Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky noticed that those who hate themselves hate others. Not only do they hate others, they claimed, they want to destroy the world. Neither explained why they thought as they did, so their observations I filed away in my Mental File Cabinet. At first their comments didn't make much sense to me, but I knew something would give me a clue. It always does.
In this case it was a book by William Allen called, Starkweather: a Portrait of a Mass Murderer. I had heard of Charles Starkweather, because he has become an American mythic archetype, but at first I remembered his name as Virgil. I realized the reason for it is because Woody Allen, in his movie, Take the Money and Run, named his character Virgil. That's what I mean by Starkweather becoming an archetype -- the sensitive, misunderstood rebel getting back at a society he believes is trying to destroy him.
There have been movies about him (Natural Born Killers for one), songs (one by Bruce Springsteen), books, and even Stephen King admitted he kept a scrapbook about him as a teen. That shows the fascination this man/child holds, even over 50 years after his crimes.
I picked the book up at the library, on the free shelf out in the lobby where the library and people put books so people can take them. I would have passed by the book except for two reasons: I remembered that Starkweather had gone on his ten-day killing rampage in 1958, in which he murdered eleven people, with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate, and the cover of the book had a picture of Starkweather in which he was clearly trying to imitate James Dean, dangling cigarette, three-inch pompadour and everything else associated with the actor.
Starkweather, who went on his killing spree at 19, grew up short (5'5"), bow-legged, pigeon-toed, half-blind, with a slight speech impediment, and dumb. Are those reasons to do what he did? Of course not. Some people suffer much worse and don't even come close to his crimes.
He was also excruciatingly sensitive to any criticism and so imaginative he saw criticism when there was none. None of these traits excuse what he did, but they give a clue as to why he did it.
Starkweather said he hated himself because of his flaws. Those flaws wouldn't mean much except that what other people thought of him got inside his head and became part of his character. Marshall McLuhan, quoting Alexander Pope and William Blake, wrote, "We become what he behold. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us."
Starkweather was shaped by what he beheld. It's not that simple, unfortunately, because he would have to been born with certain character flaws in the first place. All of us are. However, Starkweather's probably would not have been actualized except by the society in which he raised. Society is, in a sense, a "tool," one that we are supposed to use to make our lives better. It doesn't always work that way. People shape society, and then society shapes them, according to their inborn nature, and sometimes it's not for the best.
Starkweather, born flawed, beheld what society thought of him, and was shaped by it. It brought his constitutional flaws out into the open and into play. According to him, this started his first day of school, at the age of five. The other children made fun of him because of his speech impediment, shamed and humiliated him, and after that ostracized him. He retaliated by getting into fights with the other kids for years after.
Not at all surprisingly, Starkweather blamed his self-hatred on other people. He blamed society for his problems, his humiliation, his shame, his injured pride, going so far as to claim all his murders were in self-defense. The first impulse of all people, their first defense, is to blame their problems on others.
I've lost track of how many times I written this, but blaming other people is the lesson of that ancient myth about the Garden of Eden. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent, a symbol of envy. This story tells us that many people, if not most, blame their problems on others because of feelings of envy.
Did Starkweather feel envy? The book does not say, but suggests that he did. He was poor and nihilistic, and a rebel, and two of the people he murdered were rich. He spent a few days in their house, enjoying the luxury that he, as a garbageman, never had. That might not the main point, though. The main point is that he blamed his problems on others, and so hated them because he thought they were responsible for his hating himself. Get rid of them, he fantasized, and his problems would disappear.
He said he had fantasies of killing everyone in the world and living alone in nature with animals. Since he couldn't change himself, and blamed his problems on the world, he wanted to change the world by destroying it.
Psychiatrists judged Starkweather to be a five-year-old boy with a cap gun -- bang, you're dead. He's what was, and is called, a "character disorder," meaning he blamed his problems on others. That's the main characteristics of character disorders. We've all met them -- "You made me do it!" is their eternal complaint against others.
Starkweather said the only time he ceased hating himself was when he was with his girlfriend. She liked, admired and approved of him. It was as if she was a mirror, and he saw himself as she saw him, rather than as he saw himself.
Still, her approval wasn't enough, and his hate and rage led to his crime spree. Those killings, he said, temporarily gave him a sense of power, power that erased, again temporarily, his self-hatred. It still wasn't enough. There is an old saying, "Trauma demands repetition," and Starkweather kept repeating that trauma, although not healing it. Murder never does.
Inexplicably, Starkweather had professional artistic talent, although he never truly developed it until he was in prison. By then, it was far too late. Some paintings were left unfinished by his execution.
It was in prison, by the way, that he received so much media attention that it helped overcome his self-hated. The Horney quote above -- "attention, regard, appreciation or admiration from others" -- is exactly right.
Why the fascination even now, with Starkweather? Some people hate society, and in many ways, society deserves that hate, because of its oppression. Starkweather was a rebel against a repressive society -- an artistic rebel, of all things. He modeled himself after that most sensitive of rebels, James Dean. He made himself above the law. Do not many teenagers have such fantasies?
Even Stephen King, writing about his novel, The Stand, said he enjoyed destroying our flawed world and dancing on its grave. Is there not a little bit of Starkweather in him, and all of us? If there wasn't, would the story of Noah's Flood ever existed? Or the "Left Behind" destroy-the-world fantasies of our modern-day fundamentalists?
What are the lessons, even now, about Starkweather?
One: we are neither blank slates, products of our environment, or completely ruled by our genetics. Whatever exists in us is activated by society. Bad societies activate bad traits. That should be an obvious thing.
Two: people want to blame society for their problems. Since they cannot change themselves, they want to change society, even if they have to destroy it.
Three: perhaps children shouldn't start school until seven, as in Sweden, instead of five, as they do in the U.S. A lot of children are too young to start school at five. Starkweather certainly was.
Four: the public schools should be closed down. Starkweather's teachers knew something was wrong with him, but accused him of not trying in his school work. The same thing happened when I was in school, and I'm sure it happens today. The schools have had enough time to straighten up, and haven't, so I see no recourse except to get rid of them. After all, all the school shootings today happen exclusively in public schools.
Five: education is to develop childrens' talents. Did not even one teacher notice that Starkweather had professional artistic talent? If they had, would he have been an artist instead of a failure?
Six: a lot of kids are going to go through a rebellious phrase. Learn to deal with it. Society hasn't. Initiation rites help a lot. We don't have any.
Seven: societies should be set up so that it minimizes people blaming their problems on others. Ours sure isn't. We now have a professional victim culture, and it's going to lead to more kids hating themselves, hating others, and hating the world. More division, more alienation.
I find it almost surreal that Starkweather was an artist. Artists, as Ezra Pound noticed, are the antenna of the human race. In a demented sort of way, Starkweather was a precursor to our future. Look around these days, and you'll see things, in certain parts of our society, that are, in varying degrees, creating more Charlies.
I don't even have to tell you what they are, because you already know.