What if the parents are more at fault than their child, the shooter?
What I most want to know about the Oxford case is the ratio of nature to nurture behind the child’s mindset. Some people are born with screws loose in the worst way; born sociopaths, masochists, murderers. Most are made.
As someone who grew up in a cult for one, I can speak to how easily individuals, families, and communities can build alternate realities for their co-dependents in plain sight. What if the shooter was not a mentally ill child, but the product of mentally ill (or equally vulnerable) parents? A product of neglect and/or, potentially, a cult of some kind? In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal (1). Cults of extremism of all kinds – religious, spiritual/new age, political, racist, conspiracy, and terrorist cults are on the rise the world over. [They] proliferate quickly and gain widespread accessibility during crisis events, such as pandemics, natural disasters, wars and conflicts (2). Michigan is especially fertile ground for extremism. See “Examining Extremism: The Militia Movement”; Why Michigan is considered fertile ground of anti-government extremists”; “Report finds 25 hate groups in Michigan as extremism becomes mainstream”.
Its members need only be susceptible to the information in the first place, and taught that they can’t trust anyone or anything else. Confirmation bias will do the rest. It’s a pretty air tight system.
Many people in cult-like situations don’t know that they’re in them. And because they’ve been taught that all other ways of thinking are wrong (usually with dire consequences for defecting; from losing access to loved ones to eternal damnation), few ever seek an out. Even when the inclination arises, there are no readily available resources for such people. When I was a child and first had the inclination that something was up and the willingness to speak to a trusted adult about it – I can only recall that happening once – I was told, “Parents always want what’s best for their kids. Whatever you don’t understand now, you will someday.”
For persons outside the cult, it’s not in our collective nature or immediate interest to interfere. We might sense that something is off with someone or some group of people and steer clear of them ourselves and advise people we love to do the same, but eh…what else can you do? Especially when questionable, dogmatic thinking manifests in a child; saying anything at all will cause a shit storm from which no one emerges unscathed and nothing is likely to be accomplished. As a teacher, it’s my experience that bringing concerns to a parent or administrator’s attention is tricky business. You’re just as likely to be treated as someone trying to cause a problem as someone trying to address or prevent one. There’s no clear pathway for addressing unhealthy dogma of any nature in the US or anywhere that I know of. As with anything else, we take a punitive approach; we wait till someone is hurt or dead.
What I understand today is that little me was right. Something was very wrong, and the adult who didn’t or couldn’t take me seriously, didn’t know what to do, or just didn’t want to wade into the shit storm incidentally reinforced my brainwashing. I’m lucky that I got out several years later and have been able to recover and re-assimilate to society as I have, given the limited resources available for such a journey. And I’m not alone. There are many children and adults raised with dangerous dogma. This is true whether the Oxford case eventually reveals that the shooter falls into this category or not.
If it is the case that the shooter’s parents have, intentionally or otherwise, neglected and/or brainwashed their child with ideologies that would mold him into a killer, then I maintain that the parents are more at fault than the child. After 15 years of learning, he can be expected to live out the values that were taught to him, no matter what those values turn out to be. Same as a 15yo who is raised to value charitable work for others does so because of the values instilled in them. I think that before we lock him up and throw away the key, we need to see if the child can be rehabilitated. It mightn’t be possible, but the part of me that’s unlearned what I was taught and relearned with help to reintegrate into society thinks that not only is it possible, but that as a society that has failed to identify any serious mental health issues before now or to intervene and mitigate dangerous brainwashing, we owe it to him and to ourselves to find out if it’s possible.
In future, I don’t know how we can absolutely prevent this kind of situation from evolving. The mere idea of policing ideology before it becomes a problem reeks of its own extremes, with words like “cleansing” in our collective vocabulary as a testament. However, I don’t think that what we’re doing, or not doing, is sufficient either.
As education was key for my rehabilitation, I think it will be key for prevention. If you think it could never happen to you, then you’re the most vulnerable (3). In addition to the obvious arguments that people are making on behalf of gun control and parent education, everyone needs to be educated on the signs, symptoms, and variety of cults of extremism – even or especially within family units,, as they may be more common – and to give those on the front line working with vulnerable people (teachers, social workers, therapists) the tools, paths, and funding to address and mitigate these issues before they manifest in irreconcilable harm to the person and/or others.
1. In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal. This sense of the term is controversial, having divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult
- Note: I am aware that Wikipedia is an unreliable resource in and of itself. At the time of publishing this article, I have checked this page’s bibliography and find this to be accurate, well supported, and succinct for my purposes. I cannot vouch for edits made after date of publishing.
2. [They] proliferate quickly and gain widespread accessibility during crisis events, such as pandemics, natural disasters, wars and conflicts. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27040260
3. If you think it could never happen to you, then you’re the most vulnerable. https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/relationships-love/a33648485/signs-of-a-cult/
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