The worst kind of spotlight: When a relative is the mass shooter
Eric Paddock stood in the bright sunlight outside his Florida home, eyes wide and voice straining. “We’re trying to understand what’s wrong, what happened,” he said.
Paddock told reporters gathered on his property on Monday morning that his family had been awakened by a pre-dawn phone call from Las Vegas police. That was how they learned that his brother, Stephen Paddock, had committed the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
And now there they were, the newest members of the sad fraternity on the fringe of every mass shooting to dominate a news cycle. Another family left to account for the actions of a loved-one-turned-murderer, grappling with a loss compounded by guilt and betrayal.
Some shooters’ families cope by withdrawing completely, curtains drawn, phone calls unanswered. Others — like Peter Lanza, father of Adam Lanza, who in 2012 killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. — take years to publicly express their pain and penance. Rarely do relatives do what Eric Paddock did and immediately try to speak, even if they don’t yet have the words.
In the footage aired by multiple networks, he kept shaking his head, sweeping his hands through the air, as if reaching for something beyond his grasp. He stuttered. “I’m. . . the fact that my brother did this, is . . .” He raised his fist to his temple, then thrust his fingers open, as if to say, mind blown.
“There’s no — there’s nothing,” he said finally. “There’s not even anything I can say.”
For the family of a mass shooter, there are no candlelight vigils, no outpouring of solidarity and strength from their surrounding community. There are only questions, all of them tinged with the underlying implication of blame: What did you do? What didn’t you do? What should you have done?
Was there any history of troublesome behavior? the reporters asked.
“He doesn’t even have parking tickets,” Paddock said.
What about mental illness?
“Absolutely not,” Paddock said. “As far as I know.”
Aradhana Bela Sood, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University, has a name for the isolation and shame experienced by a mass shooter’s family: “disenfranchised grief.” These people, too, have lost someone — whether alive or dead, the family member they thought they knew is gone — “but they can’t really acknowledge it,” Sood said. “The usual psychological events that help us process things, by talking, by venting, are missing for them in these situations. They can’t turn to their usual sources of comfort and solace.”
Months after the deadly rampage at Virginia Tech in 2007, Sood spent three hours talking with the parents and sister of Seung Hui Cho, the 23-year-old gunman who fatally shot 32 people before killing himself. The family had shied away from the media but granted the interview to a review panel appointed by the Virginia governor after the shooting.
“It was a surreal experience, watching the grief of a family coming apart,” Sood told The Washington Post. “They had learned that they were the parents of this evil character who murdered that many people in cold blood. They carried such guilt, and you could see it. It’s as if their life had stopped.”
They were undone by their shame, she said, shut off from their community in America and from their family overseas. A great aunt in South Korea commented publicly that it wouldn’t be wise for Cho’s parents to flee to their native country.