Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jonathan Fast's CEREMONIAL VIOLENCE Reviewed in The Brooklyn Rail

Jonathan Fast's Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Examination of School Shootings, is reviewed by Nicole Robson in the November issue of The Brooklyn Rail: "Readers looking for a clean-cut, definitive answer to why school rampage shootings occur will be disappointed. Fast acknowledges a multitude of variables, from malignant narcissism to identity confusion and mental disturbances, which contribute to a child committing mass murder and, in most cases, suicide. Yet the book distinguishes itself from mainstream media coverage by delving deeper not only into the candidates’ psyches, but also the social and historical context of the communities within which these tragedies took place."

1 comment:

John Wiser said...

- this came in over the transom today

SR Porn

We don’t make a big deal about Christmas around our house. Often, we try
to go someplace far away for the holiday, but the excitement of the trip
is always tinged with melancholy. December 14th is the anniversary of
the 1992 school shooting at Simon’s Rock College in which Galen was
murdered. I won’t speak for the rest of my family, but for me this is an
occasion to ponder the astonishing nature of a universe that could take
our brave, resilient, beautiful boy and leave us with Wayne Lo, his
murderer, who snapped and broke all those years ago. It’s a steep

Wayne writes to me a few times a year, usually with a small check which
I deposit in the Galen Gibson Scholarship Trust. He earns the money by
selling his artwork, via some guy named Zack, on the internet. This made
the news for a moment in the spring of 2007 when a zealous fellow down
in Houston coined the term “murderabilia” and decided to crack down on
its sale. Murderers, he reasoned, should not profit from their crimes.
Media people contacted me about this. I opined that donating money to a
scholarship fund was one of the few ways that Wayne Lo, locked in prison
for the rest of his life, could try to atone for what he’d done.
Society, I told them, has been very efficient about punishment, but
backward about reconciliation and rehabilitation. This was not the
answer they wanted to hear, so it didn’t get much play.

This past November I got a letter from Wayne that said, in part:

There is a new book out called Ceremonial Violence: a psychological
explanation of school shootings by Jonathan Fast. He devotes one chapter
(chap. 2) to my crime. I had a friend send me a photocopy of that
chapter alone and I discovered that Mr. Fast plagiarizes from Goneboy…
He would take a sentence from one part of your book and mix it with
another sentence from a different part and form a passage or paragraph…
I’m just personally offended that he didn’t even attempt to interview me
for the book, but that’s my narcissism speaking.

Well, that piqued my narcissism. I bought a copy of the book and read
through chapter 2. I noted first and foremost that Dr. Fast had a
fascination with acronyms, perhaps because he thought they made his text
sound more authoritative. School shootings thus became SR (school
rampage) shootings; the Children’s Gun Violence Prevention Act CGVPTA;
Child Access Prevention laws CAP; even the Jefferson County Sherrif’s
Office was JCSO.

Fast used several quotes from my book, Gone Boy, all properly
attributed. Nonetheless, I got the feeling that he was pilfering my
goods. His descriptions of people and situations sounded very like mine.
The report of Wayne in prison rocking back and forth on his parents’
first visit came to me directly from Wayne’s father and was reported
only in my book; Fast used it without attribution. Out of all the
hundreds of pages of testimony by psychiatrists in Wayne Lo’s criminal
trial, Fast repeatedly defaulted to the single characterizing sentence
or phrase that I had chosen. There were half a dozen other little
things, but most damningly, Fast cited and quoted from the firsthand
accounts of two students, Jeremy Roberts and Rob Horowitz. Their
narratives are accurate enough, but Roberts and Horowitz do not exist. I
made those names up to conceal the identities behind them. Fast talked
about them as if they were real people.

Perhaps Wayne Lo had a reason beyond narcissism to feel indignant.
Judging by his footnotes, Jonathan Fast’s account of the Simon’s Rock
case is made up almost entirely of newspaper accounts and other
secondary sources. Apparently he did not take the trouble to interview
any of the principals. If this was true of his work on Simon’s Rock,
what did it say about the rest of his book?

There was nothing to do but read on, and I have to admit it was, in its
horrible way, a compelling read. Fast recounts thirteen school
shootings, with several of them described a second time in greater
detail. Ironies abound. Craven school shooter Luke Woodham pleads for
mercy at the end of his spree because he’d delivered a pizza the night
before to the arresting officer and had discounted the price. The
narratives are shot through with dramatic details. A jury’s verdict is
considered during a violent thunderstorm, and then the verdict is read
“by the shafts of sunlight that filtered in the courthouse windows.” We
get painfully specific reports of five shootings, culminating in a
nearly minute-by-minute recitation of Harris and Klebold at Columbine.
As an assemblage of school shooting trivia Ceremonial Violence surpasses
even the New York Times’ magisterial survey. But in the end, this
ceaseless piling up of slaughtered innocents, poignant last words and
hellish psychological interiors leaves the reader a little queasy.

I researched my account of the Simon’s Rock shootings from 1992 to 1999,
and by the end of my work I probably knew as much as any layman about
such events. I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is
nothing in Dr. Jonathan Fast’s book that adds materially to what we knew
about school shootings and their causes in 2000. School shooters were
bullied. Many may have suffered abuse. They were unhappy kids who felt
themselves to be outcasts. A not-surprising number of them wore thick
glasses or dressed in black. They were all narcissists – “Drama Queens”
(Dr. Fast’s term) – and they all exhibited suicidal ideation. Fast’s
theory proposes a scenario in which “the candidate gets the idea of
turning his suicide into a public ceremony.” He lays this theory out in
three pages in his Introduction, and then we’re off to the races.
Thirteen “SR” shootings later we’ve had about as much as we can handle.
“I was raised in a family of storytellers,” Fast tells us (he’s the son
of novelist Howard Fast). Perhaps he means it as a warning. There isn’t
much here except the stories, and the stories are unrelievedly,
hair-raisingly grotesque.

Back in my Navy days, when there were such things as “dirty books,” much
of the smut we’d read aboard ship would be dressed up as important
sociological treatises. The novel would begin with an Introduction by a
Dr. Whoozits, warning us of the dangers to society inherent in
lesbianism, incest, bestiality, or whatever special treat was about to
be served up. Ceremonial Violence reminded me of one of those books. It
is SR porn - probably a doctoral thesis that got exploited to service
our seemingly bottomless fascination with such sickness. (A search for
“Columbine” on Amazon.com yields 1547 results.)

Aside from his sloppy adaptation of secondary sources, Dr. Fast should
be ashamed of allowing himself to be used in such a manner. Overlook
Press should be ashamed of having used him, and we, I suppose, should be
ashamed that school shooting books have to get written at all.

As Dr. Fast puts it,

Regardless of our beliefs about the advisability of gun control laws, it
is a simple fact that school shootings are impossible without guns that
are affordable, available, easy to load and fire, and capable of firing
many rounds within a few seconds.

In 2007, when the reporters wanted me to talk about “murderabilia,” I
asked them where they were when I wanted to talk about how easy it was
for crazy people to get guns in America.

They had no answer for that one.

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