Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How Do You Know When Someone is Dangerous?


If you want the answer to the question I posed as the title for my post, you've come to the wrong place.  I actually wanted to tell you a story from when I was a high school kid.  I hope you'll bear with me.  I wasn't a shrink then, and these weren't my patients, they were my friends, so there is no promise of confidentiality and the story is true.  For my own comfort level, I'm changing the names, but if you went to high school with me, you know the characters.  

When I was in high school, Jose sat next to me in Latin class.  I wasn't very interested in Latin, but I was there, in the back row, sitting with Jose.  Mrs. Massa was a most enthusiastic teacher.  Jose and I would talk, and one day he started telling me that he wanted to kill Sam and he had a plan.  Sam sat in the front of the room, he was silly, he made a lot of noise, and our Latin class had been together for years. We'd started in 8th grade and Mrs. Massa spent part of her day in the junior high school and part in the high school.  We'd gone to Rome and climbed Mt. Vesuvius and crawled around Etruscan tombs, there were Saturday morning ventures to different parts of the state for Junior Classical League meetings, and there was the time Sam threw grape juice on Mrs. Massa's freshly painted living room walls during a toga party and I first met baked ziti.  Okay, I wasn't running on the wild side back then.

So why would anyone want to kill Sam?  He was a sweet, goofy, well-liked kid who didn't really bother anyone.  He smiled and laughed a lot and hung out with a few girls.  

"He's the all American kid," Jose said.  Well, really?  Not really, but I guess I could see that.  Why did Jose want to kill him?  That's all he would say about why.  His plan: he'd put a knife in a folder and when they were walking in a crowded hallway, he jut out the folder and the knife would fly out and stab Sam in the back.  In terms of the physics, it didn't seem feasible. 

Was it a joke?  I didn't know.  Today, we'd take this very seriously, but I really didn't know what to do.  I seem to recall that I told my mother and I told a teacher, but I didn't know what to do.  Mainly I worried.  I don't think I worried a lot, but it was a long time ago and we didn't have memories of Columbine.  I don't recall that Jose was treated badly, and he had friends, other smart kids.  He was on the quiet side, but I went to a huge high school and we didn't think in terms of the details of every kids' personality.  There were kids who were really weird (Jose wasn't one of them),  and there were drugs everywhere, and there was a fair amount of violence.  It was a large, urban high school with police in the halls.  But Jose and I were in Latin class, we weren't in the stairwells smoking weed.

So we're sitting in Latin class and Jose takes out his calculus book, opens it, and there is a large butcher knife.  I left the classroom, called my mother, she called the principal, and maybe the police, and Jose was removed from school.  He was out for 6 weeks and I heard he'd undergone some psychological testing.  We never said another word to each other (ever) and Sam is alive today.  One of Jose's friends told me it was a joke, and at a high school reunion, Sam hugged me and said laughingly that I'd saved his life.  

Was Jose going to kill Sam?  I have no idea, still, but I never really thought so.  I didn't understand why Jose was doing this or what he hoped to achieve.  His plan couldn't have worked, though he was carrying a big knife, and I suppose he could have stabbed Sam.  As a teenage kid, I felt badly getting Jose tossed out of school, especially if he was just trying to yank on my chain or tease me, and I worried a little that people would ridicule the fact that I'd gotten Jose in trouble.  I also didn't see that I had any choice here but to tell someone that Jose was walking around with a knife talking about killing another kid.  Today, I have no doubt that Jose would have been permanently expelled from high school and his life would have come undone.

So Sam, the all-American boy, became a lawyer and last I heard, he still lived in his childhood home.  He never married.  Jose applied to 10 colleges, he got into 5, and graced the Ivy League with his presence.  He got an advanced degree in architecture and teaches college.  His online resume does not include any breaks long enough to include an incarceration, so I'm assuming he went on to live life as a model citizen.  I think it was a more forgiving world back then, because I'm not sure now how anyone would get around a 6 week suspension for possession of a deadly weapon and pick up with their life, much less get into one of the country's top universities.  I'm very glad his life turned out okay (at least Google-okay).  

Maybe Jose was joking and I caused a crinkle in his life.  That is what I've assumed.  It's not a story I think about very often at all.  After the event, it didn't crinkle my life.  Maybe he would have killed Sam and destroyed both their lives-- it would have been one of those stories where no one saw it coming.  Maybe he was a troubled kid and this event got him the help he needed.  Today, however, you do understand why I'm thinking about this story.


jesse said...

Wow. What a story. One thing to keep in mind is that times change. Not only does the response change but the act itself. In a more innocent age kids could talk about all sorts of things without consequence, today not only the teachers and parents but the students know about Columbine and consequences and that influences their actions.

Jose was imaginative and had no intention of using that knife. So today he is a creative professional with an outstanding career. Why not track him down and talk with him about it? Or wait for the class reunion!

Sarebear said...

Two stories.

In high school, in my Journalism class (we did the school newspaper, I was editor), there was a tough, scary kid in there, big, and one day he started talking about bringing a sawed off shotgun to school.

I THINK within the next week he may have done so and was showing it to someone in class but it's hard to remember. I remember wondering what the hell to do; a lifetime of being bullied had taught me to keep my head down, esp. things like a kid shoving me down in the mud in elementary school in front of a teacher, I go to the teacher and they say, "Oh, he's just mad you scored higher than him on the math test," and the teacher does nothing.

So I didn't do anything. Nobody got shot or anything but who knows who he may have scared to death with that thing. Some civic-minded editor I was, lol.

Second story, was when I was 11 slightly younger brother and I were walking around our block; we lived on a very isolated block buried in the woods of upstate New York; one isolated block off of a two lane one road highway. A very country type area, a dairy farm over the hill.

Anyway, we were 1.5 sides around the block when I see two jr. high kids, both boys, around age 14 or so, walking towards us. They were not nice boys, and most all of the kids around there and at school bullied us. Still, I thought, "We have every right to walk around a public block" so I nervously kept going.

They came up to us, and grabbed each of us, and took us until the heavily wooded middle area of the inside of the block, behind the houses, and buried us in leaves and told us that if we tried to escape, they'd kill us.

I was scared to death and I assume my 10 yo brother was too.

Eventually, we burst out of the leaves and ran home, I think my brother waited for me to do that first, but we spent quite some time in the black under the leaves, terrified.

Our parents found out and they talked to the families of the two boys, but nothing happened to them aside from a little parental discipline. NOWadays I think the police would have been involved, possibly.

Sideways Shrink said...

I went to a tiny liberal arts college which was a fishbowl of 1000 student--required study of Greek and Latin literature, required thesis. Everyone knew everyone. I was there on a scholarship. It was hip to be weird or a freak, but these were GOOD people with moral compasses and educated professional parents.
I became very close to another philosophy student who was 2 years ahead of me, lets call him Derek. He was gay and brilliant. He was kind and sensitive and funny. We were roommates his last here there and had a great time. Before I got there he had had a year of using MDMA (now called Ecstasy) each day of every weekend, but had stopped that addictive pattern.
Long story short, he wrote brilliant thesis, spent one year at a law school in that city and transferred to a superior public one back in the from.
Three months ago I tried to find him on Facebook but could not. Then I looked on Google. His name is unusual enough that I found him. He had been convicted 5 years ago on 5 counts of transmitting child pornography over the internet.
My husband, who can find anything on the internet, found the sentencing document and it stated that one of the children depicted was rape of a female child under the age of 2 and the other of rape of a female child at approximately 8 months old. He received clemency because he told the judge it had to to with his addiction to methamphetamines.
It is clear to me, a woman at 44 with 2 children in this field, in the most concrete way possible that it is very difficult to predict who will do bad things, lose their bearings. I do believe people who once had a moral compass can find it again, but as for who will verge off on the median, I really think it is very hard to say. I was so sickened and so so sad for my friend who left the human tribe behind.

rob lindeman said...

Fast forward to 2012 and your action might very well destroy Jose's life. Under the circumstances I would have done the same as you did.

It's an important lesson in how small actions on our parts can have large, long-term consequences.

The truth isn't nice to think about all the time. That's why philosophy and religion are both intellectually and emotionally challenging.

Anonymous said...

Times do change but Dinah is only a few years older than I am and when I was in high school, a guy killed his girlfriend, shot up his class and killed himself. One thing that changed is the speed at which news of such an event spread across the world. It didn't. As horrific as it was, I think it stayed pretty local. Since I know that those things did happen then, it really is impossible to say whether Jose would have used the knife. Dinah did the right thing. Talk is one thing, but the kid acted by bringing the butcher knife to school. He was escalating. Dinah's intervention probably saved his life and if it happened today, it still would be the right thing to do even if meant no Ivy league college. No ivy is better than a sentence for murder.

Sideways Shrink said...

Gavin De Becker wrote a book called "The Gift of Fear" which begins with a story he tells of a violent fight (like so, so many) between his mother and his step father when he was 11 or 12 years old. For a reason he keenly felt, but still can not articulate, he sent his little sister upstairs and stood very far back from his arguing, drunken parents. Then, suddenly, his mother pulled out a gun and shot his step father. He had no idea there were guns in the house, but something told him there was something different about this fight. His stepfather died. His mother went to prison.
In the prison he talks about a sense each person has of when they are in danger and when they are not. I agree with him that this intuitive sense applies when one is able to have some kind of contact with a person to generally get the feel for how they are in even the most casual setting: a date, the hallway in a club or frat or for Gavin and myself: how crazy are my parents today--what was Dad drinking--beer or hard liquor, what is, literally, the pitch of the argument (not good for a child's sleep).
But if you are walking along campus and some guy's in a tower or walking down a hallway--this technique doesn't help. At the organizational level, De Becker does the kind of consulting that helps develop the obvious markers--like posting of kids with guns on websites--that would send up red flags to try to prevent things like this.
In 1999, De Becker wrote a book about keeping children and teenagers safe and how parents can allay their anxiety called "Protect the Gift". He is worth a read.

Unknown said...

"So we're sitting in Latin class and Jose takes out his calculus book, opens it, and there is a large butcher knife." I think Jose is the one who caused his own wrinkle by actually bringing a real stabbity stab knife to school. Its also really easy to call something "a joke" that you didn't get to follow through on. I'm sure if the Columbine boys had been caught they could have called their planning "a joke."

But that's me coming from my perspective. I was in high school during Columbine, only a state away from Oregon, and we were drilled that it was our job to protect each other if we saw anything at all threatening. I had a friend expelled for much less than actually bringing a weapon to school (he used threats and wore a trench-coat, that's all it took), and our reaction wasn't empathy, it was, "How could you be stupid enough to make threats wearing a trench-coat after Columbine?" Obviously this was before I became a mental health professional, too:).

Anyway, my point is, the minute he brought a weapon, his 'benefit of the doubt' privilege ought to have been revoked. I think you made the right call entirely, and I think its awesome you had the courage to stand up and protect your friend. If anybody caused a wrinkle for Jose, it was Jose. Hopefully this was a wake up call to him not to make "jokes" about murdering people and actually showing up with weapons to do it. Sounds like he didn't make this mistake again.

jesse said...

@Anon, I agree with you completely. Dinah did the right thing and used good judgment. I was using "after the fact thinking."

Cricket said...

Time has changed the way people think about things also. Take for example my parents. When I was a teenager in the 70's , I had an older man(40 ish) who would slowly, almost stopping, drive by my house for almost a year. Sometimes this happened twice a day.He first met me at the neighborhood pool where he would do alot of staring and trying to talk. Both my parents were aware of this behavior and I was even teased about it from my brothers. Never did anyone consider that it was inappropriate, he was just a "dirty" old man who thought I was pretty and to ignore him. Now that I am a mother of daughters, the police would definitely be called and instead of a "dirty " old man, I might consider him as a stalker and google him immediately

Sarebear said...

I realized I'd forgotten a much more severe example, that SS's story made me remember.

It was about 6 or 7 years ago, a few months after I started therapy, when I found out an uncle of mine was a pedophile . . .

I need some more time to think about how I want to post it but I'll likely post about what happened on my blog in a day or two. There were some disturbing twists to the story, which of course, it's disturbing to begin with.

Sarebear said...

Actually, I'll keep most of it to myself, out of fears, mostly. And other things.

When I found out, well, I forget what it was that made me think he might be, which is probably the most important fact to have forgotten out of this.

Anyway, so I called my mom, and asked her, and she said he was. I asked her if she'd asked him or his wife about this stuff, and she said yeah, she and my dad had, when they found out. I asked her if he'd done anything to my daughter or myself, and she said no. They had tough questions like that when they found out.

The thing is, once I wondered if he was, it was, well, if anyone in my family was, it'd be him, because he's so WIERD. Not just eccentric, but there's something . . . off . . about him, not normal? Something uncomfortable. And I kick myself for not having figured it out, esp. since there'd been some extremely veiled warnings from his wife a few years before when my daughter was a toddler, we lived with my parents after my husband got laid off, and this aunt and uncle spent a month or two also living there.

I just kept thinking, how could I not have known? But you don't think someone you've known your whole life could be that, could do that. You just DON'T.

Anonymous said...

Well the classic case was Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, who tried to kill his tutor when he was at University.

Malcolm Gladwell has the story on his site.

Young people's brains are not fully formed and they lack the ability to fully consider what they do.

However Oppenheimer was a university student so he must have had some idea of what he was doing.

He wasn't expelled.

psyche said...

If this truly is a psychology blog then one should know that anecdotes are the worse places to get information from. You subject yourself to availability heuristic thinking simply because nothing happened to this one guy in this one story, nothing will happen.

Someone with a repressed desire kill will find a way to release. Of cpurse google will not see that. Google is a seo engine based on what is the most popular. His skeletons in his closet will not be there.

Antisocial personality disordered individuals are often highly driven because they find themselves superior to other people. It is true not psychopaths and sociopaths dont turn out to be killers but i would say its much better to stay away from them rather than say its nothing to worry about.