The Crumbleys, Part II

The school shooting in Michigan last week has opened up new avenues for thought and action, and re-opened old ones. We must not let this awful opportunity evaporate.

More than a week after the Oxford High School shootings in Michigan, the episode still bristles with implications that drain the will and resources of mental-health advocates. Granted, we are not (yet) nearly as overwhelmed as, say, hospital staffers in the resurgent Covid plague, though there is some psychic overlap.

School shootings have haunted our collective consciousness for decades—a hoary specter that still grips us with dread—but this case brings new horrors to consider. It was not just any old spree of classroom murders carried out by a mid-adolescent with a semiautomatic handgun bought for him as a Christmas present by his Dad on Black Friday. This one dropped some new elements on us—and managed to bypass an element of omission. Advocates and all people of conscience must grapple with them, no matter the tedium and the elusiveness of solutions. Our sanity as a nation is at stake.

So, what must we grapple with?

First, a recap: the 15-year-old shooter, Ethan Crumbley, faces 24 felony charges for slaughtering four classmates and wounding seven other people with that semiautomatic handgun lying around in his parents’ bedroom. The charges include first-degree murder and terrorism. Ethan was captured before he could turn his Christmas present on himself. This is relatively rare, as is the high count of charges. The terrorism count may be unprecedented, and might set a legal precedent. Or it might set a legal obfuscation: The Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald told CNN, last week:

“There is no playbook about how to prosecute a school shooting and candidly, I wish . . . it didn’t occur so I wouldn’t have to consider it, but when we sat down, I wanted to make sure all of the victims were represented in the charges that we filed against this individual . . . If that’s not terrorism, I don’t know what is.”

Well, with all respect, Ms. McDonald, it might be mental illness. More on that in a moment.

The most striking new element is that the boy’s father and mother, James and Jennifer Crumbley, have been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. This fact turns the spotlight on the criminal culpability of parents who leave lethal weapons unconcealed and unlocked in the household. Its implications could be seminal. The Crumbleys, as media accounts have made clear, are appalling and stupefyingly negligent parents. There’s a lot of that going around.  

James and Jennifer Crumbley 

Here the “element of omission” takes center stage. Are the Crumbleys psychotic? Is Ethan psychotic? What is “psychotic”? How do we identify psychosis, and what do we do about it when we think we’ve seen it at work? Is this case an example of “shared psychosis,” in which some of the victims do not show clinical symptoms? What are the responsibilities—and the risks—of intervening in the actions of one who might be in a psychotic state?

These are old, wearying questions. They have been charged with fresh urgency by the bloody Oxford affair. Or should have been. After days of online searching, I have not been able to find an indication that any of the Crumbleys has received psychiatric diagnosis. I’ve found nothing but the most glancing speculation that serious mental illness—genetically inherited brain disease—was present in any of these people. And I certainly have found no serious, informed discussion about this possibility. And so the Crumbley story remains a missed opportunity at least as a “teachable moment,” a broad, ongoing national discussion on the nature of this beast. And on the policies—judicial/legal, educational, budgetary, and ethical—that scream out for rapid and thoroughgoing reform.

I am going to offer an example of policy dysfunction that I published in my previous blog. It was articulated by D.J. Jaffee, a disciple of the pioneering E. Fuller Torrey, who founded the invaluable Treatment Advocacy Center. Shortly before his death last year, Jaffe restated an observation he’d made many times in his talks and writings. It bears strongly on the Crumbley case:

“The law says we can’t do anything until after the psychotic victim becomes dangerous to self or others. As ludicrous as it sounds, the law requires dangerous behavior rather than prevents it.”

Credit: Database Center for Life CC BY-SA 2.1 JP via Wikimedia Commons

I cannot say whether Ethan Crumbley or his parents are mentally ill. A competent psychiatrist should and must make that call. I will say that telltale signs are blinking red.

There are Ethan’s notebook jottings, noticed by teachers: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” and “Blood everywhere,” and “my life is useless,” and “the world is dead.” There are his sketches depicting a bullet and a bullet-riddled body.

There is the now-infamous message texted by Jennifer Crumbley to her son the day before he shot up Oxford High School, after a teacher told her that Ethan was searching for ammunition online in class: “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” And of course there is the fact of James buying that hideous weapon for his young son in the first place.

And there is the widely accepted thesis that if the rare onset of schizophrenia is going to occur, it typically occurs in mid-adolescence, Ethan’s period of life. This is the stage in which the prefrontal cortex is pruning itself of outworn synapses and generating new ones. If a genetic disorder produces over-pruning, an oversupply of normally essential chemicals such as dopamine can rush in and produce an imbalance that permanently damages the brain. (No thesis is yet seen as conclusive in the study of this affliction.)

Jurgitta, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The social effects of serious mental illness spread out in a widening cone from the victim through the family, the community, our schools, our political life, and the health of the nation. Mass shootings continue to be rare, but the debilitating dread of mass shootings is nearly pandemic. The cumulative costs are as under-appreciated by the populace as the nature of the disease itself. Ignorance, apathy, and fear continue to rule.

I have called in the past for creation of a federal cabinet-level department that would unify, critique, and extend policymaking in all these problem areas as well as others. Foundational reform of our disgraceful jails and prison systems, de facto catch-basins for the insane, for instance. Solitary confinement, that turns sane prisoners into madpeople and the mad into vegetables, must be abolished.

D.J. Jaffe disagreed with me about this. He felt that such a department would only add another layer of bureaucracy.

All right. Let’s add another layer of bureaucracy.

Mental-health reform is borne on the backs, overwhelmingly, of women: mothers of victims, mostly. Their advocacy work in the past twenty years alone has been heroic and sporadically effective. But these “secular nuns”—the phrase just came to me—are largely worn out and disillusioned. They carry on, but we must not depend on them to keep doing the trench-work that the problem demands. Our advocates need reinforcement—collective national reinforcement. Society must be made safe from our Ethan Crumbleys. Yet we must not let things rest at primitive blame and punishment. Humanity and moral justice call us to protect the mentally ill and to reclaim them if we can. This would be the most honorable means of protecting ourselves, and reclaiming our own souls.

HERE WE DON’T GO AGAIN

The mass shooting in Michigan compels us to look again at psychosis, mayhem, and the enormous difficulties in warding off this witch’s brew.

The Crumbley family of Oxford, Michigan, and the victims of Ethan Crumbley’s early semiautomatic Christmas present purchased by Dad on the well named Black Friday, have been on my mind for the past week. I wish they would go away, and I wish It would go away. But they won’t go away, and It won’t go away. “It” being nightmarish gun violence in America.

Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan Crumbley, James Crumbley mugshots


In writing about annihilations such as this one, I would normally (strange word, that—“normally”)—I would normally jump astride one of my hobbyhorses as a mental-health reform advocate: I would renew my call for early intervention—diagnosing—as a means of thwarting people in the throes of psychosis before they act out their fantasies.


After Oxford and all its complexities, I realize that this “solution” is not enough. It may not even be attainable. Yet we have to try. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.


Instead of dashing off on the hobbyhorse, I have spent the week studying the case and renewing my layman’s education in mental illness. Here’s what has popped up:


It seems clear that the teachers and staff at Oxford High School went nearly as far down the road as humanly possible in reacting to the red alerts in Ethan Crumbley’s pre-shooting behavior. Nearly. On the day before the gunfire that left four students dead and seven wounded, a teacher spotted the 15-year-old Ethan looking at iPhone images of bullets in class. The next morning—D-Day—a teacher noticed Ethan at work on some deeply ominous sketches and writings: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” and “Blood everywhere,” and “my life is useless,” and “the world is dead.” The sketches depicted a bullet and a bullet-riddled body.

The teacher reported these to a school counselor. Rushed to the counselor’s office, Ethan dismissed the materials as plans for a video game he was working on. (Police later found two videos that the 15-year-old had recorded on the Monday night before the slaughter. They showed him predicting what he was to do the following day.) The superintendent of schools called James and Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan’s now-infamous parents. In the 90 minutes it took them to arrive, school staff members observed and talked to Ethan as he sat in the office. His Christmas present lay unsuspected in his backpack. On arrival, Crumbleys were told that Ethan needed counseling. James and Jennifer shrugged it off and left. The school administration let the boy return to class. It was better, they figured, than letting him go home to an empty house.

At around 1 p.m., Ethan Crumbley began visiting classrooms.

I wrote above that the teachers and staff at Oxford High School had done “nearly” everything possible to prevent a young person in psychosis from a murderous rampage. What else might they have done? Here we enter the realm of the conjectural, and clarity is essential.


Those staff members acted—at least on the early evidence—with exceptional initiative and responsibility. Should they have gone further and called police? Perhaps. Michigan law permits protective custody and transport to a hospital by police if an officer observes behavior that suggests “a serious danger to self or others.” Would Ethan have sat and waited for the police to arrive at the school, and then thoughtfully exhibited his psychotic symptoms? Not likely, even should the officers have been trained to handle the situation, far from a foregone conclusion. As for these parents giving their permission . . . well . . .

The great, recently deceased advocate D. J. Jaffe best summed up this perverse tic of social policy:

“The law says we can’t do anything until after the psychotic victim becomes dangerous to self or others. As ludicrous as it sounds, the law requires dangerous behavior rather than prevents it.”

So there we are. And here we don’t go again.

Related to the subject of psychosis and mayhem, my week of re-education led me to an essay that merits reading by anyone interested in this issue. It has prompted me to re-think some facile assumptions I’ve let myself slip into. More on it tomorrow.

WELL, THIS RIDS THE STREETS OF AT LEAST ONE 13-YEAR-OLD UNARMED AUTISTIC CHILD WHOSE MOTHER HAD CALLED THE POLICE FOR HELP!

Pardon the sarcasm. I am steaming. We’re still in Bedlam. The mad, including afflicted children, are still getting gunned down by cops who are clueless, untrained, or worse. Linden Cameron of Salt Lake City, riddled with police bullets on Friday for the crime of running in fear and confusion, has survived, so far. Yet our severely brain-damaged mental healthcare system–including jails, prisons, and vicious trigger-happy cops–remains mired in its historic ignorance, incompetence and, yes, cruelty.

Linden Cameron

We look, we pray, to our political leaders to at least keep “crazy people” from the worst of it; from incidents like this. A little kid, dammit! Instead–irony of ironies–the current political campaign season, as deranged in its way as are our systems of care–has managed only to push this urgent issue further into the dark margins.

This despite the unflagging work of reform advocates such as Leslie and Scott Carpenter, who pled our community’s case to every Democratic presidential candidate who passed through Iowa this summer. And the sisters C.J. Hanson and Linda Rippee, who have battled across decades to secure help for their drastically damaged street-wandering brother Mark, only to be met with stony indifference from pols at the municipal, county and state levels in California. You may find their story scattered through several entries in this blog.

And many, many  others.

To essentially no avail.

It just seems that no one cares about crazy people.

I sit here at my computer screen and I think: 13-year-old. Unarmed. In a mental crisis. His mother calls the police. And a wolfpack of cops shows up and empties several rounds of bullets into his small young body. Intestines. Bladder. Shoulder. Ankles.

Ankles?!

Linden Cameron

Bob Dylan’s lyric in “Oxford Town,” released fifty-eight years ago, remains the definitive commentary on the subject:

“Somebody better ‘vestigate soon.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/09/08/linden-cameron-utah-autistic-shooting/

http://www.noonecaresaboutcrazypeople.com/?s=linden+cameron

“Mentally Ill Monsters”

In the aftermath of two traumatic mass shootings, the president re-invokes a horrid, distorted falsehood about the mentally ill.

And there it is: history’s defining damnation of sufferers of incurable damage to the brain, distilled into a three-word phrase of transcendent ugliness and stunted understanding.

The phrase was uttered on Monday. It was uttered to identify the provenance of the weekend’s massacres by shooters using legally purchased high-capacity semi-automatic weapons toward their collective harvest of 31 people dead and some 50 wounded. 

The phrase was uttered by the President of the United States. It left stains, stains which, in moral and intellectual terms, replicated the stains of blood shed by the shooters’ victims. 

Donald Trump | Image Credit Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Blaming “mentally ill monsters” (or “nut jobs,” or “wackos,” or “lunatics”) for such carnage is a morally repugnant, if time-tested device for shifting the public’s passion for safety away from gun control and toward the presumed demons in our midst. The president could not have been more transparent in exploiting the device. “Mental illness and hatred pulls [sic] the trigger, not the gun,” he instructed us, going on to label one of the shooters as “another twisted monster.” 

In fact, it is a settled truth in psychiatric research that victims of brain afflictions are no more prone to violence than the general population. The prominent advocate Dj Jaffe makes an important stipulation: that the untreated mentally ill—those not stabilized by antipsychotic medications—can be more likely to cause harm to themselves or others. Still, implying that mental illness itself equates to degenerate aggression serves only to further isolate and punish the most helpless members of our society; to herd them back toward the dark corners and confinements of “insane asylum” days.

And herein lies the “intellectual” stain that President Trump’s words help spread: most people—like the president himself—do not understand mental illness: what it means, how it occurs, how it differentiates, why its victims behave as they do, and how even its most abject sufferers can be aided, often stabilized, by medications and therapy. In this vacuum of understanding, people tend to substitute prejudice, false science, myth, and hostility toward “crazy people.” 

Briefly: 

“Serious” mental illness—the kind in question here—is rare and unique. And incurable. Unlike alcoholism or anger or depression, serious mental illness is rooted in genetic flaws of the brain. Its various names include schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder—similar yet not interchangeable conditions. It results in a loss of reason and rational control; hallucinations and the hearing of voices; alienation from family and friends; and, yes, sometimes—rarely—violence. 

My wife and I have educated ourselves about serious mental illness because we’ve had to. It invaded our family several years ago, causing the suicide of a beloved son. Unfortunately, this is the painful route to understanding for most people: a loved one is stricken.

The costs of this cluelessness describe a cone of destruction that widens from the stricken individual through society.

The cone draws in and ravages parents and siblings of the stricken. It can cripple the finances of families without adequate insurance to cover treatment and medications. It drains human capital from the workforce, and thus economic revenue. It reduces the budgets of hospitals that can’t get reimbursement for their mentally ill patients. It overburdens police, whose lack of training and, sometimes, self-restraint, can result in death by gunshot of unarmed people in psychosis. It coarsens our criminal-justice system: think of schizophrenic adolescents hustled into jail by untrained or uncaring judges, where they await trial—often for weeks and months—while their unmedicated psychosis deepens. Think of solitary confinement. Think of a brain-afflicted child, perhaps your own (as countless parents must) ensorcelled in a cell, abused by fellow inmates and guards, with no end in sight, no comprehension. No hope.

Now think about “mentally ill monsters.”

Mentally ill monsters are not the source of our current crisis of public massacres. The monster is the gun: too many guns, with too little restraint and oversight regarding purchase. To his credit, President Trump gave lip service to keeping guns away from those “who pose a  grave risk to public safety,” and to strengthening gun laws generally. 

But leave the gun issue aside. Part of any president’s duty—a foundation of his “bully pulpit”—is to educate his fellow citizens on matters of complexity and urgent public import. The nature of serious mental illness, and the reclamation of its victims, comprise one such matter. The president could make a great, galvanizing contribution to ending the centuries-old oppression of “crazy people.” He could lead us in that direction. He could educate us. But first he must educate himself. 

The Psychic Toll of Being a Cop

The violent, trigger-happy policeman is a recurring actor in media accounts of mentally ill people meeting their doom on the streets, in their homes, and in jail. In NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, and on my blog, I myself have offered several accounts of unarmed victims of psychosis being gunned down by poorly trained, sometimes paranoid officers, and of the everlasting grief that descends upon the victims’ families.

The “killer cop” has become a stereotype to many in the mental illness “sub-nation.” All too often, the stereotype is true. Yet it is important that we recognize the unfairness of letting the stereotype stand for universal reality. The link below should be required clicking. It directs us to an essay written by Andy O’Hara, a retired 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol. The topic is the high rate of suicide among policemen in this country, and the police culture of silence that discourages these stressed-out men and women from seeking help.

I have retrieved this essay from the website of the excellent Marshall Foundation, a leading source of journalism about the criminal justice system.

It’s Time We Talk
About Police Suicide

More cops die of suicide than die of
shootings and traffic accidents combined.

Deputy Derek Fish RICHLAND COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

RICHLAND COUNTY SHERIFF’S deputy Derek Fish was just 28 and had only been on the job six years when he committed suicide. According to reports, Fish was coming off a routine shift. He returned his cruiser to the lot at his station and there, at the lot, he shot himself with his service revolver. Fish was, according to his colleagues, an outstanding officer who had recently been promoted. His was the third suicide in his department since 2001.

Read the full story here: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/10/03/it-s-time-we-talk-about-police-suicide 

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