Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics
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The Likely Motives of Fort Worth Church Shooter Larry Gene Ashbrook
September 20, 1999
Wedgwood Baptist Church shooter Larry Gene Ashbrook appears to fit the profile of individuals described in the psychopathology literature as "schizotypal" personalities, a pattern described in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association (1994) as "a pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits marked by acute discomfort with, and reduced capacity for, close relationships as well as by cognitive or perceptual distortions and eccentricities of behavior" (p. 641).
Public speculation concerning Ashbrooks motives converged incorrectly, I believe on paranoia and even schizophrenia as possible explanations for his rampage. An exclusive focus on these clinical symptom disorders unnecessarily narrows the conceptual basis for reconstructing the development and dynamics of the mental state that culminated in Ashbrooks tragic final act. A fuller understanding of the internal forces that drove Ashbrook requires due consideration of his underlying personality pattern.
As noted by Theodore Millon (1996), "[a]ll patterns of pathological personality . . . comprise deeply etched and pervasive characteristics of functioning that unfold as a product of the interplay of constitutional and experiential influences. The behaviors . . . that evolve out of these transactions are embedded so firmly within the individual that they become the very fabric of his or her makeup, operating automatically and insidiously as the individuals way of life" (p. 609). For this reason, an exclusive focus on Ashbrooks paranoia at the time of the shooting is to offer a truncated version of the mental state that set the stage for the commission of his indiscriminate, chaotic act of mass murder.
"Present realities," writes Millon (1996), "are often mere catalysts that stir up . . . long-standing habits, memories, and feelings [rooted in personality]. . . . Sooner or later they may prove to be the persons undoing" (p. 609). Thus, statements by authorities the day after the shooting, that Ashbrook was "emotionally disturbed" and "seemed to have a problem with religion," are not particularly useful. Following is an annotated summary of Millons comprehensive account of the clinical features of schizotypal personality disorder.
Expressive behavior: Eccentric
"What is most distinctive about schizotypal personalities is their socially gauche [including unrefined and boorish behavior] and peculiar mannerisms, and their tendency to evince unusual actions and appearances. Many dress in strange and unusual ways, often appearing to prefer a personal uniform from day to day. . . . The tendency to keep to peculiar clothing styles sets them apart from their peers. As a consequence of their strange behaviors and appearances, schizotypals are readily perceived by others as aberrant, unobtrusively odd, curious, or bizarre." (p. 634)
Interpersonal conduct: Secretive
"[Schizotypals] prefer privacy and isolation. Unable to achieve a reasonable level of interpersonal comfort and satisfaction, they may have learned to withdraw from social relationships, to draw increasingly into themselves, with just a few tentative attachments and personal obligations. . . . [They tend, over time, to drift] into increasingly peripheral vocational roles, finding a degree of satisfaction in unusual and clandestine social activities." (pp. 624-625)
"[T]he social achievements of the typical schizotypal usually indicate an erratic course, with a failure to make normal progress. Academic and work histories show marked deficits and irregularities, given their intellectual capacities as a base. Not only are they frequent drop outs, but they tend to drift from one job to another and are often separated or divorced, if they ever married. Their deficits in achievement competence derive from and, in part, contribute to their social anxieties and feelings of unworthiness." (p. 625)
"If they do sustain a conversation, they may press it beyond the appropriate or suitable, digressing into highly personal, odd, or metaphoric topics. More commonly, they lack the spark to initiate action or to participate socially, seemingly enclosed and trapped by some force that blocks them from responding to or empathizing with others. This inability . . . to become a member of a real society, and to invest their energies and interests in a world of others, lies at the heart of their pathology" [emphasis added]. (p. 625)
Cognitive style: Disorganized
"Crucial to the pathology of schizotypals is their inability to organize their thoughts, particular in the realm of interpersonal understanding and empathy. . . . They attribute unusual and special significance to peripheral and incidental events, construing what transpires between persons in a manner that signifies a fundamental lack of social comprehension and logic. . . . As a consequence of their misrenderings of the meaning of human interactions, they construct idiosyncratic conceptions regarding the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others. . . . They interpose personal irrelevancies, circumstantial speech, ideas of reference, and metaphorical asides in ordinary social communications. . . . Owing to their problematic information gathering and disorganized processing, their ideas may result in the formation of magical thinking, bodily illusions, odd beliefs, peculiar suspicions, and cognitive blurring that interpenetrates reality with fantasy" (p. 625). The general inability of schizotypal personalities to organize their thoughts accounts for Ashbrooks so-called "rambling writings," whereas their characteristic cognitive blurring of reality and fantasy provides a frame of reference for Ashbrooks apparent obsession with serial murder and his unfounded belief that he was a suspected serial murderer.
Individuals with schizotypal personality disorder "develop superstitions, referential ideas, and illusions, and engage at times in frenetic activity. . . . [because they] have enough awareness . . . of life to realize that other people do experience joy, sorrow, and excitement, whereas they, by contrast, are empty and barren. They desire some relatedness, some sensation, and some feeling that they are part of the world about them. . . . Their recurrent illusions, their magical and telepathic thinking, and their ideas of reference may be viewed as a coping effort to fill the spaces of their emptiness, the feeling that they are going under and are bereft of all life and meaning." (p. 625)
"Alienated from others and themselves, they too may sense the terror of impending nothingness and of a barren, depersonalized, and nonexistent self. Such feelings prompt them also to engage in bizarre behaviors, beliefs, and perceptions that enable them to reaffirm reality. It is for this reason among others that we observe that ideas of reference, the clairvoyance, the illusions, and the strange ideation that typify the schizotypal." (p. 626)
It seems plausible that the death of Ashbrooks father in July may have intensified and exacerbated his "terror of impending nothingness and of a barren, depersonalized, and nonexistent self," escalating his bizarre behaviors, beliefs, and perceptions in an increasingly frenetic effort to affirm reality.
"Owing to their unsatisfactory social and cognitive dysfunctions, most schizotypals evidence recurrent social perplexities as well as self-illusions, depersonalization, and dissociation. Many see themselves as alienated from the world around them, as forlorn and estranged beings, with repetitive ruminations about lifes emptiness and meaninglessness. The deficient cognitions and disharmonious affects [emotions] of schizotypals deprive them of the capacity to experience events as something other than lifeless and unfathomable phenomena. They suffer a sense of vapidness in a world of puzzling and washed-out objects. . . . [M]any schizotypals see themselves to be more dead than alive, insubstantial, foreign, and disembodied." (p. 626)
"The inner world of the schizotypal. . . . is almost random, resulting in an ineffective and uncoordinated framework for regulating the patients tensions, needs, and goals. Perhaps for the greater part of their lives, . . . [this psychic framework has been] only fitfully competent for accommodating to their world, binding their impulses, and mediating their interpersonal difficulties." (p. 626)
"When motivated or prompted to relate to others, schizotypals are frequently unable to orient their inner dispositions in a logical manner; . . . they become lost in personal irrelevancies and in tangential asides that seem vague, digressive, and with no pertinence to the topic at hand. They are out of touch with others and are unable to order their ideas in terms relevant to reciprocal social communication. The pervasive disjunctiveness of . . . the scattered, circumstantial, and autistic elements of their thinking . . . only further alienates these . . . [individuals] from others." (p. 626)
Regulatory mechanism: Undoing
"[S]chizotypals are often overwhelmed by the dread of total disintegration, implosion, and nonexistence feelings that may be countered by imposing or constructing new worlds of self-made reality, an idiosyncratic reality composed of superstitions, suspicions, illusions, and so on. The more severe attacks of depersonalization may precipitate psychotic episodes, irrational outbursts in which these patients frantically search to build a sense of reality to fill their vacant existence" [emphasis added]. (p. 626)
Morphologic organization: Fragmented
"If one looks into the organization of the schizotypals mind, one is likely to find highly permeable boundaries among psychic components that [in well-adjusted personalities] are commonly well segregated. . . . As a consequence of these less than adequate and poorly constructed defensive operations, primitive thoughts and impulses are usually discharged in a helter-skelter way, more or less directly and in a sequence of desultory actions. The intrinsically defective nature of the schizotypals internal structures results in few reality-based sublimations and few successful achievements in life. These defects make the patient vulnerable to further decompensation even under modest degrees of stress" [emphasis added]. (p. 626)
"The inner structures of the schizotypal may be overwhelmed by excess stimulation. This is likely to occur when social demands and expectations press hard against their preferred uninvolved or withdrawn state. Unable to avoid such external impositions, some schizotypals may react either by blanking out, drifting off into another world, or by paranoid or aggressive outbursts." (pp. 626-627)
In the case of Larry Ashbrook, it is easy to see how the loss of his sole social support system in the death of his parents could have precipitated the more-or-less complete breakdown of his already fragile coping mechanisms, resulting in an insidious spiral of personality decompensation and, ultimately, a floridly delusional, paranoid, psychotic episode of tragic proportions.
As Millon writes, "[W]hen external pressures . . . are especially acute, they may react with a massive and psychotic outpouring of primitive impulses, delusional thoughts, hallucinations, and bizarre behaviors." According to Millon, "[m]any schizotypals have stored up intense repressed anxieties and hostilities throughout their lives. Once released, these feelings burst out in a rampaging flood" [emphasis added]. "The backlog of suspicions, fears, and animosities has been ignited and now explodes in a frenzied cathartic discharge." (p. 627)
Larry Ashbrook appears to fit the profile of the "actively detached" schizotypal subtype. The prevailing mood of these individuals is agitated and anxiously watchful; they are "excessively apprehensive and ill at ease, particularly in social encounters." Millon notes that many of these reticent, apprehensive schizotypals "exhibit a distrust of other persons and are suspicious of their motives, a disposition that rarely recedes despite growing familiarity." (p. 627)
Fort Worth Star-Telegram city editor Stephen Kaye has reported that when Ashbrook visited him at the newspapers downtown office in August, he was "very cordial" and "very apologetic for bothering me." Ashbrooks diffident manner suggests that he indeed had an active-detached (i.e., avoidant) schizotypal personality, rather than, say, an antisocial or paranoid personality disorder, as his violent rampage may erroneously lead one to believe in retrospect.
Summary and Formulation
To paraphrase Millon (1996), avoidant schizotypals have given up hope of gaining affection and security. To defend against these anxiety-arousing feelings of emptiness, meaninglessness, and hopelessness, they substitute rational thinking which would bring them face to face with the "devastating terror of nothingness, the feeling of imminent nonexistence" with "a make-believe world . . . of fantasized persons and objects to which they can safely relate" (p. 629). Larry Ashbrooks July 31 and August 10 letters to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram just weeks before his rampage offer some clues to the content of the "make-believe" world of his, in which he is a serial murder suspect under surveillance by CIA operatives.
Ultimately, however, the tragic consequences of Ashbrooks failure to secure public affirmation of his delusional fantasies ("It is obvious that you are uninterested in my story. . . . Is it because you think it implausible or unimportant?" he wrote in his Aug. 10 letter to the Star-Telegram), Ashbrook was overwhelmed by depersonalization anxiety. Millon (1996) writes that when schizotypal individuals are "overwhelmed by the dread of total disintegration, implosion, and nonexistence. . . . [t]hese severe attacks of depersonalization may precipitate wild psychotic outbursts in which the patient frantically searches to reaffirm reality." (p. 623)
As his tenuous controls crumbled, as pressures mounted beyond tolerable limits, it seems that the only remaining option in Ashbrooks troubled mind to restore his fragile psychic cohesion and affirm the reality of his existence was, in effect, to merge fantasy with reality by joining his shadowy "pseudocommunity" and enacting his primitive anxieties in a wild and chaotic spree of vandalism and mass murder in the real world. Millon (1996) writes, "To counter the anxieties of depersonalization and derealization, they may be driven into excited and bizarre behaviors, contrive peculiar and hallucinating images, and shout utterly unintelligible but beseeching sounds, all in an effort to draw attention and affirm their existence as living beings. They may maneuver irrationally just to evoke a response from others, simply create a stir to prove they are real and not a mirage of empty, floating automatons such as they sense themselves to be." (p. 629)
The pathetic irony of Larry Ashbrooks life is that he had a real existence. He fired real bullets, injured and killed real victims, and inexorably touched real lives.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Millon, T. (1996). Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV and Beyond (2nd ed). New York: Wiley.
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