Last weekend March for Our Lives events were held all over the country to push for changes in gun control. The Parkland shooting has sparked ongoing discussion about a variety of issues, including gun regulation, NRA advertising, FBI competence, and others. Among these discussions has been a renewed focus on violence perpetrated by those with mental illness. It should be emphasized that most experts agree that calling mental illness a risk factor for violence is both inaccurate and stigmatizing; other factors (including age and gender) are far better predictors. But a suggestion that we reduce violence by more closely monitoring men would likely be accurately seen as unwieldy and discriminatory, while proposals that we track individuals with mental illness tend to receive greater attention.
Fiction is a form of art through which threatening and distressing topics can be explored with some remove. Even mass market fiction can be a vehicle through which people try to grapple with difficult subjects. In 2005, six years after Columbine, Robert B. Parker tackled the issue of school shootings in his short novel School Days.
After two masked gunmen kill seven people at private Dowling Academy, police apprehend one of the perpetrators, Wendell Grant, at the scene. Private investigator Spenser is hired to clear the name of the other alleged perpetrator, Jared Clark, who has been implicated by Grant and by his own confession. It seems clear that Jared was involved in the shooting, but Spenser is determined to learn more about why.
Dr. Beth Ann Blair, the school psychologist, describes a boy who was relentlessly bullied, isolated from his peers and therefore seeking solace in inappropriate websites and dark fantasies. But this depiction is refuted at every turn, prompting Spenser to consider the possibility of deception. As he investigates further, he discovers evidence of a sexual relationship between Beth Ann and Jared, a relationship that started when the boy was no more than 13. In a simultaneous investigative thread, Jared is assessed by a psychiatrist and found to have intellectual disabilities (the term used in the book is “functionally retarded”).
So readers are shown a relationship that is abusive and exploitative in three ways: 1) because of the breach of the therapist-patient relationship; 2) because of Jared’s age; and 3) because of Jared’s intellectual disabilities. Alarmingly, the book does not even acknowledge the violations within the therapeutic relationship and attaches insufficient gravity to the relationship overall.
At one point, Spenser refers to Dr. Blair as a “child molester,” but the abuse is not adequately described in terms of its severity. Confronted with the news of the exploitative relationship, the assessing psychiatrist comments that few things are “always bad.” Police joke about wanting to see the naked pictures because of how attractive Beth Ann Blair is, apparently untroubled by the fact of the naked maltreated child in those same photos. There is no discussion of arresting or prosecuting Blair, though the abuse is viewed as a mitigating factor for Jared.
At the conclusion of the investigation, it is revealed that Jared went into the school with guns to kill the school principal, a man who had discovered Beth Ann’s crimes and used that knowledge to blackmail her into a sexual relationship with the principal as well. Desperate to regain his relationship with her, Jared was manipulated into believing that his problems would be solved if the principal were out of the way. Arriving at the school on the day of the shooting, Jared and Wendell discovered that the principal was not there. Jared became confused and did not know what further steps to take. Wendell began shooting indiscriminately.
The book attempts to tackle a number of mental health issues in a short work: psychosocial underpinnings of school violence, exploitative sexual relationships with adolescents, and unrecognized intellectual challenges in students, among others. Given the novel’s brevity, it is unsurprising that it covers none of these issues particularly thoroughly-it is one small part of a much larger discussion.