Backward Messages

The straight story on influences that turn teens violent.

Beth Winegarner

Beth Winegarner
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SAN FRANCISCO, California, United States
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March 05
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At Backward Messages, Beth Winegarner gives you the straight story on all the influences you’ve been told will turn your teen violent: the occult, violent video games, heavy-metal music, and more. Winegarner is a San Francisco author, journalist, and mom writing a book for parents on the most controversial teen influences and why they’re a healthy part of growing up.

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FEBRUARY 28, 2012 3:11PM

Ohio shooting: What’s “goth” got to do with it?

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One Chardon High School student told reporters Thomas “TJ” Lane “got into a gothic phase” before Monday’s shootings.

It’s not often that we get two stories like this back to back, but just days after I blogged about goth culture erroneously linked to a UK stabbing, it’s also now being connected with a school shooting in Ohio yesterday that killed three students.

Reporters began combing the Internet and interviewing classmates and neighbors as soon as the gunman’s identity, Thomas “TJ” Lane, was leaked. It wasn’t long before MSNBC rounded up one of Lane’s fellow students who said Lane “got into a gothic phase” before the shootings. Does he explain? Well, sort of:

“He kind of got into the gothic phase and kind of silenced himself from his friends,” Nate Mueller said. “But I mean, he still had friends. He was still a nice kid … I don’t think anybody really ever expected it to be him. We didn’t think he would hurt anybody.”

Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Mueller says he was one of the shooting victims. A bullet grazed his ear. That’s not to say he’s lying about Lane, but people tend to distort or exaggerate facts when they’ve just been through a trauma.

2. What Mueller describes as “gothic” actually translates to “solitary.” These two concepts are not synonymous.

At this point, the term “goth” has become so distorted in mainstream culture — which is a product of the way it’s been linked to violent crimes, and the way outsiders view goths as depressed, lonely, alienated kids — that it no longer holds meaning when reporters use the term. It’s pretty much become a euphemism for a certain kind of outcast, violent-prone teen. But what does that mean for the millions of actual goths who are happily ensconced in their social scene — and who are decidedly peaceful, pacifistic people?

Of course, the link between “goths” and school shooters was popularized in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, when a source claiming to be a Columbine student (he wasn’t) described Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s penchant for black trenchcoats and industrial music as “goth.” But those boys weren’t anything like almost all goths — teen or adult — you will meet. And, so far, I don’t see any evidence that Lane is, either.

That said, people who knew Lane differently are tending to describe him pretty differently. One of his friends told CNN:

Haley Kovacik said she’s in “complete shock” that Lane — whom she described as a “a very normal, just teenage boy” — could be behind the shooting. “He did have a sad look in his eyes a lot of the time, but he talked normally, he never said anything strange,” Kovacik told CNN. “It was a really big shock.”

And, as police revealed Lane’s identity, and a lawyer took up his case, they told reporters:

Thomas “T.J.” Lane … came from a violent family. His father was arrested numerous times for abusing women, including Lane’s mother, according to court records cited by The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Students say that Lane was shy and targeted by bullies. Although the shooting took place at 7:30 a.m. in the Chardon High cafeteria, Lane was enrolled at Lake Academy Alternative School, an institution for “at risk” youths.

It may be years before we get an accurate picture of this boy — as accurate a picture as we can get, filtered through the lenses of trauma, law enforcement, legal defense, and journalism. If we can learn something about Lane that will accurately help the right people identify the next school shooter, great — but so far, there doesn’t seem to be any one single “shooter trait” present in all these young men.

And certainly, “gothic” isn’t it.


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