Category Archives: suicide and murder

"T’es folle ou quoi?"


French slang for, “Are you crazy, or what?” Also, the title of a 1982 comedy, ads for which were plastered all over the Metro station walls that winter [the coldest on record, at the time]. It became my lingua franca catchphrase during our Eurail Pass honeymoon, as effective in Milan and Vienna as it was in Paris, to back off street hasslers without giving offense. It conveyed the power subtext, “I am not your victim, nor am I your enemy,” in a way that the more common but histrionic “Laissez-moi!” [“Leave me alone!”] just misses.

As effective as the phrase is, after 40 years of close, professional encounters with Those Who May Be Crazy, I don’t like its implication. Now, for a bit of Attribution Theory. Do you imagine that what I object to is the use of a derogatory term for those suffering from Mental Illness? Not me. Sticks & stones and all that. I object, Ladies & Gents, to the overuse of the Insanity Defense, to excuse wolfish behavior, nar’mean?

In March of 1981, you may recall or have read, one John Hinckley, Jr. fired 6 exploding bullets at President Reagan, hoping to win the admiration & love of the actress Jodie Foster. He was a lousy shot, and managed to kill and maim several people; but only one ricocheting bullet entered the armpit of the President, who survived. The shooter copped an Insanity Plea [which a DC jury bought] and remains to this day an inpatient @ St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC [which advertises monthly for clinical staff, if you’re interested in a job opportunity]. For years, he has been granted weekend passes to visit his parents.

I’m no fortune teller, but I bet the Tucson shooter’s defense team are pouring over the transcripts of the Hinckley trial, to unearth bits of jury-swaying gold dust. A spate of articles, both in the popular and scientific press, have addressed the thorny “T’es folle ou quoi?” question, in hopes of being better able to identify and forestall future pistol-packin’ werewolves from acting out. Presciently, in the 24 July 09 issue of the Schizophrenia Bulletin, William T. Carpenter wrote a pros & cons think piece, “Anticipating DSM-V: Should Psychosis Risk Become a Diagnostic Class?” Under “cons,” he notes that the proposed criteria for a diagnosis of Psychosis Risk Syndrome [PRS] or Attenuated Psychotic Symptoms Syndrome [APS], are commonly found in “non-ill” young people; and so the risk of needless stigmatisation and overtreatment is high.

Even if the Syndrome makes it into the next edition of the so-called “Book of Broken Things,” the last people who are going to be able to inform the authorities about a perceived loose cannon will be Mental Health providers. Unless HIPAA is amended or repealed, that is. Back in the day, in pre-HIPAA times, one of my jobs as an active duty Navy Psychologist was to do annual assessments of veterans receiving disability pensions for service-connected Mental Illness. It was a Hobson’s Choice the vet faced in his interview. Too sane, and he would lose his benefits. Too crazy, and he might get rehospitalized on the spot. In the summer of 1981 a vet told me that it was his ambition, “to become another Hinckley.” Without fear of litigation or loss of my license to practice psychology, I informed my Department Head, who called the FBI, who arrived promptly, to “continue the interview process” with the vet.

Couldn’t get away with that nowadays. Not even sure if I could get away with remarking, to a weird-acting, in-my-face pavement artist on the streets of Paris, “T’es folle ou quoi?” But I bet he could get away with murder.

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, power subtext, suicide and murder

Another Look Back at Anger


Either the pace of homicidal/suicidal incidents has picked up, or the media’s coverage of such events has. A century ago, Emile Durkheim observed that in times of widespread social upheaval [such as massive unemployment] the incidence of anomic suicide rises. Well, here we are, folks. Anomie is that all-bets-are-off-including-the-social-contract attitude, which was cool in the movies when James Dean or Brando enacted it, but is not-so-cool in real life.

There is a theory–beyond Durkheim’s “WTF” and Murray’s unmet N Aff–which I have found invaluable in my 3-decade endeavor to predict who is likely to move beyond fantasies of revenge into lethal enactment of those urges. In 1975, on the day our class of Fellows in Psychology reported to an oh-so-posh and well-staffed mental hospital in Westchester County, we were informed that there had been a rash of suicides among the in-patients, despite the conscientious care and vigilance of the staff. A New York City psychiatrist, Dr. Stuart S. Asch, had written a manuscript to help explain, predict, and [ideally] prevent such events; and his working title was “The Silent Partner Theory of Suicide” [published in 1980 as “Suicide, and the Hidden Executioner”]. We each got a copy to read before we even set foot onto our [locked] wards. Since Dr. Asch also worked as a profiler for the NYPD in homicide cases, there are gorey examples galore in the paper; but here is the bottomline message: A person who is truly intent on committing suicide believes, at that moment, that SOMEONE ELSE WANTS HIM DEAD.

The would-be suicide believes, thus, that he is the victim of the Silent Partner’s homicidal wish, and may even try to get the SP blamed for “murder.” Over the years, in various clinical settings, when I have been the mental-health-provider-of-the-day[night, usually] called in to interview the nearly-successful-suicide, my first [Poetic] question is always, “Okay, besides me, who wants you dead?” In 34 years, each so-recently-so-sad individual has laughed at my little joke, and then fingered their Silent Partner: “My no-good, cheating wife!” “My Division Officer!” “My boss, who just f#&king fired me!” Now we’re talking! [Humiliation, Pain & Suffering, sometimes Fear.]

Here’s the scarey part for the general public. Someone who is truly suicidal is, at that moment, also potentially homicidal. When the original Silent Partner isn’t present for the would-be suicide to confront, any one aof us can become the [proxy] Silent Partner. In order NOT to be the proxy SP, you have to challenge–out loud, right then–this unbalanced person’s belief, that you, too, want them dead. [And just imagine your own fear-fuelled anger, at finding yourself in this bizarre situation!] NYPD cops do it so well. Spotting a person poised to jump from a window ledge, they yell up to him, “For Christ’s sake, what are you thinking? If you jump, you’ll turn yourself into a hideous hunk of meat on the sidewalk! Little kids have to walk by here.” [Subtext message: “I don’t want you dead. Really.”] It works so often, that it’s worth memorizing. You DON’T have to negotiate with the jumper, or “love-bomb” him with phoney affirmations of his wonderfulness. You just have to say [in so many words], “I don’t agree! I vote no!” Otherwise, your silence gives consent, and you become his mortal enemy, along with any other innocent [but silent] bystanders.

Obviously, however, someone perched on a ledge poses much less threat to members of the general public, than someone with an assault weapon. Yes?

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Filed under silent partner theory, suicide and murder

The Lone Wolf


Notice how, in the 3 or so mass murder stories on any given day, the neighbors describe the suspect as “a nice guy…kept to himself,” while the co-workers/classmates say,”an odd duck…kept to himself”? These days, of course, mass-murder/suicide has become an equal-opportunity endeavor, although many of the women who do it live in sandy countries, and conceal their weapons under modest, flowing garments.

Are loners born or created? For that matter, are they all destined to commit mass murder? Of course not; but–through a combination of nature, nurture, and proximate events–they seem to be more prone to this homicidal/suicidal urge, than those living securely within the pale of a reference group. Object relations theory posits that each of us faces a Hobson’s choice between two fearful situations: engulfment [being “swallowed up” by another person or by the group], or abandonment [being cast out, to fend for ourselves in the cold, cruel world]. So, what’ll it be–the intrusion of others’ agenda, not to mention their less-than-fresh bodies, into your personal space; or the humiliation, pain & suffering, and fear of being ejected from the group? Most of us reluctantly opt for belonging to some reference group [which is the plot of Freud’s book, Civilization and Its Discontents]. These days, we’ve all seen enough nature shows to know that a shunned animal’s odds of survival are not great. Actuarial statistics show the same odds for humans. Married people, or those living in close extended family groups, live longer than those who live alone. So who opts out, and why?

Interpersonal theorists [such as Searles & Sullivan] believe that first love in adolescence can be a major factor in determining who feels “connected” to others in the long run. If the first time you “lay your cards on the table,” the other party abruptly quits the game [even for some random, external reason, like their family is moving away, or you’re a Montague and they’re a Capulet], you may conclude that they saw something sinister in your cards–that they ran away in horror from you. That you are, in fact, unworthy of love. Shakespeare’s Richard III sums it up succinctly in his opening soliloquy: if I’m too hideous to be accepted as a lover, then I’ll become a villain instead.

Life hands people all sorts of reasons to feel unworthy of love, many of them random and trivial. Color of eyes, hair, skin. Tribal affiliation. Socio-economic status. Marital status of parents. To use an animal analogy, Lili was the only pup in a litter of 10–bred of two AKC champions–to express the recessive gene for long hair, which makes her out-of-standards for “beauty pageant” showing. I don’t know how her dam or her litter-mates treated her; but the human owners of the sire, from whom we bought Lili at 4 months, definitely shunned her. While the daddy dog lolled around inside their house [the “within-standards” puppies having been sold, and the mom dog having long since flown back to her West Coast owners], Lili was in solitary confinement in an outdoor kennel. People who see her unconventional conformation ask, “Was she a rescue?” Yeah, a $600 one. Good thing, as Cesar Millan says, dogs live in the now–not where they were born & weaned.

Human outcasts can kid themselves, like Richard III, that they are not people who need people. However, they are more vulnerable to the predations of recruiters for cults and fringe outfits, than those who are lucky enough to have had their N Aff [Murray’s term for the need for group affiliation] met. In my Wild Side post I spoke of avoiding “aggressive assault,” which may have seemed redundant; but there can also be an assault of “in-your-face-affirmation”–referred to by those who study cult dynamics as “love bombing.” Celebrities get this all the time; but air travelers in the 60s & 70s will remember having been “love-bombed” by saffron-robed, finger-cymbal-playing folk; and all of us have been “lovingly” solicited by prosyletizers at the door and cold-callers on the phone. If we already enjoy affirmation from others, we are less susceptible to the “Join us…consider yourself well in…when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way” spiel, than those whose N Aff has not been met.

If the cult (or website) that the Lone Wolf becomes ensnaired in offers a plausible argument for the acting out of pent-up rage, then the Symbionese Liberation Army gains another soldier [Google it, youngsters], and the rest of us had better stay alert.

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Filed under Freud meant..., object relations theory, reference group, sharks and jets, suicide and murder