violent despite the best efforts of the parents.

"I'm not going to say that some of the parents I've known have been the greatest and belong to the 'Hallmark Hall of Fame of Good Mothers and Dads,' but they also shouldn't be perceived as a Dr. Frankenstein, as someone who created a monster."

Shooters' families rarely if ever speak out beyond brief statements. In 2007, after the Virginia Tech shootings that left 33 dead, including the gunman, Seung Hui Cho, Cho's sister, Sun-Kyung Cho, released a statement saying, in part, "We are humbled by this darkness. We feel hopeless, helpless and lost." Cho's family later granted an interview to a government panel probing the shootings, telling a psychiatrist that they learned of his violent writings and suicidal thoughts only after his death, according to an account in The Washington Post. "But we just did not know ... about anything being wrong," they said.

In one rare case, Susan Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the two Columbine High School killers, detailed her trauma in a lengthy 2009 essay for O magazine. She and her husband were blindsided by the 1999 shootings, she said, at first believing Dylan was one of its victims, not a perpetrator.

"It was impossible to believe that someone I had raised could cause so much suffering," she wrote. Only later, reading his journals, did she realize that he was suicidal. "I think I believed that if I loved someone as deeply as I loved him, I would know if he were in trouble," Klebold wrote. "My maternal instincts would keep him safe. But I didn't know. And my instincts weren't enough. And the fact that I never saw tragedy coming is still almost inconceivable to me."

A U.S. Secret Service report on school shooters found that nearly two-thirds came from two-parent families. Johns Hopkins University sociologist Katherine Newman, who has studied school shooters and their families, said parents are usually "quite blind to what is happening - or they are not being shown the side of their child that turns out to be a killer."

Like Fox, she cautions against judging parents too harshly, saying the high school-aged shooters she studied were "very adept at showing one side of their character to adults and another side to their peers - and so their peers are usually not that surprised and the adults are all shocked."

Among the cases Newman studied: the December 1997 shootings at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., in which 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on a group of students, killing three.

The shooting took place in full view of Carneal's older sister, Kelly, who had just driven him to school and was unaware that he had loaded a small cache of firearms into the trunk of her car. An administrator later told researchers, "There's about 150 kids who were in the freshman class when the shooting took place. I could probably have listed 100 before I got to Michael that I thought might have done something."

In the shooting's aftermath, many community members rallied around Michael's family, said former Heath High School principal Bill Bond. "The community looked at them, honestly, as victims too," he said. "The community felt they had lost a child too."

The day after the shooting, Bond said, Michael's father, John Carneal, a local attorney, urgently wanted to talk to him about it. "As we were sitting there he said, 'I'm responsible. I have messed up.' He just had that overwhelming sense of guilt, of remorse," Bond said.

Six months later, Kelly Carneal graduated as Heath High School's valedictorian and her parents sat in the audience, Bond said.

"They were proud of their daughter just like any other parent," he said. "They were sitting in the crowd."

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