It’s been a week of being laid low by a horrible dose of bronchitis. In between feeling sorry for myself, I fall asleep to showers of music cascading from the radio, wake to snippets of talk and watch a bit of television, my head somewhere above it all in a kind of tethered updraft. The illogical states that my fever brewed were, however, sharply pierced by a documentary I watched which left me stone cold sober.
With the chilling title “I don’t like Mondays”, it presents the story of Brenda Spencer, one of the first ‘school shooters’ in the USA, pre Columbine. What was unusual about the documentary was that it went beyond the sensationalistic details of the crime itself in which Brenda, aged 16, killed two adults (including a headmaster), injured a policeman and a number of school children.
We see Brenda at the time of her arrest, a slip of a girl, pale, with glasses and zits, two streams of long red hair falling from a beanie jammed on her head. Then we see her 25 years later being brought into a parole hearing, in chains, a huge, butch slab of a woman.
When she was asked why she did it back then, it was reported that she mumbled something along the lines of “I don’t like Mondays” which was understandably jumped on by the public (and songwriters!). You get a sense that she has spent 25 years trying to figure out the real reason and although she now talks about her situation at the time -a sad, dysfunctional family – she still has not come up with a plausible explanation.There is this maddening sense that the answer to this conundrum lies within the perpetrator herself and we want to shake her and order her to tell us, and then this frustrated realisation when we reach a blank. She is as much at sea as we are.
Although, I think it is dangerous to discount personal responsibility – and Brenda, after serving 25 years in jail does acknowledge her crime and ‘show remorse’, in the parlance of the American justice system – maybe this case has brought me a step closer to acknowledging the huge cauldron of sadness and rage that lives in the bottom of ALL people – that we share as part of our human inheritance – and which circumstance (and this is where society must take some responsibility: easy access to guns, brains gone dead from video games and media saturation and the void that so many children grow up in as parents, schools and society step back in a toxic laissez-faire neglect) forces through weak and vulnerable individuals to spew out in our daily world.
There were long interviews with, among others, her mother, the policeman who was badly injured in the shooting, the victims including the widow and daughter of the headmaster, and finally the father who had never spoken until this documentary was made. You know what? They were awful. The unbelievably cold, neglectful mother, the tight, retributive widow and her daughter who deserve every shred of sympathy and whom I struggled to like, the shot-up policeman who says he will get out his guns the day she is released, and worst of all, the father.
Predictably perhaps, Brenda presents to the parole board the physical and sexual abuse she suffered by her father after her mother abandoned her. In her defence, her father does seem to be a pedophile. Very soon after the crime, he hooked up with a cell mate of Brenda’s, a girl even younger than her and spookily, a dead ringer for her. The girl fell pregnant and abandoned their daughter, Brenda’s half sister,to be brought up by the father, where she still lives.If that doesn’t give you the creeps… What’s even sadder is that it is only her father that visits Brenda regularly. No one else.
Brenda has been a model prisoner. She says she wishes she could undo what she did, but cannot. She has tried to better herself and learnt to be a fork lift operator. She thinks she would be able to find work as such if and when she is released.The parole board question her on the one incident which is a blot on her record. After a failed jail romance, Brenda tattooed her own chest with a paper clip. Why did she choose the words courage and loyalty, they asked her.She responds that a mistake was made, the words in rune were unforgiven and lonely.
Honestly, I am surprised to find myself on this side of the crime issue. With a husband who was recently held up with a gun in our home and a history of pooh-pooing liberal sensibilities over the use of the death penalty – what if it were your child? I remember saying – why does this girl/ middle aged woman make me question what I thought were firm opinions? Why this story and not Aileen Wuornos’s ( “Monster”) which didn’t affect me nearly as much as it did most people? In my book club “We need to talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver was a talking point. I didn’t quite buy the premise, though, that Kevin was horrible from birth. From what I’ve read about these shooting kids they are not very different from your average teenager. Sure in some cases they were angry teenagers, not unusual. Parents, teachers,friends, everybody that is asked all say the same thing: they never saw it coming. That is what is so frightening.
Brenda was refused parole. She was told that she could apply again four years later. She did not look visibly disappointed. Her bulky, impassive figure was led out of the board room in chains.