School shootings are happening with alarming and devastating frequency. Each times explanations are sought, but no answers are found. Important, though superficial, aspects, such as the obvious lack of gun control, possible bullying, or mental illness are often pointed to, yet fail to really elucidate the fundamental causes that may lead to a person needing to commit mass murder.
The reason for this disturbing phenomenon may lie in our basic nature. While we tend to like to think of ourselves as individuals, humans are basically social animals. Our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to feel and respond to our social milieu as much, or even more so, as we are capable of responding as individuals. Traditional psychoanalytic theory tends to place our emotional development as individuals as primary, with our early attachments with parental figures as being fundamental to the development of our self-concept. In this view, our sense of ourselves as social beings have been seen as then deriving from the internalized sense of these primary attachments. This implies that for an individual’s sense of his social world to be grossly disturbed, his early life experience with his primary caretakers would have to have been severely compromised. Social psychology has certainly described how social pressures and one’s inner view of social norms often dictate social behaviour. Our view of the development of our sense of our social self requires a deeper understanding. The importance and power of social relationships, suggests that our internalized view of our social self may develop as a parallel line of psychological development to our internalized sense of ourselves as individuals. This internalized view of the social world, and one’s place in that world, would evolve by the psychological integration of our social experiences bit by bit. These internalized aspects of social experience could be called social introjects, analogous to the concept of introjects as an aspect of individual development. In this model, these two parallel lines of development could have a protective effect if only one fails, or could have a compounding damaging effect if both fail. Over the past thirty years, from a clinical perspective, it does appear that clinicians are seeing higher degrees of individual disturbance with less family pathology. This might be due to increasing fragility in the internal development of one’s social self.
There is no way of fully understanding Adam Lanza. Describing him as having Asperger’s Syndrome or developmental problems is fairly meaningless, as people with these types of common problems do not tend to commit mass murder more than other people. His mother’s reported preparing for economic catastrophe may be evidence of long-standing underlying issues in her that might have affected Adam through his life, but this would only explain one aspect of the picture. It is not unreasonable to speculate that Adam had feelings of rage both against his mother and against school aged kids. The murderous expression of these two separate feelings of rage may say a lot about two factors, the individual relationships and the social relationships, that appear to have gone significantly wrong in Adam’s life.
The picture that is emerging is of a not so atypical family that places an emphasis on achievement and social appearances, but may not have been able to emotionally meet the needs of a bright but awkward child. The mother may have had her own issues about the fragility of the world, with some possible paranoid or hostile trends, yet tried to be an involved mother. Adam’s early sense of the social world may have been one of some degree of emotional emptiness, high competitiveness and social isolation. This child then goes to primary school where these experience, and resulting negative social introjects are reinforced. Reaching adolescence, a time where the development of one’s internalized social image reaches a pinnacle, life begins to fall apart for Adam. His successful brother goes off to university, and parental strife becomes more apparent. For an individual with a poor sense of his place in the social world, the structure of that world such as the rules and routine of school and of family life could give some sense of belonging, despite a growing awareness of his not fitting in with typical adolescents. High school ends for Adam with his parents getting divorced. All routine structure is lost. The anxious traits that might have been felt in his mother from early on become more pronounced. Feeling increasingly isolated and rejected, he seeks some sense of belonging through some form of Internet group, yet this endeavour just adds to his alienation from the real social world. As any sense of ever belonging fades, he finally cracks, needing to express his rage, going back to scenes of his wounds and ending his pain.