A long time ago, in 1988, a bipolar woman named Laurie Dann lost her job, hated her life, and in the middle of a really bad Monday, she shot some grade school kids and then herself in nearby Wilmette, Illinois. It was one of the first big incidents of random gun violence in America’s schools. Later that year it inspired a song by the Boomtown Rats –Sir Bob Geldof’s former band– with the above title (based on something Dann had said in the midst of her manic episode). Though Wilmette soon passed some gun restriction laws that it formerly had been unable to pass, the long-term ramifications of this rampage through a second grade classroom (and its heavy national news coverage afterward) were not fully realized for many years, if at all.
Though it may sound callous, I have a minor confession to make: When the recent shootings at Northern Illinois University happened, my first thought was not about the NIU victims, nor about last year’s Virginia Tech shootings, nor about the Amish schoolchildren from a few years back, nor about the Columbine shootings, nor even about Laurie Dann and the Hubbard Woods school kids. I thought, with compassion and concern, of the clinically depressed (but off his meds) shooter at NIU, Steven Kazmierczak, and how challenging his life and mental health issues must have been to lead to the actions on that day.
My next thought was about the hawkish, gun-totin’ right wing American fetishists who make it so easy for a man-child like Steven to get those weapons. In contrast, the U.K. passed a complete ban on handguns after the Dunblane Massacre in 1996 (18 grade school kids). Though I know all this makes me sound like a bleeding-heart liberal to some, I don’t care. Steven Kazmierczak, was somebody’s brother, somebody’s kid, and probably had hopes and dreams not so very different from mine or yours. It’s just that he had an immense cross to bear as he wandered his way through this sometimes painful life.
I also thought the NIU incident would be either another opportunity to deal with mental illness like grownups, or else another significant setback in our culture’s unwillingness to wrestle with this tough but important issue. So far, unfortunately, it’s looking like a missed opportunity, as we become more jaded with every generation and have probably begun to assume that “these things just happen”.
I may have a leg up on most folks when it comes to being better-informed about mental illness, because several members of my extended family are paranoid schizophrenics. In addition, I myself have undergone treatment for clinical depression in the past, and have hit some pretty low points now and then. Not “pick up a gun” low points, and not suicidal, but low enough to know how trapped, alone and angry one can feel in the midst of a serious (but often invisible) illness. The standard line I use in talking with people is that mental illness is primarily chemical, not moral or psychological, in origin. Furthermore, it’s a group of illnesses no less deserving of compassion, funding, and colored ribbons than breast cancer or the eradication of terrorism.
Yet America has not been educated or equipped to understand the day-to-day realities of mental illness, or the need for better public policy to support mental health in general. It’s just so much easier to demonize the handful of “crazies” who snap, “go postal”, or whatever we want to call those whose illness manifests in violence.
So as I go through this crappy Monday– with its rain, and my return to work in a school where kids only want to learn about half the time (perfectly normal, I know), and my annoying, imperfect relationships with family and friends — I will be thinking of Laurie Dann and Steven K. I will not scream at my unruly students or my own willful son. I will even consider whether I need to go back on my own meds. (I sometimes take them over the winter, to counteract some Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms. This year I chose not to, but I’m feeling a bit irritable of late.)
I also will be praying that this year, maybe, we can all be a little more ready to understand, talk to, and support each other, especially the sickest among us. Because these things really don’t just happen. They’re not inevitable. Not in a society based on mercy, progress, and common sense anyway.