New York Times-bestselling author Stephen Singular has teamed with his wife Joyce and their forensic reporting has produced the most comprehensive look at the Aurora shooting yet, while drawing upon the one group left out of the discussion of violence in America: the twenty-somethings themselves. The Spiral Notebook is filled with the voices of the Millennials, a group dogged by big pharma, anti-depressants, and ADHD drugs, by a doomsday/apocalyptic mentality present since birth, and by an entertainment industry that has turned violence into parlor games.
Provocative and eye opening, The Spiral Notebook is an examination of the dynamics driving the violence committed by their peers.
A pre-publication review of the book by Booklist, with a star, said:
Husband-and-wife investigative reporters and veterans of the crime beat, the Singulars were compelled to look at violence from their perspective as parents when James Holmes, a young man dressed as a commando, killed 12 people and injured 58 others in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. The Singulars have a son about Holmes’ age who, unlike them, was not so surprised by the shooter’s actions. The Singulars offer a harrowing look at the crime and the courtroom drama. They explore the complex legal battles, particularly over the issue of Holmes’ sanity and a spiral notebook that might hold the key to determining his state of mind. Was the notebook, mailed to his psychiatrist, protected by doctor-patient confidentiality, or, having been found in the course of the investigation before the doctor received it, was it game for use by the prosecution? They address the broader debate about whether publicizing Holmes’ diary or the videotapes made by the Columbine shooters glorifies the killers or offers valuable insights into their behavior. Interspersed throughout are comments from a cross section of young adults about the cultural forces, from drugs to video games to social media, that may have contributed to Holmes’ alienation and violent actions. This is a compelling look at gun control, mental-health treatment, and the underlying social issues that contribute to rising violence, especially that committed by young men, in our nation.
— Vanessa Bush
No one could ever forget the horrific scene that unfolded in an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre in July, 2012. A gunman opened fire on a movie theatre, killing twelve people and wounding many others. In this book, husband and wife Stephen and Joyce Singular attempt to reckon with the limited and less-than-explanatory nature of the information available about James Holmes. The Singulars also take it one step further: They examine the pervasiveness of mass violence in American youth culture, and attempt to make sense of a troubling topic. This is a dark book, but a sincere and smart take on a serious subject.
On 5/12, the couple were interviewed for “The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter And The Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth” via Skype by Investigative Journalist, Diane Dimond for “Talk Center America” in NYC.
On 5/13, Stephen was interviewed by Colorado Public Radio about the The Spiral Notebook and the ongoing trial. The following evening the couple spoke on these subjects at the Denver Press Club.
On June 14, Stephen and Joyce Singular received the following review for their new book, The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter And The Epidemic Of Mass Violence Committed By American Youth, in The Sunday Denver Post’s Arts and Entertainment section. See link below:
An April 2015 pre-publication review of the book by Kirkus, with a star, said:
“An investigation into the plague of violence engulfing a generation of American youth. When Stephen Singular (The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle over Abortion, 2011, etc.) and his wife, Joyce, set out to write a book about James Holmes, who in 2012, walked into an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater where he killed 12 people and wounded another 58, they had no idea how little information about the case would be available to them. But they used the lack of accessible material as a starting point, with Aurora as the ever present backdrop rather than the sole subject. The spiral notebook of the title, a diary kept by Holmes, was presumed to hold the reasons behind the attack, but a court order kept it sealed from the public. With Holmes’ motives obscured, the Singulars went in search of answers by exploring the nationwide epidemic of mass shootings. They spent time talking to their own 20-something son before embarking on a quest to engage with millennials in conversations about the tragic commonality of school shootings and other violent acts. The result is a disturbing yet fascinating treatise on the impacts of growing up in a world that previous generations would barely recognize. While violent video games get their due, the authors also pinpoint widely prescribed drugs, the pressures of social media, a world at war, and more. What makes this book special is that for every theory they present, the Singulars reference not only experts in psychology, sociology, crime, and other fields, but also 20-somethings, whose opinions seem at once benign in their simplicity and also imbued with the ability to shatter the worlds of their peers. These acts may never be fully understood, but this work certainly helps the process along. Tragic, gripping, and authentic, this book deserves a wide audience.”
From the “Brooklyn Rail,” July 13, 2015:
Since the 1960s, the frequency of mass shootings in the United States has increased by over 10,000 percent.
Among the shooters, there are commonalities—social isolation, feelings of persecution, psychotropic drug use, obsessive playing of violent video games (like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft), etc.—that experts will, in every aftermath, desperately try to collate and quantify with the hope of achieving some understanding of a phenomenon that has become appallingly familiar in our culture.
But however much the data on shooters are fed into algorithms and weighed against behavioral profiles and generally subjected to all manner of scientific methodology, the concerned citizen, expert or layman, will quickly know the limit of such inquiry. Because up until the moment a young misfit decides to pull the trigger, one can empathize with social isolation, or feelings of persecution, or the vicissitudes of being on mood stabilizers, or the adrenaline rush of graphic video game violence. Up until that moment, one must concede that just because a person fits the profile, and maybe even keeps a goodly stash of firearms in the house, that person is not necessarily on the brink of slaughtering his or her peers in a hail of gunfire. The fact is, those who fit the profile and never commit a crime far outnumber those who do.
Yet parsing the data feels like a moral duty, fruitless as it may ultimately be. We would be remiss as a culture if we didn’t make a systemized attempt to pursue what Stephen and Joyce Singular, in their book The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth, would call a “little push”: the element—elusive, but suggestive as dark matter—that turns a young person from troubled to murderous.
The focus of The Spiral Notebook is James Holmes, who in July 2012 dyed his hair Joker-orange, decked himself in military grade combat gear, and murdered a dozen people at a midnight showing of the filmThe Dark Knight in Aurora, Colorado. The Singulars are able and enthusiastic reporters, providing detailed depictions of the event, the lead-up to it, the emergency response, and then, to their frustration, a judicial process assiduously withheld from the prying eyes of the media.
The titular spiral notebook refers to the volume holding Holmes’s musings before he committed his act, what one might call his manifesto. To the Singulars, it represents both a psychological “Rosetta Stone” of insight into why he did what he did, and also a symbol of a broken judicial system that would keep such a document from a public desperate for insight. The latter gives them ample exercise. Holmes is certainly guilty of the crime, so his defense team’s objective is to save him from the death penalty. Their strategy is to repeatedly delay the trial date, which they do successfully, while devising an insanity defense. The insanity plea should have been a boon to the media because it would nullify the doctor-patient confidentiality laws that required the notebook’s suppression (since Holmes sent it to his psychiatrist hours before his rampage).
But while the new plea made the notebook admissible in court, the judge, much railed-against for the secrecy he fostered, continued to withhold it from public view. Because of this, the Singulars come to regard Holmes’s notebook as some untouched key, a look into the psyche of a mass shooter heretofore unseen.
Would the pages reveal what happened to the defendant after he moved to Aurora? And what had changed between the winter of 2012 […] and the late spring and early summer of that year? Would the notebook […] document his slide into insanity or show the intricate designs of a premeditated killer? […] Could one be fully functional in society and insane at the same time? […] Would the notebook finally provide some answers?
The exasperating truth is that other works exist in this genre, but they do little to advance our understanding of the transition from disaffected youth to mass killer. The manifesto of Isla Vista shooter Elliott Rodger is 144 numbingly repetitive pages in which Rodger recounts his failures to entice women to sleep with him until deciding they are fundamentally evil and must be punished with death. If one didn’t wince at the prospect of reading the 1500-page manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who methodically killed 69 people at a Workers’ Youth League summer camp, one may conclude, as Karl Ove Knausgaard did in a recent New Yorker piece, “Breivik’s childhood explains nothing, his character explains nothing, his political ideas explain nothing.” It would seem that even if a killer says why he killed, most of us still wouldn’t understand it.
Without access to the notebook, the Singulars turn to the shooters’ peers, and here they find their most useful insights. Woven throughout The Spiral Notebook are quotations from members of the “American youth” in question, including the Singulars’ son, whose “formative years in Denver were bookended by two mass tragedies,” Columbine and Aurora. After Aurora, the Singulars knew they had a story they wanted to pursue. The court’s gag orders proved an impediment to their forensic analysis, but the seed of a newer, and perhaps more useful, angle had sprouted in their own home. Asking their son Eric for his thoughts on the shooting, they encountered disturbing reticence: “You don’t understand how I grew up,” he told them. “You just don’t get it, […] No offense, but you’re too old.”
Does the failure to understand mass murder committed by young men equate to a failure to understand the culture around them? One veteran journalist quoted by the Singulars exclaims, “If I hear one more teenager say that he or she understands why those two kids did what they did at Columbine, […] I’m going to scream.” Throughout these interviews, an assumed incomprehensibility entered a new light: are mass shooters somehow relatable to their Millenial peers? Says one twenty-one-year-old man, “Sometimes I just want to blow. The only thing that stops me is my own sense of self-control. Take that away, and I just don’t know what would happen.” The other interviewees recount overlapping narratives of endemic drug use, school bullying, the pressures of a consumerist society, and obsessive playing of violent video games. Through their collective words, the pieces of a particular world come together, a world that is inhabited by both the victims and the perpetrators. Theirs is a common despair. Regardless of public access to Holmes’s spiral notebook, the manifesto exists in the minds of all young people immersed in a violent, drugged up, materialistic world. And they are happy to tell us about it.
Now, after countless delays, James Holmes’s capital trial is under way, and the spiral notebook has been made available to the media. The salient implication is a legal one: it seems Holmes was perfectly able to distinguish right from wrong. But the unfortunate message for the Singulars, and for the rest of us pining for an answer from the mind of a mass killer, echoes Knausgaard’s conclusion about Breivik, and comes from Holmes’s own pen (via recent CNN coverage of the trial): “The message is there is no message.” We look, then, to the masses, where murder is still an aberration, but despair is not.
From the Washington Book Review, July 14, 2015:
In July 2012, James Holmes unleashed the largest mass shooting in American history inside of a Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during the midnight screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’ It left twelve dead and seventy others wounded. In the first fourteen school days of 2014, there were seven school shootings as compared to twenty-eight school shootings in all of 2013. In The Spiral Notebook, Stephen Singular and Joyce Singular discuss the cultural forces and reasons behind the escalating violence caused by American youth. One of the main theses of The Spiral Notebook is that “an individual, like a nation, can gradually slip into a state of madness with hardly anyone noticing. A person working inside an environment of very intelligent, well-educated, and seemingly observant people can evolve into a killing machine – with nobody paying attention or doing anything to stop him.” The authors say that most people try “to look away and not say anything that might cause a disruption. Better to keep still and pretend that everything would turn out fine.”
The Singulars have been writing on violence by the American youth for a number of years. They have also been interviewing young people on the subject. They say the twenty-something generation told them that their parents didn’t know or understand much about their life experience. They write, that “…they had come of age when future seemed quite limited, if not choked off. Climate change, economic collapse, Y2K, global terrorism, the end of the world in December 2012 – there is always another apocalypse just around the corner. If there weren’t enough threats, the movies industry kept churning out one terrifying or dystopian vision of tomorrow after another. They were filled with superheroes who wielded power by killing as many others as they could.”
In the wake of the Aurora shooting, the Singulars held discussions with large numbers of young people to understand their problems and uncover the roots of the escalating violence. The theme in these discussions was that this generation was ready for fundamental changes – structural, social, and political change. Something new needs to come, a new way of interacting and cooperating both within our institutions and on a personal level. They write that the cultural wars and public demonizing are only broken tools. Political division and hatred have created more division and hatred. They write, “Bullying, whether by the government or the media or the kid next door, is toxic and creates consequences that we’re only beginning to glimpse. Being ‘right’ and making someone else ‘wrong’ is a useless strategy if it only leads to gridlock. When do we actually start to confront and solve problems instead of engaging in the anger, fear, and finger-pointing that’s characterized American life over the past few decades.” They argue that whenever their voice reflects despair, you can also see a deep sense of idealism and the age-old American desire to make the future better. They write that these voices hold a lot of hope. The Spiral Notebook is not a sociological study but rather a “most and intimate look at one family’s exploration of a new form of American terrorism.”
Their journey toward understanding more about violence started at home with family discussions – later they journeyed across the country to learn more. Wrapping up their experience, they write, “We all wanted the same thing, and what we had learnt was stunningly simple: Get involved. Be a participant. Take a chance. Speak Up – like Abbey. See this as an opportunity, a moment to connect with others and to create something new. Ask a question, ask a follow up question, and then listen carefully. Don’t be satisfied with surfaces. Don’t think that you don’t matter. Keep asking questions and keep listening, and there is no telling what you might hear and where those words might lead you or what you might do next.”
The Spiral Notebook is a chilling and disturbing analysis of American terrorism. It provides deep insight into one of the biggest threats faced by our society. No other book has explored the reasons behind the violence by American youth in such a vivid way. This is a must read for all Americans. Reviewed by TWBR team