by Jonathan Fast
From The Washington Post: The most compelling aspects of Jonathan Fast’s “Ceremonial Violence,” billed as a “psychological explanation” of a handful of U.S. elementary or secondary school shootings, are not the author’s psychological insights. Instead, Fast, a Yeshiva University professor, is most successful when he organizes the bizarre details of each case into a readable narrative.
In an early chapter, for example, he recounts the case of Brenda Spencer, who at age 16, on Jan. 29, 1979, “broke two of the diamond-shaped panels in the front door” of her home, pointed her loaded rifle at the San Diego area elementary school across the street, killed the principal and a janitor, and wounded several students. The case is particularly fascinating because a local newspaper reporter called, and Spencer agreed to be interviewed mid-shooting. That interview buttresses Fast’s theory that many school shooters commit what he calls “ceremonial violence”: homicidal acts that establish fame and compensate for social marginalization, unhappiness, mental disorder or a history of abuse.
Here’s the strange interlude with the San Diego Evening Tribune reporter:
“The girl who answered the phone gave her name as Brenda. Did she know anything about the shootings? ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I saw the whole thing.’ Did she know who did it? A 16-year-old kid who lived at 6356 Atlin Avenue, she replied. ‘Isn’t that your address?’ [the reporter] asked, puzzled. ‘Sure,’ she said, giggling. ‘Who do you think did it? . . . I just did it for the fun of it. . . . I just don’t like Mondays. . . My dad’s gonna kill me when he gets home and finds out about this. . . . He’s going to flip.’ ”
It’s a gripping story, but Fast doesn’t do enough with it. Why did Brenda do it, aside from its being “fun”? Fast tries to explain, citing medical tests conducted after the shooting. Brenda had a hard-to-detect and previously undiagnosed form of epilepsy, triggered by a bike accident two years earlier. Fast surmises: “It is easy to imagine the teasing that [her condition] might have elicited from Brenda’s classmates (Look, Brenda’s zoning out again! Brenda’s such a space cadet! etc.).” But this seems to be pure conjecture. After all, Brenda, who was given multiple life sentences, later told parole board members that she had been on drugs and was hallucinating at the time; even later, she announced that her father beat her and forced her to have sex with him. “At the time of this writing, Brenda Spencer remains incarcerated,” Fast writes, and her father has since remarried and lives in the same home.
And therein lies the most maddening void in this book: Why didn’t Fast, a professor of social work, interview Brenda or her father? He doesn’t mention even trying to contact her or any of the book’s other student shooters, many of whom remain incarcerated years after their crimes. Instead, he cribbed heavily from the hard work of newspaper reporters who had conducted interviews around the time of the shootings or later. “Ceremonial Violence” performs a public service as a clearinghouse and reference guide, but Fast’s interpretations of the shooters’ motives feel limited or obvious — or sometimes too speculative.
For instance, Fast seems to be groping for answers about the mental state of Wayne Lo, who in 1992 killed a student and a staff member at his Massachusetts high school, when he writes of how the Taiwan-born Lo obtained U.S. citizenship a year before his rampage: “We can assume that this change of status, pregnant with symbolism and contradictory messages about character, ideology, and religiosity, did little to clarify his sense of self-identity.”
Although Fast provides other possible explanations, this one seems entirely unpersuasive. An Internet search on Lo’s name reveals a YouTube video in which he is interviewed by a local television news reporter. This book might have been much more valuable if the author had only picked up the phone and made some appointments.