v. 4.0

By Hans Steiner, M.D.

            Professor of Psychiatry & Director,            

The Pegasus Physician Writers at Stanford 

Copyright: Do not quote or reproduce without author’s permission


This is a narrative fiction story, which is part of a larger collection of interlinked stories from forensic psychiatry. The events in this story are told as they unfolded. The identity of the characters is disguised to protect  the individuals involved. When needed, characters were blended into a composite to make the disguise deeper.The story is the lead in story to the collection.

It is part of an entire book proposal  “Descending Into The Abyss”, which is available to agents and publishers upon request.




            John Perceval woke at 1 am. The alarm clock was working, the numbers blinking in synchrony with the second count. The house was completely quiet. His mother used to call this the witching hour. He looked out the window toward the South. Clouds had settled in from the coast and intermittently covered the moon. ‘Waxing gibbous.’ He smiled as he thought it. His mother would have called the moon by its astrological name, as she firmly believed that life should be lived in synchrony with celestial messages.  She also read the horoscope religiously every day. Then she would chuckle, as she thought it was pretty silly. But not the moon. Waxing gibbous meant change, re-shaping of the future.

            Well, he was about to do that. His research team was scheduled to go to a high school in the northern Peninsula to assess their students’ mental health. The project had started about 6 months ago. After getting baseline profiles it was time to follow up with more specific measures which were intended to help the staff identify those students at highest risk. John Perceval also wanted to follow up on a previous finding in a local, very prestigious high school district, where he had found that about one quarter of the students carried weapons (guns, survival knives, etc.) for protection and in case of a fight. These results were met with incredulity by the school and the community, motivating him to plan a repeat study in another similar high school to confirm the results. After months of  preparation, the data would be collected today. He was surprised how tense he was,  after so many years of doing these psychiatric studies.

            He jumped out of bed and went to his study to look over - one more time -the checklist for the day. All was in order. For a minute, he thought about calling Renee who led the research team, but he stopped himself, drank a glass of water, and settled back into bed. The alarm was set for seven, leaving plenty of time for last minute directives. He pulled the duvet up to his neck, trapping his body heat. He loved feeling the Egyptian linen's satisfying smoothness.  

            A cold draft waved over his head from the half-open window. The plump moon re-emerged from the feathery clouds and cast a cold blue light across the room. The light made the two redwood trees from the neighbor’s yard stand out, etched against the sky. They stood  tall, waving their black branches in the wind like dozens of arms. One taller than the other, both home to roof rats, ravens and an owl. Usually he called them Philemon and Baucis. Today he thought Erik and Dylan were more to the point. He buried his head deeper into the pillows and thought: ‘Silliness.’ The rest of the night, his sleep was shallow, punctuated by strange dreams.



           He woke fifteen minutes before the alarm rang, picked up the checklist and dialed Renee’s number.

           “ Hi, good morning. All set?”

           “Yep. Touched base with everyone last night. Traci is bringing all the copies of the scales; we are meeting the director of special services and the school psychologist at nine. They will take us to the classrooms where we will distribute the scales as the students come in. We did not randomize the sequence, as you suggested.”

           “ Easier to avoid confusion. We will deal with order effects statistically.”

           Renee was a gem, always, prepared and in control. Stephanie, Zakee, Traci, Niranjan, Belinda, Amy and Laura, all gems in their own right, dedicated, full of energy, fun to be with. ‘The doctor’s little United Nations’, his wife called them. It made him proud.

           Time to get ready himself. His plan was to come to the campus around ten, survey the scene, sample some collected data, make sure everyone  proceeded calmly, efficiently, and patiently. He looked forward to confirming the previous result. It was so much fun to be right. Starting to shave, he turned on the news. KTVU had some ads running, one for a Dodge dealer was particularly annoying.  Why did this guy and his son think that anyone was interested in their singing at 8 in the morning ?

           In the middle of the ad, the announcer came on. Breaking news. Probably an accident on one of the bridges, slowing down traffic. Or BART  broken down again.

           “We just got news that there is a school shooting in progress on the Peninsula. Police are advising students, parents, and staff of Saint Matthew’s High School to take extreme caution. The police have cordoned off the school area.  So far it is not clear how many victims there are nor are the police certain of the number of shooters.”

           What? This had to be a mistake. This was the school where the data were being collected. The announcer said “St. Matthews” again and again. John Perceval’s first reaction was: Damn. Then he recovered: Was the team safe? Where were they? Judging by the time they were already on campus. He dialed Renee’s number, misdialing three times. No answer. Traci – no answer. He could just drive there. No, then he would miss the news. He kept the phone handy and turned the volume up. Another commercial. This time for a curtain cleaning special.  Jeez. Finally Dwaine came back on.

           “This morning at 8:45 am, an unidentified student at Saint Matthews high school drove up to the parking lot and stopped his car at the main school entrance. He then lowered his window and threw large denomination bank notes out the window. As students approached to pick up the money, the driver in the car started taking shots at them with a handgun. He hit several students and adults in the area. At this point it is not known how badly the victims are hurt. Some brave parents and teachers advanced and pulled some of the victims to safety. When the police arrived a few minutes later, the student in the car was seen to put the handgun into his mouth. He shot himself in plain sight of everyone, blood splattering onto the windshield. The police have cordoned off the school area. They are advising extreme caution for everyone, as they are not certain as to how many shooters there are and whether explosive devices have been planted in the school area. Our reporter, Ana Martinez, is on the scene. Ana, can you hear me?”

           “Yes, Dwaine. I am standing on a side street close to the school entrance and I can see the car of the student that seemingly killed himself just now. Police have surrounded the school and are going through all the buildings to secure them. Students, teachers, and families have gathered in a parking lot at a shopping center near us. Ambulances have arrived and are taking the injured students away. We are trying to speak with some of the witnesses who were standing at the entrance when the shots were fired. They are all badly shaken and frightened. We are still uncertain as to whether the shooter was alone or not, or whether he has planted explosives on school ground. We understand that he had a website where he announced this event yesterday. We are working on getting the details of that situation as well. I am trying to find someone who is willing to talk to us. What a horrible event: Blood everywhere. The principal has agreed to talk to us in a little while, after he has settled the situation. Yet another one of these terrible events committed by some depraved lunatic.”

           “Ok, Ana, we will stay in contact, let me know when we are ready to hear from some of the people on site. And any details about who the shooter was.”

           Commercial break. Home loan specials. John Perceval dialed Renee’s number again. This time she answered.

           “Oh, good, I was really worried.”

           “We all got here as the police were swooping in. We are all ok, but everybody is very jumpy. Nobody wants to tell us anything. We are ready to do whatever, whenever.”

           He heard Renee’s voice shaking through all her reassuring talk. Typical jock that she was, toughing it out, just like she used to do on her long distance runs. Getting the job done, no matter what.

           “Well, Renee, no heroics, please. Huddle the team off campus in a safe location, but stay nearby. The school may need all of us to help them. I will try and call Donald and see what he wants us to do. Wait, the news is getting ready to give more details. Stay on the line and out of trouble. As soon as they clear the area, I will be over.”

           “O.k.” Renee sounded relieved.“ We are over in the shopping center.  We will just go into the Starbucks there and wait for your call.”

           “Dwaine, I have with me Alyssa, who apparently was a friend of the shooter. Alyssa, what can you tell us about the boy? ”

           “ I wanna know if he is ok.”

           “I am not sure about that. The ambulance took him over to Mills Hospital, along with the kids that he shot. I guess we will keep close track of them and let people know. Is there anything you can tell us about your friend though?”

           “He wasn’t my friend. He was new, in our school about two months.  We sort of knew him, but he kinda kept to himself. He was weird.”

           “How was he weird?”

           “Well he had no friends or anything. And then he said that Christine was his girl- friend, but I knew she wasn’t because Christine is going out with my brother’s best friend. That’s been a little off and on, so at first I thought nothing of it when he said that. But then I asked Christine and she said no way, he was always texting her and stuff, but she’d never go out with him. And she finally told him straight to his face.”

           “Oh, when was that?”

           “I don’t think it had anything to do with this. It was last week or so. I don’t wanna talk any more.”

           Alyssa started to cry, looking frightened. Tears rolling down her cheeks, she turned her head, walking away from Ana who followed her a couple steps, extending the microphone. Alyssa quickly disappeared into the crowd. A boy put his arm around her, but she kept on walking. He let her go, and with a grim face walked up to the reporter. He also was visibly shaken, but offered to fill in the blanks.

           “Yeah, it’s just like Alyssa said. He was new and nobody really knew him all that well. He called himself ‘Radical,’  ‘Rad’ for short, pretty lame. He’d drive his flashy car to school all the time. In the break he would try and sit with us. But then he’d always start talking about his dad’s weapon collection, and we thought he was just full of it. And how his father had this software company and boatloads of money; and how they had a house at Tahoe, in Aspen, and apartments in New York and Tokyo and Paris; how he flew in the company jet all the time, how his dad was always on the road making money. He offered to give us some of the weapons, until I finally said: ‘Ok, you do that, bring me an AK 47 or a Russian Kalashnikov……’ and he said ‘Fine’. The dude was completely cracked, cause the next day he brings a backpack full of random pistols and shows them to us during the break. I go ‘Dude, we are at school, are you insane, if they catch us our ass is fried. Put that shit away’. He just smiled said he knew where all the ammo was locked up, and some weren’t even locked up. When that didn’t work, he said he could get us any drugs or booze we wanted because he had checked out the best dealers in town. And it was no problem if we came by his house, because his mother was on a vintage car rally in Italy, so he had the house to himself.”

           “Did you tell anybody about all this, as it was happening? Like your parents or the principal?”

           “No, ‘cause all of us thought he was just full of it. He weirded us out, we just wanted him to leave us alone.”

           “So you told no one about all this?”

           The boy’s eyes turned to slits. His answers became increasingly monosyllabic and he finally just walked away. Dwaine and Ana speculated for another 2 minutes why all this had happened.

           “This shooter is clearly a monster” Dwaine closed the discussion, having developed this deep insight into what happened in less than 30 minutes.

           “Renee, you heard that, right?”


           “Does that mean we have this guy in the data base or not?” It just slipped out, and as soon as it did, he was sorry that it had. Not one iota better than the reporter. But, he thought quickly, all for a good cause. He still felt like a vulture.

           “No, of course not. If it’s like she said, he has only been at this school for the past 2-3 months  and our baseline collection was 6 months ago.”

           “Right, right, right.” He tried to recover, sensing Renee’s disapproval. “So stay there where you are, keep everybody close, I will hop in the car and I should be there in 30 minutes.”

           On his way to the car, he dialed the principal’s phone number. “Donald? How horrible. Can you talk? Ok, fine. I will call you in 30 minutes or so. I am on my way up there and we will touch base then. You want me to talk to the media, are you sure? Ok, if you think it’s helpful. Do you know who the shooter is? Oh good. Can I see the file then before we both talk to the media. And we should touch base before either one of us does. Yeah, I know, but he wasn’t at the school when we did the first wave of data collection. Have you heard, is he all right? Nothing. Hmmm. Same for the others. His parents must be devastated. Have you heard from them? No? Wow. Oh the police are on their way over to their house. Well, the whole team is up there, ready to help in any way you see fit.”

           John Perceval hung up and tried to remember if he had ever noticed the boy when he had visited campus. But the name did not ring a bell and the picture on TV was too poor quality. From what Donald said, it sounded like Radical  had a long history of trouble, along with many school changes. Apparently he had kept a website that he was overheard bragging about. After things were more settled , John Perceval would have a look at that.

           As he pulled into the parking spot in front of Starbucks, he saw the whole United Nations huddled by the window, drinking coffees. He took a deep breath. He was sure there would be a web access.




Read This and Weep.

Pretty cool title for a website, huh. You think I am joking. BUT I AM THE GREAT TIDE THAT WILL WASH ALL YOU TRASH INTO THE SEA! By the time I am done you will be dead or wish you were, because so much of you is hurting and missing and bleeding. I will be in that next dimension, cloaked in darkness, waiting for you, and if you scum should make it to that dimension, you miserable little pathetic beings will not even be visible there, while I enter the secret covenant with the Prince of Light who rules the universe and disrobes god the impostor.

            I will claim all the lives of those that have tortured me. All I wanted was to give everyone my greatness, because I am the flame that ignites Armageddon, the final battle for supremacy where the Prince of Light will sweep away the whiney masses of fake Christians with all your phony love for your fellow man. All I wanted was this:  to sit at your table in the breaks. But you turned away and mocked me behind my back. I saw it, how you pulled your nose down to your lips, how you used a dust mop to mock my hair.

            I will enter your brains like purple poison and make you yearn for the covenant, but you will be denied because you are the ones that are not worthy. You will be frozen in the  black light swimming on top of an eternal cauldron of darkness and icy stillness. I wanted to give you the instruments of power that my mother gave me to prepare for Doomsday, she the leading member of the Doomsday Preppers, a pathetic group who just whined about a disgustingly optimistic version of what was about to come. As if you could prepare. They also said they knew the date, the exact date! Well tomorrow is the day. I am going to raise my own hell, turn my fear and loathing into terror and tribulation.

             I had all the crystal clear answers to any question you might ask. You’re feeling crappy? Take this!  Glass like, it would jolt your head back seconds after you sniffed it, none of that pathetic and expensive coke. This stuff makes you sit up!!!! But you turned it down.            I will get each and every one of you. I will throw my bolts of fire down on you, spewing from every gun my father owns. I will hammer you with bullets, they will make you shake and twist and turn and shout, spaz out, you will howl and holler, dragging yourself under the desks in the room, shitting your pants and whining for your lives. I will spray bullets underneath these desks, blow off your dicks, roll a flaming Molotov cocktail your way so you can have a nice happy hour. It will burn your skin to a crisp, turn it into dust. I will have FUUUUUUNNNN!

            Allison, I tried. For one date I would have given you all I have. But you were “busy” with homework. I even believed it, until I saw you at the mall with Darrin. Are you still “too busy” now that you’re dead? What you were studying was not homework that I ever knew.            And as for you Tom, a great shot right to your head. Try and catch that one. All I wanted was your name on my photo in the yearbook so I could be sure you remembered my name.  No, too busy too, out on the field, muscles ripped, arm cocked, ready to throw, ready to go, while all the little chicks with their little skirts were watching and cheering every time you made a move.

            But then, what was I thinking? All this crap I tried because my shrink told me to do it. Nothing worked, so I quit him too. My parents never noticed, just kept paying the bills he sent. And I stopped the stupid meds too, they never did anything anyway. And nobody noticed that either. I thought of going over to his office and blowing him away before I did the school job. But the school was more important. Shrinks instead of parents is not a good recipe, it does not work. Father gone, 24/7, business this and business that. And mother, I saw your face when I would come towards you, you would back away, just a little, but enough so it made me stop in my tracks, and then you finished me off  by saying: ‘Honey, don’t be afraid to show your feelings.’ It reminded me of how much you did not want me in your life, how you had plans to kill me before I was even born, because you did not want to marry the guy that had knocked you up. You told me this many times. “ Its funny how you come to love your children,” you said with a smile. Tell me one more time mom, please. And then you always said: ‘But it all worked out.’  Really?  Maybe for you.  

            There is only one who loves me: Predator. Who else would take me on this trip, this great adventure, this power ride? Who would share this with me, glory, splattered all over the news. Predator, brother, we will set this fucking town on fire. And Sado-Maso High will be in ashes.

            Rachel texted me: “I was just on your website. You will never do it. Not in a million years. You just talk and molest little children.”

            So I go back: “u bitch watch this. U will be the 1st.”

            She goes: “ I told Allison she says you are a wannabe”

            I back at her: “2morrow 9 am. Be there.”

            She back: “I’ll watch them take your sorry ass down. You are sooo gay and a pedophile”

            I go: “Tomorrow’s special: bullets and blood. Don’t miss it. The party of the year. Predator and Radical’s Hell’s Bells.”

            I remember. Born to die.




            “Thank you, doctor, for making the time to talk to us to help us understand what happened here. We still do not know how many students and maybe even parents and teachers are dead, but it could be dozens. We are all struggling: Why would someone do this?”

           The reporter was trying to look grief stricken, but he constantly scanned the background to see if someone better would come into his field of vision to interview. The doctor began to wonder why he had agreed to this interview. The channel had (“for dramatic effect”) insisted on doing the interview on the site of the shooting. John Perceval had suggested the studio, but the producer had apparently nixed that. The reporter explained “We have an obligation to the public. We need breaking news.”

           On his way to the school he had gotten the call from the hospital’s public relations manager: ‘Hey, doc, you are the great match for this, given your background and research. This is the perfect chance to highlight your experience and give more exposure to your research results.’ The doctor hated the word “exposure” almost as much as the word “provider”. But a soft spot was also hit: psychiatry has an extremely bad track record of relating to the public. This could be yet another chance to set that straight.

           The reporter stuck the microphone in his face and looked expectant. “Are we dealing with a new syndrome here, doctor?  Is this a result of violent video games?” Every fiber in John Perceval strained against this sensationalistic simplification. He forced himself to remain composed.

           “No, this is nothing new, in the Darwinian sense. This is very old, is in all of us and can be misguided and misused at any moment. And it can be made extremely potent by adding firearms into the mix.”

           The reporter frowned. “How do you mean?” “Well, to be aggressive after being ignored, hurt and tortured is nothing new, nor inhuman. Aggression is part of our survival system, we need it like food and water. But being  a tool for survival, it needs to be shaped and honed in the process of growing up and child rearing.”

           He could feel how the reporter backed away from him and scanned the background more openly. This was not going well. Too many words, too much professorial teaching.

           “This young man has a long history of badly-treated psychiatric problems. If you look carefully at the profile of all the other perpetrators of similar crimes, you will find many familiar factors in this case: social isolation, absence of parental guidance and involvement, and bullying in a new school. There is an unhappy, unilateral romantic relationship, and desperate attempts to win other kids’ respect and attention by offering them drugs and weapons.”

           “I don’t want to oversimplify, but this sounds like an adolescence that many of us go through. What tipped the balance in this case in your opinion, Doctor?”

           “You are right, there are many factors here that are relevant for all of us growing up. But if you spend time on his website, there are some elements that are uncommon: his access to everything that money can buy, contrasted against a dearth of parental love, appreciation and involvement; his being repeatedly told he was an unwanted child.”

           “Yes, true, that is what he wrote about on his website. Let’s assume it’s true – But are we not just saying his psychiatric diagnosis is an excuse for what he did?  He also was in treatment, on medication?”

           “Yes, but looking deeper into his records as they are available to the school, he was not in treatment when he switched to Saint Matthews High. He had no psychotherapy sessions, he was just given medications and when he complained that he had trouble with concentration, school work, sleeping, eating, he was just simply switched to another medication or another one was added on. No family therapy, no communication with the school, nor were there requests from the school for more detailed guidance and expanded testing to help him with his academic problems. He stopped medications and instead started  taking street drugs (crystal meth it looks like, among many others like ecstasy), some of which can cause extreme emotional swings and precipitate violence. None of this was identified, treated, or monitored.”

           “This sounds important. But, still,  there must be many cases like this in any high school. What made his case so lethal?”

           “One of the most important factors in the mix that tips the balance into the highest risk category is the facile and unmonitored access to guns and ammunition. All of the factors I discussed, his mental health, his stresses and strains of being an adolescent are common, but each one loads the case with increasing risk in the direction of dramatic action. In the end though, what makes the situation lethal are the weapons, which give him the power of depersonalized, sanitized, almost video game-like killing. When you have this cauldron of  problems and you throw in firearms, everything crystallizes into this lethal  expression of disappointment, fury and revenge.”

           “Both parents were NRA members. So he must have been taught about gun safety.”

           “That means relatively little, as 30% of them still do not store and maintain arms and ammunition in ways recommended by the NRA. This young man had access to his father’s entire weapon collection and ammunition. What he essentially did was a glorified suicide, meant to take his tormentors with him. This a form of aggression which is emotionally “hot,” not well thought out and planned.”

           “So he was a psychopath.”

           “No, he was an isolated, desperate kid who saw no way into a life worth living. And he took the life of those who he saw had it better than him. And don’t forget how he started the attack, there is a message in that as well for all of us.”

           “You mean him dropping the money out of his car window, baiting people to come and then taking shots at them?”

           “Right. As if he was saying something like: This is what you get when you just throw money at misery: Death and destruction.”

           “So what is the solution, Doctor?”

           “What we need is a sophisticated mental health system which interacts effectively with primary care in medicine, families, and schools. Coordinated, integrated care, that is what we need.”

           “One more question, Doc: The police have hinted at the fact that this guy did not act alone. So far they have not found anyone yet who worked with him, but what is your guess?”

           “I have no idea. Given that he was so isolated it is hard to imagine that he found someone in the short time he was at school. But as you know from other school shootings, there is sometimes a leader and a follower. This boy was not a leader.”

           “Thank you, Doctor.” The reporter looked dissatisfied. He spotted a high-ranking police officer in the background, and quickly approached him. “Do we have breaking news?”

           “Our officers just found the parents of this shooter in their home in Atherton, killed execution style with one of his father’s weapons, a Pi38.”

           “Does that open up the possibility of a widespread net of perpetrators? Maybe even organized crime?”

            “The fingerprints on the weapon implicate the perpetrator of this school shooting, no one else. All we have right now is two more dead bodies, the parents of the perpetrator, and a weapon which fits the bullets we found here and in the parent’s house, with some fingerprints. That is it.”




           This is is boring. Sitting here is boring. Can’t turn on the light, that would tip them off. Not even the TV. Where the hell are they? The pigs won’t be looking here. Not yet. But they might. And by the time they come the two of them need to be wasted. Or maybe just him for sure, maybe not her.

           I have to keep my shit together . Nothing on the news yet about me, just hot air when I watched it a few minutes ago. They are all over Radical’s website. Never made any sense to me. Thank god he used our code names. Loser. Wants me to do the job with his parents, and then I have to arm wrestle him to get the Pi 38 from him. He goes on how he needed the Pi38 because it was his father’s special weapon, the one he used to teach him on the range. The lameass didn’t get it: how sweet to off the old man with his own favorite weapon. I had to be quick, but they both were in bed when we got there. Just put the gun in his mouth – snoring fat ass, and bam. His brains all over the wall. The old lady woke up next door. Looked kinda nice in her nightie. Despite her age. For a moment I thought I would fuck her and blow her head off when she comes. But Radical was getting antsy. So I blew her brains out – after I let her whimper a little bit, long enough to make her think she could live. She even took off her nightie, but then I got disgusted thinking of fucking a fifty year old and finished her off. Most importantly: We needed to finish the job at school. Radical started crying. WTF: make up your mind, man. Which way is it? Glory or not?

           Needed that to make it look as if he did it. I  was careful - no prints, no footsteps. Just his. They both were bleeding like pigs, so hada be careful. Left the pistol and lit two large candles. Showed some respect. More than they ever did.

           That mess will keep them busy for a while. Long enough so I can do mine in. With them though, I am gonna do it slow. Need some fun. Need them to know what’s up now. So here Mom is your chance – my witness – Virgil shot first. You heard it. It was self defense.

           No waffling. Or you go too. None of that shit that you always used to do. ‘Oh, Honey,  he means well, he just wants your best, he is so much better than your father.’ Really. Asshole. You dragged this piece of shit home. Whatta creep. Marine, my ass. You watched when he made a man out of me. Me in the closet, him walking up and down with his Smith & Wesson, clicking the barrel.

           ‘If you come out of this closet, Mr. Smith & Wesson will teach you what it means to obey.’ So I pissed on the floor. When he saw it run out he ripped the door open, grabbed me, threw me to the floor and kicked my face with his army boots. Then when I bled enough, eyes swollen shut he dragged me to the garage and worked me over some more with the baseball bat. ‘Get up, get up, you little shit, get up and stand like a man.’ She in the kitchen watching. ‘Virgil, honey, don’t hurt him.’

           She did all the crying for me. I just stared him down. Spat in his face. He knocked me out. When I came to, she blotted my face with a damp towel. ‘Honey, you should not have spat at him. He is a proud man, fought for our country, deserves respect! He wants you to be a man like him.’ I spat in her face. She wailed, then Virgil coward asshole came in and taught me some more lessons.

           And this every day, every goddamfucking day. But I’d rather burn in hell than cry. And after a while I got off on how mad he got when he could not beat it out of me. I knew my day would come. And when he threw me to the ground in the garage, and then pissed all over me, and shoved his weapon up my ass, I knew exactly what I’d do to him. Just little reminders, I kept them all in my head.

           Sometimes she said ‘Virgil, it’s enough, he’s bleeding from his mouth, no more, I’ll call the police.’ Then it was her turn, stupid cow. He worked her over then and there, smack across the face, and one in the gut. At least that stopped the wailing. Was getting on my nerves.

           Well, time to settle up. Time to let it fly. Time to give Virgil the lift he needs. Focus. I am ready. Once he is dead, make it look like he pistol whipped me, then when she comes……….. save one bullet. Just for her. Just hurt her. Just a reminder of what it’s like.

           Goddam Radical. I knew he was gonna wimp out, offing himself. Gun in his mouth and bam. Be good to have him here now. He didn’t even get that many. Some of these assholes at school are still walking and talking. Right there on the TV.

           I hear the door downstairs. They are here. Sweet.




            The guard at the metal detector looked bored and tense at the same time. “Everything out of your pockets” “Handkerchief?” “ Everything.”

After John Perceval finally got through the security point at the entrance of the prison, the guard called him back.” Do you have a cell phone on you?” “Yes, right here.” “That has to get locked up over there.” He went back out and looked for a quarter to put into the locker. He had none. What now? “There is  a cafeteria at the entrance. They will give you change.” “You would not happen to……” “If I gave all the people change that come through here I would not get anything else done.” Well, thanks anyway.  This man was like so many others he had encountered in prison: The power of absolute negation seemed to intoxicate them like a musky perfume, which wiped out any trace of human pragmatism.

            After the doctor finally making it through the security checkpoint, John Perceval sat down on the yellow plastic chairs, which, despite their sinuous molding, were extremely uncomfortable to sit in. Some of them were also covered with organic matter of different shading and dubious origin. The doctor had requested that the boy from Saint Matthews High be called up, and they sit in a private interview room so that the forensic exam would have semblance of a usual psychiatric session.  Knowing the system, the doctor anticipated that it would take a while to get the boy up and into the interview room. The doctor took out the paperwork the defense attorney had prepared for him. The questions to be answered were familiar: 1. Do you think the boy shot his stepfather? 2. Was this done with forethought and malice or in self-defense? 3. At the time he shot and killed the stepfather by putting the gun up his rectum, did he know the nature of his actions? 4. Did he know that his actions were illegal? 5. At the time of the shooting did he suffer from a psychiatric disorder which impaired his judgment or his impulse control? 6. Does he assume responsibility for his actions? 7. Does he have insight into his condition? 8. What treatment should the boy receive? 9. What is his prognosis? With and without treatment? 10. Do you have any other opinions which might be relevant to the case?

            Nature called. The doctor got up, making sure that the guard noticed his movement. The

doctor pointed to the bathroom. The guard buzzed the door to let him in, all the while talking on

the phone.

            The stench of urine immediately hit the doctor’s nostrils. In the middle of the room stood a completely naked black man of extremely slender build. He swayed back and forth, as he attempted to wipe his rear. A trail of excrement led to one of the cubicles whose door stood open. “Hey, man, can you give me a hand?” The doctor shuddered at the mere thought. The man’s clothes lay soiled in a corner of his cubicle. He took a step forward to help the man stabilize his posture, but then all the diseases in prison flashed through his mind: HIV, TB, Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Dysentery, giardiasis, herpes, and twenty more. The doctor retreated. “ Man I am sorry, I gotta go myself real bad.” As he unzipped his pants he noticed that the stench emanating from the man had made him nauseous to the point of throwing up. He rushed his pee, emptied a good portion into his pants and almost caught his penis in the zipper. The doctor felt the naked man come closer to his back which was defenseless as he peed, the stench got stronger still, but he managed to step sideways, just in time for the man to fall against the wall and slide down into the pissed-on floor surrounding all the urinals. This was his chance.  “ Hey, I’ll make sure they come and get you and give you a hand.” “ Oh fuck off,” the man mumbled as he closed his eyes.

            Outside, the doctor made sure the door was firmly closed behind him. He walked over to the guard, still on his phone, still staring at some screen. “Excuse me, but there is a gentleman in there, without clothes. He is asking for help. Can someone assist him?” “What is it?”  “He says he needs help.” John Perceval hoped the guard did not know that he was a doctor.

            He was glad to see the boy arrive in his orange jump suit, shackled up, both hands to both his feet, hobbling in short and insecure steps towards the interview room, a cubicle of security glass in the middle of the visitation hall. Two chairs and a metal desk with a hinge to chain the prisoner to. Walls soundproof and bare, but a camera and microphone in each of the four upper corners.

            The boy was of much smaller stature than he remembered from the pictures taken at the time of his arrest. But it was clearly him, his shock of straight black hair a bit longer than a few weeks ago, his pale blue eyes visible even from this distance. John Perceval walked up to the room.

             “Doc, do you want him out of his shackles?”

            “ Of course, he will need to have his hands free to be able to write.”

            “ You sure?” The guard looked at him with a look that said ‘Another one of those do- gooder fools.’

             The guard’s question had instilled some doubt in the doctor. At least he should have asked if the boy was calm and cooperative. Too late now, the hands were free. But John Perceval noticed with some relief that the legs were still chained to the table. The boy just stared at him.

            “Hi. I hope they have told you who I am and why I am here today. “

            “Yeah, my lawyer told me.”

            “Would you mind telling me what he said?”

            “ You are the shrink that’s gonna get me off.”

             “I see. Let me explain in more detail. I want to be sure there are no surprises here, for neither you nor me.” The boy’s face stayed frozen like a mask. The left side of his upper lip was a tiny bit pulled up. 

            “I am a psychiatrist, selected by your lawyer to help in your defense. Helping means I examine you and then report to your lawyer what I think is true. Have you ever been to a psychiatrist?”

            He snorted disdainfully. “Nah.”

            “I see. Well, ordinarily, when you go to see a doctor, whatever you say is confidential. In this situation, that is different. I have to report on what you say and what I think about that. It will become a public record, that the other lawyers and the prosecutor and all the people in the court room will hear about. It is only fair to tell you that, so that you are not disappointed or surprised when that happens.”

            “ Can I see what you will say beforehand?”

            “ That is up to your lawyer.”

            “ What if I disagree with what you say?”

            “ That is a discussion between you and your lawyer, who can decide not to use  my report.”

            “ So I can’t stop you?”

            “Only through your lawyer”

            “ That’s pretty fucked up.”

            “Well, you obviously can discuss this with your lawyer. And you might trust him to act in your best interest. He chose me for a reason.”

            “ I don’t trust nobody, man. Especially not a shrink.”

            “I can understand your thinking that, given what you have been through. But you might give this a chance.”

            The boy yanked on his chains and sat up straight. For a minute Dr. Perceval thought the boy might hit him.

             “Would you like to talk to your lawyer about this now?”

            The boy hissed and glowered at him. “I already did. Just do it, let’s get it over with.”

            “How are they treating you in here?”

            “What do you think? It’s a prison. Full of low lives that play with half a deck.”

            “Is the food ok?”

            “Shitty burgers almost every day.”

            “Are you able to keep your weight up?”

            “How should I know.”

The doctor persisted asking the usual warm up questions, remaining calm, respectful and interested. The responses remained hissing missiles. After one hour, no change in tone or content. To get to any honest account of the crimes in question seemed impossible. A guard entered without knocking.

            “Hey, Doc, he is up for chow. Can you take a break?”

            “Yes, of course.” It would give him time to think and plan. Call the lawyer? No reason to think the boy trusted him any more than a psychiatrist. The guard took the boy down to the mess hall. Then he returned.

            “The boy’s mother is downstairs and wants to talk to you.”

            “I see. I was not planning on seeing her…..”

            “Ok, I just tell her…..”

            “No, hang on.” Here was a possible opening. “Where can I talk to her?”

            “Down in the visitor’s area.” 

            “Is there an interview room?”

             “No, but there are chairs.”

            Well this is crazy, John Perceval thought, talking to this woman in a visiting hall, surrounded by other visitors, within earshot of all the guards. But perhaps better than nothing. They wound their way through the corridors and locked gates, back to where he had started from.

           The guard pointed at a woman who sat sideways to him. She wore a dark dress with little white flowers printed on it, covered by a white vest, open in the front. Around her neck, a thin necklace with a tiny hard-to-make-out stone. She had long hair, dyed black with grey roots.  Her face was a combination of wrinkles and saggy skin. She was overweight, her feet stuck in uncomfortably-worn high heels. Her makeup reached unevenly around her jaw, creating a strong contrast to her white-skinned, baggy neck. Both hands were folded in her lap, looking lumpy and thick-skinned, but there was an elaborate two-tone fingernail job on her ten digits. As he moved closer, the woman turned toward him. It was hard to make out her eyes behind her large glasses, but the doctor noted that her eye lids drooped, and there was an uneven application of eye liner on them. She looked worn, he thought, remembering that by her birthdate she was in her late thirties. She looked more like 50. She got up and came over immediately, with a limp, ignoring his out stretched hand.

            “You are the doctor.  Because of your talking to him, he now missed chow and has to eat cold food. They won’t heat it up for him. And the other day he said he had a real bad stomachache from eating cold food.”

             “I am sorry, I was unaware of that. I think he is in the mess hall now, he getting his food and I hope it is still warm.”           

            After he got his introductory sentences in, cutting through the monotonous drone of her voice, oozing in a colorless stream out of her downturned mouth, he suggested moving over to a corner of the hall, out of earshot of the other visitors. Keeping his voice low, he began asking some questions about the events, which she answered in her monotonous drone at full volume, almost as if she wanted everybody in the hall to bear witness to her trials and tribulations. Her poor judgment made his questions shallow and not useful. 

            “ I am so sorry we do not have a more private setting, I asked for one, but there seems to be no room for us. Maybe if we keep our voices down, other people won’t hear?”

             “ I have nothing to hide. My boy is innocent, you will see. He shot his dad in self defense, and I was hit by one of them strays, he wasn’t aiming at me. I will get him out of this mess, that is my job, and no lawyers and no doctors are gonna stop me.”

            Her resolve rang thin. After about twenty minutes he realized that he would not get very far. Neither the woman nor the setting allowed for getting useful information. He thought ‘How sad. She thinks I am the enemy, along with his lawyer. All to show that she is the kind of mother that she has not been.’

            “I have one last request: Could you please encourage the boy to speak with me, I probably can help him help himself.”

The mother looked disgusted. “He is a stubborn mule. Very strong willed, impossible sometimes. But he has never needed no help, especially not from a psychiatrist, he is not crazy.”

            The guard came back. “ He is done with chow. Want him back in the room?”

            The mother did not even look at the doctor as he thanked her for talking to him. Resuming his interview with the boy, John Perceval mentioned the meeting with mother. “She was very concerned that you get warm food, otherwise you’d get a stomachache.” 

            Chow had not improved the boy’s mood. He hissed the way he had before. “ What’d I tell ya, she is not the brightest light out there.”

            “But it sounds like she will testify on your behalf and say you shot your step-father in self defense, and she was hit by a stray bullet.”

            The boy’s face closed again, his eyes turning to slits. “Well that’s the way it was, she ain’t lying. Sometimes she comes through for me.”

            John Perceval felt the bottomless rage in the boy’s icy voice.  Was there any twinge of compassion for his mother? She had lost a husband, and was in danger of losing a son. Was there any way to get through this rage? Or would hell have to freeze over?

            “In a few days, you will be in court. I am not sure what your lawyer has in mind, we are working on that. But let’s assume they will call you up onto the stand, and ask you what your punishment should be? What would you say?”

            “Punishment for what?”

            “You shot and killed a man, the husband of your mother.”

            The boy lunged forward. “Why does everyone always keep talking about that? What about what he did to me? And she, the stupid cow, let it go on and on and on.What about me?” He slumped back. For a moment John Perceval thought the boy might start crying. He did not. He just yanked his shackles so the table shook.

            “I understand. But I am asking you to slip into your mom’s mind. She has lost a husband, she is in danger of losing you…..”

            The boy turned bright red in rage. “Mr. Marine beat the crap outta her and me. So good riddance. That’s what I’ll say!”

            “ I hope you won’t say just that. Say something about how you could be helped.”

            “Leave us alone. We can take care of ourselves. Always have. ”



            The defense rested. Now it was in the hands of the jury. It took less than 4 hours to hand down the verdict.

            When he had testified on the stand, John Perceval had looked over the members of the jury, one by one. More women than men, all ages. All ethnicities. All except one showed no signs of following his discussion of the case. As he explained that the type of abuse suffered at the hands of the stepfather would leave indelible traces on the brain, leading to rapid fire emotions, quickly spreading into parts of the brain which housed extreme defensive responses, such as hotly-charged aggression, especially when overwhelmed by threat, he saw many of the eyes of the jurors glaze over. In the cross-examination, the prosecutor, a stout woman with a very aggressive manner, who had obviously studied his scientific writings, pressed him on the issue.

            “ But Doctor, how can you be so sure that this is what happened here? Yes, the defendant and his mother certainly portray it that way, but by your own admission, there are several details of the case that don’t quite fit – his resting heart rate being low, his callous-unemotional score being high, what do you make of that?”

            “ You are correct, he replied, “this is more indicative of the emotionally-cold aggression, the planned instrumental type found in all of us.”

            “ Yes Doctor, but in some people it takes over, is it not true? Let me remind you that you reported on this yourself, repeatedly.”

            She was of course right. He had found fewer indicators of hot, emotional aggression in this boy, and many more of cold, calculating aggression. His moniker of “Predator” was well-chosen. The doctor was bothered, but in the balance, he still believed that this boy had acted in hot, not cold blood. He should at least get ‘irresistible impulse’ in his defense.

            “ And,” the prosecutor continued, “by your own reports, it is much less clear that this form of aggression can be treated successfully, so would it not be much more prudent to keep this perpetrator behind lock and key, keep society safe from him and his cold rage, his lust for revenge? And I also want to remind the jury that the defense has failed to show that this boy was not involved in the shooting at Saint Mathew’s High School. He was after all, the best and maybe only friend of the first shooter, who called him “ brother” on his website. The accused’s whereabouts on that morning are unaccounted for. By his own report, and his mother’s testimony, he was sick at home, but alone. When his parents returned to the home, they found it ransacked like after a burglary, and when the step-father,  an upstanding citizen and Marine, someone who put his life on the line for God and Country, went upstairs to investigate, the shooting occurred in which stepfather was killed and the mother was injured. Now, mother says the shots came from stepdad’s gun, pistol whipping the boy, then she was hit by a stray bullet by her husband. But could this not be a trap, the act of a cold, calculating mind, a monster, seething with rage, who was going to take the law into his own hands and settle the account once and for all? A cold, calculating, callous mind who will not hesitate to do this again if you cross him in any way ?”

            The woman made him angry. His anger at her lack of compassion and empathy for this boy made his answers dry up and become very short and ineffective. The jury looked at the prosecutor with fear and disgust, but that seemed directed at the accused, not her tirade. He was not sure that his explanations of hot and cold aggression, his argument of weapons crystallizing multiple risks to disaster were heard.

            The boy’s lawyer had asked him to return for the verdict, as he was uncertain what the verdict would be and he thought it might be helpful to help the boy and his mother deal with what was going to happen.  One by one, the jury filed in. He could not read their faces. The judge asked the foreman if they had reached a verdict. The angry white man rose and confirmed they had. Not guilty of murder in the first degree. Guilty of manslaughter. Not guilty in conspiracy of the school shooting.

            The boy clenched his fist. He then turned to his mother, looking behind him, and mouthed “ I love you,” whereupon she started to cry. As they led him out of the court room, he turned his head into the doctor’s direction. “Thanks, asshole.” But John Perceval was not sure that that is what he in fact said.



            “The only thing that is going to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

            ‘What an idiot’, John Perceval thought. The President of the National Rifle Association,  on the radio, commenting on the rash of recent school shootings in the US, ignoring the facts,  as usual. What was this American obsession with guns that people were willing to sacrifice reason and hundreds of lives each year to a mindless re-interpretation of the First Amendment? Only someone in the powerful grip of an ideology could overlook the fact that the US had the highest rates of gun-related deaths and school shootings anywhere on the globe. How many times did this point have to be made? How did airheads like this NRA guy get airtime?

            John Perceval took a deep breath. Where did his own righteous posturing come from in this case? Was his own disgust perhaps rooted in some doubts, was he arguing so vociferously with NRA straw men because he was not entirely satisfied with how this case had gone? He could not completely disagree with the prosecutor, as annoying and hardened as she seemed? She had lost the case anyway, well mostly. The boy was tried as a juvenile, he received the maximum sentence in a juvenile facility in the state, 7 years, after which he would be released, his record expunged, making it possible for him to start an entirely new life. While the juvenile facility he was being sent to was equipped to handle – at least in principle – his trauma-related psychopathology, John Perceval had little confidence that they would be able to follow his recommendations.

What still upset him was that he was unable to elicit the core symptoms of psychiatric trauma in this boy. He had attributed this to the setting, which made a really good interview impossible. Thinking back, he had a strange fantasy: this young man was sitting in an ice cave, deeply buried among freezing stalactites. As one approached him, the chill became overwhelming. As he extended his hand into the cave toward the youth, a stalactite broke off and sliced his arm right off. Yes, there were those low pulse rates, at rest and after challenge.

            As he did often after a long case like this, he went to walk on the beach. He needed time to get the disturbing images and thoughts out of his head. All along during the case he had intense nightmares. One night, he woke , drenched in sweat - the stepfather had appeared and threatened to make the doctor pay for coming to the boy’s defense.

            Pescadero Beach was almost deserted. Up at the north end there was a man and a dog, barely visible, thankfully heading away from him. Soon they would disappear. Out at sea, some very dark clouds obscured the horizon. The waves were powerful, crashing into the sand and gurgling back over the mollusk-encrusted rocks, covered with sharp ridges and algae which was barely clinging on. The smell of iodine and decaying organic matter was pungent. The sea was grey and white. The foam rising from the crashing waves sprayed moisture on his skin, warning him that he was too close. He could get knocked into the ice cold water, carried off by the ever-present rip tides toward the open sea, into a deep wet grave.

            John Perceval backed off and walked south, towards the Pigeon Point Light House. This case had been a struggle, more than many others. It made a difference if he was wrong. Predator - was he even capable of owning up to his role? Let alone develop insight into why he did what he did? Was not every ounce of empathy and capability for human kindness beaten out of him? Could he ever trust another human being, an authority figure? He would need to do that, if there was any hope for him. Only in the context of a long-term relationship could he start exploring what had happened and develop insight. No medication could ever by itself fix the damage that had been done to him. And then there were all the institutional obstacles: the dehumanizing experiences at the hand of guards and other kids in the system, the lack of what was needed to help him, the grim reality of a mother who almost never was able to deliver what was needed, except when it reinforced his sense of entitlement.

            At age 25, this young man would be released into his community, with bad follow-up by a parole agent with 400 cases, most of them worse off than him. Maybe he would graduate from high school, maybe even go to community college. The ultimate test: would John Perceval allow this boy to date his daughter? -  It did not take long for him to answer.

            As he turned the corner toward Pigeon Point, the sea’s roar had gotten more silent. But fog was moving in. He looked in the direction of the lighthouse. In the fog, there was a faint golden glow, repeating itself in the rhythm of the turning light.

            It was getting late. Time to go home.