The dangers of loneliness

by Rob Tiller

The gym class killings near Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago sparked a mediathan, and it isn’t any wonder.  This sort of megaviolence is unsettling, because it doesn’t fit into the usual categories.  The killer was not obviously certifiably insane.  There was no rational motive. The victims were not known to the killer. The setting was about as healthy as possible — a health club aerobic dance class. A gunman suddenly appears and starts shooting everyone in sight. Such a thing seems unimaginable, until it happens, and then it seems as though it could happen at any moment.

The question that always remains in such cases is: why? And there’s never a complete and satisfactory answer. In the gym class case, though, we have an unusual window into the killer’s mind — his blog posts and videos. His problem, or at least a big part of his problem as he saw it, was loneliness. He was in agony over his inability to find a relationship with a woman. He was deeply angry about his inability to find sex, friendship, and happiness.

Could that really be the reason he went berserk? I think so. Of course, it’s hard to know much about the extreme pain of extreme loneliness. It’s by definition an isolating experience. Those who are caught in it are unlikely to be very good communicators. I was reminded of a couple of documents that give some clues as to what may have happened.

The best fictional depiction of the danger of loneliness that I know is Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese. Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickel is a person on the margin who desperately wants to connect with a woman and with society and cannot. He seems almost normal, but not quite. It gradually becomes clear that he is angry and violent. What wasn’t really clear to me, until the gym killings last week, was the causal connection between his anger and his loneliness.

Another data point is a piece from a few weeks back by Atal Gawande in the New Yorker about the effects of isolation in American prisons and elsewhere.  They are dire. Prisoners begin quickly deteriorating after several days of solitary confinement. They lose the ability to concentrate, to think in an orderly way, and to control extreme emotions. Those who endure months or years of solitary confinement become psychologically damaged or completely insane. Gawande estimates that there are 25,000 people in long term solitary confinement in our prisons. It’s clearly torture, it’s shameful, and we should stop it.

As Gwande notes, humans are social animals in a strong sense: we can’t actually exist in a healthy form without human contact. I suspect that the gym class killer’s explosion of violent anger can be explained by that simple axiom. A possible corollary is: we should try to reach out to lonely people with some kindness. It might not help, but it won’t hurt to try, and we might save a drowning soul, or even in a rare case prevent a mass murder.