“The Odds Increase The Shooter Will Be My Brother And I Will Be One Of The Victims”

(12-22-17) Sandra Luckow is a documentary maker who teaches film production at Yale University School of Art, Columbia University and Barnard College. In April, I described her powerful film,  “That Way Madness Lies…” as one of the most honest and haunting documentaries about mental illness that I had watched.  It will be released officially in 2018. Meanwhile, you can read about it and watch its trailer here.

Who is to blame for the mass shootings? We are.

Guest Blog By Sandra Luckow 

On this fifth anniversary of the mass shooting in Sandy Hook, in light of all that has not changed as a result of that tragedy, I have made a decision.

If I ever find myself trapped by a gunman, I will let him shoot me.  I don’t want to survive.  I don’t think I’ll even make an attempt to do so.  I’ve spent too many years dodging bullets and crying for help. 

Why is this mass shooting, so remote from me, causing nightmares and snuffing out my hope?  It was, after all, just the first in an unprecedented onslaught of killings.  

In my mind, however, with each subsequent shooting, the odds increase that shooter will be my brother and I will be one of the victims. 

Also, five years ago this December, days before Sandy Hook, I received a call informing me that my mother was on life support in Portland, Oregon. She fell off a ladder, plunging 8 feet, smashing the back of her skull on the cement floor. Usually, my brother Duanne would have happily helped her retrieve the holiday decorations from the garage, but these were not usual times: he had developed late-onset paranoid schizophrenia and, after an involuntary 180-day stay at the Oregon State Hospital, he now lived in transitional housing. Our parents had instituted restraining orders against him several months earlier for elder abuse. 

Our mother died on December 10th, and 24 hours later, there was a mass shooting at the Clackamas Towne Center, the mall next door to our childhood home.  Everyone who knew my family, and the unthinkable changes in Duanne, feared he was the shooter.  We were vocal about my brother’s illness. He lacked any insight into his beliefs and behaviors: a condition called Anosognosia. 

I thought that experience was as bad as it could ever get.   However, I have been increasingly traumatized by each mass shooting proceeding my mother’s death.  

With each headline, with each mass shooting, a debate flashes brightly and extinguishes quickly.  There is backlash towards candor, as well as finger pointing and shape shifting of statistics. All this withers my spirit.

All of us, each and everyone, have an agenda to minimize our responsibility while pointing fingers at someone else.

 I hear and read statements like: “Don’t further stigmatize the mentally ill.  They only account for 22 percent of the mass-shootings. The other shooters did not have a diagnosable mental disorder!” Really? Planning and strategically killing a group of people is a sign of mental health? 

Technically, one does not have mental illness until the moment one has been diagnosed. And doctors, with all their training and expertise, cannot even opine about someone they have not personally examined. Since mental health is not a part of general health insurance packages, the odds of early intervention are not in our favor.  Let’s be clear: severe mental illness is a degenerative illness of the brain.  It causes failure of the brain’s functions.  It is crazy to expect a diseased brain to function properly any more than we would demand a failed kidney to do its job. 

If we take responsibility for untreated severe mental illness, we have the potential to reduce mass shootings statistically by the 22 percent.  Roughly, only 4 percent of the population has severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.  A portion of that 4 percent is untreated.  It is a specific and concentrated group that, if properly helped, can reduce the much larger equation of mass carnage. 

Perhaps it is easier to blame and vilify family members who either do not recognize the signs or whose information is insufficient for authorities to take action. They are viewed with suspicious by a system. They are seen as the cause, adversaries or enablers to the afflicted. 

Family members are in a terrible bind. They face hostility, suspicion and ridicule for speaking up or for staying silent. If a sister, trying to advocate, escapes physical carnage, she is left with indelible emotional scars.  

Some law enforcement officials suggest that ordinary citizens who were vigilant after 9/11 have gone soft since.  Law enforcement also urges citizens to go about their lives normally, without fear.  With the frequency of these shootings, fear is our new normal; ideally it should energize us to actively investigate the root causes of these shootings and change the circumstances that cause them. Instead we actively look for the best place to cower and hide in any given venue. 

And, of course, we can blame our access to guns.  But, it is our constitutional right to possess them. It is our interpretation of that right; it is our blindness toward the responsibility of ownership that creates our society’s gravest stupidities. The Second Amendment was passed in 1791, when the most powerful gun was a Giandoni Air Rifle. It could shoot 22 rounds with a horse- or man-powered air pump and only the first shot was more powerful than a musket.  

But this is 2017.  After Sandy Hook, a federal law was enacted:  anyone who has been involuntary committed to a mental hospital lost his Second Amendment right.  Inexplicably, the first week in office, President Trump began to overturn this law.  After Las Vegas, there was an outcry to ban bump stocks — an accessory that makes ordinary rifles fire like machine guns.  They are still on the market. 

So, with all these competing elements, who is to blame for these mass shootings? We all are. Every single one of us allows these circumstances to exist.  It is easier to point our fingers and quote King Lear, “O, that way madness lies, let me shun that! No more of that.” (Act III, Scene IV). 

Like the great old king, we abandon common sense in policy-making. We refuse to see how these policies actually interact in real-world application, contradicting and negating one another.  The policies we have and live by are utterly mad. Policy interventions are desperately needed. And collectively, we do have the power to change bad policies.  

Back in Portland, HIPAA and privacy policy made it difficult to find out that Duanne was, in fact, NOT the shooter.

Even with solid circumstantial evidence that led to my fears, I was ashamed that I had thought the worst.  The authorities, and the relatives, coming to pay their respects to my mother, re-enforced that shame and chastised me for even considering this scenario. 

As I planned the Celebration of Life, my brother sent threatening emails to me, local and federal law enforcement authorities, including the FBI. The emails included quotes that said: 

“…Sandra Luckow who is the character daughter of Satan… Soon I will say ‘Checkmate,’ bitch.” 

“You sure want to go out with a bang… huh?” 

“I told you the freight train would smack you and your mind will implode like the Twin Towers…” 

I called the mental health crisis intervention unit that works with the Portland police. I wanted my brother put on a psychiatric hold for 72 hours to protect the 325 people who would attend my mom’s memorial.

Although Project Respond investigated, after a brief visit with Duanne, they said that he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold. He said he had no intention of harming anyone. Therefore, he was not considered an “imminent danger.” He did not have a recorded history of violence.

I pleaded and begged for help.

This was their opportunity to prevent a tragedy. I found myself screaming at them. If something did happen, they would live every day with guilt. They would be to blame. The facility holding the Celebration of Life insisted I hire armed guards to be at the venue. There was no incident. Again, I was shamed and ridiculed for over-reacting. 

My brother’s threats toward me, towards city officials, the police and the FBI, intensified and became more specific. He wrote on Facebook that someone was going to come to my apartment with an AR15 and hollow point bullets and spatter my brains. When I reported this to the police, they said it did not constitute an “imminent threat,” as I lived across the country. Yet, I could hear the frustration from their inability to act. Facebook refused to take the post down at the time (they have since) because it did not meet their community standard of abuse. 

I often think that if there had been policies to help my brother, the trajectory of my efforts could have been very different.  Mass shootings, of all kinds, have increased exponentially.

People now seek training in how to survive mass shootings instead of working to prevent them. Trying to prevent them has only been met with resistance.  

 In the past seven years, my brother has been arrested 11 times and has spent approximately four and a half years either in jail or in mental institutions.

With the exception of his first stay, he has the right to refuse any kind of treatment even though the hospital is court-ordered to restore him to trial competency. Each time the hospital has failed to restore Duanne.  His charges are dismissed and, once again, he is released to the streets. In order to avoid blame, we justify the waste of resources, the exorbitant costs, the lack of treatment and care, and his abysmal quality of life. 

Every time he is out, I fear for my safety. I fear for your safety. Like me, the police are waiting for what seems like the inevitable, but they cannot step in until he meets a specific criterion, which translates into: after it is too late.

Every time there is a mass shooting, I know that it could be my brother.

When the next tragedy happens, the blame game will begin again… and, if I am in the wrong place at the wrong time, knowing that these tragedies are preventable, I will not resist a bullet; I do not want to survive. 

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.