James Holmes and Us

It’s hard to look at the footage of the bug-eyed, neon-orange-haired James Holmes sitting in court yesterday and not wonder how a life can go so wrong. I can’t look at him and not think about my brother. My brother never hurt anyone. He was a gentle giant of a man who loved listening to music and painting and talking about philosophy over dinner. But he also had bipolar disorder, and when his mood went dark, the person I loved disappeared, replaced by someone I didn’t recognize.

People rightly want to know what Holmes’s parents knew or tried to do to intervene as their son lost control of his life. If they’re like most parents with a mentally ill adult son or daughter, I imagine they had few options. Getting help for a grown family member with severe mental illness — even with garden-variety depression — can be a complex series of small steps forward and many more back. In my brother’s case, his inability to stay on his medication — and our family’s helplessness after years of his being in and out of institutions that never really helped — ultimately led to his suicide.

Then again, Holmes may have snapped without warning, never giving his family any sign of impending danger. We don’t yet know. What we do know is that no parent envisions his or her child growing up to be a mass murderer, a “monster” as some have called him. But for those of us who’ve wrestled with mental illness up close, with our own resignation in the face of its intractability, it’s not hard to feel a queasy recognition when we see Holmes in that courtroom. Which is why I don’t judge his parents. Staring into his vacant eyes, I can’t help but wonder if his family could have been my own.