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Book Reviews- Fall 2016

BOOK: Singular, S., & Singular, J. 2015. The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

REVIEWER: Dianne R. Layden, Central New Mexico Community College

From 1966 through 2012, the United States had the highest number of mass shooters, five times as many as the next highest country, the Philippines, according to Adam Lankford (American Sociological Association, 2015). Lankford also found more mass shooters per capita in countries with high gun ownership. The U.S. ranks first in the world in per capita gun ownership (Small Arms Survey, 2011).

The Spiral Notebook (Singular & Singular, 2015a) is a contemplative treatment of the mass shooting by James Holmes on July 20, 2012, that left 12 dead and 70 wounded at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, near Denver. For their book, Stephen and Joyce Singular spent 30 months studying the case, visiting its sites, conducting interviews, and attending the trial. The Singulars also take account of gender differences and the link between mass murder and violence against women.

James Holmes, his hair tinted orange, entered the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, wearing tactical clothing and a gas mask. He set off tear gas grenades and shot into the audience of more than 400 people with multiple firearms. He was arrested immediately afterwards and told police he rigged his apartment with explosives, which were defused by a bomb squad.

Holmes was a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado. He met seven times with campus psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Fenton between March and June 2012. In June, at the same time Holmes dropped out of school, Dr. Fenton notified the threat assessment team that Holmes expressed homicidal thoughts. Because Holmes was no longer a student, the team did not monitor his movements. The day before the shooting, July 20, 2012, Holmes mailed Dr. Fenton his spiral notebook with detailed plans for mass murder. The notebook was not received until July 23, 2012, and did not become public until May 2015. Holmes’ “anguish and intelligence came through in the notebook” (Singular, personal communication, May 28, 2015).

Holmes pleaded not guilty to murder by reason of insanity. The trial began in April 2015, and in July he was convicted of murder, attempted murder, and explosives possession. The jury’s lack of agreement on the death penalty in August meant a sentence of life imprisonment without parole; the judge imposed 12 life sentences plus 3,318 years in prison.

The Spiral Notebook is much more than a story of this crime. Thousands of pages of legal documents about the case were sealed and the principals were under a gag order, so the authors explored “the society and the generation that had produced not just Holmes but so many other young male killers” (Singular & Singular, 2015a, p. viii).

In compelling language, The Spiral Notebook combines a skillfully drawn narrative of the details and complexities of the Holmes case with a socio-psychological analysis of why mass shootings occur. Chapters about the case are intertwined with relevant comments by young people whose interviews were selected for inclusion. The case vividly illustrates the difficulties in preventing mass shootings and uncovering shooters’ motivations, while the young people’s testimonies, a unique feature, add new perspectives regarding societal influences.

The Singulars’ son Eric, who is about Holmes’ age, reported that he knew guys who could do what Holmes did. Comments by twenty of the many young people the authors interviewed are interspersed between chapters. The themes were that older Americans did not know much about the youthful experience and seemingly limited future, and younger Americans were more than ready for much greater societal and personal cooperation, asking: “When do we actually start to confront and solve problems, instead of engaging in the anger, fear, and finger-pointing that’s characterized American life over the past few decades” (Singular & Singular, 2015a, p. 9)?

Notable in mass shootings is the inability of the killers to cope with their emotional reality: “They’re killing to release a pressure that they don’t know how to release any other way . . . They see violence as the answer to their dilemma,” supported by a violent culture and “a government and military that have used violence on a massive scale around the world to try to solve complex problems” (Singular & Singular, personal communication, August 5, 2015b). In his notebook, Holmes said he looked everywhere but couldn’t find an answer besides violence. Other factors are video games and drug abuse. In sum, in these “massive social crimes,” young male shooters are telling us they need help and it’s time we start listening (Singular & Singular, personal communication, August 5, 2015b).

Although Holmes’ violent actions in the Aurora movie theater seem to be indiscriminate, the Singulars show that women are singled out as targets in other instances. Regarding the National Rifle Association’s continuing efforts to defeat gun control, the Singulars mention a company that sold targets depicting females at an NRA conference “`designed to help YOU prepare for the upcoming zombie outbreak.’ It also offered an ‘Ex-Girlfriend’ target that bled when you shot it. The more bullets you put into the target, the more mangled the once-attractive body became” (Singular & Singular, 2015a, p. 156). The authors also note that “a woman’s chances of being killed by her male abuser go up more than seven times if he has access to a firearm . . .” (Singular & Singular, 2015a, p. 156).

A May 2014 mass shooting that targeted young women (and men) was followed immediately by a social media movement in which users tell stories of misogyny and violence against women: “Called #YesAllWomen, it went viral and amassed 1.5 million tweets in its first three days” (Singular & Singular, 2015, 237). Elliot Rodger killed two females and four males, all students at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and wounded others before he committed suicide. The Singulars stated that he was “[e]nraged at being rejected by young women he wanted to date . . .” (Singular & Singular, 2015a, p. 236). Before the shootings, Rodger posted a final YouTube video called “Day of Retribution” and left a 140-page manifesto “outlining his wounded feelings and desire to extract revenge” (Singular & Singular, 2015a, p. 236). In his manifesto and videos, Rodger complained of rejection by women.

The book’s references to gender are highly relevant. Databases of mass shooters revealed, first, that female mass shooters are rare. Fox and Levin (2015) reported only 5.9 percent of 1,176 mass murder offenders were female in 917 incidents from 1976 through 2011, although female offenders represented 11.6 percent of all homicide offenders during this period (Fox & Levin, 2015, p. 166-167). Similarly, Duwe (2007) reported that six percent of 735 mass murder offenders from 1966 through 1999 were female (Duwe, 2007, p. 92). (See also Follman, 2012; Blair & Schweit, 2013; Krouse & Richardson, 2015; Stanford, 2015; and Schildkraut & Elsass, 2016.)

James A. Fox, who has written extensively about murder and mass murder, explained why murder is a “man’s crime”: Fox averred men “are often more likely to own a gun, to be trained and comfortable around firearms. They often have poorer support systems, and are less likely than women to share their feelings…. `Women tend to see violence as a last resort, as a self-defense mechanism…. Men tend to use violence as an offensive weapon, to show them who’s boss’” (Ford; see also Fox, Levin, & Quinet, 2012, p. 51-54). Also, men tend to blame others or outside forces for their problems, while women tend to blame themselves (Batton in Weeks, 2013; see also Batton, 2004). The gender gap in violence is said to be universal, to exist in virtually all cultures and time periods (Fox & Levin, 2015, p. 177). Yet women’s violence, Patricia Pearson argued, based on research by anthropologist Victoria Burbank, is sublimated by societies that do not sanction its expression but can equal that of men in societies that do sanction its expression (Lenz, 2015).

Second, notably, databases of mass shooting victims revealed females may comprise at least half the total number of victims (Everytown, 2015; Jeltsen, 2015; Starr, 2015), a phenomenon not widely recognized in the mass shooting literature. Family annihilation is the most prevalent form of mass murder (Fox, Levin, and Quinet, 2012, p. 180). From 1976 through 2009, of 1,287 mass killers responsible for 922 mass murders, 248 (27 percent) were family murders with four or more family members killed, usually by the father (Fox, Levin, & Quinet, 2012, p. 180). Domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence, frequently precedes mass murders generally (Auchter, 2010; Mascia, 2015; Taub 2016; Chemaly 2016). In 2011, the lifetime prevalence of intimate violence against women was an estimated 31.5 percent (Breiding, et al., 2014). A woman who is in a violent and potentially lethal relationship with a spouse or intimate partner may be unable to leave because of financial or emotional dependency or in order to provide her children with a father (Fox, Levin, & Quinet, 2012, p. 73).

The expansion since the 1970s of policies, programs, and services to reduce domestic violence, such as legal advocacy, hotlines, mandatory arrests, and firearm confiscations, has contributed to a substantial decline in intimate partner homicides (Dugan, Nagin, & Rosenfeld, 2003). Statutes include the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, strengthening federal criminal justice responses; federal and state laws banning gun possession by people convicted of domestic violence; Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 including the “risk of violence and significant personal injury” at the workplace as a “recognizable hazard” that employers are required to eliminate; and state laws protecting workplace rights of victims.

Private organizations that assist victims include the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which promotes creation of a culture in which domestic violence is not tolerated (What is Domestic Violence?). Research about prevention is conducted by government agencies (Breiding, et al., 2014; Klein, 2009), private organizations (Female Homicide Victims by Males: An Analysis of 2013 Data, 2015), and university researchers (Jiwatram-Negron, 2015). The FBI held a conference in 2013 on the prevention of mass victimization. Family murders were not addressed per se, but one community strategy to reduce mass murders generally is to promote awareness through trainings, workshops, or town meetings (Jarvis & Scherer, 2015, p. 27-31). Currently, the Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research is planning a special issue about preventing femicide (Emerald Group Publishing, 2016).


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