I saw a cute little dog on a leash outside of a coffee shop one day, tied to a fence post and sitting all alone in an out-of-the-way place, waiting patiently for its owner to return. I thought I would go over and say Hello. I walked over and reached down to pet the little thing and it went nearly berzerk, barking and growling and showing its teeth. I jumped back. Someone popped out of the coffee shop right away and said, “Don’t get close to that dog! He was abused when he was puppy. He only trusts a couple of people.”
“Oh, I’m sorry”, I responded, and continued on my way.
A few years later, a couple of friends and I joined a volunteer group to help homeless kids. I learned to see the world the way kids who live on the street see it. And some of the things I learned surprised me. Our group went out on the streets once a week and brought various items that were donated by charity organizations. Some of the more popular items we distributed were toothpaste, toothbrushes, clean socks and bus passes. Whenever we had second-hand clothes to distribute, the darkest colors were always chosen first. Dark colors don’t show dirt as well and those kids rarely had an opportunity to wash their clothes, so they all preferred to wear dark colors.
It was interesting getting to know the kids, and hearing their stories. Some of them were really friendly and knew us by name. Some of them rarely came into public view. They remained in secret hiding places where only homeless people go, and they had friends who brought them stuff. So, when we knew that someone had a friend who felt safer remaining hidden, we would discretely allow that kid to take extra things with them for their friends. We didn’t know where all of the kids slept at night, and if they didn’t tell us, we didn’t ask. Some would find bridges to sleep under. Some slept in the park, near the creek or wherever they could sleep all night without getting harassed by the police.
In the homeless adult population, there are quite a few veterans with PTSD who are homeless mostly because their PTSD prevents them from being able to concentrate well enough to hold a job, and it seems to often accompany other issues that are not conducive to maintaining peaceful work environments. But there aren’t many veterans in the underage homeless population. Homeless kids are mostly runaways or kids who left home because they didn’t feel safe there anymore, and some whose parents threw them out. Some of the kids remained silent most of the time. We never asked any questions. We listened and distributed the things that the organization had for us to take out.
A couple of those kids had something all together different going on with them. Some of the kids had warned us which ones we should watch out for. On the nights when we were out on the streets, we would talk to the volunteers who worked with the homeless adults, and they said the same thing. Some of the people were the types that you always needed to be extra careful around. It was a well known thing in the homeless world, and we got to witness it for ourselves one day. None of us was quite sure what triggered it exactly, but one of the kids suddenly unleashed such a torrent of fury and rage at one of the other kids that everybody within a considerable distance stopped to see what was going on. It was a terrifying thing to see, and we realized at that moment that when the kids warn us to be careful around certain individuals, we should take their warnings seriously. It made a very strong impression on me, because I had witnessed the same thing only a few years earlier, exactly the same thing. And in a fraction of a second I recalled that vivid image, and I felt a very powerful sense of déjà vu as it flashed upon my memory. It was the image of that little dog outside the coffee shop that day.
There is a disease in American culture, and it has gone viral. The most serious symptoms are violence, mass murder, school shootings and the like. But the disease itself is systemic. What appear to be individual outbreaks are really symptoms of the same societal virus. It manifests itself in the form of many woven layers of psychological trauma and repressed emotions. By the time it finally expresses itself in the form of rage, the individual has long since forgotten the real sources of those emotions. The only thing they feel is the damage from it, and when the damage becomes too much to live with anymore and the person realizes they must make an early departure, they become angry, and that anger builds over time. And they retaliate against the whole society, the whole world. Because this is the society whose negligence allowed this to happen to them. This is the society that took their soul away from them. This is the society that is guilty of criminal apathy and stood by as its evil forces inflicted irreparable damage onto its victims. This is the society that tacitly condones bullying with one of its faces, while speaking out against it with the other. And a conviction develops within them, that society must pay for its crimes of contempt. And the anger builds and it is projected outward onto the passive conspirators. When the virus becomes deadly and the effects of the trauma become too much to live with, and the anger accumulates to levels that can no longer be contained, the disease becomes particularly virulent and potentially deadly for anyone near the person. We’ve seen this happen again and again and again, more often than not in the United States of America.
The US is having a big national debate right now about gun control. Well, kind of. But the debate isn’t really about gun control. The two political parties are fighting over financial contributions, and they are using rhetoric that is designed to appeal to people’s emotions after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. But none of it is sincere. When the members of one party say, “we support the rights of gun owners”, they really mean, “we want to continue to receive donations from the gun lobby, and therefore we want to legislate to make their products easier to purchase”. And when the members of the other party say, “we support gun control so that kids can be safe from attack in their schools”, what they really mean is, “we want to cut off funding from our opponents so that we will have a stronger advantage in the next election”. Their words are all about gun control and constitutional rights, but their motivation is only about money and political gain. And that is why social problems like random homicide and school shootings will never be solved at the political level.
It isn’t really the availability of guns that compels people to use them in such ways. It is the availability of guns combined with the rage that develops in so many Americans over time. It is very obvious by now that tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happen with much more frequency in the United States than in most other countries. What cultural forces affect so many of us in such horribly terrifying ways? Is it PTSD, some other form of mental illness perhaps? If so, then what is it about American culture that causes so much mental illness? What is the root cause of it? The effects of bullying, abuse and trauma are difficult to study, because it can’t be observed in a clinical setting. By the time it is discovered, the damage is too deeply rooted, or the individual is already dead. It wouldn’t be ethical or legal to conduct a study by inflicting PTSD onto a group of people, in a controlled and well-documented way, in order to observe the changes it caused in their behavior. If somebody could do that, we might really learn a lot about the potential long-term effects of certain types of abusive treatment. But you can’t just bully a group of kids for years just to prove or disprove a theory about how it might affect them.
Or can you?
I heard a story one time about a kid named Ted who scored 167 on an IQ test when he was in fifth grade in 1953. That is astronomically high intelligence. With an IQ that high, Ted would probably be in the top one or two out of a million people or so, but no one really knows for sure since there are so few people as brilliant as Ted that conducting surveys of those people is nearly impossible. Ted performed so well in school that it was recommended that he skip sixth grade. He continued to excel in school and it was later recommended that he also skip his junior year of high school. When Ted received word that he was accepted into Harvard University in 1958, he had not yet turned 16 years old. He started as a freshman a few months after his sixteenth birthday, majoring in mathematics.
But before I tell you the rest of the story of that brilliant kid Ted, I have to tell you the story of Dr. Henry A. Murray.
Dr. Murray earned his MD from Columbia University and got a PhD in biochemistry in 1928. He had met Carl Jung a few years earlier and was allegedly so profoundly influenced by the meeting that he chose psychology as his career instead of medicine. Immediately after graduating from his doctoral program, he became assistant director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic. He was an early pioneer in personality analysis and testing and developed the Thematic Apperception Test in 1935. In 1937, he was promoted to Director of Harvard Psychological Clinic.
During World War II, Dr. Murray went to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. His job was to develop a test for new recruits to see if they could stand up to the pressures of being a spy. Specifically, the OSS wanted him to develop tests that would determine which spies would not break down under the pressure of interrogations if they were captured by the enemy. The tests were designed to be extremely intimidating and uncomfortable, and the interrogations were harsh. According to Alston Chase, the anticipation of Dr. Murray’s tests alone was enough to make some candidates fall apart. After the war, Dr. Murray returned to his position as Director of Harvard Psychological Clinic, and resumed his studies of personality analysis.
Ted started his first year at Harvard in 1958, only a few months after turning 16. He was selected to be a resident in a small house that the university considered to be kind of an experimental incubator for the most highly intelligent freshmen, so that they could flourish academically and have a safe and quiet place outside of the common student housing. And like many of the other kids who lived in that house, Ted was majoring in mathematics.
During Ted’s sophomore year in 1959, he volunteered to participate in some ongoing psychological studies. The volunteers were paid and the opportunity was only open to sophomores. Each was given a code name for the duration of the study. Ted was given the code name Lawful. The participants were told that they would be given a month to write an essay about their personal philosophy of life, and also an autobiography. They were given all of Dr. Murray’s personality tests, and various other personality tests as well. A full analysis was made of each participant’s personality. They were told that they would come back to debate their ideas a month later.
But the study was not at all what the participants were told it was. Their personality tests were analyzed and their philosophies of life were scrutinized so that a volunteer from the law school could use the information in order to prepare to tear the unsuspecting students to pieces. On the day the students returned to debate their philosophies of life, they were led down a stairway into a dark room and seated in front of a bright light. Electrodes were hooked up to them to measure their heart rate and breathing. They could see shadowy figures of people behind two-way mirrors, and there was a movie camera pointed at them. And when the debate began, their opponents were brutally harsh and abusive, attacking their most cherished values and ideals.
The study was really designed to induce anger and rage. One source said it “aimed at psychic deconstruction by humiliating undergraduates and thereby causing them to experience severe stress”. Alston Chase has suggested that the study might have been a continuation of Dr. Murray’s work for the OSS, because of how similar the experiments were, and the fact that Dr. Murray never gave any clear reason for conducting that series of studies at Harvard during those years. Such research would not be legal today. The following year, the participants were told to watch the movies of them breaking down under the harsh attacks, and they were asked to comment on their impressions of themselves.
It’s hard to say what effect a study like that had on those who participated. The study went on for 3 years, every week. Some people, including Alston Chase, have contacted some of the participants in that study. One of them said he felt like he was “being attacked”. Another remembered feeling “anger and embarrassment”. Decades later, they remember it as an unpleasant experience. And the one who went by the code name Lawful was two years younger than the rest. Ted was eligible to participate because he was a sophomore when the study began, but he was only as old as most high school seniors at the time.
Ted graduated from Harvard in 1962, at the age of 20, and went on to get his PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan where he became interested in a branch of mathematics called complex analysis. His doctoral dissertation was titled “Boundary Functions” and it solved a problem so complex that even his professor, a leading expert in complex analysis, could not solve it. One of the members of Ted’s dissertation committee commented, “I would guess that maybe 10 or 12 men in the country understood or appreciated it.” After graduation, Ted published a total of six articles related to his dissertation in mathematics journals. In 1967, he became the youngest person ever hired as an assistant professor by the University of California, Berkeley mathematics department.
But while Ted was completing his doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, he began to have recurring nightmares. And the nightmares continued after he graduated from his doctoral program. After he started his job with the university in Berkeley California, the nightmares persisted. In 1969, Ted abruptly quit his job as assistant mathematics professor at UC Berkeley and moved back to his parents’ home in Illinois. In 1971, he built a small cabin in a remote location in Montana and moved into it. While living in Montana, he continued to have recurring nightmares. Alston Chase wrote in his article, “He began having terrible nightmares. He started having fantasies about taking revenge against a society that he increasingly viewed as an evil force obsessed with imposing conformism through psychological controls”. Things only went down hill for Ted after that. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Ted did some pretty bad things in his life, I mean things that were like crime-of-the-century magnitude.
A 2002 joint report, issued by the United States Secret Service and the US Department of Education, determined that, “in a number of the incidents of targeted school violence studied, attackers described being bullied in terms that suggested that these experiences approached torment”. It sounds all too familiar. Yep. Way too familiar.
Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber by Alston Chase
Harvard’s Experiment on the Unabomber from Psychology Today
Unabomber Decoded: Did Harvard Study Fuel Rage? from CBS Miami
Murray Center Seals Kaczynski Data from The Harvard Crimson
“Lawful”: Unabomber’s CIA-Sponsored MKUltra Experiments at Harvard
Industrial Society and Its Future by Theodore Kaczynski
The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States from the United States Secret Service and US Department of Education
Stand Up For Kids
Stand Up For Kids
Monday, February 18, 2013
Aspie Kid | Perspectives from the Autism Spectrum || Lawful via @AspieKid