This Salon essay was written by Chris Schumerth, whose brother Shane killed the headmaster at the Florida high school where he had just been fired as a Spanish teacher, and then turned the gun on himself, back in the Spring of 2012. The writer describes what Shane was like growing up, and how he and the rest of the family were increasingly puzzled by Shane’s behavior in recent years. Part of what makes the story so captivating is how mundane it all sounds. Social awkwardness, difficulty talking to women, friction with members of his family. Many of the warning signs were so trivial, they were easy to dismiss. But very slowly, in incremental steps, he went from a sweet, shy and sensitive kid to a deranged killer.

In an effort to find an explanation for what happened to his brother, Schumerth explores Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow. The shadow is the dark and unloved side of all of us, that wishes to remain unknown. All the qualities we’re ashamed of, or deny, or repress, because we can’t bear to think that we have them. They all get shoved out of the way, into our unconscious. The shadow is partly personal material and partly collective material, meaning it comes from all of us. Civilizations have a shadow, too, and America’s shadow is loooooooooong.

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.”

So applying Jung’s theory on shadow material in the unconscious, one might say that Shane Schumerth’s personal shadow material might have been triggered by a surge of collective shadow material from the society he lived in. He had strong political and religious beliefs. He also had access to an AK-47 and a hundred rounds of ammunition.

On the one hand, this view of mental illness is terrifying. It says that “falling into the volcano” is possible for any one of us. But part of why it appeals to me is that it doesn’t say that mentally ill people are wrong and sane people are right. It doesn’t separate “us” from “them.” It says we all have a dark side. The best we can hope for is to acknowledge the shadow inside us and bring it to the surface in healthy ways.

My Brother’s Unspeakable Crime