How Shame Becomes a Lethal Weapon for Mass Killers

In 2011, soon after marrying his first wife, Devin Kelley began beating her. He would kick and choke her, and then turn on her infant son. Once he struck the baby so hard he fractured the boy’s skull. Miraculously, his wife got herself and her son out of the relationship alive. In 2016, Kelley walked into a San Antonio sporting goods store and bought a variant of an AR-15, also referred to by the NRA as “America’s rifle.” The popular weapon can carry magazines that hold up to 100 rounds and has been used in several previous mass shootings. Kelley was proud of his purchase, posting a picture of it on Facebook. He must have thanked the powers that be when a background check failed to block him from buying the rifle. (He'd pleaded guilty and was convicted by the Air Force for beating his former wife and stepson, but the military had neglected to report the charge to the federal background system.) Earlier this month, on November 5, Kelley carried his AR-15 into a church near his home in Sutherland Springs, Texas, unleashing his rage and anger on the congregation. He slaughtered 26 people, including 10 children.


I wish I could say Devin Kelley is an anomaly, but neither his violence at home nor the mass murder he committed is rare. Every 16 hours a woman is shot and killed by a current or former partner. Meanwhile, on average, there is nearly one mass shooting a day in the United States. These events are not anomalies; they happen every day.

Over the past decade, the FBI has been studying what makes people commit mass murder. The agency came up with such theories as the copycat effect (exacerbated by social media), violent video games and mental illness. What wasn't addressed was the growing research indicating exactly how violence is rooted in the traditional male identity, where male shaming turns into rage. This is not to say women are not violent; only that 98 percent of the time, mass shooters are male.

The traditional markers of masculinity require men to be virile and dominant over women. By holding on to such definitions of self, the male identity is prone to crumble when a man is rejected by the opposite sex. This is why sexual assault is about power, not sex. This is also why up to 75 percent of domestic femicide occurs when the woman is trying to leave her abuser. In order to preserve their sense of control and power, the men in these cases would rather kill a woman than allow her to leave. News outlets are finally covering the link between domestic violence and mass shootings, citing a report by Everytown for Gun Safety, which found that "domestic violence is a driving force in mass shootings." Clearly, the violence abusive men display at home to affirm their traditional roles is being mirrored on the public stage in mass shootings.

While the conversation around mass shootings may be shifting from it being a mental health problem to a gun control problem, we are overlooking the deep-rooted conditions that cause such rages in the first place. Here’s the thing we need to wrap our heads around: gendered roles impose divisions in the psyche, which fractures our human experience. In men, this can be lethal.

We all know men and women are biologically different. Women grow babies in their bodies. For the most part, women are biologically wired to nurture. This doesn’t mean men can’t create nurturing homes or that women can’t be aggressive. Far from it; all humans experience emotions of rage, compassion, longing, fear, joy, sadness, loneliness, and heartbreak. The socialization of gendered roles, however, erodes the full expression of our humanity. Women who show aggression can be judged as not being “feminine.” Tenderness in a man is viewed as not being “masculine.” The expression of our humanness is vital to being whole and integrated, and yet from birth we are taught what is and is not acceptable based on our sex.

In order to conform to our gendered roles, we sublimate or deny experiences and feelings, which results in varying degrees of shame. Shame often lurks in the background, leading to feelings in our daily lives of not being good enough, smart enough, rich enough, or productive enough. But a high level of shame can result in acts of violence, either toward others or ourselves.  

Psychologist James Gilligan spent 35 years studying incarcerated murderers. He discovered that the common motivation these men had for committing murder was to preserve their traditional masculine roles. Gilligan identified how these men had felt disempowered and used murder to assert their sense of control. Some of the murderers said they killed for honor or recognition, or to settle a grievance, but it invariably boiled down to the need to “eliminate the feeling of shame... and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.” Gilligan explains that shame caused violence in these men because at the root of shame is a desire to be loved and validated, but seeking love or care from others flies in the face of their socialized roles—their need to be self-reliant as opposed to being passive and dependent.

Shame researcher Brené Brown points to evidence revealing the role of shame in mental health and public health issues including “depression, addiction, eating disorders, bullying, suicide, family violence and sexual assault.” The research shows that silence prohibits shame from being acknowledged, and yet “naming” shame is exactly what transforms it from creating feelings of oppression and isolation to their opposites: power and connection. In other words, shame’s survival depends on it going undetected.

We are witnessing what happens when shame is unveiled through the #MeToo campaign as women (and now men) share their stories of sexual assault. As their feelings and experiences are acknowledged and shared, not only are these survivors empowered, they are connected to others who have gone through what ends up being a near-universal experience. By no small degree, society at large has benefited from an intensified scrutiny of predatory behavior.

The problem is that before one can speak about shame, its existence must be recognized. Most of us are so conditioned to hide our vulnerability that we are actually convinced of our invulnerability. We wake up every day and pull on our armor. We check our social media feeds or pass a newsstand, and we are confronted with hunger, war, corruption, genocide, disease, and our suffering planet. All of these horrors are real, but our armor protects us, so we identify with that armor. It is not just something we wear, it becomes part of who we think we are. We are strong! Shame? What's that? Isn’t that something a kid feels when he gets caught shoplifting? Doesn’t shame have something to do with cowardice?

Brown defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It is the core feeling of not being good enough. We either can’t identify with it beneath all our armor, or we identify with it so well it consumes us with self-hatred—a direct result of our inability to be true to ourselves. To distract ourselves, we fall into addictions to substances, people, social media, sex, but this only creates an upsurge of shame.

Men and women process toxic emotions like shame differently. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that far more women suffer from autoimmune diseases than men, conditions in which the body actually attacks itself. Women tend to internalize suffering, specifically shame, taking it out on themselves. Men externalize shame through violence. As long as men measure themselves by the limited definition of their gendered roles, they will continue to rage and act out. Eventually, more violence is needed to expel the unnamed shame. Add easy access to firearms, and you’ve got the daily carnage we are beginning to normalize.

What would it look like if men and women could express the feelings behind shame, this insidious precursor to violence, without putting our very personhood in jeopardy? Without being judged as unwomanly or unmanly? This would require an entire paradigm shift from the current power pyramid we call patriarchy. Women have begun the process in the #MeToo movement by naming their shame, but the social structures of inequality are still in place.

Until we balance the scales—and we must balance them if we are to survive as a species—we must work together to voice shame wherever it exists. The reality is our lives are made up of experiences and feelings, some of which make us feel vulnerable. This vulnerability is simply an innate longing to be loved and accepted. It is something to be celebrated, not silenced. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, according to Brené Brown, counteracts shame. Revealing our fear and pain creates connection with others, and this takes great courage. We have witnessed how such courage dismantles the culture of silence around sexual assault. Moving forward, let us heed this example to expose and disarm shame before it can be used as a weapon against us.

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