Book Notes: ‘The Spiral Notebook’ delves inside the mind of a killer
“The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth,” by Joseph and Joyce Singular. Counterpoint, Berkeley, Calif., 2015. 289 pages. $26.
Aurora shooter James Holmes’s spiral notebook is, according to his attorney, “a whole lot of crazy.”
It’s also heartbreaking in more ways than we have space for in this review of the book “The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth.”
Holmes, who killed 12 and injured 70 others on July 12, 2012, at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” fired more than 250 rounds into crowded Theater Nine. He tossed in tear gas first, to immobilize everyone, and also cleverly booby-trapped his apartment with several explosive devices that took police days to disarm.
“Life’s fallback solution to all problems — death,” he writes. Following that, this smart, accomplished Ph.D. student of neuropsychology goes on to enumerate his lengthy and complex self-diagnosis.
He writes that he is introverted and does not initiate conversations. He writes that he probably has schizophrenia. And he writes about violence. While he may not make sense to all of us reading this notebook (which you can find reproduced in The New York Times), it says plenty about his state of mind.
And that’s the point, write authors Joseph and Joyce Singulars. These “forensic journalists” make a number of points in “The Spiral Notebook,” the first being that there is too much secrecy surrounding shooters like Holmes. Throughout the years of judicial proceedings leading up to this year’s trial — Holmes was just found guilty in early July — the notebook was withheld as evidence.
And, over the years of mass shootings, police and authorities have not released information on the shooters, going so far as to destroy videotapes made by the Columbine shooters.
At the time of the shooting, James Holmes has just withdrawn from his studies at the University of Colorado student. He was 24 years old and attracted to the Joker character in the “Dark Knight” movies that reveled in fooling the system and triggering chaos. Holmes was most likely contending with schizophrenia and his enrollment in the neuroscience Ph.D. program allowed him to investigate his own condition.
There have now been two major mass shootings within miles of each other in Colorado. The Columbine shooting took place in April 20, 1999. The Aurora Theater shooting in July 2012 is one of the largest mass shootings in the U.S. Holmes surrendered quietly. Near him when he was arrested was a pistol, a semiautomatic, 40-round Glock. On the ground outside the theater police found an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, which Holmes used to fire 30 rounds in 27 seconds.
Beforehand, Holmes had purchased 6,300 rounds of ammunition online. He fired extensive rounds — bullets and fragments pierced 238 theater seats. To bring this numbing scene down to a personal level, one woman, Ashley Moser, was shot in the back and paralyzed. Pregnant at the time she was shot, she subsequently miscarried. Her 6-year-old daughter was shot to death.
“On average, 196 people are shot in America every day, yet nobody seems to know where all the violence is coming from,” the authors write. And though their book hopes to make sense out of shooters’ motives, it doesn’t quite meet its intended goal, in part, because the spiral notebook was introduced as evidence after the book’s completion.
Here are the stunning numbers: Of those 196 people shot every day, about 86 die. One child an hour is injured by a firearm. For teenagers 15 to 19, firearm injuries make up the second leading cause of death behind car accidents. Our gun homicide rate is 11,000 a year at this time, which is 12 times higher than comparable nations.
There are a total of 30,000 gun deaths in America each year. In the first five months following the Newtown shooting, American gun deaths numbered 4,499 vs. the 4,409 U.S. troops killed in the eight-year Iraq war. In the 14 months after Sandy Hook, 44 shootings took place in schools — three a month.
The authors do examine a number of factors they believe contribute to the epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings, and they use their son Eric as one valued advisor. They quote Eric frequently in chapters titled “Interlude” and these are discussion worthy of consideration. They also
quote a number of young men and women at the start of each chapter and these statements are also extremely important. The authors are right — we need to listen to our young people, who are different than we are by virtue of their environment.
“We were trying to identify the cultural and emotional forces driving the young shooters.”
The authors take up male emasculation, lack of father figures, lack of any sort of decent and
systematic mental health evaluation and oversight, the number of prescribed and recreational drugs young people take, violent media including video games, the state of emotional numbness and the continual state of terrorism school-aged children experience every day in classrooms as they prepare and brace for being shot.
High school student Abby Javernick wrote, in an op ed piece in the Denver Post: “Here we are, 15 years [after the Columbine shootings], and the only difference … is that now students are constantly on their guard, knowing escape routes and hiding places, police at the ready… I’m sick of going to school, hearing the intercom click on, and praying that it’s just another announcement … I should be able to go to school without fearing for my life, and I hardly think that’s too much to ask.”
The authors deserve a lot of credit for organizing and presenting material to readers that disturbs and angers us. Though they hadn’t seen the spiral notebook at the time of their writing, they knew what it would contain — a cry for help that, for some reason, we cannot as a nation hear.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at email@example.com, and read her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter at @RaeAF.