Last Friday morning at exactly 8:40 CST -- precisely when the Connecticut carnage exploded -- I initiated a psychotherapy session with a wonderful woman whom I have seen regularly for years. The session had a uniquely celebratory tone as we reflected on her imminent retirement and the new possibilities that would open up for her and her husband. Best of all, she was overjoyed by the holiday visit of her only child, now an adult. The session concluded warmly, each of us still oblivious to the unspeakable savagery that had raged through an elementary school in an idyllic small town during the course of our brief meeting. Within seconds upon leaving, I have no doubt she glanced at her smartphone to be blindsided by viral news alerts. For her, however, the shock was infinitely amplified by ripping open time-sealed memories of the same unspeakable savagery that had raged through an elementary school in her own idyllic town many years ago.
On May 20, 1988, a floridly psychotic woman named Laurie Dann randomly entered a second grade classroom in Winnetka, IL, shooting six children at close range. One sweet, beautiful eight year-old boy did not recover from his wounds. Had Dann's semi-automatic Beretta not been disarmed of ammunition in a struggle with the teacher -- relegating her to a slower-firing Magnum -- the carnage would have been far worse.
My patient's child, then eight, was in an adjacent classroom. She has been in treatment with me ever since. I am staggered by the irony that we were in session last Friday, as evil once again entered an elementary school.
My wife and I also happened to reside in Winnetka at that time, raising two very young boys. That hideously surreal day is frozen in memory for all of us, not unlike the assassinations of the 60s and the subsequent horror of 9/11. The tiny, leafy community has mourned and moved on, but there will always be scar tissue that has once again been knifed open. Without exception, we may be sure that every Winnetka resident was instantly startled by the memories of 1988, a macabre Jack-in-the-box that can never be disabled.
There are those who wonder if the massacre could somehow have been predicted and prevented by better law enforcement coordination and awareness of the troubled profile of Adam Lanza. As a psychologist, I insist the answer is a resounding, "Not even close! Pure folly!" His oddness and detachment were well-known to the community. Though he apparently enjoyed target shooting with his mother, no tendency toward violence had surfaced; if it had, it likely would not have mattered one iota. I would remind those who grasp for solace in the predict-and-prevent strategy that Laurie Dann had a long history of severe, fecal-smearing mental illness and violence intimately well-known to the police and the community over many years. She had nevertheless been easily able to purchase her three handguns. The police themselves had futilely tried to persuade her that she should give up the weapons long before the atrocity. She had been in therapy, received medication, and had been pressured by her psychiatrist and family to seek inpatient treatment, to no avail.
Similarly, aspects of the disturbing problems and behavior of so many of our recent mass murderers were known. And yet they were able to compile special-ops level arsenals simply because assault weapons are more easily acquired than a fishing license.
For 34 years, I've worked with a broad spectrum of couples, adolescents, and adults, including vast experience with potential violence toward self and others. My profession has a decent track record preventing suicide, but there is simply no reliable predict-and-prevent strategy to stop any given individual from harming others. Consider the commonplace story of the terrified woman obtaining a restraining order, only to be hunted down by a jealous ex- boyfriend. The murderer's violent intentions were no secret. And what of gangs on street corners? I think we can safely say the potential for serious violence speaks for itself and how successful have we been with that?
The single, fundamental solution worth pursuing screams out at us--much tighter, better enforced , common-sense gun control regulations that seek to remove military grade weaponry from our society. Until there is meaningful progress attacking unchecked availability , thorough background searches are frankly beside the point. Even when we suspect imminent lethal outbursts, our hands are tied until the metastatic spread of weaponry is halted and reversed. Case in point: Lanza's mother bought the guns he used for her own collection.
No sportsman needs a machine gun to bag Bambi. But already the NRA leadership is spewing the sickening sophistry that guns don't kill; that if only the school staff had been packing, the killer would have been stopped dead in his tracks. In China, the day before the Newtown slaughter, a deranged knife-wielding 34 year-old man leaped into a throng of primary school kids, viciously slashing at heads, faces, shoulders and necks. Twenty-two were wounded. Not a single child died. That there were no deaths is nothing short of miraculous. Had the attacker had access to semi-automatic weapons, no such good fortune is remotely conceivable.
The monstrousness of Sandy Hook has driven us to hellish new depths. On Friday, was there a newscaster or interviewee who showed no signs of having been tearful? Or struggling not to be? Or breaking down on camera? President Obama himself, unable to restrain his own tears, exited without completing his address before going to pieces. He has voiced uncharacteristic outrage and an impassioned commitment to action. Our natural, self-protective shock shut-down has been overrun by primal anguish at the horror we've witnessed. Let's also remember Speaker Boehner has a propensity for public displays of emotion, often when it comes to children. I'm not holding my breath, but this time feels different.
I deeply regret that the woman I've described did not get the news glancing at her cell while approaching my office rather than leaving it. It is now Monday and she has not returned my phone call.
Michael J. Tansey, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago, IL and an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Medical School.