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When A Killer Comes From Your Family


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's turn to a conversation you might have been having at home or with friends after some frightening recent events. Two weeks ago, 22-year-old Elliott Rodger killed six people and himself near the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara. And just last week, 26-year-old Aaron Ybarra shot three students, killing one at Seattle Pacific University. And you, like many people, might've been asking yourself - what about their families? Did they know something? Is there something they could've done differently? It turns out that events like this haunt families for years, according to Katherine Newman. And she would know. She is the author of the book "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings." She wrote about this issue recently for the Washington Post and she is also Dean of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Newman, thanks so much for joining us once again.

KATHERINE NEWMAN: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So after doing this work, have you observed any common thread that ties together the families of the perpetrators?

NEWMAN: Some of them were aware - many of them were aware that their children were troubled. But most had no idea that their children were this troubled because they don't have a large sample to compare them to. They've got one kid or two kids and they might know that Johnny's not as happy as Jamie but they don't have 1,000 people to compare him against. So they try to, like all good parents do, they try to find a way with Johnny. I even think that the mother of the Newtown shooter was probably working with guns because that's what her son was interested in and she was trying to reach a very difficult child to reach.

MARTIN: I'm thinking about the Santa Barbara killer, Elliot Rodger, who was living independently. He was living in a college community. He was living with roommates. I think one of the reasons that that recent event was so upsetting to people - despite the loss of life and obviously the pain that it is causing - is that it seems as though his parents were aware that he was very troubled because they had him engaged in some kind of therapeutic experience on an ongoing basis. And they did reach out to authorities. Is there anything - I have to ask, is there anything else you think they could have done, knowing what we know now.

NEWMAN: In all honesty, I think it's very hard to put any blame on the parents in this case. As you noted, Elliott Rodger had been under psychiatric treatment since he was 8-years-old. And by the time he reached 22, I have no doubt his parents were looking to provide some opportunity for him to become more independent. And they were looking to see if he could find his way into some kind of adult life. And sadly and tragically, that turned out not to be the case. He was just too disturbed. But they did let the authorities know. His mental health experts let the authorities know. And for a variety of reasons having mostly to do with the restrictions on search and seizure, they didn't go very far in looking into what he had in his house.

MARTIN: Can we go back to the families for a minute? What are some of the things they experience?

NEWMAN: They - first of all, they end up unable to have any privacy at all because everyone is looking for answers, and they usually go to the family first. How could this family have produced a killer, is the question on everyone's mind. And that is especially true in small town America where, actually, most of the shootings happen 'cause these are very tight knit communities. And people know each other - or they think they do. And so the question of how this family could have, quote, "produced a shooter" is foremost on everyone's mind. And of course these families are often deep in grief themselves, not only for the loss of the children in their community, but the loss of their own child and the recognition that their own child was far more disturbed than they realized or could deal with.

MARTIN: Richard Martinez, who's the father of one of Rodger's victims - in fact, I think he's the father of the last victim - actually reached out to Elliott Rodger's parents. And I believe he met with them. Is that unusual?

NEWMAN: Extremely unusual. I can't recall another example of that. There was one family that we studied that was extremely well loved in the community, thought of as pillars of the community - churchgoing, lawyer, homemaker mother. The community gathered around their home all the time. Kids always came over to their house. They were embraced by their community - they really were. But many of these families experience ostracism. Some of them head for the hills and try never to be found by anyone again. We see all kinds of reactions, and those reactions do derive from feeling guilt, shame, ostracism. And often they are the subject of a lot of plaguing by outsiders.

MARTIN: Is there anything, finally, that you would wish us to learn or think about as a general public in response to these recent events which, as you said, seem to be part of a very disturbing cycle, you know, at the moment? I mean, I know that we have not addressed the whole question of gun control and access to guns, and I do recognize that we have not done so. I know that there are some people who will feel that we have completely missed the point. But that is a broader conversation that we just don't have time for. But I just wonder - are there things you would wish us to be thinking about, whatever they are?

NEWMAN: There are two things that I think are important. One is that although Elliott Rodger's family made every effort to alert authorities and to gain their help, most of the time in these shootings, people don't do that. There are warning signs around them that something is going wrong. Many of the children we interviewed, teenagers that we interviewed, didn't go to school on the day when the shooting happened because they knew something horrible was going to happen. But they didn't tell anybody. So the most important thing is that when young people, who have a pretty good radar for something not quite right, you know, feel afraid, they need to come forward and tell people. It won't always work. Sadly, in the Elliott Rodger case, it didn't. His parents tried everything to get others to intervene, and we're going to have to do a lot of soul-searching about why that didn't work. But most of the time, these things can be prevented if the authorities know. And very often, they don't know. The second thing is that we should not assume that what we see on the surface is always telling us what lies underneath. Many of these young shooters have deeply troubled imaginations. They let people know, in so many ways, that they're not quite right in the world. And young people often push their buttons, sadly. They don't accept them. They ostracize them. And that just causes them to seek a stage for glory. And that is part of the toxic recipe for these terrible shootings. We could all be a little bit more forgiving, a little more kindly, a little less bullying. And adolescence is a particularly difficult time for most young people.

MARTIN: Katherine Newman is dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the book, "Rampage: The Social Roots Of School Shootings." And she actually was kind enough go to our bureau in New York. Professor Newman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NEWMAN: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.