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Steve Kazmierczak: the Secret Life

In a week where reports of killings were so frequent and senseless, the most puzzling case was that of Steve Kazmierczak.
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In a week where reports of killings were so frequent and senseless that at any moment we expected the moldering, rigored corpse of Western civilization to tumble from an open doorway, the most puzzling case was that of Steve Kazmierczak, who, on Thursday, February 14, during a geology lecture class at his alma mater, Northern Illinois University, stepped from behind a screen onto the stage and fired on the students, killing five before taking his own life. He had graduated from the university about 10 months earlier.

On the surface, the behavior is baffling. He was a smart student, well-regarded by teachers and schoolmates. Unlike teen rampage shooters, (he was 27) he did not occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder at his school, he did not conspire with a small group of peers, he did not brood and plan for a period of time, or alert friends to his plan, and he did not have a record of arrests for antisocial behavior.

Here is what little we do know the day after the shooting:

According to AP, he spent more than a year at the Thresholds-Maryhill House in the late 1990s, an alternative high school program for children suffering from mental illness. His parents sent him there because he was "unruly."

After he graduated in 1998, he underwent a year of psychiatric hospitalization at the insistence of his parents because he refused to take his meds and was cutting himself, a behavior often associated with the B or "dramatic" cluster of personality disorders, such as borderline and narcissistic.

In September of 2001 he enlisted in the army but was "administratively discharged" in February 2002, six months later -- for psychological problems, he told a friend.

He probably started college at Northern Illinois University the following September (2002) and graduated, an academic and social success, in 2007. He had served as a teaching assistant, co-authored an academic paper, and won a dean's award. In September of the same year he started Social Work School at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. According to the New York Times, he dropped out of his HBSE (Human Behavior in the Social Environment) class in the fall, which means that he dropped out of school, since HBSE is a keystone course required for full-time students. He told his professor, Jan Carter-Black, that he was taking a full-time job at a prison. Around the end of the month he arrived for training at the Rockville Correctional Facility, but after two weeks, according to Randy Koester, chief of staff, as reported in the New York Times, he simply stopped coming. No explanation.

Sociologist Katherine Newman writes of school rampage shooters that they "fly below the radar," referring to their skill at concealing their mental illness and suicidal and homicidal rage. Steve Kazmierczak's parents were well aware of his mental illness, as was the local school system (the referral of a teen to an alternative high school program is never made capriciously) but such matters are kept confidential. The world is hard enough for a young man to negotiate without "schizophrenia" stamped on his permanent record card.

And as long as he stayed on his medication he was apparently high functioning, smart and motivated. A problem solver. He would discover why he cut himself by writing a paper about self-injurious behaviors. He would cure his psychiatric problems by attending social work school, and understand his antisocial impulses by working as a corrections officer.

From 1998 to 2008, Kazmierczak appears to have struggled to establish a vocational identity for himself: he tried the army, social work, prison guard, and failed at every attempt. Neighbors report that he had a girlfriend. Did he fail in his relationship with her too? Did all this, seen through the distorted lens of his mental illness, make his life seem damaged beyond repair?

A few years ago, Park Dietz, a well-known forensic psychologist, speaking of John Hinckley, said in an interview "When somebody has so little to lose, so that it all seems meaningless to them, then they're likely to consider revenge as having considerable value. They may think of suicide as an escape from it all. That's a terrible combination, being suicidal and wanting revenge. That's at the heart of most of the workplace and school mass murders of the last 20 years" (The Hook, 12/4/03).

We will doubtless learn more about Kazmierczak's secret life in the months to come.

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