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 meditation.
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.