“And Now I Speak” Chapter Two: The Loaded Gun.

And Now I Speak ArtWork

Listen here.

What makes someone “evil?”

Are we destined to one, specific storyline?

Can we change fate?

I want the final point to be one of hope, of autonomy and power over what can feel like a powerless situation. It’s easy to ask why things happen to us, or to want the answer to just lie in a faulty gene. But the path you’re set on at birth does not have to be the only way. It’s up to us not just to steer our own path, but to uplift others and create a world where we appreciate the power of context. You’re not just born evil or broken or hopelessly worthless. But it’s easy to be convinced otherwise, or to exacerbate the obstacles that come with us into this life.

You can be born holding a loaded gun without having to pull the trigger.

SOURCES:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010958/

http://depressiongenetics.stanford.edu/mddandgenes.html

https://yogamaris.net/2016/06/16/evil-is-created-not-born/

https://yogamaris.net/2015/08/14/talk-about-the-shit-you-dont-want-to-talk-about/

http://amothersreckoning.com/

https://yogamaris.net/2018/03/08/living-with-mental-illness/

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/death-by-design-9780195182408?cc=us&lang=en&

TRANSCRIPT:

When we’re dealt a tough hand in life, it’s easy to ask, “Why me?”

I think we’ve all done it from time to time, looked around and wondered what caused our life to pan out this way. It’s comforting to think that there’s some kind of reasoning to life, to the way things work out, and that it’s not just one big, morbid game of chance.

Since I was a child, I’ve dealt with mental illness in an invisible battle I carried with me day and night. Anxiety and depression followed me like a cloud; always hanging over me and waiting to strike me down with its lightning storms of panic attacks and self harm. I struggled to relate to my seemingly carefree and happy peers, shirking away from crowded social gatherings and events for fear of being humiliated by the onset of an attack. All I wanted was to fit in, but it felt like a fruitless task: either I risked being anxious in public and being teased for it, or I ostracized myself from my peers through self-isolation out of fear of being teased.

When I was fourteen, I felt lonelier and more out-of-place than ever. My depression worsened, I became even more isolated and fearful of my own mind, and my parents were at a loss for how to help me. It was as though my mind was a kingdom that had been overthrown by some cruel dictator that stole my autonomy by plaguing my mind with worries, fears, and doubts I couldn’t shake. My life felt like it was spiraling out of control, and in a desperate attempt to find some semblance of it, I fell into the dark world of an eating disorder.

Taking control of my food gave me a high like nothing else I’d ever experienced. Counting calories, weighing and measuring every bite of food I put in my mouth, spending hours running on a treadmill just to watch the numbers on the screen tick away calmed the anxious voices in my mind that had been chattering my entire life. Seeing my body change- no matter how unhealthy it was becoming- made me feel as though I had finally stolen back control from my mental strife.

But as with all highs, I eventually had to come crashing back down.

The spring of my sophomore year of highschool, I was hospitalized in an attempt to save myself from myself. My body was shutting down, as was my will to live. The doctors warned my parents that I was at risk of a heart attack, as my organs were so starved for nourishment they were preparing to shut down. Hearing this news should have terrified me, but I received it with a startling calm: I felt like I deserved such a punishment for being a broken, ill person. I felt that my mental illness made me a person beyond hope, a person who could barely be considered a person. What hope was there for someone like me, tortured by their own brain?

BRAIN HEALTH

A few years ago, I read the book A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of a Tragedy by Sue Klebold. Sue Klebold, as you may have guessed, is the mother of Dylan Klebold, whose name is forever tainted by the memories of those killed in the Columbine shooting in April of 1999.

I was only a year old when the Columbine shooting occurred, the first in what would become a long and haunting string of school shooting attacks in my lifetime, and yet I could tell you countless facts about the case from off the top of my head. I could tell you the names of the two perpetrators, I could tell you the name of ostracized social group they were supposedly a part of (The Trenchcoat Mafia), I could tell you a few stories that have become lore of the case about who said or did what during the attacks. It’s become a tale as infamous as any popular movie or TV show, so incessantly dissected and dramatized that it’s hard for me to sometimes remember that it really happened.

Sue Klebold’s book does not detail the life of an abused or mistreated boy. Her regrets don’t linger in the number of violent video games or movies she allowed her son to watch. She hated guns, raised her son to view guns as dangerous. She writes about a boy who loved the delicate practice of origami, how he would sit quietly for hours folding paper into art. When news of the shooting broke, Sue was in as much disbelief as the rest of the country at the horrors that had occurred in the halls and classrooms of Columbine High.

It became easy to villainize the shooters. It became easy for the media to spin them into monsters, two kids who had woken up with a grudge one day and decided it would be fun to wreak havoc on their peers. TIME Magazine featured a cover in the months after declaring the two boys responsible “the monsters next door.” While many were left asking why, it became easy to respond, because they were bad, because they were evil, because they were raised wrong.

Sue was not exempt from asking “why.” And for years and years, she continued to ask “why.”

What she came to, was brain health. Not mental health, she’d be careful to specify, brain health. Because mental is too cerebral, too hard to take seriously. Mental is too easy to conflate with a person’s mere personality or personal morality. But the brain, while still an enigma, is tangible. We can envision in our minds a squishy, pinkish thing, something that can become sick just like a liver or lung.

My first time reading A Mother’s Reckoning was the first time I really sat down to consider the question, are we destined to become the people we become? Was Dylan as destined to turn to murder and suicide as I was to turn to self-harm and an eating disorder? Was fate unchangeable in that regard? How different was I, as someone who also had a sick brain, from someone like Dylan?

The past three months, I’ve studied under Professor Craig Haney at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He teaches a course here titled Psychology and Law, and it’s treated as a somewhat fantastical class amongst students here. I’ve spoken to at least a handful of Psych majors who came to this school specifically to take his class, and countless others who wandered in and unexpectedly had their perspectives on crime and criminality wildly changed, or at least challenged. And Haney himself is his own kind of a celebrity: whenever he’s mentioned you seem to get at least one person asking, “Did you hear he worked on the Stanford Prison Experiment?”  or, “Did you know he was interviewed by OPRAH on 60 Minutes?”

One night in class, I saw that TIME Magazine cover of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, declaring them the monsters next door, projected up in the front of the room, and I didn’t just see a devoid evil in Dylan for the first time. I saw the boy Sue described in her book, folding origami at the kitchen counter. I looked down in my heart and couldn’t find enough sympathy inside of me to absolve him of blame for his actions, but I did find a curiosity that wasn’t there before. I found myself asking, What went wrong?

Was it just a sickness in his brain? Or was it more? Could he have been stopped? If not the sickness itself being halted, could we have treated it? If I were to put myself in a similar context, could my own sickness have been stunted? Could a different path have been laid, could I have not ended up in that hospital bed?

Although I haven’t asked him, and although he’s persistently hesitant to speak in absolutes, I think Professor Haney would at least entertain the possibility of changing fate.

HOW FATE IS MADE

I went into his class with a somewhat unconscious opinion on criminality. Although I study social justice, and as such have been aware of inequality that lies within the legal system, it was only a surface level understanding. Far more often than I was exposed to media exploring inequity in law, I was exposed to media that sensationalized it. The guilty pleasure of my mother and I throughout my teen years was to throw on Investigation Discovery and watch cheesy daytime television reenacting horrendous murder cases, or to watch Dateline and revel in the mysteries they detailed. My father would always roll his eyes and say those shows were the reason we were scaredy cats, but it was entertaining to to upteenth degree, especially the way they were portrayed: with gravelly-voiced narrators and elements of romance or betrayal.

Looking back, it’s no wonder I had difficulty truly understanding that these were the lives of real people, not just Shakespearean tales woven behind the television screen. And in those shows it was easy to see who the bad guy was. The bad guy was the killer, and the killer killed because he was a bad person and devoid of morality. There was a separation between them and I, something that made them an inhuman kind of evil I couldn’t relate to on any level.

I was a freshman in high school when the Sandy Hook shooting happened. I remember sitting in biology class when my phone buzzed with the news, but the horror of it hardly sunk in until I saw then-president Barack Obama crying tears of sorrow as he remembered the victims’ frighteningly short lives in his memorial speech later that day. Children, children shot in their own school. Children still too young to truly understand what death is. Children, in the place where they were supposed to be safe. Over a decade after Columbine, and yet still possible.

Even now, when I think about the person who killed these children, my instinct is to admonish them as evil, nothing but pure evil. But then I have to wonder, did they have a mother like Sue? Did they have someone who saw good in them? Someone who would recoil at the idea that I saw their child as nothing but a hollow shell of evil?

I’m of the opinion now that to stop there, at that initial assessment of just evil, is to abandon the idea that change is possible and to accept the idea that we can do nothing to change the fates of those lost to violence in schools and elsewhere. And I have been proven time and time again since Sandy Hook, right up until the shooting that occurred on Valentine’s Day the day I sat in a lecture hall with Professor Haney, learning about how fate is made.

Research has shown us that we are not simply born either a criminal or not. We can be born predisposed to brain illnesses, things like depression, anxiety, or various disorders that prevent us from fully empathizing with others. But what more effectively predicts a life marked by criminality are risk factors that can begin even before we are born. Things like whether our mother abused drugs while we were en-utero, or whether we grew up in a household of abuse, or whether we were forced to drop out of school due to persistent, inescapable poverty. These criminogenic factors, as they’re called, add up over time: the more risks we face, the greater likelihood we will be aggressive, face conviction for crimes, face greater problems over a lifetime.

And these issues do not affect us equally. Some of us are born more vulnerable: into populations that are more often victimized than not, into populations that have far less access to resources that could act as a buffer to the risk factors we face. Although it’s easy to look at someone and pin their criminality on them as their own, autonomous choice on a way of life, it’s harder to zoom out and consider how different their starting point in life may be than our own. It’s even harder to swallow the idea that, perhaps, we are not all born as equally autonomous and free as we’d like to think.

I remember watching those daytime television shows, wondering why someone would “choose” a life of crime. But now it’s hard for me to think that choose is quite the right word. Did they choose to join a gang and end up caught in a murder? Or were they raised in poverty, isolated from a healthier form of community, and desperate for safety in an environment that isn’t safe for those without affiliation? Did they have the choice of going to college, getting a better paying job, and moving to a safer town? Or were they told, in one way or another throughout life, that that was simply out of reach for them: financially, categorically, racially?

It’s not just about choice. It’s about the things that were not chosen about the cards we’re dealt that create space for later “choices” to be made.

Did Dylan make the choice to walk into that school and shoot those innocent people? Yes, and I’m not here to relieve him of that responsibility. Did any of the other countless school shooters make the choice to kill those people? Yes, and I’m not here to say they shouldn’t be held accountable in some way for their actions.

But do I think fate could have been changed?

Absolutely.

What if Dylan’s persistent struggle with depression and vulnerability to seeing violence as an answer to his pain had been identified by his family, then uninformed about brain health? Could things have turned out different? Even aside from the necessary debate on gun control, could addressing the criminogenic factors in Dylan’s life have been the difference between making that choice and not?

And if we were to dig into the lives of countless other criminal offenders, I think it would be fascinating to see what we could find if we were to zoom out. To de-individualize the crime and not just stop at our initial impression of who is born evil and who is not, but to acknowledge the idea that perhaps we do have a way of addressing the epidemic of violence our society faces. It’s not about merely pinpointing and eradicating those with some inherent trait of evilness, but about systematically addressing the things that allow that evil to bloom, blossom, and grow.

And so what about me? How was my fate created?

Eating disorders have been long been pointed to as a personal choice. I know I used to feel that way, at least, when I was first diagnosed. When I was 16, I wrote:

 

“I was a freshman. I was anorexic.

 

That’s still not something I believe when I write it down. When I think about anorexia, I think about paper-light ballerinas on their toes, I think about tiny, frail things that scare kids on PBS documentaries. I think about, as ugly as it is to admit, vanity and selfishness. I think about girls on scales and girls in mirrors and girls with measuring tape, like seamstresses of their own bodies.”

Unknowingly, I was offering myself years later the opportunity to show an example of the individualization of mental health problems. I saw anorexia as a reflection of personal shortcomings, of vanity and selfishness. I struggled to see it as something that could be “zoomed out” on, something that had a far broader context than simply being the way I was born.  

I now ask, if not some moral shortcoming, than what penned my fate of facing this mental illness?

GENES

Recent behavioral genetic findings have suggested substantial genetic influence on the development of  and predisposition to eating disorders. It’s been long assumed in the world of psychological research that eating disorders are influenced by developmental, social, and biological processes, but the ways in which they interact are largely a mystery. Sure, societal beauty standards and pressures on women in particular to meet these standards play a role in developing an eating disorder, but it’s unlikely that they’re the only or biggest reason someone develops one. There’s recorded cases of anorexia nervosa as early as the beginning of the 19th century, long before modern diet culture and modern body ideals came along. Moreover, anorexia affects roughly 1.7-2.5% of the general population which, while significant, isn’t as high of a number we’d expect if being exposed to negative body image culture were the only or most defining factor in developing an eating disorder when we consider just how exposed we are to media surrounding these ideas.

A study published by Wade Berrettini in 2004 sought to explore the possibility of genetic predisposition, and what they found seemed to suggest that heritability could play a significant role in determining the fate of an individual when it comes to eating disorders. Conducting studies on both families and pairs of twins found increased rates of eating disorders in relatives of women with anorexia or binge-eating disorder when compared to relatives of controls who did not have a history of eating disorders. In fact, it’s been found that there’s a 7 to 12-fold increase in the prevalence of eating disorders in those related to sufferers of eating disorders.

All this is to suggest that in asking, “Why me? Why did I have an eating disorder?” it’s likely that there’s a least a hint of the answer lying somewhere in my genes. That brain disease that Sue Klebold warns about, that brain disease that can manifest in a million different ways, was likely determined the second I was born, at least to some extent. At the very least, it seems, the odds were stacked against me from the very beginning in regards to whether or not I’d face mental illness in my lifetime.

Like Sue Klebold’s son, I, too struggled with depression. Not unlike eating disorders, depression has also found its roots in genetics. According to researchers at Stanford University, science has shown us that heritability for depression is somewhere around 50%. This could be taken one of two ways: either it means that in any given case of depression 50% of the cause is related to our genes and 50% isn’t, or it could mean that 50% of cases of depression are related to genetics and 50% aren’t.

Either way, it seems to me that Sue’s son and I both were handed a uniquely difficult deck of cards. In our genes, in our brain chemistry, in our family tree, the game of probabilities worked against us. Our fates were destined, created, manufactured, to involve mental illness.

But if genetics loads the gun, what pulls the trigger?

WHERE THE PATHS DIVERGE

Because the fact is, one of us went on to inflict unspeakable pain on the lives of many, and the other did not. This isn’t to place me on some moral high ground over Sue’s son, nor is it to absolve him of his responsibility. It’s a question that I believe is worth asking if we are to address the issues that lie at the intersection of mental illness and crimes that affect the most vulnerable of our population.

In A Mother’s Reckoning, Sue somewhat unintentionally offers insight into the criminogenic factors that dotted her son’s path. His predisposed weakness- his struggles with depression- made him particularly vulnerable to the stressers he faced. His family did not understand the depths of his mental illness, and as such didn’t get him the help he needed. He felt ostracized because of his internal turmoil, and turned to the only sense of community he felt understood him, the classmate with equal amounts of personal struggles that would eventually become his cohort in murdering their peers. His criminogenic risks grew and grew and grew until the weight became enough to push him over the moral line drawn in the sand between everyday unhealthy coping mechanisms to unthinkable actions.

In my own life, I was lucky to have a family that when they didn’t understand, sought to understand. The shoved me into therapy against my will. They took me to the hospital when I was on the brink of destruction. More than just my parents’ compassion, their financial resources also afforded me this extra opportunity to address my blossoming illness. And once my body was saved, I found solace in a far different community than Sue’s son: in a yoga studio. I started writing about my feelings. I started painting. Slowly but surely, my brain began to heal as much as my soul. Things may not be easy, but they surely are easier.

Here is what I see in these two stories that are rather unlikely to be compared: fate writing the first lines of the story, and the rest being written by the imperfect human hand. I’m not suggesting that, left untreated I would have become yet another school shooter, but I am suggesting that I would most likely be dead. And news story after investigation after study shows us that underneath the rage, underneath the anger, underneath the demonization, kids commiting school shootings are doing it as a glorious act of suicide.

Sue says it herself in her book. More than anything, her son wanted to kill himself. And his illness saw this as one last opportunity to be seen and to be remembered.

Genetics loaded the gun. Circumstances pulled the trigger.

What if those two boys had gotten adequate support? What if any of the number of violent criminals had gotten support? The criminal justice system is a magnet for the mentally ill for any number of reasons: only one of them being that, in some places, jails and prisons are the only places people can afford mental healthcare, as inadequate as their offerings may be. We are far too often limiting the choices of the most vulnerable, backing them into a corner and pressure cooking them in an environment where deadly weapons are easily accessible, only to turn around and declare them monsters.

If they’re any kind of monster, they’re Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, and we as a society are responsible for creating them.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTERS

I had choices.

They were placed in the palms of my hands by my parents. I was born into a family that could afford a therapist, afford a wildly expensive hospital stay, afford the yoga classes I attended in my healing. It bought me the time and space to realize all of the opportunity I had before me, to not feel backed into a corner.

So many do not. Far, far too many do not.

In 2016, right after the shootings at UCLA, I wrote a piece titled “Evil is Created, Not Born.” In it, I talked about the past few weeks of heartbreak we’d experienced as a country, from the Stanford rape trials to the Pulse Nightclub massacre.

I wrote:

“…it feels like hate and evil is permeating our culture in a way so ridiculously outright that it can’t be anything other than a sign that we need to change the way we are living, acting, and relating to one another. (…)

Because no one is born evil; I don’t believe there is such thing as a bad kid. It takes years, ages, of consistent pain and probing and neglect to allow such a powerfully negative transformation to take place.

And I say neglect because I believe this to be the most important factor. Someone can be bullied, someone can be exposed to evil, disgusting media and propaganda, someone can be indoctrinated into heinous beliefs, but if just one person cares enough to reach out and help guide this person towards love and compassion, they can be saved. I believe this, because it happens every day. People want, no, need attention. They need to be recognized, to be looked in the eye and told that they are loved and they are worthy of living a life that spreads that love. They need to be told that it is okay to release yourself from the constant, heavy burden that is hate and to live a life free of judgements and prejudices against others.

Why do you rape a person? Because you have never felt in control of your life and you now seek the one form of control that seems so easy and tangible and within reach. Why do you kill a person? Because you have hated yourself as long as you can remember and now you want to rid the world of someone you finally hate more than yourself. Why do you dedicate your life to telling others that their way of living, their way of loving, their way of shaping their identity is wrong? Because you feel wrong. You feel out of place. You need to make your way of living the way of living so that you can feel validated, justified, and empowered.

We cannot let people get to this state. We cannot allow people to become so powerless in their own lives that they feel they must take power over others. We cannot let someone feel like the only way they can touch the world, be seen, be noticed is to play God and decide who lives and who dies. We need to start treating people like people so they do not become the animalistic devices of evil that are plaguing our society.

They way you talk to people matters. The way you speak to people matters. When you tell someone they are worthless they will believe you. When you tell someone they are a fag, they are worthless, they’re a sin, they will believe you. It will permeate their soul, it will tear them down, bit by bit, until they become filled with all the little pieces of evil you have handed them.

That is how evil is created- it is never born.

When you speak evil, you are manifesting evil. When you allow someone to feel worthless you are allowing yourself to create a force of evil, someone who will spiral into the monsters we have now seen can and do steal lives and damage infrastructures.

All because, years and years ago, we allowed someone to believe they were not enough.”

People are responsible for their actions. I believe that. But I believe that if we are to effectively hold them responsible in a way that addresses the larger problem and breaks the vicious cycle of violence, we must acknowledge the roles we play in allowing the seeds planted by our genetics to grow. It is not enough to label them as bad apples and toss them aside. It is not enough to just provide mental healthcare to those who can afford it. It is not enough to individualize a problem occurring at a mass scale every. Single. Day.

BLOSSOM.

When we’re dealt a tough hand in life, it’s easy to ask, “Why me?”

I think we’ve all done it from time to time, looked around and wondered what caused our life to pan out this way. It’s comforting to think that there’s some kind of reasoning to life, to the way things work out, and that it’s not just one big, morbid game of chance.

My fate began as a seed planted in my genes. Somewhere, in the series of codes and biological mysteries that make up who I am, something small wrote the destiny of my battle with mental illness. A predisposition created a perfect storm within me to struggle with anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder: a chemical mess in my brain that sent me flying through mid-air at a loss for what to do. I felt hopeless. I questioned my role in this life, questioned whether or not I should continue living.

Had I had access to a gun, I might not be here today. I didn’t ever really try to find one, but to say the thought never crossed my mind would be a lie. Was that fate? Was that divine intervention? Was that written in my genes?

But it did not blossom that way. A series of good fortunes and socioeconomic factors held my illness from growing in a way that would cause that kind of irreparable damage.

Still, damage was done. There were still things in my life that weren’t within my control that allowed me to spin out of it. Changes in my family, changes in school, changes in my home: things that pulled the trigger on the gun my genes loaded in a different way. Instead of violence or crime, I lashed out with an attack on my own body. I starved myself in an attempt to regain control, as a way to punish myself for my perceived flaws.

Had the breaking point not happened my freshman year of high school, it could have been pulled at any other time of great change in my life. My eating disorder could have flourished when I went away to college, or when I moved out for the first time. Fate did not specify when the exact moment of blossoming would be, it only secured the possibility of it.

Here is what I’ve come to learn.

In asking, “Why me?” I must be careful to not ask only in service to myself. I must ask in an attempt to help protect and heal others.

It’s easy to see in hindsight what happens when you plant a seed for a poisonous fruit and water it enough for it to sprout. It’s harder to see in the moment, especially in a moment of deep hurting for many.

Let’s zoom out. Let’s start at the beginning, understand how seeds are planted and who they are planted within. And then let’s figure out what’s nourishing them enough to allow them to grow into problems that cause us pain.

Why me?

I was born set in a certain direction, but life knocked me on a different course along the way.

Let’s make changes to ensure that those born pointed in one direction are not sentenced to keep moving towards it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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