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The Joker

By Zak Mucha, LCSW
Published by The Zero, July 25, 2012


We have met James Holmes before. Whatever message he meant for us, he has already delivered. That message is the product of an internal dialogue he has been holding. We do not know the details of his life—whether he had been tortured, targeted, coddled, or smothered.

We know he felt his message was important enough to kill for.

Like Cho said in his missives from the VA Tech massacre: "You had a million chances to help me, but now you'll listen..."

Like the Unabomber said from his cabin: "Now that I have your attention, I'll continue killing if you don't print my manifesto..."

Both cited the hypocrisy and cruelty of the world to justify their own actions.

Holmes identified himself as the Joker. The Joker has been society's unchecked id and our dark conscience—shoving society's hypocrisy back into view. In the last Batman movie the Joker identified himself as an agent of chaos, precisely because the order of the world was a scrim of lies. Thrilled by destruction and unafraid to die, he was the psychopath we would want to be, enjoying anarchy in the open streets and unafraid of punishment.

"This—your world—is all a joke," Holmes, in effect, told us. "But now you're listening. And if you're listening, then I've proven I'm serious."

No matter whether Holmes numbed himself with Vicodin or pumped himself up with techno music and vigilante fantasies, he also obliterated his former identity while forcing reality to fit his internal monologues. His psychosis does not excuse his actions, but must redirect our responses.

Holmes did not plan to "get away." He could not return to his apartment, his school, or his parents. This was not a crime that would be considered complete only after avoiding detection. He, like the Joker, would go to jail to await his escape or his out date. He had sent his message: "Your plans and expectations are all a joke, but now you're listening."

We are being told the Aurora, Colorado shooting is a senseless crime. Crime only has to make sense to the person committing the act. Whether we choose to understand is our choice, but it will be our price to pay if we don't understand.

Psychosis is, simply, an inability to coherently and consistently separate the self from the outside world. To defend against encroaching psychosis, the human brain makes defensive efforts, justifying the experience and then incorporating the justification into a belief system. So many suffering adopt the belief that the psychotic symptoms are not a breakdown in brain function, but are messages from God or signs of a greater, immeasurable knowledge. Paranoia must be accompanied by grandiosity. God doesn't send messages to nobodies; the CIA doesn't hunt inconsequential people. Persons suffering severe mental illnesses most often slip into their own worlds, hoping to merely survive the descent while a miniscule minority descend into a dark, dangerous place and come back to show us the tip of the iceberg.

Holmes played with ideas of identity and perceptions of reality. Young men typically do this to counter the banality and futility of the encroaching adulthood. At this stage of life we fight to identify ourselves in a newly discovered hypocritical and corrupt world. This is where we get Americorp volunteers and neo-Nazis—from that hormone-fueled blast to identify and individuate ourselves from those we distrust.

If conscious of any first hints of mental health concerns as college began, Holmes may have sought answers for his own fears by both studying neuroscience while also testing his ideas about "temporal illusions" and subjective realities. This may be an effective way to seek answers as well as ensure that one does not implement a solution. We seek answers while protecting ourselves from the truth. We tell ourselves it's not that serious, no matter how much it hurts. We either adapt to the chronic pain or we turn it out onto others.

Societal responses are already following this pattern, blaming pop culture and gun control laws. Banning semi-automatic rifles or Batman is a simple deflection of the issue. How did no person see a young man beginning to decompensate on a college campus? How did no one hear a fraction of his internal dialogue?

If we do want to prevent similar atrocities, we must have assertive and intensive mental health care willing to outreach young people slipping away from us. Any major university with a sports program should be able to finance a full team of psychiatric outreach workers who could identify people presenting a possible threat to themselves or others. They, like any clinician, would not have a cure for schizophrenia, but should be able to identify possible threats long before delusions and fantasies become self-fulfilling prophecy.


Zak Mucha, LCSW, is a therapist as well as the supervisor of an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program, providing services to persons suffering severe psychiatric and substance abuse disorders in Chicago's Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods. He has presented workshops addressing clinical and social issues. He is an advisory board member of the National Association to Protect Children and a 2010 Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis fellow. Mucha is also the author of The Beggars' Shore (Red 71 Press, 2000), Heart Transplant (co-author) with Andrew Vachss and Frank Caruso (Dark Horse Books, 2010), and the forthcoming Heavyweight Champion of Nothing (Ten Angry Pitbulls, 2013). He maintains a private practive for indivdual therapy and counseling.

© Copyright 2012 Zak Mucha. All rights reserved.




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