What goes on in a family that produces a mass murderer or severe symptoms of any type? Were the family members cut off, over-controlled, over-protected, physically abused, despised? Were they kings, queens or just a prince or princess? Were they suffering from an emotional shock wave, a family reaction to death? What are the dynamics of these families that produce such "interesting" symptoms? Below are the 5 mechanisms that automatically, without awareness manage anxiety.
Distance and Reciprocity
In April, I started working on a blog about mass murders, and then my own family had problems that demanded my attention. How could I put together the interest I had in the Sri Lanka terrorist attacks, where 350 were killed and 500 wounded and my own family issues with one brother becoming manic and the another depressed? It's good to maintain a sense of humor and to keep an eye on the system around the people.
Overall, I have written this blog to simply insert a plea to understand how different kinds of families function during a time of distress and how one informed family leader can make a small difference. During this process, I have also had to consider the role of society, its laws, and incentives that make it more difficult to understand people.
I am also curious about how it is that we humans seem so uninterested in the family and its emotional system.
Few consider that the system may be regulating our behavior in ways we can only slightly comprehend. For example, when nodal events happen, shock waves of threat and upset are communicated to various family members. The information makes people more fearful and seems to produce a cluster of symptoms in those who are weaker in the system. Bowen called this the emotional shock wave.
Often there are clusters of symptoms following or in anticipation of death. Does this happen in families where loss precedes the acting out of a mass murderer? I am guessing that many of these families have suffered or are threatened by a loss. Can this kind of background noise in the family be driving vulnerable people crazy? We just do not know.
The current example of the emotional shock wave in my family, when troublesome symptoms emerged, occurred after a death in December 2018. Stella Schara died at 6 weeks old from sudden infant death syndrome. Then Delia, my 2nd cousin, died. Her mother is my closest cousin on my father's side of the family. Delia died after an eleven-year fight with cancer. Three days later, the oldest of my two brothers, Butch, could not breath and was hospitalized for COPD. Butch has a history of not doing well on steroid drugs, and he began to show signs of mania. My youngest brother and I went to see him. Drew became depressed. After being involved in Butch's hospitalization for ten days, I felt dizzy for four days.
Does it help that I have access to NeurOptimal feedback equipment? Does it help that many family members and friends have been there for the numerous hospitalizations for both brothers? Does it help that I have knowledge of family systems ideas to get me through these emotional storms? YES!
Factors that go into family emotional process: Let's look at the family and see what we can learn. After WWII my father drank and so did my mother. The cost of war? Who is willing to kill and for what reason?
Combat Intelligent Officer
Tokyo Japan after fire bombing
After the war my parents could not function. We were raised by our maternal grandparents from the ages of 9 (Andrea), 7 (Butch), and almost 2 (Drew). My brothers had more pressure applied to them to be "the right kind of men" and were more negatively focused on, criticized, and punished. I was assigned the role of "little mother" to take care of my brothers. And yes, I still have that job, but I can be a bit more flexible and sometimes wily in the role.
Altering my functioning over time produced a significant change in the functioning of the entire family. All you have to do is measure the numbers of family connections I had and the degree of warm versus critical interaction. Between Butch's initial hospitalization in 1974 till 2019, a lot changed, and my brother was not hospitalized again until this year. On May 4th, 1974, our mother died and Butch went off into a manic episode and was hospitalized. After this event, I went to work in a psychiatric hospital to learn what I could about families, and it was here that I met Dr. Bowen in 1976. I got the idea that the family was an emotional system exerting control over the individuals in the system, control that was difficult for people to see or understand.
The main principles guiding my efforts are:
1) defining what I will and will not do and being clear about what are my essential life goals;
2) lowering my anxiety to be a better observer of the family emotional process;
3) relating in a factual but positive way to people in the family without seeking approval and agreement; and
4) getting to know people in my extended family.
The other issue that I am now being forced to learn about is how the mental health system is set up to impede help for the mentally ill who are rebels. Those who cannot see they need help are overprotected and irresponsible individuals. They cannot earn the right to treatment in our medical and legal system until the person has regressed into a state of wanting to kill others or self.
Bowen and his theory of how social systems work enabled me to develop a principle-based way to relate to my family, all my brother's friends, and the mental health people who come in contact with them. The biggest pay off has been the closeness that developed with two of my cousins in my father's family who have been very thoughtful in helping me and my brothers though this challenging time. The system changed and is far more supportive and less isolated. There are fewer hidden agendas. More information is on the table for all to see. And I remain curious as to how my and other's families can produce different kinds of symptoms.
Noticing how the family, as a unit, manages anxiety requires training. It is just not a natural thing to see threats, rising anxiety in the relationship, and then the symptoms as the system adapts to change. Labeling individuals creates a focus on the individual that misses the building up of anxiety in the system. Increasing stress is a response to the threat, be it real or imagined. Overall, it is difficult for us to perceive the importance of relationships in the way we manage threats and as having anything to do with symptoms.
Are families of bipolar people like those that produce mass murders or is there some fundamental difference? Are people satisfied to say these mass murders are just mentally ill and that their families had nothing to do with it? Take the mass murders in Sri Lanka, where two of the murderers were from the same family. Then just a few days ago, May 29th in my hometown of Virginia Beach, a man killed 12 people that he had worked with. Is he too just mentally ill, case closed? What goes on that no one wants to know about the family lives of these people?
Apparently, the last thing people in the news care about is the family life of mass murderers. Perhaps that's because it would turn the world of the individual focus of mental health on its head. Maybe it is just too hard to alter bureaucracies, no matter the cost. Perhaps we lack a leader who can explain to the world how better knowledge leads to better lives. As of now, people are satisfied to be told that there is a reason – revenge, etc. We do not need to understand anything about the family.
No one asks what went on in these killers' brains when they were young or how the families functioned?
Were family members isolated or cut off from the extended family?
Did someone censure these children?
Did the mother or father withdraw love?
Did they try to control their children?
Did parents keep their word?
Were they preoccupied?
Were they angry and vindictive people or were they overly indulgent?
How can we ever find out what kinds of interactions are in families that lead people to lose any sense of self or care for others? What can we do if we discover that families pressure people with too much criticism?
Now Alexa (from Amazon) is already able to tell by listening to your voice if you're depressed. Soon she may shout out, "Mom, you have criticized your son nine times and only said one positive thing about him in the last two hours. His serotonin is down, and he would be an easy target for groups that will honor him as a soldier, corrupt him, and lead him to believe that killing hundreds of strangers will be rewarded."
The incentives for giving in to the group are automatic, and weaker people may be vulnerable to kill for the sake of belonging. Stanley Milgram (1933 - 1984) was a social psychologist who is most well-known for conducting a series of controversial experiments on “Obedience to Authority Figures,” called the Milgram Experiment. Those experiments demonstrated that it doesn't take much to get "normal" people to behave brutally to others. But now headlines tell us it is not group pressure, but rather "Revenge is blamed for the latest Sri Lanka attack leaving 257 people dead. It was reported to be 'retaliation' for the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand."
No one asks if families are training camps for revenge. Were the parents afraid of these soon to be killers? Did they give in to them? Did the parents give them mixed messages, like "why don't you grow up to be the way I want you to be?" Did they honor revenge and/or degrade the rights of people to live with different religions or lifestyles? How can we know what goes on in these families without studying them?
Long ago, Murray Bowen was curious about how the family seems to function as an emotional unit. He worked with families living in a hospital setting. By observing only, with no "help" from the staff, one individual would become a leader in the family. The first ones to change were the fathers. As the leader emerged with any kind of a plan, the family calmed down and people became more thoughtful. Bowen developed his theory by "observing" the way family members relate to one another.
Bowen notes that in families with a schizophrenic member when anxiety was high, the weaker ones bore the most significant symptoms. Eventually, a self-selected family leader would pull out of the "we-ness" in the group. One person developed a backbone about what their principles were and what they would and would not do and communicated this to others. Gradually, the family members began to rise up out of this undifferentiated mass.
Will we revisit having the families of mass murders live at the National Institute of Mental Health to be studied for three years?
Currently, people focus on guns as the problem but maybe it's the relationship system that is the more fundamental problem. What about passing a law requiring families of mass murders to be observed for some amount of time. This law would be about both holding the family responsible and understanding the kinds of systems that pressure people into becoming a no self, a radicalized killer.
Perhaps not enough damage has been done by these mass murders. Maybe we do not care that much about families to pass such a law.
We have researched the way that social pressure promotes people to go along and do things they would not do as individuals. Both revenge and rewards are given to those willing to die or kill for an authority person. Individuals that are isolated or cut off or overly involved in pleasing others may be vulnerable to dying for the group.
Families produce the seeds of our future. For better or worse, we should acknowledge how and to what extent families influence us. We know very little about what goes on in family life that encourages strong individual development or killers. How might we go about adding to our knowledge and not pretending that families have nothing to do with the way people are?
Notes from the Media: