James Holmes; What Happened?


A Psychological Exploration into the Mind of a Killer


Our nation is mourning today.  Twelve beautiful souls were senselessly killed in one of our countries largest and most tragic massacres.  There are no soothing words to somehow put this in perspective or grant us some kind of collective understanding.   This incident was a tragedy of the highest order.  Innocent people who were simply gathered to indulge their sense of fantasy and adventure were taken from their families and from this country and from this world in a violent, senseless, and inexplicable act.  It will never be ok.  It will never be fully understood.


Most of our energy and prayers and focus should be with the victims and the victims’ families.  For it is they who will suffer long after the headlines go away.  It is our job to support these families in honoring the life and legacy of these individuals.  To eternally and emphatically send our prayers their way. 


As painful and enraging as it may be to take our attention away from the victims and towards the perpetrator, it also seems important to look closely at why this happened.   How a seemingly functional, heretofore non-violent person can engage in this kind of ruthless, horrifying violence.  We don’t know a lot about James Holmes.  But we know some.  This information, coupled with some psychological theory, gives us some preliminary hypothesis about what happened on this darkest of days.


James Holmes, 24, was reportedly a loner.  And by the accounts that have so far surfaced, he wasn’t known intimately by many.  In a recent rent application, he described himself as “quiet” and “easy going”.  Holmes had no criminal background to speak of and was not on the radar of any law enforcement agency.  He had no prior interaction with the local Aurora police department, except for a traffic summons for speeding in 2011.  His academic history also does not belie his ultimately violent nature.  Holmes graduated in the spring of 2010 with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California-Riverside, where he was remembered as an outstanding student who attended on a merit-based scholarship.  He went on to begin to earn an advanced degree in neuroscience at the University of Colorado.   However, reports indicate he began the process of dropping out of the program in June 2012. 


This history, albeit brief, does not immediately offer any real insight into what ultimately caused this individual to carry out this heinous, totally inhumane act.  Typically murderers such as Holmes are regarded as sociopaths.  Individuals who are void of conscience, hedonistic, narcissistic, and well, evil.  And it appears that these qualities likely apply to Holmes.  I mean, how else does one methodically engage in this kind of horrid act?  It is probably true, from a psychological standpoint, that Holmes is ultimately a sociopath.  There is only a small percentage of the population that engages in this kind of evil, and this title is appropriately and psychologically speaking, reserved for them.  But what else helps us understand this unspeakable act and the man behind it?


It appears that Holmes was a loner in the deepest sense of the word.  And that he somehow became severely disenfranchised from society—from his family, from his friends, from his academic affiliation, from his own conscience.  A sense of disenfranchisement can lead to deep, unrelenting depression.  One begins to feel that they don’t matter in the world, that they are not worthy of connection, of love, of affiliation, of participating in society.  When this kind of thinking goes unchecked, and begins to multiply, it can become fatally toxic—and like a cancer, it spreads.  It spreads to the mind, to the body, to the heart and to the soul.  And when this metastasis occurs, a form of selfishness, narcissism, and yes, evil can begin to foster and eventually take over. 


Individuals in this state literally become delusional.  Delusions can cause people to harbor paranoid fantasies and ideas about the world around them.   These fantasies often center around the notion that society is to blame for the individual’s woes and sense of utter loneliness and that society alone must pay for this travesty.  A person in this state feels an extreme sense of powerlessness—a total inability to impact his or her own lives or the world around them.  They being to desperately and pathologically seek out a way to feel powerful and important.  They yearn for a platform on which they can appear dominant and potent.  It is in this mix of delusion and desperation, that a murderous plan can be concocted and executed.  That this act, is the only act that will somehow allow this individual to be heard and to feel relevant.


The exploration into the mind of this violent offender is in no way done to excuse, mitigate, or ameliorate the actions of James Holmes.  The actions were his and his alone and are not made remotely more tolerable or digestible by having insight into why and how it could have gotten this bad.  Rather, it is done to facilitate a psychological perspective regarding how this possibly could have happened.   It is a small but important piece of this horrible and devastating puzzle.  


But for now, it is time to return our thoughts to the victims and their families who are steeped in unimaginable pain and loss.  Ultimately, words fail to express the level of sadness and grief and devastation felt for those affected by this tragedy.  We all cry together today and in the days and weeks that follow. 

Dr. Hillary Goldsher, Psy. D, MBA has a priviate practice in Beverly Hills, CA.