Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Why did Eagle Scout Charles Whitman become a mass murderer? MASS exposes patriarchy & the hidden codes of violence in America

MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest by Jo Scott-Coe (April 4, Pelekinesis)



With the disturbing acceleration of mass murder shootings, it's easy to forget the first big one. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, after slaying his wife and mother, climbed the clock tower at UT Austin and shot about 50 people, including the fetus of a pregnant woman. His was the first televised mass shooting and "domestic terror" spectacle in American history.

Twisted, mentally ill, yet, as author Jo Scott-Coe shows in MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest, mass murderers don't develop in a vacuum. In this deeply researched nonfiction, she traces Whitman's path from his childhood with a violent authoritarian father, brutalized mother, and two younger siblings, also struggling to survive. In this "all American" family the father had a plumbing business, the mother did the accounts and catered to his many edicts, while trying to raise their children to become decent people. As a devout Catholic, that also meant regular attendance at Mass and reverence for those that served God.   


Charlie was expected to adhere to his father's tyrannical (and often arbitrary) rules--or else. Beatings were a common fact of his and his mother's life. At nine, Charlie became an altar boy, a respite from the highly structured and violent household filled with guns. There's even an infamous photo of toddler Charlie at the beach, supported by two guns planted in the sand. High school classmates remembered his frequent welts and bruises. The mother was treated by the family doctor for "abuse related' bruising. Of course neighbors witnessed events--screaming, sons being hurt. Any local priests who counselled the mother would have had no vocabulary of "domestic abuse." And in the social ethic of the 1950s-60s, in Florida,  no one interfered with a father's rights to keep his family on a leash, though many thought it too tight.


There was also the Church culture of the time. Priests were 
assigned to parishes as needed. Anonymous in the confession, they were somewhat interchangeable to their flocks, who did not know the length of assignments. Priests were often careerists with a "calling," wanting to do a good job and rise to a better post. There were also priests, who wanted a refuge. The priesthood offered  a livelihood, an insular but collegial world and, if homosexual, protection from prosecution. A troubled priest, one who posed difficulty for the Church, was easily transferred elsewhere with few notes as to the reason. While Charlie's father had no particular religion, he allowed participation in the Church, the place, where young Charlie Whitman first met a priest named Gilles Leduc.

Leduc, like Graham Greene's "whiskey priest," was a strange, deeply flawed man. Small and homely, genial yet apart, Leduc was transferred frequently by his superiors for largely unexplained  reasons. In this book, where clues are like pieces of a jig saw puzzle, Scott-Coe, discovers that Leduc, an inoffensive man who kept to himself, managed to navigate the system and do what he liked. He was a  heavy drinker, who mostly hid its effects, and he liked to make himself popular with his young charges. Charles Whitman, who was his alter boy, was also in the scouting program Leduc helped to lead at the church. At 12, Whitman became the youngest ever to attain the status of Eagle Scout. As an adult, Leduc also went through an adult ceremony for that award.


The time-lines of both men continued to intersect in disturbing ways. Leduc's trajectory goes from parish to parish in various states, after dubious financial transactions, a party house in Texas, a fancy car, drinking frat style parties more akin to playboy than priest. Though Leduc's career was downhill, transferred to posts of always lesser status, reasons are few and he appears in good standing with the church. Some kind of protection must have existed, reasons Scott-Coe, because his outrageous behavior, often hiding  his "calling,"was not openly recorded. Questions abound about the money for his lifestyle and his appeal to younger men, who found him a fun "anything goes" kind of guy..  


Whitman, smart and handsome, was alternately a hardworking and indifferent student. He escapes his father for the marines, where he learns to be a sharpshooter.  But he didn't particularly like the culture and was happy to win a scholarship and become a college boy. Somehow during that time, he resumed his connection with Leduc, meets his future wife (a Non-Catholic) and he loses his scholarship  and returns to the marines. After a court martial and discharge take him back to Texas, an internship post at NASA proves to be fairly close to Leduc's party house and you wonder, since his life begins to unravel, what kind of influence this second "Father" had over Whitman.

There is also the fact that Leduc presided over Whitman's very hasty marriage. Why the haste?  There is a letter to his fiancee, joking that he hopes he's not a homosexual. There's also the fateful connection between Whitman's mass murders, just after Leduc's posting to Alaska.  The FBI interviewed the priest but learned little. There was not much record of a relationship beyond the family parish, church scouting, and the wedding. But when Scott-Coe's facts mount up, the huge puzzle comes into focus and other questions become inevitable.

How was the impressionable young boy, seeking an alternative from his brutal father, influenced by the priest who hid his drinking from his Superiors, until he couldn't--loved to party, drive a fancy car,  and wear unpriestly loud shirts?  This Father knew how to game the system, ignore the rules. What's tantalizing are the implications of the  relationship. Leduc had an arsenal of guns in his party house, yet officially downplayed ownership. Whitman's Catholic faith wavered after he re-established contact with Leduc. He also got into trouble in the Marines for loan sharking, in scams reminiscent of Leduc's own. The two seem bonded by toxic permissiveness.

In MASS,  the most shocking revelation is how Whitman, in his madness perverted "God the Father" so  mass murder was a kind of redemption. In a rambling letter, he talks of murders with a knife of his sacrificial lambs, his mother and wife--each in her own house. (His mother had finally separated from his father.) Whitman had saved both from their "pain." In his mind, the Deity and his own father appeared to have merged. Then, from the Tower, guns were the ritual objects of his horrific "mass" homage to his father, "The Father," Patriarchy,  which had caused such  suffering. Whitman took on this mantle, at once God and the long suffering son in a horrifying ritual. 
 Death was the salvation he offered and desired. 

Most gun debates refer to the mental illness of mass murderers, as though it's isolated in the individuals, instead of a result of the family and society in which they developed. Not since Don DeLillo's Libra has a book looked at assassination with such depth, making profound conjecture from the known facts. In Libra, DeLillo is the poet of factual information with leaps of insight that ring true. Jo Scott-Coe traces  Nemisis--the agent of the inevitable tragedy-- from Leduc to all who contributed to the insanity of an American Mass murderer. 


Then there's the collective culprit, an America that madly still equates ubiquitous guns with white male privilege. It is a fact that the framers of the 2nd Amendment, meant to legitimize weapons for frontiersman fighting the British. Those frontiersmen were in a war for equality with patriarchy's privilege--the Crown. Would they have recognized the rhetoric of the NRA? 

This is a strong and important book. Jo Scot-Coe's MASS shows how Americans, who see mass murder as a phenomenon centered on deranged individuals, ignore the tragedy of  the violence underlying our homes and institutions. Tacitly or not, the right to kill is condoned by that experience. 

S.W.