“And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
In crimes as heinous as matricide or multiple killings, typically you need look no further for motive than the traumatic experience of birth and the perpetrator’s first five years of early childhood. From what I have been able to glean from publicly accessible online source material, your suspect John Lee was abandoned by his biological parents and adopted by Jerry and Terri Grzebielski at the tender age of three months in 1986. Did the 10 January homicides commemorate the anniversary of his adoption, by any chance?
Coincidentally that same year Justice Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan; NASA’s space shuttle crew were killed soon after Challenger launched with rocket power coincidentally designed by the father of the Dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Graduate Studies; my adopted eighth cousin twice-removed Ted received two separate stays of execution from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, coincidentally scheduled for another 02 July, and even eerier 18 November, two years coincidentally prior to my “wedding” to my psychopathic first husband; my genetic father was diagnosed with liver disease by doctors who predicted – accurately, it turned out – that he would die 10 years hence; and I was awarded a scholarship to attend a pre-college summer program at Otis/Parsons, majoring in fashion design.
Was Lee the product of either illicit or licit drug addicts and/or a rapist and his victim? What happened during those first three months of life? Was the infant held, touched, loved? Or neglected? Was he deprived of touch, as Ted Bundy was deprived of caring touch during at least the first six months of his life, or Virginia Tech mass shooter Seung-Hui Cho’s infancy was disrupted with illness and invasive medical procedure that left him flinching from his mother’s touch? (pdf) Did the severity of neglect descend to the legal description for abuse? Was he born in Idaho? Was the touch the newborn received what you would describe as loving, or did the touching proceed along the spectrum of violence to incest abuse? Are IDHW employees, who struggle to discern the difference between psychosis and domestic violence, perseverating and ever so gently persevering through hardship, delusion from global historic reality and publicly accessible fact, truly qualified to determine whether or not a three-month-old infant, unable to articulate his own experiences, having yet to enter language, was abused?
At three months, the Grzebielskis adopted the infant of Asian heritage, assigned him an unusual, androgynous Gaelic name meaning “tribute” or, more significantly, “warrior” when given to boys – only 46 boys per million named Kane in the United States in that year, according to Baby Center, a site that omits its meaning for girls, though one viewer comments the feminine definition used to include “able” or “beautiful” – and reared him in a socially isolated “off the grid” environment before moving to the bustling metropolis of Moscow in 1995, when Lee was eight or nine. Coincidentally on 19 April of that same year Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols unleashed their rage on a federal building in Oklahoma City as misguided retaliation for the federal siege on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, that ended coincidentally 19 April 1993, and, closer to home, another federal siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992.
Looking at that broader framework, is it easier to understand why, from Lee’s perspective, shooting weapons is what “everybody else does” to resolve conflict, escalating the volume when they do not feel heard, stamping their feet and insisting on the “rightness” of their opinions?
Not everyone, of course. That’s an exaggeration. But we do seem to give bad behavior a surfeit of media attention and legislative spending.
Meanwhile, who role modeled healthy conflict resolution for Lee?
What caregiving tactics did his adoptive parents use to teach the abandoned infant that his caregivers would be there, would leave the room, but would return again after they left the room, that his needs would again be met? That delicate balance of give and take, that promise of giving and receiving, the tension of healthy boundaries teaching the toddler a confidence in himself, in gradually learning to define himself separate from his caregivers and able to provide for his own needs, in weaning from an infant bawling his demands to asking to receive, hearing, and being heard? How were conflicts resolved between Kane’s male and female role models? What negotiation strategies did he learn, directly, by being told, and even more powerfully, indirectly, being shown, in early childhood? As psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin writes of the importance of healthy role models in relation not just to the child, but also to each other, “Realizing that mother belongs to father, or responds to his desire, is not the same as recognizing her as a subject of desire, as a person with a will of her own.”
The mother’s published tributes and obituary describe an educated woman, a professional nurse, devoted to community building, whose passions inclined to the kinetic and aural arena of dance and music, which she shared with her husband. While I do not remember whether or not I ever personally met the Grzebielskis when I lived on the Palouse, their interests call to mind many evenings at the Green Frog, enjoying performances from the area’s rich musical talent, or the warmth of community sharing wine and poetry in the Moscow home of their Pastor Dean Stewart and his gracious wife Gretchen. Center of the party sounds like fun at parties, but a perpetual effervescence can strain mother/child relationships by forbidding a depth of intimacy. At home, was Lee permitted to express sadness or anger, or did his parents shame him for struggling with these darker, very human, emotions? How did they express those same emotions? Sometimes our private personas differ dramatically from our public lives; did Lee’s adoptive mother struggle with depression privately, gearing herself up for the energy required for her public performances? Or did she insist on remaining the center of attention at home too, with husband and father playing second fiddle? Benjamin, again:
“The mother who jiggles, pokes, looms, and shouts, ‘look at me’ to her unresponsive baby creates a negative cycle of recognition out of her own despair at not being recognized. Here in the earliest social interaction we see how the search for recognition can become a power struggle.”
Or sometimes we avoid resolving conflicts in our homes by putting on a bright face for public appearances; did Lee’s father assert his authority in their marital relationship through coercion or force?
Lee’s adoptive father has suffered unspeakable tragedy, losing his wife and irrevocably altering his relationship with his son. Both of those relationships are relationships of choice, unlike kinships formed through biology. After the events of 10 January 2015, did he also choose to appear in court to support his adopted son? Or did he testify for the prosecution? Did he visit at the jail? Or has he, unlike his deceased wife, given up on the child they both presumably did their best to rear to adulthood? Did the mother never give up on her adopted son, or did she, like my genetic mother still suffering severe denial about the abusive behaviors of the men in my clan, never give up trying to shape him into being someone she wanted him to be? Likely not ready to describe the design of behavior resulting in motive for homicide in the immediate aftermath, but might Mr. Grzebielski be feeling more self-reflective or seeking trauma recovery two years later?
Music and dance sound like a lot of fun, and recognizing their surviving son Kane in his adoptive mother’s 2015 obituary sounds like a very forgiving family. On the other hand, the form of the Midwestern jitterbug demands that partners perform roles rigidly conscripted by gender. Sitting in one of Seattle’s many beautiful parks watching communal contra/swing dancing during spring or early summer 2015, an occasion that must have been nearly coincident with Lee’s preliminary court appearances, I noticed that even when there are not enough men to go around, two women decide which of them will take on the “man’s” role. A gay couple must choose which of the men plays the more dominant partner, who will lead, and who will follow. Two exuberant, sentimental examples of what philosopher Judith Butler meant when she described gender as social performance, deconstructing our popular notion of binary gender as “natural.” Gender is just one aspect of human identity; others include race, ethnicity, genealogy, and so on, categories that may seem fixed if we do not think too much about them, but which may evolve, as they have for me, across a spectrum or through time with our deepening awareness of our selves in relation to others. Newspapers report, and a Nebraska court docket confirms (pdf) that the Grzebielskis’ adopted son Kane legally changed his name in 2013; how much louder does John Lee need to speak before his family hears his chosen identity is not the one they assigned to a three-month-old infant?
As an adolescent Kane entered the second critical stage of separation from the parents, did his nurse/mother try to control his reach for independence with pills prescribed by supervisors who might not question her conflict of interest or her subjective diagnosis of her adoptive son as “beyond her licensure,” even as the side effects made him “increasingly difficult to relate to”-? Did she naïvely, like so many IDHW employees, fail to question the efficacy or safety of medications peddled by a profit-hungry pharmaceutical industry in lieu of tools for internal and external conflict resolution? Did she or her colleagues by chance also prescribe meds to another former student John Delling while he was enrolled at the University of Idaho? Or was one of your 2007 shooters prescribed antipsychotic meds as early as his high school years by Boise’s mental health professionals, encouraged by parents eager to blame their son for acting out behaviors symptomatic of unresolved conflicts in their home? Did any of your Moscow shooters initially get hooked on what you, in your role as a law enforcement leader, might want to begin thinking of as a gateway drug produced by multinational cartels leading to more hardcore antidepressants or antipsychotics, under pressure to keep up with his studies, maybe under parental or other social expectations – reasonable or otherwise – to study in a field that maybe otherwise would not have been his personal preference?
The ABC affiliate in Missoula shows images of Lee as an infant and as a teenager, paired alongside his 2015 booking photo into Whitman County Jail. The dramatic weight gain between adolescence and young adulthood, the facial tic captured in a still image accompanying the Lewiston Tribune’s live blogging-style reportage of the preliminary hearing, later replicated on video televised by Lewiston station KLEW during his Alford plea bargaining, and Lee’s expressionlessness during the shooting spree described by surviving victim Chin and other witnesses are all common side effects of psychotropic meds. Where some medical professionals and government officials are failing in their duties toward public health and safety, other experts and even astute lay observers are beginning to document the links between psychopharmacology and homicidal behavior.
Is it even reasonable to expect someone force-fed brain-damaging medication that leaves him with uncontrollable facial twitches would somehow be able to control an itchy trigger finger or even the decision to pick up firearms as a method of resolving a conflict or expressing his feelings of anger or unresolved difficulties in relation to his mother or male authority figures?
Is it unreasonable to ask a democratic republic to get out of the business of harming its citizens?
In June 2014, at State Hospital South, I met an Asian male patient I gauged to be in his mid- to late-20s, taller than me by some several inches and whose broad shoulders and girth gave him the effect of looming over me, but he did not consistently use the names John Lee or Kane Grziebielski. Despite his physical stature, and while in our conversations he impressed me with his intellect, his emotional maturity, or what you might call his emotional intelligence, was limited to that of a very young boy, behavior common to victims traumatized by child abuse, whose emotional maturation typically stops at the age the neglect or abuse began, as if frozen in time, or a needle stuck in the groove of a vinyl record player, skipping around a trauma monologue, or wound narrative, until that trauma is recognized by an empathetic listening other, and the traumatized subject self is ready to begin the difficult but rewarding work of trauma recovery.
He first sidled up to me as if seeking my attention or approval, before lurching away without speaking, indicating shyness or intense anxiety, as a young man severely under-socialized generally and with women particularly, which could be partially explained by a childhood “off the grid” with limited social interactions, but more deeply always points to unresolved difficulties in relation to the maternal. At CEO Alan Miller’s private facility contracted with IDHW, I had been limited in my interactions primarily with female clients; my experiences at State gave me more opportunities to offer empathetic listening labor, or psychotherapeutic care, or perform deep design research working toward finding healthier solutions for an incarcerated audience of a wider range of genders in a mixed ward. Even before our first conversation, I could tell I was going to have to work extra hard establishing safety with this particular young man.
After our first interaction, his shyness or reluctance to speak alternated rapidly with bouts of rage or threats of harm if I did not immediately fill his emotional demands, behavior indicative of an unhealthy masculine role model, a father who either repressed his own desires and meekly catered to the demands of a narcissistic and controlling wife/mother, or, alternatively, demanded that the feminine role model instantly obey the father’s sometimes contradictory but inevitably authoritarian commands. Or the parental neglect could have been as mild as simply not hearing abuse that occurred outside his immediate family. Perhaps, after his infant abandonment, as a toddler he encountered someone who sexually abused him, maybe an adult male in the extended family clan or in a position of communal authority, and that possibility was too painful for his mother to hear, so it was easier for her to deny her adopted son’s experience-?
His behavior mimicked the behavior of a senior electrical engineer at Micron, approaching 60, who, for three hours one evening when we met to ostensibly resolve our conflict over labor, time, capital, and supplies, instead forced me to observe another of his trauma monologues wherein he alternated between sobbing his regrets for the kind of father he had been [sic] when his children were younger (?), like a small child pleading for emotional reassurance, before rocketing to the other end of the spectrum to authoritarian dictator, only replicating his earlier admitted bad behaviors by raging at me how WRONG he thinks I am in expressing my educated opinions or placing time restrictions on the hours of labor he required me to perform for his household. That logic I have come to think of as the-two-year-old-in-footed-pajamas argument that allows no room for ambiguity between black-and-white extremes or a multitude of perspectives across the breadth and depth of human experience.
Another example of the-two-year-old-in-footed-pajamas argument, culled from Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s writ to the Supreme Court dated the anniversary of my genetic father’s birth:
With no disrespect intended for Mr. Wasden’s legal authority, but with a 5-4 difference of opinion from the Justices, clearly there is no one “right” and no single “wrong” across the varied interpretations of law, one of the reasons I came to vicariously love the law while supporting my prosecutor ex-husband through law school, for its flexibility and elegance, its careful tension between social stability and cultural change.
Another example of the-two-year-old-in-footed-pajamas argument, extracted from Virginia’s summary analysis of their 16 April 2007 campus massacre:
In a report rife with conclusions contradictory to the evidence presented, maybe the authors meant to say that Cho was responsible for the terror he wreaked on that particular campus on that particular day, with reverberations felt across the nation and around the world, not for the date in history itself? Elsewhere, the report identifies multiple instances of systemic failures of communication within the family, social services, education, and law, yet that conclusion, while convenient for survivors, glosses over traumatic early childhood experiences and the relationships between the shooter and his gendered role models.
Earlier, the authors acknowledge Cho’s father never praised his son:
After a mere three-hour interview across language barriers with the family, Virginia’s expert fact-finders describe the Chos’ son as “someone who was startlingly different from the one who carried out premeditated murder,” but in my interpretation of even just the description used in their official report, without more in-depth research available to me, their familial relationships, so similar to my upbringing within the extended Bundy clan, draw a map for how to design and build a mass murderer.
Should we maybe consider remapping those experiences for the nation’s children?
Instead of observing the unresolved intercommunicative tensions in Cho’s childhood home, the authors chose to isolate and blame the child, amplifying his mother’s martyr narrative. All of her urging him to open up, chastising him to “have more courage,” rather than role modeling healthy social relationships for him, including shaking the child in her frustration, “resolving to ‘find’ friends for him” in elementary school and still going through his drawers after he was a chronological adult, resulted in a young college man at Virginia Tech desperately seeking an identity beyond his self-deprecation as “silly,” “pathetic,” and a “question mark.” Despite his blunt, telling expectation in an email to the chair of the English department that female faculty – women in positions of authority over him – might “yell” at him, which indicates a shrill nagging reception of communication vastly different from his mother’s self-described intent as “encouraging” and “urging,” still the experts do not highlight that maternal behavior as controlling or abusive.
In no way condoning his excessively violent behavior, but isn’t questioning identity and the future and raison d’être precisely what young college-age adults should be doing, and Virginia Tech simply did not provide supports adequate for Cho’s recovery from his traumatic childhood experiences?
Communication is what happens between two, speaking and listening, intention that may not quite align with the tone or words of the speaker, and the openness to hearing or receptivity of the listener, ideally taking turns oscillating between these two positions, sharing dialogue rather than traumatic or top-down, dictatorial monologue.
Much as Idaho’s counselors were not ready to identify spitting and slapping as abusive behaviors, the entire Commonwealth of Virginia may not be ready, in the early 21st century, to identify shaking a child as abusive, but I am.
Making no judgment of the Chos as either “good” parents or “bad” parents, I instead focus on behavior, which I am qualified to judge – we all are, we must be, to decide our individual actions. On a primal and evolutionary level, judgments help us weigh the differences between prey and predator, safety from danger. In a civilized society, our judgments determine how we choose behaviors that are acceptable along a spectrum of violence. Socially acceptable behavior is what a civil society demands, judging serial killing and mass murder to be wanting in the extreme. Compare/contrast my ability to make judgments to/with how the State of Idaho judged me, not for my behavior, not for my words or my actions, but on the factually incorrect words of my abusive family.
Similarly, the language of the Virginia Tech report isolates and blames the son for his early childhood role models’ behavior, stating, “The biggest issue between Cho and his family was his poor communication…” [emph. added]
As if a child is responsible for teaching his parents healthy communication-?!
That power dichotomy is flipped upside-down, and needs to be turned sideways, with parents recognizing their positions of power over their child, but listening to the child’s perspective, sacrificing their own energy to meet the needs of their offspring, rather than abusing their power:
In emotionally mature reality, communication is what happens between two or more parties. In adult relationships, no one individual is wholly responsible for that betweenedness, only for what each respective party brings to the relationship. The summary a self-reflective review panel might have contemplated on 20 April 2007, the date of Governor Kaine’s official day of mourning for the victims of Cho’s acts of terror, since the nation failed to learn those very same lessons after a similar massacre at Columbine High School coincidentally eight years to the date earlier:
Fathers, praise your sons.
Mothers, praise your daughters.
Parents, your nation – the future of the world – beseeches you, praise your children. Link that praise to their healthy actions. Be sure they understand it is their good behavior that you praise, making no judgment of their individual being. Focus less on punishment, or forcing your individual will over your child, invest more energy in first communicating your expectations, and then praising when your child performs to them.
Because when you fail to provide this early foundation of care, your offspring bring all of those unresolved conflicts with them to college, where, if they are lucky or determined enough to register for those classes in an era that undervalues visual communications and privileges STEMs, as well as fortunate enough to encounter an instructor in the midst of acquiring knowledge of psychoanalytic theory above and beyond anyone employed within at least one state’s entire mental juridical health system, we get to work on finding healthier solutions in drawing studio or designing healthier solutions in design studio, unless or until that problem-solving design process approach is aborted by dysfunctional faculty.
Can you also imagine how much differently the events of 16 April 2007 might have unfolded if the United States of America had foreseen the value of investing in universal basic income so impoverished parents could spend less time scratching out a subsistence existence and more time caring for their children, less time leaving their immigrant children socially ostracized by their bullying, English-proficient peers? It might mean redistributing paychecks from mental health professionals who do little more than check off checkboxes, lose triage forms while reshuffling their mountain of paperwork, and dole out pills, but not to worry, they will be okay, they will also receive basic income while they seek meaningful work.
The Asian male mental patient at the campus in Blackfoot also reminded me of many of my former University of Idaho students, vulnerable young men and young women in their beautiful struggle toward mature adulthood, and no wonder, as I see your alleged perpetrator graduated from Moscow High School in 2004 with at least two of them. I would have really enjoyed the privilege of working with him in a group classroom or, more urgently, one-to-one therapeutic setting, much as I was privileged to teach my students their beginning visual communications vocabulary organized via the grammar of design principles so they would be equipped to communicate more effective solutions to real world problems.