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Gunman Cried Out for Help With Voices

A portrait has emerged of a man and the voices that tormented him into taking away a dozen lives at the Washington Naval Yard on Monday.

34 year-old Aaron Alexis was aware that he needed help—and even sought it out  from a Buddhist temple in Raynham, Massachusetts, where he turned up speaking fluent Thai.Buddhist in Raynham

The monk he met, who does not speak English, said inThai through another monk that he was “respectful but troubled.”

He said he could see in his eyes that he needed help.

“He’s saying something bother him in his head,” the monk said in broken English. “Like, I saw someone, I saw someone.”

‘Something bother him in his head’

The temple had no bed to offer, but allowed him to curl up on the floor of a building opposite. In the morning, Alexis thanked him, said goodbye politely, and moved on.

No one is saying why the computer technician sought out Buddhists in the first place before he started firing indiscernably at the Washington Naval Yard.

Maybe he was drawn to the practice of meditation as a refuge from his murderous voices.

Maybe he was hoping to cloister himself  within the safety of ascetism, the better to keep the worst of his voices away from us.

Our hearts go out especially to his grieving mother along with all friends and family of all victims.  His mother apologized emotionally on behalf of her troubled son.

Dialoguing With Voices

If her son declined help from mainstream psychiatry, then he might’ve been battling the assumption there that these voices are not all that significant.

Were he in Europe, he might’ve had help at some point in “dialoguing” with his voices. This approach, which is seen as irresponsible in many American psychiatric circles, involves actually setting aside time to talk with your voices.

Yet in Europe, where people with a diagnosis are said to be reclaiming their lives by the tens of thousands, it’s increasingly the new model, the brain child of Dr. Marius Romme, a Dutch psychiatrist who set up the first meetings for voice hearers in the Netherlands on a dare from a patient who was unhappy that her experience was not being taken seriously.

The first meeting of the Hearing Voices Network was held in Holland in 1989.  The movement has flourished in the United Kingdom. There 160 plus have been set up for voice hearers to share freely in a nonjudgmental setting.

I was impressed with what I saw at one meeting in Galway. People spoke frankly and insightfully about voices as variable as the people we meet in the actual world — male and female, young and old, rude and charming.

It’s nothing like talking to oneself or thinking aloud.  The voices typically emanate from other people, from birds or animals, or from objects like TV, radio, light fixtures or the talking walls and ceilings that were tormenting Aaron Alexis in Newport, RI, before he left for Washington.

It’s a twilight zone reality that can feel as if discrete thoughts are being inserted and removed like CD discs.  Often it’s a cacophony of voices that keep up a running commentary on the listener’s behavior.

Boosters of dialoguing insist there should be more accommodating of voices, instead of trying to obliterate them with heavy meds. In this way, the voices become manageable.

“The normal approach in medicine is to focus on complaints,” Dr. Romme told me. “So why [in the case of schizophrenia] do we not focus on the complaints?”

It’s difficult to overstate the case for more Hearng Voices Network meetings on this side of the Atlantic. What’s concerning, though, is the view within the HVN movement that trauma is solely responsible.

To many this view represents a flirtation with the anti-hereditary bias that prevailed within psychiatric circles right up until the mid-1970s, when we finally buried the myth of the refrigerator mom, rightly so.

It’s also at odds with countless studies of twins separated at birth. These point to a biomedical predisposition awakened by life events—equal parts nature and nurture, in other words.

It’s also at odds with the late great Julian Jaynes, the Princeton psychologist who theorized that the voices are not only a neurological event but a relic of the state of consciousness that may have prevailed before the brains of our earliest pre-human ancestors doubled in size and split in half into two separate hemispheres.

In other words, once we all heard voices.  I love this theory. It is  humane and explains a lot.

In his provocative 1976 work, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” Jaynes posited that hearing some voices externally may have been the norm for most people as recently as 3,000 years ago.

Whatever the case, the old rule of thumb–which is that nature loads the gun, and nurture pulls the trigger–seems to have held true in our home: Mum brought a highly-loaded  weapon to the table. Marrying dad just put it on a hair trigger.


Gunman Cried Out for Help With Voices

Patrick Tracey

PEN winning author of Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia (Random House/Bantam Dell). London correspondent in early 2000s, Washington City Paper contributing writer throughout 1990s. More recently writing for Salon and now blogging here.

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APA Reference
Tracey, P. (2013). Gunman Cried Out for Help With Voices. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Sep 2013
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