Category Archives: goth culture

Interview With Adam Lanza’s Father Makes Clear: We Need a New Approach to School Shootings

I’ve been thinking a lot about this interview with Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza, since it ran in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. I read about it before I read it, in various articles attempting to summarize its more shocking elements: Peter describing Adam’s crime as “you can’t get any more evil,” or saying he sometimes wishes his son had never been born. But if you read the whole piece, you come away with a much more complex and nuanced picture of what happened in this family, and in a situation which has no easy answers or living scapegoats.

We can speculate — at length — about whether Adam’s parents should have paid more attention or done more. Much has been made of the fact that Adam was prescribed different therapies and even antidepressants, and the fact that both Adam and his mother, Nancy, appeared to be uncomfortable with these options and failed to stick with them. Plenty could also be made of the fact that Nancy kept Peter at a distance after their divorce — a distance he didn’t appear to fight.

But the more I write about these topics, the more I think it’s impossible to determine which one of 100,000 troubled adolescent boys (to pick a random number) — autistic or no, depressed or no, schizophrenic or no, angry or no — is going to plan and commit a mass shooting in a school or elsewhere. Obviously, there are the rare instances where one of them posts or emails a warning, or divulges his plans in a fit of confidence or attention-seeking. But in most cases, even in hindsight, the “warning signs” aren’t clear — or aren’t common only to other fellow perpetrators. They’re qualities other people have, too.

We’re coming up on the 15th anniversary of the Columbine High School killings, and the narrative surrounding that incident is still very similar to the one surrounding Sandy Hook: wayward, perhaps emotionally disturbed teens. Angry music and violent video games. Access to guns. A lack of comprehensive mental-health options. Parents who didn’t recognize the signs that their child might be turning violent, either because the signs were well hidden or because it was difficult to tell those were the ones that would obviously lead to murder. The narrative hasn’t changed because we still don’t have answers, and we may never have the answers we’d need to actually identify potential perpetrators and prevent more school shootings.

Given that, what COULD we do to minimize the number of these incidents, or protect students and school staff if they happen? Much better mental health services, sure. De-stigmatization of mental health issues. Massive amounts of education and outreach for parents of troubled kids. None of this would be aimed at singling out potential perpetrators, but to make sure any kids in this category have a broad and comforting safety net, which is something pretty much all teens need, but particularly those who might otherwise be prone to extreme acts of violence.

What about the guns? Whether or not guns are allowed to minors is almost irrelevant; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had an over-18 friend purchase guns for them. Adam Lanza learned his way around firearms from his mother, but he was also 19, a legal adult able to purchase his own weapons, when he committed his crimes. There are Constitutional issues associated with limiting access to guns, and there are varying opinions on gun control, but I think someone who is willing to go into a school and open fire is going to find a way around whatever gun laws we have. We could turn schools into gun-free zones, but there’s likely ways around that.

At the end of the day, the New Yorker article suggests we — Americans, parents, educators, and journalists all included — need to think and write differently about school shootings, the ones that have happened and the ones that have yet to happen.

So. Where do you think we should start?

The First Stats on Subculture Hate Crimes Are In


Photo by Flickr user fluffy_steve.

Some of you may recall the stories of Sophie Lancaster and Melody McDermott, two Manchester-area women who were beaten — one of them to death — for looking “goth.” Well, in 2013, Manchester police began coding these attacks as hate crimes, and at the end of the year they revealed their statistics on hate crimes in the region.

While the number of hate crimes against goths, emos, metalheads and others in the area is small compared to the vast number that target people based on race, sexual orientation or other factors, it’s a big step for police to recognize them at all. To call out attacks that are specifically driven by the way a person looks — and their sense of otherness — is to prevent the attacker from being able to hide behind other excuses, and it also reminds others that harming someone because they’re different isn’t acceptable. That’s especially true given that many places, including in Greater Manchester, the punishment for hate crimes is greater than for other types of assaults. This, in turn, can encourage victims to report them.

More police departments need to follow Manchester’s model and recognize hate crimes against subcultures. As the region’s crime commissioner, Tony Lloyd, told the BBC:

“The impact of hate crime extends far beyond the initial incident.

“By their very nature, hate crimes are very personal attacks that leave victims, who are often already vulnerable individuals, feeling defenceless physically and emotionally.

“Because of this, victims may be reluctant to report the crime or — worse still — may come to accept hate crime as an inevitable part of their lives.”

New book, “The Columbine Effect,” Dec. 1

I have big news! My new book, “The Columbine Effect: How five teen pastimes got caught in the crossfire and why teens are taking them back,” will be released Dec. 1. Those pastimes — violent video games, heavy metal, paganism and the occult, goth culture and RPGs — are also the foundation of this blog, and the book is a partner to what I’ve been writing here. I’ve been working on this project for a long time and I’m excited to finally be able to share it. Please watch the trailer above, and check out a more detailed summary, as well as the first chapter, on my website. Enjoy.

Throwback Thursday: Columbine ‘Goth or not?’

While digging through old articles a couple of weeks ago, I came across one from the Associated Press, written in the days following the Columbine Shooting in April 1999. Written by Michael Fleeman, it’s titled, ‘Goth or not? High school massacre puts spotlight on dark sub-culture.’

The article echoes the conventional wisdom of the day — that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were involved with goth culture somehow:

Columbine students described the suicide assailants, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, as part of clique of about 15 students who looked to their classmates like Goths. They dressed the part with their black trench coats, rain or shine. Harris belonged to a Web group featuring Gothic lore.

However, it also (surprisingly) gets many things right, such as pointing out that goth culture is predominantly peaceful. Fleeman also interviewed folks in the scene, including a publicist for Cleopatra records and a gothic-magazine editor. This quote is particularly smart:

“I think for kids Goth is a source of power, a source of community,” said Kirk Olson, an associate with Minneapolis-based Iconoculture, which does market research on cultural trends. “Kids who feel alienated are searching for power in something else. One way of doing that is to differentiate themselves as much as possible from the mainstream.”

Follow this link to read the whole thing.

Why do you think this reporter was able to achieve such balance and good information, while so many others were sensationalizing goth culture as a cesspool of violence? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

I’d like to start regularly posting older pieces like this one. If you’d like to recommend a throwback article, please email me.

Backward Messages is going on hiatus

After more than two years going nonstop, Backward Messages is going on hiatus for a while. I’m working on a major project, and will need the spare hours I normally spend blogging for this other work. If something major happens, I’ll put something up; otherwise, things will be quiet for a while. Thanks to everyone who reads and supports the site. I hope I’ll be back soon!

Top 10 backward messages of 2012


James Holmes: Six months later, do we know why he did it?

We’re coming to the end of Backward Messages’ second year, and what a year it was. We had some immense tragedies, including mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin; and Newtown, Connecticut. Goths around the world also took a major hit, with attacks in Iraq and Britain, but a goth singer in the United States surprised everyone. The word “Satan” was tossed around, as it always is, describing everything from Lady Gaga to the Hunger Games.

Last year we looked back at the blog’s top 5 posts, but I wanted to go a little broader. Here’s what drew people most in 2012:

1. Let’s play “imagine the Aurora killer’s motivations!” After James Holmes killed a dozen people in a movie theater, the press had a field day trying to answer one deceptively small question: why?

2. Young opera singer proves goth culture can nurture: Although he didn’t last long on “America’s Got Talent,” Andrew De Leon surprised his audience by (gasp!) not sounding like a monster. Go figure.

3. New Yorker cartoon: the pagan version of blackface: Why are Wiccans still depicted like ugly old hags?

4. Are “The Hunger Games” sacrifices Satanic? I can’t believe I even had to ask that question.

5. Goth, metalhead beaten in separate UK attacks: In the UK, being different remains an unfortunate liability.

6. It’s time to listen to the moms of violent young men: After Newtown, how long will it be before we help young men struggling with violent thoughts — and support their families?

7. Bloody bath lands Lady Gaga in hot water: This wasn’t the first or last time Gaga was called “Satanic” this year, but it was one of the more creative. She was also banned from several countries, on the grounds that her stage show is Satanic.

8. “The New Satanism” in heavy metal: Speaking of Satanic, heavy metal persists in not being as Satanic as its reputation makes it out to be, but there are a handful of musicians keeping the faith.

9. Ohio shooting: What’s “goth” got to do with it? After Columbine, the press has found ways to link almost every youth-committed mass shooting with goth culture. And every time, reporters have been wrong.

10. Iraqi youth stoned to death after leaders link emo culture to Satanism, homosexuality: One of the most heartbreaking stories of the year.

Happy new year, everyone. See you in 2013!

It’s time to listen to the moms of violent young men


Suspected Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza.

Thirteen and a half years ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold brought guns to school, killing 13 classmates and faculty before turning their guns on themselves. When President Bill Clinton solemnly addressed the nation after the shootings at Columbine High School, he said, “Amidst all the turmoil and grief … perhaps now America would wake up to the dimensions of this challenge, if it could happen in a place like Littleton, and we could prevent anything like this from happening again.”

Did we wake up?

Since then, frankly, as a nation we’ve done fuck-all to stop another one from happening. And they’ve kept happening.

While we’ve been listening to the “researchers” like Craig Anderson, Doug Gentile and Brad Bushman, whose hundreds of studies have permanently embedded in our brains a correlation between video-game violence and real-life aggression, young men have kept shooting. While we’ve been listening to the nightly news blame the occult, heavy metal, and goths, young men have kept shooting.

Within hours of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, one of Fox News’ talking heads was already laying it on about video games — without knowing whether suspected shooter Adam Lanza played them. CNN and Sen. Joe Lieberman — also on Fox News — were not far behind.

In the past two days, the Daily Mail has run at least two articles linking Lanza with goth kids, as though that simple fact would have made him a killer. If anything, goth kids — who are about as non-aggressive as kids get — would have taken him in because he was different, he didn’t know how to get along, and they were able to make space in their social group for someone like him.

We don’t know, precisely, what Adam was like. The two people who probably knew him best — himself and his mother — are dead. His mother, who apparently quit her job at Sandy Hook Elementary a few years ago so she could take care of him, even though he was almost an adult. What was going on with Adam? In the coming days and weeks, we may know more. For now, all we know now is that, for whatever reason, his mother felt he needed full-time care at an age when most young men are getting ready to leave the nest.

The thing is, I think a lot of moms know — parents know — when their kids are teetering on the brink of violence. Or when they’ve gone way over the brink. One of the pieces circulating today is by mom/blogger Liza Long, who wrote a post Friday that’s now being called, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” She isn’t — but she is the mom of a violent 13-year-old whom she fears:

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am Jason Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map). Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

After James Holmes shot a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater this summer, didn’t his mother say she knew he’d done it? How many other moms have had that conversation with police — they felt helpless to protect their sons from those violent feelings, and they knew it was only a matter of time before their sons hurt someone else?

I know it’s tough to talk about mental health here without stigmatizing huge swaths of people who battle mental illness but aren’t dangerous to themselves or others. But we need to try. Note that most of the perpetrators in mass shootings wind up killing themselves at the end of the event. I’ve heard such massacres called elaborate forms of suicide. Something, temporarily or permanently, has gone very wrong in their minds. And in most cases, there seems to have been adequate evidence that they were capable of such violence. There were signs and plans leading up to the event. There were caring people who tried to intervene, but for whatever reason, these boys and men slipped through the cracks.

Their moms: are they asking for an end to violent video games? To goth culture? To paganism? To heavy-metal music? No, they aren’t. They’re asking for something American society is loath to provide: adequate mental-health care. Treatment. Protection, for their boys and for themselves. And for society. Caring for others, especially potentially dangerous others, is contrary to our “everyone has the freedom to make his own choices”/”everyone can pull himself up by his own bootstraps” philosophies. But at what cost?

So while the debate rages on about gun control, video games, and goths, what are we doing for moms like Liza? What are we doing to actually prevent this from happening again?

So far, nothing.