Manhood, Mental Illness, and The Colorado Massacre by Kevin Powell

“How come all these crazies are White boys?” my White male friend Michael Cohen asked me via email in the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting. It is something I have been hearing nonstop these past few days since 24-year-old James Holmes murdered 12 and wounded nearly 60 people in a horrific mass shooting at a screening of the new Batman film.

The question also makes me recall that Chris Rock stand-up routine where he said he fears angry White males more than he fears angry Black males because you simply don’t know what the White dudes will do when pissed off. Or something to that effect.

However, to reduce this to mass murderers being “White” and “crazy” would ignore that an Arab-American man, Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan, killed 13 soldiers and civilians and wounded more than two dozen at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009. Or that South Korean-American Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people, and himself, on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007.

But, too, very defensive folks in America’s Black and Latino communities will have you believe that we do not do things like that. Case in point is a conversation I had with a Black police officer in my Brooklyn, New York ‘hood just last night where he swore, up and down, we Black and Brown folks ain’t like them White folks when it comes to killings. How then, I asked, do you explain the record numbers of Black and Latino young males shooting maiming paralyzing killing each other from New York to Chicago to Oakland and pretty much every other large or small American ghetto this very bloody Summer of 2012?

The officer, who ought to know better given his line of work, maintained it was different. What really is the difference between one violent White man taking out a dozen at a time and a dozen violent Black or Latino men in the same ghetto killing one person each? Is not the total still 12 people dead, senselessly? While many of the reasons why White males shoot people are very different from why Black and Latino males shoot people, the bottom line is that murder is murder.

But, for sure, these “mass murders” happen daily weekly monthly yearly in neighborhoods of color but those stolen lives barely make the news, if ever. If not for the oral reporting of hip-hop and brilliant songs like Nas’ “Accident Murderers” from his new cd, we’d have no idea that life is the complete opposite of good in the ‘hood. So while I have complete and total compassion for the lives that were taken, wounded, and altered by what happened in Colorado, it also saddens me extremely to know that when it comes to Black and Latino people being murdered rarely are their lives given much public attention. It is that unfortunate and painful reminder that in the eyes of our America their lives don’t matter as much.

Beyond the above, I feel the problem is that we in America are not only unwilling to engage in real and raw conversations about the root causes of violence, but we also are ducking and dodging any dialogue about how we define manhood and what, exactly, mental illness is, and how dangerous it is for everyone when warped notions of manhood collide with someone who is very emotionally unstable.

Put another way, Albert Einstein once famously said insanity is saying or doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. When you look at the massive media coverage of the Aurora theater shooting, you could easily be watching the same coverage of Fort Hood, or Virginia Tech, or Columbine, in Colorado, way back when Bill Clinton was president.

What we gloss over or completely ignore is that there is something profoundly wrong with how we define manhood in America. The definition is as old as this nation. And we know that definition begins with immigrant men from Europe ransacking the land of Native Americans and enslaving Africans. And that definition of manhood means the long American journey has been one riddled with men and boys who think it their birthright to use brute force to achieve their ends. Yup, there is a straight line from so-called explorers to cowboys to gangsters to rock stars to whichever rapper is hot this current moment to the hate-baiting mouthpieces on the Fox News Channel. 

It means our notion of manhood is actually based in myth-making, in mythology, and these myths of who and what the American man is or suppose to be has been spread, since we were boys, from school history lessons to our religious institutions, and practically in every kind of book, magazine, tv show, film, or video game we absorb.

That is why when you look at the ever-expanding list of the worst mass murderers in American history, you cannot find a woman. They simply do not get down the way we men do. Women do not sexually harass men the way we sexually harass them. Women do not rape men the way we rape them. Women do not commit acts of domestic violence at the level we do to them. Most women do not wind up in seedy extramarital affairs as often as we men do. And women do not cover up the rape and abuse of children at a major university the way the men of Penn State did, just to protect a storied football program.

So the problem, to me, is that we are in denial about who we have been taught to be as men, how much of what we say we are is addicted to violence, to twisted ego trips and narrow-minded visions of power, to mindless competition that leads us to destroy each other (and ourselves) over and over again. Where it ends, always, we know. It is called that theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. It is called certain types of male police officers gunning down Black and Latino young men who are unarmed with names like Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, or Ramarley Graham. It is called what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin. It is called the tragedy of Penn State. It is called the bloodshed on the streets of urban America.

And it is called mental illness, y’all, for what else are violent behavior but the work of someone, well, who is simply not well? On the surface James Holmes appeared to be a genius and nothing more than a shy and introverted young man. He was an outstanding undergrad student at the University of California-Riverside, and many of his former classmates from high school and college talked about what a good person he was, and how shocked they are by this eruption.

I battled depression, low self-esteem and, yes, violent and physical outbursts in my past lives, and I know that we males, particularly, have not been socialized or encouraged to discuss our true feelings. Only because of years of therapy and involvement in multiple men’s groups and healing circles was I able to think about the root causes of what was bothering me, of what was triggering specific actions and reactions in my life. Most men do not go to therapy, and never will. Men are taught to be “strong,” to hold back emotions, to talk little about our internal struggles. Instead, like James Holmes, we will repress, hide, and even create a cover for what is often seen on the surface as just anti-social behavior. Again, in Holmes’ case, he was just dismissed as shy, as socially awkward. And only someone whose identity is that fragile will be driven to recreate himself as a new person entirely. For Holmes that new person was the fictional Joker character from Batman. Where he felt completely disempowered previously, to the point of even giving up on grad school, he now was omnipotent, emboldened by 6000 rounds of ammunition, four guns, tear gas, and an all-black costume just like the character Bane’s in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Call it self-creation through violent means, because that is exactly what it was for James Holmes.

We still do not know what the tipping point was for James Holmes. Was it his struggles with grad school? Was it the ending of a relationship? I think often of a former friend of mine, who lost his cushy corporate job and his marriage around the same time about six years ago. Many had always considered him a bit of an outcast, but the twin traumas of career and marriage collapse pushed him over the edge. So much so, in fact, that many people avoid him and have joked that “he seems like one of those guys who will snap at any moment and shoot a bunch of people.”


But it is not a joke. Not when the path to personal pain and low self-esteem is layered with resentment that becomes paranoia. And if that man starts to retreat into a self-made world of rage and self-pity, he becomes more isolated. I saw my friend who lost his job and marriage spiral into that universe of thoughts and fantasies of revenge, of intentionally scaring people, because it made him feel powerful. As a matter of fact the last time I was ever with him, he drove 100 miles an hour across one of New York City’s bridge, with me in the passenger seat, for no reason other than he felt he could. I thought we were going to die that very day, and I have not seen nor spoken with him since. I was suddenly that terrified of him.

But it is simplistic to reduce men and boys who may have emotional problems and past pains they are coping with, to being crazy or weird, to medicate them with drugs, without rolling back the layers of who they are, without creating spaces, once and for all, where men and boys can open up, talk, share, and, yes, own what it is that is causing them pain or trauma. I cannot tell you how many emails and private Facebook and Twitter messages, for example, I get from American men and boys of various backgrounds every single week asking for help in some way. For some it is because they have battered or abused a female partner. For others they simply do not know what a man is, are terribly confused, and are seeking answers and guidance, or some word to move them from their state of arrested development.

And those answers will only come, in America, if we begin to have the kinds of conversations women and girls have long had to talk openly and freely about all that is happening to us. That is not to say murder, including mass murder, will stop, nor that men who committed violent acts should not be held accountable for their actions, because they should be. Nor is it to say we do not need better and tighter gun control, because God knows we do. The mere fact that James Holmes was able to purchase so much of his ammo online is disturbing beyond words.

But how many lives could we save in our entire nation if that national conversation on violence we so badly need to have also includes an honest and open discussion about manhood, about mental health and mental illness?

Kevin Powell, writer, activist, public speaker, is the author or editor of 11 books, including “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays” ( Email him at or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell

18 comments on “Manhood, Mental Illness, and The Colorado Massacre by Kevin Powell

  1. These guys have been brainwashed and programmed to self destruct. The technique of repeat exposure is being used to brainwashed and program all these shooters.A lot of people should read the book by Amos Wilson ” Black on Black Violence ” and pay close attention to chapter 9.
    As he points out,in the case of the black male being a criminal.Black male criminals are basically following in the footsteps of their master from the plantation . Their psycological daddy. On a lecture tape by Amos Wilson he talks about this alien spirit being incaculated into the minds and spirits of people.In the case of the black male shooters in the hood and these white men doing all this killing it applies to both groups. All these old played out rap thugs images have mainly brainwashed and programmed a vast of black males and other’s who fell right into the trap.Now many of them are dead,locked in slave type prison and maybe insane and to this day not having a clue as what was being done and being used to put them in their current state of mind

  2. I respect and understand many of Brother Powell’s points, and he makes a good case here. However, he may want to do a bit more research when making sweeping statements about the lack of atrocities committed by women, as the numbers do show otherwise when it comes to sexual assault of children (schoolteachers, anyone?), domestic violence, mutilation, and the murder and neglect of the defenseless, including their own children and seniors.

  3. Kevin,

    First of all. Thank you for sharing your own battles publicly. I am sure that is part of your healing. I want to tell you that it takes a MAN to do that. And for that you are stronger. And let me tell you because of that you are a role model for other youngsters in similiar situations.
    By the grace of God , I am no longer the same person I was. I ran a crew with an bullheaded iron fist. My path was towards death, prison or an institution. Allow me to talk in the third person .
    In some org or business violence becomes an acceptable means to an end; whether that be someone sellin somethin on the street; runnin a racket; or the corporate board of an oil company.
    Some of its more overt; some not.
    What I have learned is that a real man is one who is willing to look at himself; take responsibility and at times not afraid to make himself look vulnerable. Being nice to someone is not a sign of weakness; its strength. Some of the nice people; trust me youngsters you wouldn’t want none.
    Peace lets break bread !!

    As far as race. Violence knows no race. We all bleed red; at least thats what I’ve seen.
    If someone bleeds a different color let me know.

  4. Excellent blog, that has the vision and daring to ask many of the right questions. Refreshing.

  5. The relationship manhood > violence is nurtured by the state so they can call you in to self-righteously kill in their name… and by the military complex to sell more weapons. As long as those intentions are out there, those open spaces to talk/listen and the reshaping of manhood won’t happen. There’s a strong Bully component ingrained into America’s culture, that is adored by all genders.

  6. Reblogged this on The Sex-Positive Parent and commented:
    This is a beautiful, insightful and crucial post. It’s all amazing, but the part that stood out to me, as a woman and mother of boys: “But it is simplistic to reduce men and boys who may have emotional problems and past pains they are coping with, to being crazy or weird, to medicate them with drugs, without rolling back the layers of who they are, without creating spaces, once and for all, where men and boys can open up, talk, share, and, yes, own what it is that is causing them pain or trauma.” Please give it a read.

  7. ‘“How come all these crazies are White boys?”’ They look a lot crazier b/c the MSM refuses to cover minority crimes.

  8. Brother. I love your writing and appreciate the man you have worked at becoming.

    I have to disagree with one point. I believe their is a big difference between indoctrination and mental illness. Indoctrination into a belief system of gang violence, genocide, or patriotism can look like mental illness when the ends, a mission, justifies the means of horrific violence. This is what wars are made of. It is what makes human trafficing acceptable in certain societies in certain times of history including now. Mental illness is different in that it is outside the realm of the behavior of a healthy brain as in the case of a psychotic break. The line between mental illness, and socially unacceptable behavior can become very fine, and one I’m not qualified to draw. So the violence that has become the norm for some cultures, gangs, militias in the Congo, Special Ops, even global warming may point to a sickness in a cultures choices, but mental illness is beyond choice. It is broken wiring, and chemical imbalance. That isn’t to say that broken wiring from the stresses of life, and self medicating can’t lead to chemical imbalances and addictions. The importance is that the root causes of each are different and have to be treated differently. A psychotic murderer and a drugged up meth addict need different treatments.

    Yes it is a sad commentary that in the media and police response to crimes in minority neighborhoods, that the lives of people of color don’t seem to matter as much. I wonder though if that is only the media, or if it really represents the opinion of whites, or is it actually the opinion of people of color as well? Do people of color expect this type of violence in their communities as in the case of gang on gang, black on black, Hmong on Hmong violence?

  9. I agree Tony. But violence and abuse is more common in men. Still, these things are rising in women too, but for different reasons. For one thing, abuse is a cycle. It carries on to the next generation usually. Also, the pressure placed on women to stand up to america’s standard of beauty and being skinny can often push women into anger and depression similar to what Kevin is talking about. Different cause, same effect.

  10. I looked forward to reading this ariticle, but I was surprised at the turn it took, comparing the violence of young black men in the ‘hood to the mass murders of total strangers in public places that seems to be the provence of a certain kind fo white male. The FBI profile of a serial killer (they are the ones who popularized the term profiling), is a young white male. They, these white males, say of proudly of themselves that they are angry. And what are they angry abpit? They are angry that the promised land of being white and American and male might have passed them by; that they are not automatically richer nor more powerful nor smarter than some not white Americans.

    I once asked a white guy I had just met at a conference if he assumed, without knowing anything at all about me, that he was smarter, better educated, had better social circumstances. He was a minority at a conference of very smart and accomplished black people – and still he thought he was and should be, smarter and more accomplished. He admitted that that was his socialization.

    What is always missing in the reports of the Columbines and the Auroras that would be included if the perpetrators were Afriican descendants, is a connection to community and family. The community would be blamed; the parents would be blamed. James Holmes and the others, and there is a long line of white serial murders (V Tech is an exception), are treated as if they are individuals only. And of course they are tagged as mentally ill, and much is made of his being a genius, as if that was the reason he set it off: he was so smart and could not help himself.

    Yes, murders like this are male-oriented – all that testoserone. Women have different ways of doing anger, and many times we turn our anger inward rather than outward – substance abuse (legal or not); promiscuity; child abuse; passive agressivity.

    Thank you for putting this article out there.

  11. I’m glad someone is invested in this dialogue of manhood in relationship to this horrible event. I appreciate the acknowledgment of myth-making in how America constructs manhood. I would, however, point out that past mythologies have dealt with many of these issues. In the Bible, Jonah and Job, pose the questions of humility, loss of direction, and the struggles of ego. Maybe instead of focusing on the mythology of the Superhero, America needs to delve into the many cultural mythologies present in this land derived from ancient knowledge of the human condition. Oh, but that would take seeing religious belief as metaphor and not literal truth and an education system teaching philosophical thought and not just graduating automatons in the Capitalist ideal of materialist gain.

  12. No women do not commit such acts the same way men do, because they are not men. Woman commit acts the way Susan Smith drove her car in the water drowning her 2 boys because her new love didn’t want kids. Women will get pregnant on purpose just to use that child as a pawn in her game of keeping a man’s attention for herself, thus causing that child a life long feeling of confusion. We must not forget every mother that has refused to believe their significant other is the very same person molesting their child or those women who assist in the kidnapping and torture of children as a way of proving how deep their love is for their man. Let us not forget every woman who has had sexual relations with one of their male middle school aged students and given birth to his child. These children are now adults who suffer from one nagging thought, “Adults say that they will protect children, but why wasn’t I good enough to be protected?”

  13. Yea it’s usually a “crazy white guy” who does this type of random senseless killing spree..Of course it’s not 100 percent always a white guy (Seung Hui Cho from Virginia Tech etc) but usually it’s a white guy.

  14. Pingback: Some Random and Not So RandomThings I Remember from 2012 | Davey D's Hip Hop Corner

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