Washington, July 27, 2012 – As families mourn the loss of twelve innocent lives in a darkened Aurora, Colorado, theatre, the world struggles to look into the mind of the alleged killer, James Eagen Holmes.
A bewildered-looking Holmes made his first court appearance on Monday as his expression shifted between confused and wide-eyed beneath the tangle of red hair that has become a symbol of his descent into madness. The University of Colorado and law enforcement have both refused to release information as to Holmes’ mental state, in compliance with the gag order issued by a Colorado State court.
From the little that we know about James Eagen Holmes, the story almost resembles the plot of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a novel written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886. In this story Dr. Jekyll is a mild mannered gentleman who struggles with balancing the good and evil inside him. In an attempt to repress the evil, he concocts a potion that fails to defeat the evil and instead turns Dr. Jekyll into the evil Mr. Hyde for certain periods of time. Dr. Jekyll soon realizes he is being taken over by Mr. Hyde and there is no way to stop it. He leaves behind a written account of his struggle against the evil inside as he is being swept away by its dark hold on him.
Holmes’ break with sanity seemed to coincide with a poor performance on his ‘prelim’ oral exams, which are administered at the end of the first year of graduate study. I have worked in the Life Sciences field for many years, and in my experience, oral exams are difficult for many graduate students. I have seen both men and women become very emotional following these exams, and several have contemplated quitting over their outcome. Imagine being grilled with questions by a committee composed of your professors, all of whom are world-renowned in their field of study.
The graduate program in Neuroscience is not charm school, and sometimes professors can be extremely hard on students in their attempt to probe the level of knowledge they have attained. Doctoral students typically have two chances at oral exams, and if they fail, a Master’s degree is usually granted which can derail the career of many academic hopefuls. I have known someone who, after failing his oral exams, turned his back on academics entirely and became a mechanic.
What changed James Eagen Holmes into a mass murderer may have been chemical, biological, psychological or a combination of these. Holmes may have been experimenting with drugs or he may have experienced a psychotic break. Psychosis is defined as a symptom or feature of mental illness typically characterized by radical changes in personality, impaired functioning, and a distorted or nonexistent sense of objective reality. Compounds such as LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) can cause psychiatric reactions such as anxiety or delusions, and drugs such as PCP, commonly known as angel dust, cause brain damage and produce hallucinations, paranoia, suicidal impulses and aggressive behavior. Meningoencephalitis is an infection or inflammation of the brain caused by a virus or bacteria. Symptoms can include acute psychotic episodes unaffected by treatment with antipsychotic drugs. A brief psychotic disorder may also be stimulated by stress such as Holmes experienced due to the failure of his oral exams.
I have seen both a suicide and a murder occur in relation to the stress of graduate school. The suicide occurred as a result of the high expectations of family members and the feeling of disappointment the individual experienced when those expectations were not met. There were no signs that suicide was a possibility before this individual resorted to taking his own life.
The murder occurred after a professor “made an example” of a graduate student and did not award him a Ph.D. after his seven years of work deviated from the plan approved by his graduate committee. The individual retaliated by devising a plan that resulted in the murder of one of his committee members.
Neither of these individuals raised any red flags during the entirety of their academic careers, and in examining their behavior, only in hindsight can we find the subtle indicators of a path that led to tragedy.
There are striking similarities between the case of James Eagen Holmes and that of Robert Bales. Bales is the Army Staff Sergeant who is accused of murdering 16 unarmed civilians after leaving his base in Afghanistan on March 11 of this year.
Bales had no history of mental instability and had been awarded several medals by the Army for his service. Bales had been experiencing both marital and financial problems prior to the attack and he was upset about his tour of duty on the front lines. He had also suffered a mild traumatic brain injury on his previous tour in Afghanistan when his vehicle flipped over. Bales went through treatment at Fort Lewis for his injuries and was deemed fit to report back to duty. All of these factors have been ruled out as marginal contributions to his behavior.
During the attack, Bales allegedly burned some of his victims and returned to his base to gather more weapons before continuing his deadly rampage. When apprehended, Bales openly admitted to the attacks and immediately asked for an attorney. John Henry Browne, the attorney who defended Ted Bundy, will be representing Robert Bales alongside his military attorneys. Bales is scheduled for a preliminary court hearing in September. Experts say his case may never go to trial as they expect his attorney to file an insanity defense, due to the fact he cannot acknowledge the wrongfulness of his acts. He is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, until his hearing in September.
James Eagen Holmes by all accounts was a model student as an undergraduate but did not perform well in graduate school. Some may think this is unusual, but from my experience I will tell you it is not. As an undergraduate much of your coursework is memorization, and in the Life Sciences you are typically required to plan and execute a project if you want to graduate with honors as James Eagen Holmes did.
As an undergraduate in the Life Sciences, much of your success can depend on the professor who accepts you into their laboratory to do your senior project. If that professor likes you, he can make your life very easy and help with your project and with applying for a grants such as the one James Eagen Holmes had for graduate school.
Students who receive this type of extra help during undergraduate school can be thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to swim when the reach an elite graduate program such as the one at the University of Colorado. An example of the difference between an undergraduate and a graduate student is that an undergraduate is just required to name the parts of a car engine while a graduate student is expected to name every part, explain the function of each and how they work together to make a car move.
I will be candidly honest about my field; many scientists are not the social butterflies of the world, and most prefer to work in a lab and have minimal contact with people. Most are thrust into the role of being administrators as their careers progress and spend less and less time doing what they intended, research. Many scientists are introverts, and if James Eagen Holmes was reserved, it would most likely have gone unnoticed. Those he grew up with in his hometown of San Diego describe him as being the complete opposite of a loner. The problem is that none of these people were in Colorado, so James Eagen Holmes’ behavior may have changed from San Diego to Colorado, but there was no frame of reference.
The change in James Eagen Holmes’ behavior is what many are grappling to understand. How can individuals like Holmes and Bales change in an instant from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde with no hint of their possible behavior throughout their life?
The sad truth is that we may never know what allowed the evil inside James Eagen Holmes to consume him, and the innocent lives he alleged to have ended might never know the justice they deserve. We can only console the living and remember the dead and not let the tragedy of that night in Aurora, Colorado, stop us from living our lives and attending movies. I hope for an answer in the mystery of what caused the senseless death of twelve people. I honor their memory and the memory of the heroes who emerged from that night when the darkness of one man’s soul brought tragedy home to us all.