Beyond the obvious racial double standard (brown shooters are terrorists; white shooters are troubled anomalies), the concept of the misunderstood, homicidal outcast is a gateway to excusing abusive behavior at large.
In an article published last Saturday titled “Suspect Lived Off the Grid but Left Trail of Disputes,” three New York Times writers opened with a characterization of Robert L. Dear, the man who opened fire at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood center Thanksgiving weekend, as a “gentle loner.” After enough social media backlash, the Times removed this phrasing and reworked the entire piece.
I try to choose my battles—especially those in the wide, wide world of Internet outrage—very carefully. There are far too many recent instances of Twitter firestorms brought on by either sheer laziness to do a little research or willful ignorance to ignore context. The description of Dear’s demeanor came from Colorado Springs locals, not the writers or the publication itself; though from a journalistic perspective, “gentle loner” and similar sentiments would have worked better as direct quotes to avoid confusion.
After yet another addition to the list of lone wolf shooters, Robert Dear and his ilk are worth exploring, as is the language we use to describe them. Beyond the obvious racial double standard (brown shooters are terrorists; white shooters are troubled anomalies), the concept of the misunderstood, homicidal outcast is a gateway to excusing abusive behavior at large.
Here are some harsher—but more necessary—facts about Robert Dear:
1. He often lived alone, in remote dwellings, surrounded by guns.
Times readers strongly objected not only to the phrasing used to describe Dear, but to its placement. The initial publication referred to Dear as “gentle” in the opening line before exposing his violent temper later in the piece.
The opening of the reworked version paints a pastoral picture of Dear’s home: “On this lonely, snow-covered patch of land in a hamlet ringed by the Rocky Mountains, his home was a white trailer, with a forest-green four-wheeler by the front door and a modest black cross painted on one end.” Of course, this is written to build suspense so that when the wallop of contrast comes, the reader is shocked: “He seemed like such a nice, simple man!” No one is surprised to hear that an Islamic extremist killed innocent people in Paris, because this fits the narrative we know by heart. But when an antisocial white man goes on a violent rampage, we have to give him a backstory, humanize him with a scene straight off of a Thomas Kinkade Christmas card.
Thanks to Ted Kaczynski’s infamous Montana cabin, we know that the pastoral life can be anything but quaint. An obsession with guns and ammunition, a deeply paranoid mistrust of others, and a preference “to be left alone” are all potential warning signs of a brewing storm, as I discovered in my own sleepy hometown neighborhood earlier this year.
2. He is a repeated perpetrator of domestic violence.
The Post and Courier, a daily newspaper in Robert Dear’s home of Charleston, South Carolina, recently reported that Dear was charged with rape in 1992. Police reports show that Dear made several unwanted advances toward a female employee at the Citadel Mall, then began calling her multiple times a day. On November 29, Dear ambushed the woman at her home, held a knife to her throat, and raped her.
Dear’s ex-wives recount similar violent experiences. After filing for divorce in 1993, Barbara Mescher recalled living “in fear and dread of his emotional and physical abuse,” noting that Dear frequently “erupts into fury in a matter of seconds.”
His next wife contacted the police in 1997 after Dear “locked her out of her home and pushed her out of a window when she tried to climb back in.” Despite these accusations, Pamela Ross described her ex-husband as “the kind who usually followed a flash of anger with apology.”
Serial killers and mass murderers often start with smaller, contained acts of violence like those inflicted on animals before moving on to more widespread and public targets. Acts of domestic violence in particular commonly increase in severity over time. But Pamela Ross’s statement attempts to neutralize these realities, pointing to a “nice side” that spins Dear’s anger as more relatable and perhaps forgivable. The truth is that if abusers were nasty all the time, they wouldn’t be able to exercise control over their victims. Flattery, gifts, and apologies are the temporary high points that perpetuate the cycle.
3. He is into sadomasochism.
Plenty of adults enjoy sadomasochistic fetishes in a respectful, consensual manner. But when not safely practiced, sexual sadism often goes hand in hand with enacted violence. Those who desire to control, harm, or humiliate others find a morbid appeal in many S&M scenarios, particularly footage involving rough sex or rape fantasy. John Wayne Gacy famously tortured and murdered young boys after sleeping with them, while Ted Bundy, who disclosed in the documentary Natural Porn Killer that sadistic porn drove his desires, frequented college campuses for the girls he would later rape and kill. Robert Dear reportedly sought out women for “bondage and sadomasochistic sex” through an online profile, and was arrested in 2002 after trying to peer into a neighboring woman’s house.
James Franco’s 2013 documentary Kink and Clarisse Thorn’s collection The S&M Feminist are both excellent resources on what constitutes responsible S&M, exploring everything from safeword usage to the “aftercare” element of painful or emotionally taxing BDSM scenes. At its core, S&M is about cultivating an environment of trust and understanding the distinction between real life and play. Though Robert Dear could have been looking for nothing more than casual fun with a partner, his voyeurism and long history of abuse indicate that he is incapable of respecting boundaries.
It’s important to remember that perpetrators of violence, especially violence against women, aren’t always dark monsters in the ally. They are our quiet neighbors; they are our friends or spouses; they are human. Bearing this in mind helps us recognize Ted Bundy, Elliot Rodger, and now Robert Dear as part of an entitlement culture that sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, excuses their thoughts and actions. On the other hand, granting them too much humanity with depictions like “gentle loner” softens the reality of violence and sustains dangerous myths about abusers.
Too many victims, like Pamela Ross, convince themselves that the good moments outshine the bad. It’s up to us to recognize warning signs for what they are.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.