Is James Holmes psychotic?

In the wake of James Holmes’ shooting frenzy in Aurora, which left twelve people dead and at least 58 injured, arguments have already begun about his state of mind, and more specifically whether he is mentally ill or not.  Interestingly, part of the argument seems to hinge on whether a psychotic individual could have planned and orchestrated such an attack in the way that Holmes did.  For example, Rhys Blakely in a Times article today cites police saying that Holmes showed ‘”calculation and deliberation” in planning the attack – which, according to Blakely, ‘appears to preclude insanity.’1

This has very strong echoes with the Anders Breivik shootings, which by an eerie twist of fate, happened almost a year ago to the day that Holmes went on the rampage.  Psychiatrists were divided over whether Breivik could be diagnosed as psychotic, and one of the areas of dispute related to whether or not a psychotic individual was able to plan and execute what was effectively a small scale military or terrorist type operation.  Furthermore, Breivik was attempting to justify his actions in terms of a particular, far right ideology.  Again, there seemed to be disagreement about whether a psychotic person could hold and articulate such beliefs.

We’ve yet to find out whether Holmes adhered to a particular set of beliefs.  We do know he said he was the Joker (Batman’s nemesis) when he was arrested.  Whether he had studied the Batman comics and graphic novels we will undoubtedly discover in due course.  We do know that he not only acquired a semi-automatic assault rifle, a pump action shot gun and two pistols, and a vast quantity of ammunition, but also bobby trapped his apartment.  He also must have acquired body armour, a gas mask and gas grenades.  In other words this was a premeditated act.  Does this mean that therefore he must have been sane?  In other words, are we really suggesting a psychotic individual could not have managed this level of forward planning?

Actually, I think there is a very good case for arguing that it is precisely because Holmes is psychotic that he was able to plan and execute this terrible act.  Not, however, psychotic in the sense of someone who is in the middle of a florid psychotic episode so they are totally confused, are very possibly hallucinating, unable to string two thoughts together, and so on.  This is the ‘pop psychiatry’ version of psychosis, which seems to have gripped the public imagination, and is most often associated with schizophrenia.

However, within the Lacanian tradition of psychoanalysis, psychosis is much more than schizophrenia – or, more precisely, schizophrenia is just one of the psychoses.  Lacan was a psychiatrist before he turned to psychoanalysis and had a particular interest in paranoia, another of the psychoses.  In fact he wrote his doctoral dissertation on a case of paranoia, and later on devoted one of his early seminars to the subject of psychosis, again focusing on paranoia.2

One of the characteristics of  paranoid individuals is that they often go to great lengths to construct a delusional system in order to effect some degree of stability in their lives.  And it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between such delusional systems and many popular ideologies and other belief systems.   Another characteristic of paranoid individuals is absolute certainty, which is linked closely to their delusional system.  In other words, they have no doubts about the truth of their beliefs.  And there appear to be a great many very successful people, often in very powerful positions within business, politics, academia, and so on, who are totally convinced of the truth of their beliefs, even when surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

This leads me to another point: not only can paranoid individuals adhere to and express complex belief systems, they are also quite capable of acting in a very rational and calculating manner, often at the expense of other people.    This is why they can be very successful in their chosen field. Again, both Holmes and Breivik seem to fit this profile perfectly.  At the same time, paranoid individuals often feel threatened and persecuted: for them, the world is a frightening and evil place.  There is a flaw in the fabric of reality – and it is out there, somewhere in the world.  For Breivik it was the spread of Islam and cultural Marxism into western civilisation.  Perhaps Holmes also thought there was a flaw in reality: after all, the Batman narrative is one full of such threats, full of the corruption of the world.

And finally, paranoid individuals realise that it is their mission, their destiny, to save the world from its flaws, its corruption.  Breivik saw it as his mission to wipe out the future leaders of Norway (the students attending the Labour camp on Utoeya) who would, in his eyes, continue to propagate the ideas of cultural Marxism.   Maybe Holmes thought of modern day America as Gotham City writ large and saw it as his mission to cleanse it of all its evil and corruption.

Of course, at this point is could be argued that it is Batman who is out to save Gotham City, not the Joker.   However, as I said before, we have yet to gain a real insight into Holmes’ world.  My money is still on psychosis….

  1. Blakely, R. (2012) Police fight insanity plan for Batman killer. The Times, p.7. []
  2. Lacan, J. (1993) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book III 1955-1956 The Psychoses. London, Routledge. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *