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Book Review: Suicidal Mass Murderers – A Criminological Study of Why They Kill May 6, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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I receive random books in the mail from time to time to review for publications, and I was quite excited when I saw my latest: Suicidal Mass Murderers — A Criminological Study of Why They Kill, authored by John A Liebert, MD (a renowned American psychiatric expert on serial killers) and William J Birnes, JD (a bestselling true crime writer).

The book cover featured a haunting photo of Cho Seung-Hui, the Korean-American student who killed thirty-two people at Virginia Tech before turning the gun on himself.  I’m no psycho (at least that’s what I tell myself), but I was intrigued.  We see these heinous crimes in the news and on TV and we simply assume that these people are deranged, crazy individuals who have lost it — we don’t really see them as real human beings.

In this book, Liebert and Birnes paint Cho as a victim.  They argue that the reason these suicidal mass murdering rampages occur is because of the broken mental health care system in the US, and particularly in the state of Virginia.  And given the numbers and the case studies illustrated by them, it’s hard to disagree.

Cho Seung-Hui’s story was a fascinating one and a perfect example.  This was a guy that was a walking red flag from the time he was just a kid, and somehow the system just allowed him to get worse and worse until his schizphrenia turned him into a walking time bomb.  Things got so bad that teachers refused to teach if he remained in class, other classmates were terrified of him and some even joked that he might start shooting people one day.

And despite a plethora of opportunities to either give him treatment or take him off the streets, the bureaucratic spider web health system (that is more concerned about the liability of doctors and psychiatrists than the well being and safety of the patients and those they may harm) pretty much shot him through the cracks like so many other seriously mentally ill patients.  That, coupled with privacy laws and the fear of infringing patients’ constitutional rights, essentially allowed the Virginia Tech tragedy to happen.

It’s easy to say, like the Virginia Tech review committee found, that the sole blame should be placed on the perpetrator (indeed, that was what I used to think), but we’re talking about people that desperately need emergency care, people that are dangerously delusional and suffer from anosognosia, a condition where they do not realise or are in denial of their mental illness.  And even if these people do seek help, more often than not the help won’t be available because they only choose to treat you if you can afford it, and most of these people can’t!

More funding and more trained staff will definitely help, as will Obama’s health care reforms, but it’s a difficult situation and there are no real easy solutions.  Liebert and Birnes do suggest their own system of emergency psychiatric diagnosis and care, but you still need the money and manpower to be able to pull it off.

Admittedly though, it took me longer than expected to get through this 317-page book (extraordinarily small and dense font).  I was somewhat disappointed because I was expecting a true crime book that crafts a story with a compelling narrative, but this was genuinely a criminological ‘study’, complete with a long debate about the health system and discussions of key legal precedents.  The majority of the book is written in a very academic format, which can get a bit dry at times and a little repetitive.

Furthermore, the primary focus of the book is on Cho Seung-Hui rather than suicidal mass murderers in general.  There were mentions of others but they were usually just in passing or short illustrations.

The best parts of the book were at the beginning — where they repainted in detail how the Virginia Tech massacre occured (I understand this was one of the worst lone gunman massacres in history, second only to Tasmania’s Martin Bryant) and how Cho’s mind spiralled so wildly out of control — and the end — where they discussed the warning signs and provided appendices containing Cho’s disturbing medical records and writings and the terrifying blog of this other freaky shooter, George Sodini.

Unfortunately, the middle chunk of the book was too tedious for me.  I’d recommend it to people who are interested in the Virginia Tech massacre or suicidal mass murderers in general from an academic perspective, but if you want a more compelling read that tells a story, I’m sure there are better alternatives out there.

2.5 out of 5

Book Review: ‘When Horse Became Saw’ by Anthony Macris April 16, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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When Horse Became Saw is a beautiful, gut-wrenching memoir from writer Anthony Macris about his family’s battle with autism.  His son Alex was a seemingly healthy baby boy that suddenly and inexplicably (like so many autism sufferers) fell into a frightening and unstoppable regression at around 18 months.  He stopped engaging with the world as we know it and became trapped in a world of his own, a world where everything became jumbled and nothing made sense.  Alex’s vocabulary began to deteriorate and words he once knew lost their meanings.  The word ‘horse’ had become ‘saw’.

What follows is an eye-opening journey into the lonely world of (severe) autism and a family’s struggle to provide the best possible future for their son.  It’s an old cliche, but Alex’s case was truly a parent’s worst nightmare.  Autism is a condition with no concrete cause, no known cure, and vastly different philosophies on treatment.  It is a condition that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat, and was and is criminally underfunded by the government, leaving parents in impossible situations.  It’s also a condition that ranges in severity, and Alex’s condition is at the far end of the spectrum, the severe kind.

Watching your child deteriorate before your eyes, knowing that he will never lead a normal life, and worrying about his future after you die — these are the things Macris and his wife Kathy have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.  The simplest of tasks (such as putting on a pair of socks) can take weeks to learn.  A child can go for months without any noticeable progress.

Worst of all, nothing you can do will ever be enough.  Working harder to make more money for his treatment means you get to spend less time with him.  Spending more time with him means you make less money for his treatment.  It can plunge the most optimistic of parents into despair.  That sense of helplessness can make a person question their worth as a father, a husband, a man.  It’s the type of feeling that can make a parent do something drastic, like killing their own child, a tragic reality that has happened before and is discussed in the book.

Having said all of that, When Horse Became Saw is not all doom and gloom.  Far from it.  I actually found it to be a strangely uplifting book to read.  There are moments of genuine happiness, of hope, of friendship, of selfless kindness, of a parent’s unconditional love for their child.  It became clear to me that despite his disadvantages, Alex is one of the lucky ones.

It is also an amazingly educational read that provides a wealth of information on autism — the difficult-to-define condition itself, the treatments available, the relevant national bodies, the state of public funding and private care — without ever being dry or textbook-like.

Much of that is due to Macris’s brilliant writing.  He works as a tertiary level creative writing teacher and it shines through.  Being a book for everyday mums and dads, the style of the book is simple, elegant and subtle, though occasionally the craftsmanship of a skilled writer rises to the surface through his imagery and vocabulary.  The quality of the writing is not something that is immediately apparent to the regular reader, but if you look closely, you’ll see Macris must have agonised over each sentence.  The book is a perfect blend of showing and telling — informative when it needs to be and evocative when it should be.  The passages describing his innermost thoughts and reflections are uncannily self-aware, piercing and heartfelt, and the scenes describing Alex’s diagnoses and treatment are vividly brought to life.  How he managed to write this book while teaching and making money and caring for his child all at the same time is a remarkable achievement in itself.

As someone whose extended family has been struck by autism on more than one occasion, this was a book that resonated with me far more than I had expected.  While it was beautifully written and a fine page-turner, I found it difficult to read on because it was so heartbreaking and infuriating at times.  But it’s a book I ultimately enjoyed, I’m glad I read, and I would gladly recommend to others.

4.5 stars out of 5

For more information check out the book’s page at Penguin here.  Anyone who has ever had a family member with autism or mental illness, and everyone who enjoys an engrossing read should read this book.

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