The Truth is Ugly

By

February 11, 2008: Steven Kazmierczak putters around the apartment he shares with his sometime girlfriend, makes his bed, probably eats something, and saws the barrel off the Remington 12-gauge shotgun that he purchased a couple weeks ago. Eventually, he gathers his things and is out the door sometime in the afternoon. Jessica—his roommate, his confidant, the one who knows him best—left for work mid-morning, so there is no goodbye, no ceremony just then. He cruises through the three-hour drive from Champaign—where he is a graduate student in the School of Social Work—to DeKalb, home of Northern Illinois University, his alma mater. Dropping cash on the counter, he checks into a drab room at a local Travelodge, and holes up. He smokes a lot, apparently, Newports, and will leave the room littered with emptied cans of Red Bull.

These are the details writer David Vann has dredged up for us.

Two days later, Feb. 13, 2008: Kazmierczak has Amazon’d for Jessica Baty—the sometime girlfriend—a platinum 6mm ArtCarved Montclair ring, having called her earlier to ask what finger a woman wears her wedding ring on, and to get her size, having told her to expect a package from him, but that she “can’t open it until Valentine’s Day or it won’t make any sense.” They’re living together then, but only as roommates, their relationship having been strained for a while. Still, there’s love there, and she thinks maybe this is it. Vann reports, “Jessica thinks he’s going to propose.” She talks to Steven on the phone just before midnight. He promises he’ll see her tomorrow. “Goodbye, Jessica,” he says. And that’s that.

February 14, Valentine’s Day: Kazmierczak sits on the edge of his Travelodge bed, the shotgun across his lap. Laid out beside him: a Glock 9mm, a Sig Sauer .380, a Hi-Point .380. Inspired partly by Seung-Hui Cho—the South Korean national who emigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was eight, who, at age 23, chained the doors of Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall and during a period of 10-12 minutes shot 47 people, killing 30, shooting several of them four or five times, shooting 28 of them in the head—Kazmierczak’s goal is to go out with a bang. Just after 3 p.m. he enters Northern Illinois University’s Cole Hall. An oceanography class is in session. He shoots up the auditorium. Six rounds from the shotgun. 47 from the Glock. Kills five. Wounds 17. Then commits suicide.

In light of this history that Vann has uncovered, in light of more recent tragedies, the questions remain, as then, the same: How did this happen? What might we learn from this?

*

Six months after Steven Kazmierczak killed five at NIU, Esquire published David Vann’s “Portrait of the School Shooter as a Young Man,” the result of months of investigation, and parsing of the 1,500-page police report, which was made available to Vann via the magazine, their scoop over the rest of the media. It was this detailed report, and Vann’s own on-the-ground interviews in DeKalb and Champaign, that first suggested an answer to the question everyone was asking after the shooting. Why did this respectable, revered young man suddenly snap? He was known to be bright and earnest, and had dedicated his professional life to criminal justice and social work. The day after the shooting Steven’s former mentor at NIU, Jim Thomas, declared, “It’s nuts, nuts, totally nuts. He was the most gentle, even guy.”

How did this happen?

Following up the article with a book, Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, Vann ventures deep down the rabbit hole in pursuit of the truth about Kazmierczak, and the truth he drags out is ugly.

*

“After my father’s suicide, I inherited all his guns.” Vann begins Last Day on Earth—his book-length profile of Steven Kazmierczak—with his own childhood. He was thirteen, his estranged father had just shot himself, and he had taken to escaping into the suburban night where he blasted out streetlights with his inherited .300 magnum rifle, a big-game rifle, a fine sniping rifle. “The world had been emptied,” Vann writes, “but this gun had a presence still, an undeniable power.” He shot out streetlights, but also sighted in on neighbors, men lounged in recliners, in their TV-lit living rooms two or three football fields away. With the safety off, his finger poised over the trigger. He recalls “a man with the curtains open, the crosshairs on his chest, a shell in the chamber, the scope powerful enough that I could see him swirl the drink in his hand.” He admits, “I imagined many things, even shooting my classmates at school. I lived a double life. A straight-A student who would become valedictorian. In student government, band, sports, etc. No one would have guessed.”

bulletsWe are drawn, many of us, to gazing with brows furrowed at portraits of killers—hoping to understand, to condemn, staring out of morbid curiosity, I don’t know—and so Kazmierczak’s downward spiral is enough to bring us to this book, to Last Day on Earth. But here, as we are sufficiently disturbed and that particular fascination wears thin, Vann’s own narrative, woven throughout, continues to propel us forward. There is such an allure to this suggested symmetry. We are driven into Vann’s investigation of Steven Kazmierczak by this proposed parallel, by the question of why some succumb to such grandiose violence, and others simply don’t. We are drawn by the promise of an answer.

*

In the months leading up to the February 2008 NIU shooting there were signs that Steven Kazmierczak might snap and do something drastic. There were warning signs, perhaps, though no one recognized them as such.

Steven had a thing for guns, went to shooting ranges, went with his roommate Jessica to a shooting range while they were on vacation. He went to a Marilyn Manson concert and later raved about the neo-Nazis holding up Third Reich flags. He spent days wrapped up in hyper-violent videogames like Call of Duty, Crysis, and Halo, and joked in emails about wanting to rule the world, traded racist jokes, joked about wanting to kill people. He pursued a number of weird relationships with women met via the personals on Craigslist, some of them prostitutes. Vann points out that two of Steven’s email addresses featured “Glock” in the handle, and across his forearm was a tattoo of the character Jigsaw from the Saw movies, riding a tricycle through a pool of inked blood flowing from scars drawn across his arm. Saw ethics were a favorite conversation piece, and it seems clear enough that Kazmierczak viewed the psycho killer as a sort of Baconian hero, out to realign society’s spinning moral compass, albeit by brutally murdering lots of people. And of course Steven had a documented history of mental illness, and was on again, off again with his meds.

Somehow, none of this triggered any warning for those around him, for those who knew him best.

He and Jessica Baty lived together, and she was his confidant. He had told her about his mental health history, about having been institutionalized for a year. She was privy to a side of him no one else knew existed. So it’s either understandable she wouldn’t have seen the NIU shooting coming, or it’s not understandable at all.

Vann talks to a friend of Steven’s, whom he calls Mark. Mark describes one of Steven’s favorite t-shirts, a shirt “that had a picture of a rifleman—it was the whole JFK thing, right?—and it said ‘I love a parade,’ something like that.” Mark thought it was a great shirt, super funny. Mark called Steven on that Valentine’s Day in 2008, called him that afternoon after hearing about the shooting. He didn’t yet know Steven was involved. “I’ve been shot!” he said in the message he left. Then an ordinary, “Give me a call back.” Such was their sense of humor.

video game gunsThe locus of their friendship was a mutual love of first-person shooter videogames, and Vann observes that playing violent games many not make a person more likely to commit mass murder, but perhaps those who enjoy this participatory gore to such an extent as Steven are already pathologically prone to violence.

Like so many echoes, all of this resonates with Vann. “That’s one problem with the concept of ‘warning signs,’” he writes. “What if all a mass murderer’s closest friends are a little bit crazy too?” There is no doubt Steven was mentally ill. Vann suggests those who were around him are as well, are just as crazy, if lacking the je ne sais quoi that might push them over a similar edge.

An infinite number of alternative endings may have existed for Steven Kazmierczak, but the potential for this one, the potential for this particular violent leaving, was always present it seems, a seed in his core, invisible from the outside, needing only the right conditions to set it growing.

Adam Lanza was home-schooled during his teens. Reports vary regarding how much contact he had with his older brother, but it seems not much. He lived with his mother. Favored the basement. Enjoyed videogames. His mother was preparing for an apocalyptic-type future, some reports suggest, was prepping for a bombed-out economy, for a breakdown in the social order. She collected a cache of weapons. Adam was isolated and anxious, and, one suspects, angry. His mother taught him to shoot. And no one else was there to see this coming.

*

Prior to the 2008 shooting Kazmierczak purchased a small arsenal, stocked up on bullets, bought extra magazines, and holsters for his several handguns. Some of these accouterments he picked up online, but the shotgun and the Glock—the gun he ultimately used to kill his five victims, and himself—were bought at a local shop, Tony’s Guns & Ammo, which David Vann tells us was shut down soon after. For the Glock, Steven paid, apparently, $554.60. Notably, all of his firearms were purchased legally. Some of the high-capacity magazines he picked up could be loaded with thirty-three rounds each.

In drawing this portrait of Kazmierczak, Vann does not shy from the obvious fight. For a man who was raised surrounded by hunters and pistols and rifles, Vann appears to be, if not anti-gun exactly, at least staunchly pro-gun control. And rightly, then, as now, the question How did this happen? expands: Why do we let this happen?

Vann quotes from a paper Steven once wrote for school titled “(NO) Crazies with Guns!” in which he cites NRA-legend Charlton Heston’s famous decree: “From my cold, dead hands.” But, what if, Steven goes on, “those so-called cold, dead hands happen to not only contain a firearm, but also a half-filled bottle of anti-psychotic drugs?” Himself having had a long relationship with mental illness. Having become increasingly inconsistent with his meds. Vann surmises that Steven himself “thinks it’s outrageous he’s able to buy a gun.”

Gun laws have always been contentious. Vann writes, “How much have things really changed since Charles Whitman, the Texas tower sniper, bought an arsenal one day in 1966 and lugged it up the tower in a metal footlocker? While I was in DeKalb, the Illinois state legislature tried to pass a law that would have limited handgun purchase to one handgun per person per month, meaning a person could still buy a dozen pistols a year, just not all at once, but that effort was struck down, voted against by DeKalb’s own representative.”

Vann is incredulous.

“[Seung-Hui] Cho killed thirty-two people [at Virginia Tech], wounded another twenty-three, then killed himself before the police arrived. The deadliest rampage by a single gunman in U.S. history, and the whole thing was just stupid…Buy a Glock 19, buy some extra clips, walk up to a classroom and shoot people. We still have nothing in place to stop anyone from doing this. It’s an American right. How can that be? Who are we?”

Vann is indignant.

And how much have things really changed since 2008?

After the shooting at NIU, Steven’s sister posted a notice on her front door that read: “We respectfully request that the media honor our family’s wishes and recognize our grief following this tragic event.” To which Vann responds, “It’s a notably modern statement, asserting the primacy of grief and the individual and the lack of culpability for what anyone else in the family has done. In other times and other cultures, their houses might have been torn down and their bodies ripped to pieces, but in our time they can demand privacy to grieve, and there can even be a righteous quality to this demand.”

(It’s worth noting that 24-year-old Ryan Lanza—brother to Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter—seemingly followed suit: He responded to the media’s demonization of his younger brother, Adam, with a message posted on Facebook: “You have no right to call my brother names when he isn’t here. Just let my brother rest in peace. Please. Respect. That.” And beneath a smiling photo of his brother: “R.I.P. I will miss you bro. I will always love you as long as I live.”)

Vann is incensed. Tear down their houses and rip their bodies to pieces for the crimes of their kin? An atavistic reaction, and probably more sardonic here than serious. But even so, Vann’s response betrays real frustration. In the face of it all, he is seriously, if politely, furious. And Vann was writing in 2008, before thirteen people were killed at an immigration center in New York, before thirteen soldiers were killed at Fort Hood, before ten people were killed in Alabama, six killed and thirteen wounded in Tucson, seven killed at Oikos University in California, twelve killed and fifty-nine wounded in Colorado, six killed and four wounded in Wisconsin, five killed at a factory in Minneapolis, twenty-seven killed—including twenty children—in Newtown, Connecticut. And on and on. We all watch the news.

flagWe as a nation tend to react to these acts of violence with grief and bewilderment. Vann suggests this is not enough, suggests we should respond instead with righteousness and anger. Anger directed at the perpetrators, but also at the laws, the politics, and the people who enabled them.

Vann is determined to voice what we as a nation refrain from saying in the wake of these shootings. We are mostly just angry, but pretend to be in shock. We know these weapons are available just about anywhere to just about anyone and we live in a society where free speech often results in open hatred and bigotry, and where shooting up a public space has somehow become a more or less popular act of personal expression. Yet we always ask, How could this happen? We ask, and yet we already know. Vann is calling us out.

*

David Vann’s portrait is powerful for its narrative of Steven Kazmierczak’s life—because maybe there are answers to be found in the details—but also for his admitting his own disturbing adolescent proclivity for violence. And how did Vann escape Kazmierczak’s fate? One suspects it was never a question of fate, not really. Perhaps there is a certain something that pushes some over the edge, and a similar something that holds others back, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily that complicated.

While Vann’s admission is certainly an alluring thread in this story, one that promises a revelation in the end, the initial comparison he makes between himself and Kazmierczak starts to crumble almost immediately. As boys they were similar in their fits of anger, and in that they both knew what it was like to contemplate committing real violence, but it quickly becomes clear that Vann never had as much in common with Steven as it first seems.

Last Day on Earth begins, really, with an epigraph—“Nothing human is foreign to me,” Terence (195-159 BC)—designed, of course, to foreground this idea of a parallel between Steven and our author. But as early as page twelve Vann admits, “I have to go back to Steve’s dog, the pug, because even though ‘nothing human is foreign to me,’ Steve does things early on that strain the idea.” Steven throws the dog against a wall, drops it, lights it on fire. One day a friend of his goes to his house, looks in Steven’s bedroom window, and “sees him behind his dog, fucking it. At least this is what he tells everyone at school.” An accusation Steven never really denies, saying instead, “I was teaching it dominance. Showing it who was alpha dog.”

Then there’s the cocktail of drugs Steven was on: lithium, for depression. Maybe Prozac, maybe Depakote. He went from skinny to 300 pounds. Crazy mood swings. Anxiety. OCD. Suicide attempts. Vann suggests, “Terence wrote, ‘Nothing human is foreign to me,’ but a person on drugs becomes something different than human.” As a mentally ill adolescent, Steven was effectively a member of an underclass. Vann describes how he was ostracized, alienated, isolated. Possibly, probably abused as a boy, he was confused and impressionable, acting out, out of fear and rage and desperation.

Steven’s life spiraled ever downward: drugs, medications, suicide attempts, family fights, threats of violence. The conditions were set, the seed germinated. This at the same age as when Vann was finally coming to terms with his father’s death.

At the age when Steven was spiraling out of control, Vann was just coming into his own. He was welcomed into a new group of friends, and was accepted into an after-school drama club. For years he’d been telling people his father had died of cancer, but here, finally, he opened up about his father’s suicide. Here began the path of learning self-expression, where one is accepted not despite, but because of one’s ability to feel deeply and articulate complex emotions. As cliché as it sounds, here it seems that self-expression—which is to say, in a way, art—saved him. Writing did eventually save him—Vann has said as much in interviews. Saved him from himself, or at least provided an outlet for the obsessions that might otherwise have eaten him up. After all, it is this obsessiveness that potentially drives so much violence, but also, sometimes, creativity. This is the obsessiveness behind the creation of so much art.

Vann finally sold his father’s guns when he was in grad school, partly because he needed the money, but also just to rid himself of their psychic weight.

Not to suggest that drama club would have saved Steven Kazmierczak, no. Vann is his own special case, is his own brand of resilient, and his story suggests that art may be an outlet only, not a cure. Perhaps there is no cure. Maybe that is the point of all of this, that no new set of laws, or expansion of social services will end this violent trend. Still, acknowledging that, taking Vann’s experience into account, they might help.

A few lessons are clear: Anger may play a role, but a relatively minor one. Easy access to guns, to assault-style rifles and handguns, is a common denominator. And notably, these shooters are often isolated, from schoolmates, friends, family. If there is a mental illness in the mix, it is often left untreated. If there are warning signs, no one recognizes them as such. Random violence and mass shootings are the new normal, and it seems this trend reflects the failure of our communities as much as it does that of the individuals involved. Our social system is failing, catches some, but allows so many others to slip through.

*

In truth, David Vann never had all that much in common with Steven Kazmierczak, or maybe with any of the mass shooters of late. It seems his depression and his rage were symptoms of a different sort of affliction, one that could be overcome, with persistence and perspective, with resilience and time.

Steven was a tormented and disturbed kid, and although he tried hard to keep himself together, and was rewarded with periods of relative normalcy, those traits that nearly did him in as a teenager haunted him into adulthood. He was never free from OCD, anxiety, depression, shame, imaginings of violence. Steven hid the worst of himself from others. Few really knew him, and those who did are themselves kind of crazy, are living on the far edge of morality, are not the types to raise flags at aberrant behavior. And Steven, once institutionalized, with a history of depression and suicide attempts and violence, was able to purchase his firearms legally, as most of us are capable of doing, for whatever may be our pleasure. And as we continue to react to these incidents of violence, these mass shootings, with bewilderment and grief, we might consider allowing our tempers to really flare. Perhaps anger—anger properly channeled—is a reaction better suited to affecting some kind of change in society. Perhaps, as Vann seems to suggest, such focused anger—in response to events like these, in times like these—would be perfectly righteous. With a nation angry enough, it’s possible a broken system will be forced to change.

***

Featured image credit.  First, second, third image credits.


Craig Reinbold's work appears in recent/forthcoming issues of the Gettysburg Review, Brevity, Gulf Coast, Ruminate, The Journal, The American Reader and a number of other more or less literary places. He is an assistant editor at Terrain.org and is one of the curators of the Essay Daily, a blog-cum-conversation about all things essay. More from this author →