A young man grows up in Centreville, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, angry at the world around him, burning with hatred for the complacent, conformist, 'rich kids' and their pathetically insecure ultra-competitive materialistic parents. He feels lost in an bureaucratic educational warehouse. He feels alienated from his stifling family life, with parents whose crumbling marriage is largely being held together by focusing on the young man's 'problems' instead of their own. He hates his overbearing father, alcoholic mother, and is indifferent towards his sister. His teachers are worried about the young man- he's sullen and difficult and has a morbid streak. He spends all night writing profane and bizarre screeds, laced with profanity. He doesn't fit in at all, and often fantasizes about killing his parents... himself... anyone. Nobody has any idea what to do with him. Sound familiar?
That was a fairly accurate description of my own teenage years. I grew up in Centreville, or as my friends called it 'Centre of Hell', and despised the petty adult authority figures who seemed to delight in picking on the class weirdo. I sat in my room writing pages and pages of bizarre stories, which were admittedly sillier than angry, and listening to music that was probably more angry than musical. And I hated my parents, teachers, and most of my classmates. We used to call Centreville High School 'Sweet Valley High'; there was something genuinely creepy about its artificiality. You felt like you could be expelled for having a bad day.
I was never fully expelled, but I was sent away to another High School's satellite program for the 'emotionally disturbed', which in my case meant miserable. I tried to kill myself by drinking a bottle of Windex. It's funny now, especially because the smell of most glass cleaners still makes me gag a little. But, at the time, being forced into an institution and out of school was devastating. Even worse, the case that was made to ship me out was more than a little falsified. It was the first time in my life that I had seen adults openly lie about something like that. (Apparently, suicide attempts weren't enough to kick a student out at the time, so they wrote that I had threatened a teacher and had to be removed from class for doing so. Totally untrue. Whatever.) At the school for the emotionally disturbed, I shared classes with kids who were angrier than me, including a girl who, quite memorably, played the piano with her face. Eventually, I did so badly in my classes that the school called me on the day of graduation to let me know that they had held a special meeting and decided that they would let me graduate after all. I don't know if anyone would have expected me to end up in academe.
But, I think I was luckier than the Virginia Tech student in two ways-
1. I had a circle of weirdo friends. Like Greg, who I still remember walking the of the school in 19th century finery, including a cane, top hat, and tails. Or Emily Rems, who hung a huge banner in the front hallway of the school welcoming me back from the institution. Or Jim, Mike, Sadaat, Omar, etc. etc. etc. My friends weren't just different than the administrators, teachers, and students at Centre of Hell- they were a fuck of a lot smarter than them as well.
2. I could somehow see outside of it all- I had a certain critical distance from the world around me. To this day, I tend to view social gatherings or public spaces of any kind as primarily theatrical- I feel like I'm watching a play. At age 14, I knew that High School was meaningless, the suburbs were even more meaningless, and that there was a whole world outside of that. I knew it wouldn't last forever.
So when I read about the 'monster' who committed these horrible acts at Virginia Tech, it's hard not to wonder what would have happened if all of my problems as a young man had been compounded by some very serious mental illness. And, judging by the video, a certain lack of wit or self-awareness, for that matter. What might have happened if I had lost faith that there was a world that was more tolerant and creative and life-affirming than American High School, and increasingly American universities? Or if I had lost faith in my own abilities and the hope that one day I might find a girl who would recognize that my quirks aren't 'warning signs' so much as quirks, and who might even love me for them? Or if I hadn't been exposed to DEVO, the Dead Kennedys, MDC, Robert Anton Wilson, Salvador Dali, David Lynch, the Crucifucks, Lydia Lunch, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Waters, Black Flag, Frederico Fellini, and the Church of the Subgenius? Good lord, I might well have turned out normal!
But, I came out the other side. It's as simple as that. I'm glad I did. I wish everyone did.