I can't stop thinking about the reports showing videos of Jared Loughner before the shooting; hearing accounts of his erratic behavior; his incoherent speech. Neighbors noticed his unusual movements. His parents witnessed changes. Students and teachers at school were aware that he was not rational. He posted YouTube videos of words that made no sense to me and have been examined by psychologists, psychiatrists, terrorism officials (no doubt) and people more qualified by me, all of us coming to the same conclusion--the young man was disturbed or suffered from some form of mental illness or possibly drug abuse.
The words I keep hearing in the media are: This didn't have to happen. It could have been avoided. If only someone would have reported something to the 'authorities' (whoever they are). This brings me to my point.
Hypothetically, let's say that I meet a stranger in a public place--a jazz jam in the lounge of an upscale lounge in a 4 star hotel, for instance. During the break the fans are standing around socializing. Two people (hypothetically me and a man who sat in on a couple of songs) get talking and learn that they are both writers and both lovers of music. They exchange business cards. Conversation continues. I mention my blog.
"Can you make money on a blog?" he asks.
"No, not really," I answer.
"Then what's the point?"
"I like to write and some people like to read what I write. I don't really care if they read it or not but I write because I have to. A blog. A journal. I make a living writing articles for magazines so this is for pleasure."
"That's the problem with society today," he says. "Just like tonight. This is a jam. Nobody's getting paid. People don't value talented musicians anymore. They don't pay them. It's the same with writers."
My husband interrupts and reminds me that he has to get up in the morning so we must leave. We say goodnight to all of our friends (the musicians--who are unpaid and collect tips to donate to local charities) and depart the lively crowd.
The next day I receive a 'friend request' on Facebook from the writer/musician. (This is all hypothetical, remember.) I read his profile and Confirm him as a friend. The following night I am online, as usual, and my chat box pops up. I sort of recognize the name but can't place it. "Hey Susan." To try to get some context I say, "Hi. Where are you?" He names the town and then I put it together. The conversation--excuse me, chat--starts out comfortably enough talking about music. My answers are short. This man is a stranger and I'm not willing to show too much of myself. His conversations wander until he discloses that he's depressed.. "What's up?" I type. He continues to tell me that he suffers from depression and has battled with it for a long time. "Oh," I type. Then the icon shows me that he's typing so I wait. His next message is about sometimes being immobilized or angry. I don't respond. He types some more. "I used to go to a therapist and I'm thinking about going back."
I see the words on my screen in the chat box. I am not a therapist. I ask if the therapist helped and he says yes. I type, "Then go back." He types some more about the death of a friend and then about a broken relationship. I respond, "Make an appointment." Shortly after, I say goodnight since it's gotten pretty late. He thanks me for the chat.
The next night, hypothetically, I am working (writing) with my laptop on its bed tray gently resting over my knees. I hear a little ping and the chat box on Facebook has popped up. "Hi" he says. I switch from my work and type, "Hi." I am expecting a further discussion of his blues and, having been there myself decide to take a few minutes to chat.
To my surprise, the chat turns into a rant. "People don't respect good writers. They don't even recognize good writing. Most readers think that John Grisham is the greatest writer of our time," he types. Gently, I type, "That's true." Short answers. (All hypothetical, remember?) He goes on to tear down the current culture's lack of respect for literature, philosophy, foreign authors as well as great music. I tried to diffuse his anger unsuccessfully so I said goodnight.
Next night, chat box pops up. "I have to apologize for my tirade last night. I was rude and belligerent and I'm sorry." I simply type, "No problem. Gotta go. Working on something." I know he hates it when I use slang because he has mentioned that and made it a point to correct his own typos immediately in the next entry during previous chats. (Aside: I'm so old-fashioned that when I say 'chat' I think of British Chat Shows--the equivalent of American talk shows.)
The following night I am on Facebook to pass along an announcement of a blues jam taking place at a local cigar bar outside in the back parking lot next to the dumpster. Now, granted, that may sound strange but it was targeted at locals who all know and love the venue. It's intimate, non-smokers can move away from smokers, there are woods behind the parking lot with chirping frogs. A colorful cross-section of people attend these events and a barbecue vendor sets up. Beer, wine and soft drinks are available plus chairs.
This person posts a comment about how this just illustrates how little club owners respect musicians, making them play in back parking lots next to dumpsters, having jams rather than hiring paid bands. He doesn't live in the area and therefore isn't familiar with the ambiance. I follow up his comment explaining this. He responds with a hostile remark about to the effect "oh, so blues isn't music?" Then another, “And do the musicians get all they can eat out of the dumpster???”
I live in a small town and there isn't much live music without driving into Orlando. I am grateful for this monthly blues jam 5 minutes from home. I know the people and the musicians. The owner of the cigar bar is struggling to keep his business alive and makes no money from having the band--he just loves the blues. We support him. I post these sentiments only to be barraged with more negativity so I switch to a new thread about people who create. In that thread I refer to people who write because they love writing whether or not they are compensated or if anyone reads their writing, much as a musician loves to play and plays alone at home just for enjoyment and fulfillment.
That's when things really get nasty. The comments (hypothetically, of course) become more and more hostile to the extent of toxicity. I type a 'comment' asking this person to stop posting on the thread because his poison comments offend me and my friends. His final comment is: "People who create without being paid must be putting out a lot of SUPERFICIAL CRAP!"
I start deleting his previous comments while other Facebook friends (writers) 'comment' on his negativity, defending our craft and need to create. While they type, my fingers are flying across the keyboard finding out how to 'unfriend' him. I am not a Facebook expert but successfully get to the right screen and click the button. He can no longer post 'comments' on my 'wall.'
Now, if something like this happened to you, would you consider this behavior erratic? Aggressive? Hostile? Dangerous? Threatening? If so, what would you do?
Keep in mind that this is not a commentary on Facebook. After all I had (allegedly, hypothetically) given him my business card so something like this could happen via email or even telephone. The depression and desperation might have taken place in Facebook chats, along with expression of aggression and incoherent ranting clearly not intended to be directed at me, and yet I was the recipient.
Would you report this behavior as suspicious? If so, to whom? If a person like this were to perpetrate an act of violence on a club owner for disrespecting musicians or book store customers buying John Grisham books would you say, “I knew there was something strange about him?” Would people in retrospect say, “This could have been avoided if only someone had reported this disturbed person communicating his hostility towards strangers?”
Where does one draw the line? I wonder if the 'authorities' have been deluged with phone calls from people who have had experiences like the hypothetical one described here and chalked it up to fear originating from the shooting in Arizona. And what would those authorities do? No crime has been committed. No direct threats made. Would this be considered doing one's civic duty or over-reacting to a person with 'a lot on his mind?'
And therein lie the questions. Are these warning signs? How can a person tell? Neither parents nor 'the authorities' commit an adult to a mental health facility unless he/she has exhibited a reasonable indication that he/she is in imminent danger of hurting himself/herself or another person. Nor can they arrest him/her for hostility on Facebook. Realistically, can these senseless acts of violence be prevented?
Excerpts from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me during conversations that took place during the 2 years we knew each other. I also write humor, flash fiction, celebrity interviews, real and made up stories--see if you can guess which are which.