A catastrophic act of violence in her family led Vicky Cox to examine the personal and cultural influences that might precipitate such an event, as well as the forces that may create change.
In 1999, my older brother Jeff was going through a rough time, but no one in the family knew about it. He was married with a kid but lived life on his own terms. He partied and had affairs, yet was still pretty committed to his family.
Jeff was building a little house for his family way out in the country. He was very busy acting as the general contractor, working full-time at his business, and running his family around as his wife didn’t drive. Often, he didn’t know what he was doing with regard to the house. He got the shaft from several subcontractors who took his money but didn’t do the work. Subsequently, he was burning the candle at both ends, only getting about two hours of sleep at night and struggling with financial problems.
On a Friday afternoon couple weeks before Christmas, Jeff called me to chat. We didn’t talk much anymore. Although we were very close when we were younger, I really disapproved of his lifestyle choices and showed that by mostly avoiding him.
Anyway, he sounded down and shared that he was struggling to get the house complete and it was costing more than he anticipated. Since I was in real estate at the time, I tried to convince him that was normal and not to worry too much—it would all work out okay, even if he did go a little over budget.
He said he was sending me a package in the mail and I’d get it the next day. I assumed it was a Christmas gift. I was glad we talked, felt convicted that I had been too judgmental and resolved to do a better job to stay in touch.
The next Monday as I was getting ready for work, I got a call early in the morning from one of my other brothers. He asked me if I was sitting down. I actually chuckled out loud at the clichéness of it. Then he blurted out that our brother Jeff shot and killed his wife and daughter and himself on Friday night.
Jeff arranged to have a co-worker come by his house to pick up a car for right after his murder-suicide. He left his suicide note in the car. The co-worker changed his plans and didn’t come by until Monday morning. The package Jeff sent didn’t come because I wasn’t home to sign for the delivery. But after the call, I realized he sent me a suicide note too.
Apparently, Jeff had been struggling with bipolar disorder. No one in our family knew about it. It seems he was recently diagnosed. He confided in one friend and said that his meds weren’t helping much. He continued to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, which were a part of his life since his teens.
In his suicide note, it was clear that my brother catastrophized everything and couldn’t think clearly. He saw his financial problems as insurmountable, but it turned out his house was about 85% complete, and he had significant assets, if not readily available. He felt he had no one to talk to and wouldn’t get help. He rationalized that his wife and daughter would be better off dead than trying to live without him.
Jeff had always been a good financial provider for his family. Going into debt to build a home and struggling with his business seemed to make him feel inadequate. His wife didn’t work, so it was his job to be the sole provider. Subsequently, I learned there has been quite a bit of mental illness in our extended family, but it wasn’t talked about. Mental illness was perceived as a weakness and character flaw. It was something to overcome.
To say the experience was devastating is certainly an understatement. The emotional, relational, legal, and financial impact ran deep for my family and my sister-in-law’s family. It took over 7 years to resolve their estate.
The World Health Organization classifies violence into two basic types: self-directed (suicide) and interpersonal (against others). Interpersonal violence is then divided into two sub-categories: family and intimate partner violence (which occurs inside or outside the home) and community violence which occurs outside the home against unrelated individuals.
Overall violent crime has declined over 20% since 1994. Murder constituted only 1.2% of all violent crime in 2013 FBI statistics compiled by the University of California Irvine, yet mass killings are growing at a disturbing rate.
Between 2000 and 2013, there were 160 mass shooting incidents that resulted in 1,043 casualties with an average of 11.4 incidents per year. During the first 7 years studied, there was an average of 6.4 shooting incidents per year, but in the next 7 years, there was an average of 16.4 incidents annually. More than half of mass shootings involved family members. Common factors triggering mass killings include breakups, financial problems, impulsivity, and holidays.
We tend to think the profile of a mass shooter is almost always a young white male. Yet, in an exhaustive 2012 study by Mother Jones Magazine, the racial component of mass killers mirrored the U.S. population except for two components: a much higher representation of Asian men and almost no Hispanic men.
It is true that mass shooters are most often male—in fact, only 2 women have committed mass murders since 1964, and women only commit about 10% of all murders. Men are more likely to own guns, act aggressively, lack emotional support, and avoid expressing their feelings, thus are more likely to resort to violent crime.
There’s insufficient evidence to suggest that mental illness is a predominant factor in mass shootings, although it appears to be a greater factor in the past 3 years. More relevant factors are a history of childhood abuse, substance abuse, exposure to a violent environment, and availability of firearms.
Easy access to guns does seem to be a major contributing factor in mass shootings. Mother Jones Magazine reports of 62 shootings in the U.S. between 1982 and 2012, 49 shooters obtained their weapons legally. Of the 143 weapons used during these shootings, 71 were semi-automatic handguns. This certainly begs discussion on the easy availability of what seems to be unrestricted access to such high power weapons.
Young men and especially young black men are also the primary targets of gun violence. In a 2010 report by the Center for American Progress, the second leading cause of death for all 15-24 year-olds was homicide, 83% of which was committed by a gun. Black males in this age group make up a disproportionate 42% of gun deaths. Additionally, in 2012, 65% of all weapons offenses were committed by individuals between the ages of 10 and 29.
According to the Centers for Disease Center, between 2000 to 2011 suicide rates increased from 10.4 to 12.3 deaths per 100,000. The rate of suicide is rising in virtually every age group according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Suicide was the 10th leading cause of all deaths in 2013. And in that same year, men accounted for 78% of suicides.
A history of childhood trauma and/or exposure to violence appears to be an increasing influence in the perpetration of violent acts. A 2009 study by the National Institute of Mental Health found the occurrence of PTSD was greatest in abused children, with half developing PTSD. PTSD can result in dissociation, hyperarousal, severe anxiety and depression, flashbacks, extreme avoidance, psychosis, and/or substance use. Only half of those diagnosed with PTSD receive treatment.
Arguments about gun control and mental health have been raging for decades now. I think we should continue to have these conversations and seek appropriate solutions. There’s no way to reach a consensus because the root of the problem is much deeper than gun control or mental health. The consistent factor present in these crimes is that the perpetrator is a man, and most often, an angry young man.
Men continue to feel the pressure of being the breadwinner for their families. For many, they are still seriously underemployed 7 years after the recession. And while most men appreciate women’s independence and competence, and can still be difficult to navigate in an intimate relationship.
I think men are in desperate need of support. Instead of negative messages to “man-up”, men need the freedom to express themselves without criticism or belittlement. Pervasive attitudes of what a man “should” be negates men’s feelings and experiences.
Many of these factors influenced my brother in his premeditated choice of a murder-suicide to escape his problems. They are also a factor in many of the gun crimes perpetrated today. I know now that my brother’s actions may have been prevented. Looking back, there were many red flags that individually may not have signaled disaster, but if more people, including Jeff and his wife, took action, this tragedy probably could have been prevented.
It’s time to reach out to one other and do a better job of being our brother’s keeper. If you think someone struggling, insist they get help. Be a friend and spend time together really talking. Get together for an outing or dinner with your significant others, who may help steer a conversation to how you can help. If we do a better job of supporting one another, I know we can start changing the culture of violence in our country tomorrow.
Photo: Marco Musso / flickr