It’s Super Tuesday, 2012. Before Mitt Romney separates himself from the rest of the Republican candidates, a 28-year-old man named Shane wakes up groggy. He is about 5’ 10” and 170 pounds. He has curly brown hair, green eyes, and is a graduate of Purdue University. He lives with two male acquaintances in Jacksonville, Florida. Two days earlier, he posted a G. K. Chesterton quote on his Facebook page: “But the man we see every day – the worker in Mr. Gradgrind’s factory, the little clerk in Mr. Gradgrind’s office – he is too mentally worried to believe in freedom. He is kept quiet with revolutionary literature. He is calmed and kept in his place by a constant succession of wild philosophies.”
On this day, like many days, Shane stays in bed past his alarm. He took NyQuil the night before, partially to loosen his congestion, but also to combat his insomnia. About the time he should be leaving for his job as a Spanish teacher at the Episcopal School, he hops in the shower. When he finally arrives at school, Shane is pulled from his classroom and fired. The school’s administration had warned him several times about his lateness and other infractions such as missing meetings and deadlines. Shane is given paperwork for a severance package, and security guards escort him to the school’s gate.
He walks to his teal 1996 Toyota Tercel, the first automatic transmission he has ever driven. He drives home. Then, he goes back to his first-floor bedroom and grabs his black guitar case. It’s time. By early afternoon, Shane is driving back to school, blaring Papa Roach:
Cut my life into pieces
I've reached my last resort,
Suffocation, no breathing
Don't give a fuck if I cut my arms bleeding
Do you even care if I die bleeding
Would it be wrong, would it be right
If I took my life tonight
He parks at an insurance company, about a block from the school. From there, he returns to Headmaster Dale Regan’s office, slips in a back door, and interrupts a meeting between her and Christopher Bland, the school’s conditioning coach. “Can’t you see we’re in a meeting?” Regan asks. Shane unzips the case and reveals an AK-47, purchased a month earlier at a gun show. It is loaded with one hundred rounds. “No, no!” Bland yells and runs out for help. Shane fires several times, first at Regan. Blood splatters on nearby cabinets.
If Shane has any plan for something bigger, apparently Regan's bloody death is enough to deter him, because his next and only other victim is himself.
It’s the kind of tragedy you see on the evening news and you wonder: Who would do something like this?
Several hours later, I sit in a dark Indianapolis parking garage by myself as a Jacksonville detective gives me the answer to that question.
My older brother, Shane.
Shane and I were both June babies, born less than a year apart. Irish twins and the first two of five children my parents popped out after marrying in their thirties. Shane was my earliest and most consistent life companion, and we were out to find great adventure. That meant anything from building elaborate communities out of Legos and Lincoln Logs, gathering our friends for epic football battles in the yard, spreading out and organizing thousands of baseball cards, playing each other in basement ping pong matches for hours, or exploring every woods and body of water within walking distance of our house.
From a young age, I had a desire to please him, and he took advantage of that desire. For example, we would wander into a marsh to catch frogs. "Chris, go get that one," he would tell me. I would look out halfway across the mucky pond, and there it would be: slimy, green and as big as my fist. Begrudgingly, I would wade in, waist deep, snag the frog with my net, and put it in whatever bucket contraption we used to store our catch. Sometimes, we left with as many as a dozen, though we quickly forgot about them back at the house.
My relationship with Shane was symbiotic. If I longed for his approval, there was something he needed from me, too. As the oldest, he was "supposed" to be the first to experience going out on his own and "doing things." But the first time my parents took him to t-ball practice, he cried hysterically until the coach convinced my mother to take him back home. So he quit the team. Until I joined a team and thrived, that is. Then, Shane came back and played. This was not an isolated incident. The first time Shane rode the school bus by himself, something very similar happened. For whatever reasons, for Shane, looking out at the world and the people in it was a terrifying proposition. But once I accomplished whatever task it was, then Shane knew the terrain was at least safe enough to try.
In high school, Shane quit playing on the basketball team after his freshman year. I played, though, and by his senior year, Shane wanted to play again. And he did. During one particularly rough practice, our coach scolded us for not communicating well. "If you're not going to talk, then get off the floor!" he yelled. Everyone interpreted this as motivational coach-speak. Everyone except Shane, who walked off the court. Apparently, he had no intention of communicating better. There was this moment of awkward silence; no one knew what to do, even the coach. But I intercepted Shane's route, shoved him back onto the court, and we all went on like nothing had happened.
It got to the point where people mistook me for being the oldest. In college, he even transferred to the school I attended for a year. I graduated first, and as soon as I did, then Shane got serious about finishing, too. We both spent several months back home with my parents, trying to figure out where we would go and who we would be in life. I left first, then Shane followed me to Jacksonville, where we both took our first full-time jobs. I refused to live with him, but that didn't stop him from sleeping on my floor for three weeks until he found a place of his own. His tendency to let me clear a social and professional path and then follow behind was quite an annoyance to me by then. But I did love him, and I wanted him to do well, even as I resented how much he needed me.
Shane and I had developed a classic dependency: the perpetually-broken-and-in-need-of-fixing person finds and latches onto the perpetually-willing-to-fix-other-people person. These systems are always a bit of a façade, of course, which is to say that Shane was no less capable than I was, and I was no less broken than he was. But as flawed as our arrangement was, the roles we played genuinely reflected what we believed about ourselves. So there I would be, in his apartment, creating a filing system for all his important documents or moving him and his stuff for the umpteenth time.
Shane was always trying to definitively pronounce the difference between him and me. "You are an extrovert, and I am an introvert," he declared one day, as if that were the answer to every question. I suspect he was trying to communicate something like what Susan Cain later wrote in her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts”: “If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain.” That said, I was never completely comfortable with Shane’s diagnosis, and when I took my own personality tests I discovered why: I am an introvert-leaning ambivert, not an extravert. But Cain also distinguished between introversion, shyness and high sensitivity. Of the three traits, introversion is the only one that somewhat applies to me. Shane, on the other hand, almost certainly lived with all three.
Even so, he always had new plans to pay off his school loans and really get noticed: bartending, a rock band, acting, writing a book. But things got pretty bad during that stretch in Jacksonville. He would tell tales to anyone who would listen about all the sexual harassment and usury he experienced. He even speculated about a political conspiracy, involving the mayor, who was out to get him because Shane had put his signature on some sort of lawsuit against the city. After piecing a few of the things he said together, I even worried that Shane was driving without insurance. Between the wild stories and Shane missing a lot of work, my dad flew down for a few days to investigate.
By the end of my second year in Jacksonville, I didn’t exactly love my job and the pressure of taking care of Shane weighed on me. I decided to go back to Indiana. Shane couldn't stand the idea of another transition, but he seemed desperate to keep me in Jacksonville, putting all kinds of local job postings in front of me. I wish I had listened better to him and at least acknowledged that parting would be hard, that I would miss him, too.
Angela, one of my two younger sisters, had been concerned about Shane ever since a year the two of them spent in Europe. They hadn’t been in the same place – Shane was in Spain, she was in England – but they did spend the holidays together, which were tumultuous enough to convince her that Shane "wasn't rational." Apparently, he hadn't liked it when Angela suggested that he attend class and take his final exams. He came back to the United States from that year of studying abroad with all of one credit to show for it. It took me longer to see just how big of a problem Shane was dealing with because it was hard to determine which behaviors were just phases, just one person’s trial-and-error in this difficult world. My mind started to change after Angela gave me Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.” By the middle of the book, I was making the same connections and asking the same questions as Angela was.
After I left Jacksonville, Shane and I still talked on the phone regularly. Those conversations frustrated me, as he was making less and less sense, and my appeals to logic were useless. We were having different conversations, talking over each other. He cut my parents off altogether, and for the Christmas of 2011, he refused to join our family on a vacation we took to Ecuador, where Angela served in the Peace Corps. I settled for briefly skyping with Shane on that trip and made a mental note to go down and see him for spring break. The murder-suicide happened five days before I was scheduled to arrive.
Shane did not leave any sort of note, at least of which I am aware. Since the day of his and Ms. Regan’s death, I have first of all needed to grieve the loss of my brother. But part of the way I “bargain” is to ask the many questions that haunt me. For starters, what if Regan had not been in her office? As a school administrator, surely she got out and around the school on a regular basis. Did Shane somehow know she would be there, or was he just guessing? It had never taken much to fluster Shane. If she hadn’t been in her office, would he have continued to look for her with his guitar case in hand? Might he have gone after other targets? Would he have simply realized the craziness of his plan and gotten out of there? Or maybe he would have gotten careless and someone would have seen him and realized he had a weapon and stopped the whole thing? Could my family have started our new lives with Shane fired from his job and under arrest instead of dead and a killer?
For better or worse, I have explored, and will probably continue to explore, as many possibilities for what led to Shane’s downfall as cross my mind: social awkwardness and a difficulty connecting with girls, his tendency to isolate, his asthmatic struggle to simply breathe, family dynamics, religious and political convictions, mental illness, masculine culture. Mostly, they are a lot of partial answers that don’t fully resolve, as I suppose is always the case with human-induced tragedy.
Others from Shane’s life have had just as much trouble reconciling his final act with the life he lived. “The Shane we knew was not the Shane that we’re hearing about today,” said Mandy Intravaia, a former housemate of his.
“He was always nice all the time,” one student told a reporter.
“We thought (Shane) was a very intelligent, very perceptive, very talented young man,” said John Winkler, who had met and interacted with Shane in a group called Concerned Taxpayers.
During his time in Jacksonville, Shane also sought out acting lessons with a woman named Joanna Horton. After Shane’s murder-suicide, she had this to say, to the Florida Times-Union: “He really had trouble being in his own skin. He was desperate. He tried everything. He just wanted to be happy.”
Weighing in from The New York Times, Lizette Alvarez wrote that “Shane’s work at Episcopal had become increasingly erratic. One minute he was conjugating the verb hablar – to speak – and the next he mused about Marxism and the working man. His class was viewed as easy; students had little homework, and when they turned it in, he did not correct it. He seemed preoccupied.”
Maybe the best clue I have come across in my quest to understand has been the work of the late Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. In a journal article called “Psychology and Religion,” Jung wrote that “The change of character brought about by the uprush of collective forces is amazing. A gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast. One is always inclined to lay the blame on external circumstances, but nothing could explode in us if it had not been there. As a matter of fact, we are constantly living on the edge of a volcano, and there is, so far as we know, no way of protecting ourselves from a possible outburst that will destroy everybody within reach.” Elsewhere, Jung called that force within us “the shadow.”
Indeed, I have begun facing bits and pieces of my own shadow – which is definitely there! – ever since Shane’s death. I suspect that it is for our own psychological protection that we tend to view people like Shane as a monster, as if we couldn’t possibly be capable of doing something so terrible and violent. But perhaps in another life, or in another season of life, it could have been you or me. Maybe we would have acted our dark emotions out in a different, but equally destructive way. For some of us, the only reason we don’t do something like what Shane did is because we spend our whole lives repressing our disappointments and pain. We want to believe, even if it is a façade, that those feelings don’t exist within us.
I don’t think denial and repression is a better option; in fact, I’m not so sure that Shane didn’t enact those same coping mechanisms for most of his life before it all exploded in one fit of rage. If we don’t bring our shadows, however scary they are, to the surface in healthy ways, they will surely force their way out on their own accord. The only question is how much of the destruction that follows will be directed at others and how much of it will be directed at ourselves. Unfortunately, in Shane’s case, like with so many other others throughout human history, it was both.