John Ostrander: Head Writer
We all tell stories. All the time. To make sense of the stimuli created by our senses, the brain creates narrative. “Minds seeks patterns,” David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, says in his often troubling book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. What makes it disturbing is that Eagleman is not a philosopher or a psychologist; he’s a scientist working with what the brain actually does. Through tests, through imaging, neuroscientists like Eagleman can see what part of the brain lights up when certain stimuli comes in or certain tasks are performed. Consciousness, as he points out, actually plays a very small part in the brain’s overall functioning.
We make up the stories in order to make sense of the world around us. We crave stories to explain the apparent chaos we find ourselves in. When my late wife, Kimberly Yale, was dying from breast cancer, I could take refuge in the scripts and stories I was creating. Yes, I needed to do that in order to keep money coming in to the household, but it’s where I went where things still made sense. There was a sense of control that certainly was not present in the so-called “real world” for me.
It’s not simply lies we tell ourselves; it is a narrative we need to form in order to have a functioning inner reality. We need story. It gives a “why” to the “what.”
Right now, we’re asking a lot of “why.”
On Friday, twenty-year old Adam Lanza, after first killing his own mother in their home, forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and shot and killed 26 people, including twenty children. A stunned nation was left with the question, “Why?” We desperately search for a narrative, an explanation, a reason why this man, why anyone, would do such a thing. What is the story here? We need a story. Something to make the event comprehensible. Something that will keep the chaos at bay.
There are plenty of narratives starting to surface that I’ve seen loosed on the Internet. “He was nuts.” (I think that’s a given; killing twenty children is not remotely what one would call normal.) “It’s because God and prayer were forced out of schools.” (Dubious at best; a God that would kill twenty children because prayer wasn’t allowed in school is also pretty nutso.) All of the stories, the explanations, presented come from the individual’s own story, their own narrative.
What was Adam Lanza’s narrative?
A lot of our personal narratives, our own private realities, allow or justify some of our own actions, no matter how dubious. Here one of my writing rules apply: no one thinks of themselves as a villain. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot all thought they had good reasons for the mass murders they performed. We are, in our minds, the heroes of our own lives. I’m assuming Adam Lanza was as well.
What was Adam Lanza’s private narrative that allowed, that perhaps compelled him to kill those children? Will we ever know? Lt. J. Paul Vance, a CT police spokesman, said, “The detectives will certainly analyze everything and put a complete picture together of the evidence that they did obtain, and we’re hopeful – we’re hopeful – that it will paint a complete picture as to how and why this entire unfortunate incidence occurred.” In other words, we’ll have a story of some kind. To what extent will any of us recognize elements of that story in ourselves?
In Act III, Scene 1 of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark observes “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.” I can relate to that. I am all the heroes I have ever written; I am all the villains, too. To write convincingly of a character based on Adam Lanza, I would have to find the Adam Lanza inside of me. I have no doubt that I could. That is not, however, a journey I would like to take.
David Eagleman again writes, “There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior.” Some terrible part of Adam Lanza won out and made him who he is. He ended the narratives of all those he killed. As President Obama said of the children in a press conference, “They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.” All their own stories, ended with gunshots.
Adam Lanza’s personal narrative has now made him part of the nation’s narrative and part of the personal narrative of each one of us. We will make stories, on both a personal and national level, to cope with it, to make sense of the chaos. It’s what we do. It’s what we must do.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell