Sunday, March 27, 2005

Dying for fame

Two very interesting NY Times editorials on the recent school shootings in Minnesota.

Dying to be Famous

ADOLESCENTS don't conceive the notion of strafing their classmates in a vacuum; they get the idea from cable TV. Bad news in itself, the 10-fatality reprise of the American school shooting last week at the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota bolsters the archetype. It makes a trend that had seemed to subside since Columbine in 1999 seem current again, and prospectively gives more boys big ideas.

The lessons we've been meant to learn from school shootings have been legion. We need better gun control. We need to be more understanding of misfits. We need to stop bullying. We need to curtail violent films and video games. So far, the suicide of 16-year-old Jeff Weise and his murder of nine people, including his grandfather, has fostered another familiar homily: We need to recognize the "warning signs."

Jeff Weise's "warning signs" have been widely publicized. He drew ghoulish cartoons and wrote gory short stories. He aped his predecessors in Colorado by wearing a black trench coat. On the Internet, heartbreakingly, he admired Hitler and flirted with eugenics - although the Nazis would hardly have championed the pure genetic line of Mr. Weise's Chippewa tribe. Predictably, all this dark ideation took place against the backdrop of a broken family and a forlorn personal life.

But Monday-morning quarterbacking has a reputation as cheap for good reason. A host of teenagers have morbid inclinations that they express through art and schoolwork. The very fact that the style that Mr. Weise adopted has a name - Goth - implies that thousands of other youths don the same dour garb. Many adolescents try on outrageous, painfully incoherent ideologies to set themselves apart. In her book "Rampage," Katherine S. Newman cites factors like access to "cultural scripts" from violent media, victimization from bullying and social marginalization. But such broad characteristics apply to half the children in the country.

I, too, researched school shootings for my seventh novel, about a fictional version of same. But the more I read, the more disparate these stories appeared. The boys had in common what they did, but not who they were or why they did it. If another school is shot up again, rest assured that the culprit will have exhibited his own eccentric set of "warning signs," like Mr. Weise's constantly changing hairstyles, that if plugged into a computer would finger 10,000 other innocents as murderous time-bombs.

But I did identify one universal. The genre is now sufficiently entrenched that any adolescent who guns down his classmates aims to join a specific elect. Like Red Lake's, the public shootings are often a cover for suicide, or for the private settling of scores with a parent or guardian. But a school shooting is reliably a bid for celebrity. As for murder-suicides like Jeff Weise's, even posthumous notoriety must seem enthralling to someone who feels sufficiently miserable and neglected.

Whether we care to admit it, the calculation these boys are making is culturally astute. You do not make headlines by getting an A on your report card. So long as we make a minimal distinction between fame and infamy - and consistently accord infamy a measure more fascination - any smart teenager is going to take the easier, more spectacular route to glory and opt for ignominy over achievement. Far more Americans now know the name Jeff Weise than the winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize. Only two days after the shooting, a Google search of "Jeff Weise" and "Red Lake" scored more than 8,000 hits. If our boy wanted attention, he got it.

Am I the only one to find those thousands of hits shocking? Am I the only one to feel queasy over the painstaking examination of this boy's psyche - perhaps including this very article?
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis: "Jeff Weise: A Mystery in a Life Full of Hardship." Minnesota Public Radio: "Who Was Jeff Weise?" There's hardly a teenage boy who wouldn't covet those headlines for himself. Are we not dangling a prize of outsized pity for boys with the guts to compete for it? Are we in danger of being too sympathetic?

Surely no single factor explains the perniciousness of school shootings more than the intense news media focus they draw. Too late, we are now combing Mr. Weise's reactionary Internet postings, grisly drawings and gruesome short stories. We are rightly wrenched by his fractured family life - his mother's brain damage, his father's suicide.

But I grew up in North Carolina alongside any number of anguished young men, a few of whom likewise chose to leave the building with a shot in the head. Most humble suicides, however, don't take nine unwilling people with them on the way out the door.

Sympathy, of course, is not zero-sum. We can afford to lavish it unsparingly on all parties in tragedies like this one. But one might make a case for ordinal sympathy. That list should be topped by nine dead people who should have been eating breakfast this morning. Next, their grieving families. The seven wounded. Jeff Weise's extended family, living with shame and perplexity hereon. The Red Lake reservation, now receiving the kind of attention it doesn't want. The nation at large, in which extravagant media response to this killing has once more raised the likelihood that it will happen again. Jeff Weise - overweight, politically confused lonely guy, but also a killer - belongs on the list, but last.

Otherwise, reserve a special compassion for any folks in Mr. Weise's orbit, like the doctor said to have dismissed the boy's cutting himself as "a fad," implicitly being made to feel that by not reading the "warning signs" they are in some way at fault. The hurling of blame constitutes a secondary wave of violence that leaves a second set of scars. Still coping with gratuitous murder, counselors and teachers, parents or guardians, friends and neighbors of the gunman grapple with an equally gratuitous guilt.

For no one should have seen this coming. Screwed-up comes in as many flavors as ice cream, and the merest fraction of troubled boys go literally ballistic at their schools. If occasionally fatal, the combination of despair and grandiosity is as common - and American - as apple and pie.

Lionel Shriver is the author of "We Need to Talk About Kevin," a novel.

Family Wonders if Prozac Prompted School Shootings

In their sleepless search for answers, the family of Jeff Weise, the teenager who killed nine people and then himself, says it is left wondering about the drugs he was prescribed for his waves of depression.

On Friday, as Tammy Lussier prepared to bury Mr. Weise, who was her nephew, and her father, who was among those he killed, she found herself looking back over the last year, she said, when Mr. Weise began taking the antidepressant Prozac after a suicide attempt that Ms. Lussier described as a "cry for help."

"They kept upping the dose for him," she said, "and by the end, he was taking three of the 20 milligram pills a day. I can't help but think it was too much, that it must have set him off."
Lee Cook, another relative of Mr. Weise, said his medication had increased a few weeks before the shootings on Monday.

"I do wonder," Mr. Cook said, "whether on top of everything else he had going on in his life, on top of all the other problems, whether the drugs could have been the final straw."

The effects of antidepressants on young people remain a topic of fierce debate among scientists and doctors.

Last year, a federal panel of drug experts said antidepressants could cause children and teenagers to become suicidal. The Food and Drug Administration has since required the makers of antidepressants to warn of that danger on their labels for the medications.

The suicide risk is particularly acute when therapy starts or a dosage changes, the drug agency has warned.

Although some studies link the drugs to an increased suicide risk, the research does not suggest such a connection to violence like Mr. Weise's rampage through Red Lake High School.

Without knowing Mr. Weise's medical history or precise diagnosis, it is virtually impossible to speculate on what factors may have affected him - the drugs, his underlying depression, a gloomy childhood wrapped in tragedy or something else entirely.

"What I can say is that his physician, I'm sure, made the appropriate recommendations based on whatever the dosages were," said Morry Smulevitz, a spokesman for Eli Lilly, which makes Prozac.

The dosage range, Mr. Smulevitz said, runs from 20 milligrams to 80 milligrams a day, so Mr. Weise's 60 milligram dose fell in that bracket. Mr. Weise, though just 16, was taller than 6 feet and weighed 250 pounds.

Ms. Lussier, who lived with Mr. Weise in her mother's house on the Red Lake Indian reservation in far northern Minnesota, said she could not understand what else, aside from drugs, had changed to explain his sudden violence.

Since his suicide attempt and 72-hour hospitalization a year ago, Mr. Weise had seemed to be improving, she said, and he was receiving mental health counseling and a doctor's care at the medical center on the reservation.

Others in Red Lake said, however, that they had seen few signs of improvement in the dour, solitary boy.

The driver of a school bus, Lorene Gurneau, said she often saw Mr. Weise standing outside the middle school, wearing his long black clothes and strange hairdos, staring off into nothing, in a daze, even as children raced by or teachers passed him.

Still, in at least one Internet posting last fall, Mr. Weise sounded determined to improve his life after his suicide attempt, and he noted that he was taking antidepressants.

"I had went through a lot of things in my life that had driven me to a darker path than most
choose to take," the posting said. "I split the flesh on my wrist with a box opener, painting the floor of my bedroom with blood I shouldn't have spilt. After sitting there for what seemed like hours (which apparently was only minutes), I had the revelation that this was not the path."

"It was my dicision," he went on, "to seek medical treatment, as on the other hand I could've chose to sit there until enough blood drained from my downward lacerations on my wrists to die."

On Monday, in the hours before the shooting, Mr. Weise had seemed cheerful and normal, Ms. Lussier said. His teacher, who was spending an hour a day at his house as part of a "homebound" study program that the school system had created because of his troubles, arrived to give him his homework assignments, as usual. At 12:30 p.m., less than three hours before the shootings, another aunt, Shauna, stopped in.

"He was watching a movie on TV," Ms. Lussier said. "There was nothing out of the ordinary. People keep saying he was depressed, but if you saw him, he was getting better. All we can think of is, what about the drugs?"

Though research has not linked antidepressants to acts of violence on others, several incidents have gained wide publicity.

In 1989, Joseph Wesbecker walked into a printing plant in Louisville, Ky., with a bag of guns and killed eight co-workers and himself. He was taking Prozac, which had recently been approved.

In 1999, a student involved in the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado had reportedly taken Luvox, an antidepressant similar to Prozac.

In 2001, Christopher Pittman killed his grandparents while taking Zoloft, another antidepressant similar to Prozac. His lawyers faulted the drug, but a jury in Charleston, S.C., convicted him of murder in February.

Still, Katherine S. Newman, a professor at Princeton University who has studied school killings, said just a small percentage appeared to have possibly involved psychiatric drugs. Of 27 such killings from 1974 to 2001, fewer than one-fifth of the suspects had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder before the shootings, Professor Newman said. Dr. Frank Ochberg, a former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said he once dismissed any links between antidepressants and suicides or homicidal acts. The recent research, however, has changed his mind, Dr. Ochberg said.

"If your intention is shooting the place up and dying as you do it, you can put the fantasy together," he said. "Suicidal and homicidal intentions together could theoretically follow the same path."

N.R.A. Aide Urges Armed Teachers

Monica Davey reported from Red Lake for this article, and Gardiner Harris from Washington. Jodi Wilgoren contributed reporting from New York.