Book Review: Suicidal Mass Murderers – A Criminological Study of Why They Kill

May 6, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I receive random books in the mail from time to time to review for publications, and I was quite excited when I saw my latest: Suicidal Mass Murderers — A Criminological Study of Why They Kill, authored by John A Liebert, MD (a renowned American psychiatric expert on serial killers) and William J Birnes, JD (a bestselling true crime writer).

The book cover featured a haunting photo of Cho Seung-Hui, the Korean-American student who killed thirty-two people at Virginia Tech before turning the gun on himself.  I’m no psycho (at least that’s what I tell myself), but I was intrigued.  We see these heinous crimes in the news and on TV and we simply assume that these people are deranged, crazy individuals who have lost it — we don’t really see them as real human beings.

In this book, Liebert and Birnes paint Cho as a victim.  They argue that the reason these suicidal mass murdering rampages occur is because of the broken mental health care system in the US, and particularly in the state of Virginia.  And given the numbers and the case studies illustrated by them, it’s hard to disagree.

Cho Seung-Hui’s story was a fascinating one and a perfect example.  This was a guy that was a walking red flag from the time he was just a kid, and somehow the system just allowed him to get worse and worse until his schizphrenia turned him into a walking time bomb.  Things got so bad that teachers refused to teach if he remained in class, other classmates were terrified of him and some even joked that he might start shooting people one day.

And despite a plethora of opportunities to either give him treatment or take him off the streets, the bureaucratic spider web health system (that is more concerned about the liability of doctors and psychiatrists than the well being and safety of the patients and those they may harm) pretty much shot him through the cracks like so many other seriously mentally ill patients.  That, coupled with privacy laws and the fear of infringing patients’ constitutional rights, essentially allowed the Virginia Tech tragedy to happen.

It’s easy to say, like the Virginia Tech review committee found, that the sole blame should be placed on the perpetrator (indeed, that was what I used to think), but we’re talking about people that desperately need emergency care, people that are dangerously delusional and suffer from anosognosia, a condition where they do not realise or are in denial of their mental illness.  And even if these people do seek help, more often than not the help won’t be available because they only choose to treat you if you can afford it, and most of these people can’t!

More funding and more trained staff will definitely help, as will Obama’s health care reforms, but it’s a difficult situation and there are no real easy solutions.  Liebert and Birnes do suggest their own system of emergency psychiatric diagnosis and care, but you still need the money and manpower to be able to pull it off.

Admittedly though, it took me longer than expected to get through this 317-page book (extraordinarily small and dense font).  I was somewhat disappointed because I was expecting a true crime book that crafts a story with a compelling narrative, but this was genuinely a criminological ‘study’, complete with a long debate about the health system and discussions of key legal precedents.  The majority of the book is written in a very academic format, which can get a bit dry at times and a little repetitive.

Furthermore, the primary focus of the book is on Cho Seung-Hui rather than suicidal mass murderers in general.  There were mentions of others but they were usually just in passing or short illustrations.

The best parts of the book were at the beginning — where they repainted in detail how the Virginia Tech massacre occured (I understand this was one of the worst lone gunman massacres in history, second only to Tasmania’s Martin Bryant) and how Cho’s mind spiralled so wildly out of control — and the end — where they discussed the warning signs and provided appendices containing Cho’s disturbing medical records and writings and the terrifying blog of this other freaky shooter, George Sodini.

Unfortunately, the middle chunk of the book was too tedious for me.  I’d recommend it to people who are interested in the Virginia Tech massacre or suicidal mass murderers in general from an academic perspective, but if you want a more compelling read that tells a story, I’m sure there are better alternatives out there.

2.5 out of 5