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4/18/2007

Is existence too painful to endure?

The common understanding is that individuals who perpetrate explosive acts of violence are possessed by "over controlled hostility." It is in fact a useful and relevant explanation for many cases of unpredictable violence. But it is not a paradigm that is in any way adequate to understand the carnage at Virginia Tech on April 16th, 2007.

In a classic study of incarcerated murderers, psychologist Edwin Megargee showed that those who had killed multiple victims were more likely to have been less violent and aggressive in the past, when compared to murderers who had killed only once. The reasoning was simple: chronically aggressive individuals were in the habit of expressing their feelings and "letting off steam." Those who "bottled up" their feelings of anger and resentment were more likely to "explode."

It is not the characteristically aggressive individual who is most likely to commit catastrophic acts of rage. Instead, it is those who are emotionally rigid and inflexible, self-righteous and judgmental, and passive in a way that causes others to ignore or take advantage of them. Characteristically non-assertive, the over controlled hostility types often develop deep seated grudges and overwhelming resentments.

But is our knowledge of the over controlled hostility personality style of any use in understanding the traumatic events at Virginia Tech? Having interviewed hundreds of killers of all stripes, I would suggest that there is another, more primary dynamic underlying dramatic acts of violence.

For everyone, there are times when life is difficult or painful. For some, it can become unbearable. It is not uncommon for people to fantasize about changing everything and making everything in life different.

For some, this fantasy emerges in the form of an impulse to put a stop to everything that his happening in their life. The impulse is to destroy reality or to tear reality apart.

For someone who is sad and suffering, the impulse might simply involve a self-destructive act, like a suicide attempt or a suicide gesture. Another frequent method is to set one's house on fire. Even if the fire is quickly extinguished, the underlying motivation will have been satisfied. You are no longer in the house, you're now in jail.

There are others, however, who are not just depressed or distressed. They are deeply disturbed, and tormented by anger, hostility, rage and resentment. For these individuals, it is not enough to bring an end to their existence or the reality they face. Instead, they seek satisfaction by lashing out, destroying others, wreaking havoc and fulfilling their desire for revenge.

At times, most of us have thought something like "I wish I had told him off" or "I wish I could punch that guy." The thought is motivated by a desire to relieve frustration or achieve satisfaction. An explosive act of violence is, in a similar sense, a desire for fulfillment and satisfaction. But it is also an act that is hateful and selfish, and the ultimate expression of narcissistic self-indulgence. It is the ultimate act of significance in an otherwise insignificant life. In a sick and a perverse way, the unbearable pain of existence is relieved.

There are some who are troubled and in pain for whom we have sympathy. There are others for whom no sympathy is due and no empathy is available. Anger is an emotion that can relieve frustration. We understand anger when provocation is involved. A momentary lapse is typically excused.

At other times, we see that an individual has harbored their anger and nurtured their rage, using it as an excuse to offend and frighten others and to satisfy themselves through repeated acts of aggression. Rather than being troubled by violent fantasies, they indulge themselves with such reverie. In the end, we wonder if perhaps they have also nurtured their emotional pain, using it as something that will make them feel alive. Sometimes, this is why people cut themselves: to experience the rush of intense feelings.

Putting an end to the torment of a troubled and disturbed existence was quite probably a factor in the killer's motivation. But it was not likely the only motivation.


Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.