As the smoke clears after the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado on July 20th, a familiar and disturbing picture of the alleged shooter has emerged. Like his large scale predecessors in Littleton, Colorado and at Virginia Tech, this shooter evinces classic signs of preject syndrome: a surprising public demonstration of violence; disconnection from parents; emotionally insulated and isolated; a generally negative view of the world; and a well concealed but gnawing sense of personal failure and the low self-esteem that goes with it.
A preject is a person who feels rejected and disconnected from one or both parents, and as a results lives with a cracked, broken, or shattered soul. The key word here is feel, for those feelings can arise despite a parent’s best efforts to communicate love and support to a child. In extreme cases broken or shattered prejects can become ticking time bombs who eventually visit catastrophic destruction on themselves and, often, those around them.
It is estimated that by the time they reach age 21 as many as 100 million Americans will have felt rejection from a parent to some degree and as a result developed preject syndrome, which has been shown by research to adversely affect performance in school and lead to unfavorable outcomes in every major area of life. The clinical components of preject syndrome include hostility, dependency, low self-esteem, emotional instability, emotional unresponsiveness, and a negative worldview. People afflicted by this syndrome will typically manifest several of the components while others may be less noticeable to the untrained eye.
Because there is currently little public awareness of the existence of prejects, and virtually no educational infrastructure in place to identify them, this problem, as Tom Mauser, a parent of one of the Columbine victims predicts, will continue to take us by surprise. “I think that there’s a real serious problem in this country with disaffected youth, disturbed students,” he told The Early Show’s co-anchor, Russ Mitchell, back in 2007 during an interview about the Virginia Tech mass shooting that claimed 32 lives. “I don’t think we’re doing enough to address it. Unfortunately, I think it’s probably going to happen again.”
It’s said that Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, didn’t have a good relationship with his mother and that they hardly ever spoke. Classic signs of parental rejection. “We have to find something we can do about people like this,” Mauser said.
In response to the Columbine shooting, the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) convened a symposium in July 1999 and presented a systematic procedure for threat assessment and intervention. One intervention recommended to be taken in schools to strengthen their threat response program included: “Develop programs to help parents recognize when their child may be in emotional trouble or socially isolated or rejected, and help parents become more knowledgeable about where to get help and more willing to seek it.”
There have been more than 100 major school shootings in the United States since Columbine, and a Secret Service study and report on the phenomenon reveals that more than half of the shooters were likely prejects. If there was ever a generation that needed to invest in the emotional education of parents and their children before they become unreachable, and consequently a real danger to themselves and their school communities, it’s this one.