Asking the Right Questions in the Wake of Las Vegas

Randy Flood, co-founder and director with Charlie Donaldson of the Institute for the Prevention and Treatment of Mascupathy shares a column co-written with his associates—Al Heystek and Otha Brown—for the Fountain Hill Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

What motivates mass shooters to do what they do? It’s a question America has been asking with increasing urgency in recent years, as mass shootings become both more common and more deadly. Sometimes there seems to be a more or less obvious explanation: the shooter was suffering from a mental illness, or was radicalized in some way by an extremist group, or was seeking revenge on a particular organization.

However, these explanations don’t seem a fit for Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old man who, last weekend, killed 59 people (58 strangers and himself) and wounded approximately 500 others at a country music festival in Las Vegas. From what we know, Paddock has no criminal record to speak of and no history of mental illness. He doesn’t appear to have struggled financially, or to have any radical political or religious leanings. There’s also no reason to suspect that he harbored a personal grudge against any of his victims. In fact, as a gambler, frequent visitor to Las Vegas, and past attendee at other country music concerts, Paddock appears to have many qualities in common with the people he killed.

What then are we to think? What on earth happened to Stephen Paddock that caused him to commit such a heartbreaking act of violence?

Struggling with Pain

As therapists who work primarily with men on men’s issues, two facts stand out to us: 1) Paddock was a man, and 2) Paddock had an obsession or fetish with guns and stockpiled them. So far, authorities have recovered 47 different guns owned by him, 33 purchased within the last 12 months. Though gun stockpiling has become more common among gun enthusiasts in recent years, it’s still unusual behavior, and 47 guns is an unusually high number.

These two facts, taken together, indicate to us that while Paddock may not have struggled with the law, with mental illness, or in the workplace, he likely struggled mightily to measure up to distorted internalized standards of masculinity. In our practices, we have found that men with rigid ideas of what constitutes masculine identity are much more likely to become obsessed with “manly” objects, hobbies, and behaviors as ways of coping with the fear of being seen as unmanly, shame of not measuring up, and loneliness born of an inability to connect authentically with others.

In fact, in our experience, almost all men struggle with painful feelings of fear, shame, and loneliness, and yet, are prevented from seeking relief by thoughts such as: “I should be stronger…I need to suck it up…I need to handle it…other men don’t struggle like this…I need to get a grip…I just need to man up, then I’d be fine.” Almost from birth, men are socialized to believe that any admission of struggle, shame, or pain indicates they have failed on a personal level, and so, many men opt to suffer in silence, even as their pain becomes more and more debilitating.

Worse, since men are also typically socialized to devalue the importance of emotional intelligence—an inner life—they instead scan their external environments for threats to their well-being, and conclude that other people are causing their pain, thus setting the stage for all kinds of violent acting-out. Candice Batton, Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha points out, “The majority of all homicide perpetrators are male—90-91%….Males may be more likely to be violent, especially lethally violent, because they are more likely than females to develop negative attributions of blame that are external in nature, that is: ‘The cause….of my problems is someone else or some force outside of me.’ And this translates into anger and hostility toward others…”

An Extreme Response

While we don’t know the exact nature of Paddock’s struggles, whatever pain or confusion or rage or wound or emotional hurt he had, he clearly externalized it, in a way that is almost uniquely male.

To be clear, though most men struggle with emotional wounds and distorted ideas of masculinity to some extent, very few will become mass shooters. And, although almost all mass shooters are male, the number of males who become mass shooters compared to the total male population is minuscule.

Men suffering from emotional pain are much more likely to suffer in silence, turn to drugs or alcohol, work themselves into their graves or out of intimacy, or commit suicide, and even those who externalize by causing harm to others are likely to do so in far less dramatic ways, committing acts of domestic violence or aggravated assault. As James Alan Fox recently pointed out in USA Today, “There are countless Americans who fail at work and in relationships, who have few friends and never smile, and who blame others for all their problems. Many may even fantasize about getting even with society. But acting on those thoughts is an extreme move that very few actually take.”

In fact, as therapists, we’ve observed the vast majority of men do not act with malice. They’re just “regular guys,” trying to meet impossible standards of manhood that we deem fundamentally unhealthy and dehumanizing. For some this leads to a pathology of masculinity we named mascupathy; others call it toxic masculinity. We believe men aren’t born to act out their pain onto others in violent ways, they are socialized to disconnect from their emotion and they lose a part of themselves—empathy and compassion—needed to govern behavior. Author and social activist, bell hooks reminds us that the first act of violence for men isn’t what they do to others, “instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.” This ultimately cultivates a malaise in males they don’t understand, won’t talk about, and are apt to pass on to others.

A New Resolve

In the aftermath of last weekend’s violence in Las Vegas, perhaps it’s time to question not just what motivates mass shooters to do what they do, but how it is that we, as a country, tolerate so much male misery and, what we can do about it.

Most of the men we have treated—those who find the courage to risk “unmanliness” and ask for help—show a remarkable capacity to open up their heart; not losing their masculinity, but instead developing their full humanity. Not only does this effectively reduce violence, these men develop a more balanced and healthy version of masculinity fit for the new millennium.


2 Responses to “Asking the Right Questions in the Wake of Las Vegas”

  1. Jim Jackson July 11, 2019 at 7:19 am #

    Yes, men have problems, but I believe you are making them worse. Men do stuff their emotions, they don’t complain about problems, they don’t ask for help. But these are societal or maybe even biological problems that women and femininity are just as responsible for as men and masculinity. To blame this all on masculinity is compounding the problem.

    Human babies are born very helpless and remain so for years. They require constant attention. Mothers cannot do this alone. The survival of the human species required that mothers and fathers both contributed to the raising of their children. Mothers and fathers made a deal: women would supply sexual access and fidelity in exchange for men’s family support and protection.

    This deal led to the developing of certain traits in men and women. Men had to become very strong, generous, and productive. Men who couldn’t take care of themselves were not going to make very good fathers and were avoided by women. Women wanted alpha males who could support and protect them and their children. At the same time, women had to become very demanding, keeping on their husbands to make sure the family’s needs were met. Women became the “nagging wives,” complaining and riding their husbands constantly.

    Men have to show strength and the ability to solve all problems. Men are not allowed to complain. A result of this is that men cannot ask for help. (Men don’t need help if they aren’t allowed to have any problems.) But women can complain and ask for help. They do it constantly. They do it to see which men will help and support them and they continue it to make sure the support and help continues.

    Blaming this situation on men, toxic masculinity, and mascupathy is ridiculous and counter-productive. Asking men to change without the corresponding changes in women will only lead to more frustration and pain in men with the resulting increase in bad behavior. Women must accept their part of the problem. Women must change too.

    I found two of your statements seemingly contradictory. In one statement you say that men “suffer in silence.” Yet, in another statement you imply that it is uniquely male to externalize rage. These statements aren’t really contradictory, but they need explanation. Men hold in all of their complaints, their requests for help, and their rage until they explode, sometimes externally, but often not, as you explain with men turning to drugs and alcohol, or working into the grave, or suicide. Women, on the other hand, constantly externalize their complaints and their requests for help—even minor ones. They never reach the point of explosion. We must find a happy medium. Men must be allowed to complain and request help to some degree. And women must tone down their constant complaining and demands for help since they are hogging all of the aid services.

    The idea that feminism is for the “equality of men and women” is nonsense. Feminism, as the name implies, is FOR WOMEN. But because it claims to be for the equality of men and women it has suppressed any complementary movement FOR MEN. is a result of this. In your eyes, every problem is men’s fault and women are innocent victims. For the sake of men and women, please stop.

    • Randy Flood July 25, 2019 at 9:54 am #

      Jim, thank you for your comment and for reading this post. Let me begin by stating that we don’t see men’s liberation – in terms of being able to talk about problems, ask for professional help, and be vulnerable with the realities of their lives with other men – as necessarily dependent on the changes in women. Yes, relationship dynamics in long term committed relationships can be challenging for men if they aren’t given permission to be human; if they feel they must silence their struggles while staying on their white horses in order to be chivalrous knights for the women in their lives.

      There are many women who are eager for men who will be open, vulnerable, and honest about their fears and hopes while being empathic partners as well. We don’t see intimacy as a zero-sum game with either both winning or both losing in love, intimacy, and human connection. We believe that if men don’t talk it out they are at risk of acting it out. The suffering in silence can only last so long before it leads to depression, addictions, or externalizing behaviors. By offering programs such as individual counseling, men’s support groups, and remote counseling we work with men on a daily basis to overcome these very real issues.

      Although feminism can get adulterated by humans—that is the human condition—the original purpose wasn’t for women to have power over men; it was for women to be equals. Floyd Dell said in 1914 that “Feminism is going to make it possible, for the first time, for men to be free.” This continues to be a process for men; giving themselves permission to be human and to not cut off half their humanity in relentless, hopeless pursuit of being “man enough” through perpetual masculine performances.

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