How UT sniper Charles Whitman’s hatred inspired an Institute for Play

Charles Whitman’s killing spree from atop the University of Texas Tower was so baffling to people in 1966 that then-Gov. John Connally formed a commission to study what might cause a person to erupt with such hatred and violence.

Stuart Brown was a young psychiatrist appointed to that commission, and his conclusion changed his life: More than any other factor, Charles Whitman’s total lack of unstructured play as a child was what turned him into a killer.

“If Whitman had played early, he wouldn’t have shot all those people,” Brown said, pointing to the suppression of play by Whitman’s overbearing father, who also beat Whitman’s mother in front of the child on a monthly basis, according to testimony the commission gathered.

Prompted by what he learned about Whitman, Brown has made his life’s work the study of the value of play in normal brain development, and he is founder of the California-based National Institute for Play, an organization committed to developing science-based knowledge of play and raising public awareness about it.

Brown has studied other mass murderers beside Whitman and said he has established that they, too, lacked healthy rough-and-tumble play as children. Play isn’t the only thing that was missing, Brown said, but it’s a common theme.

He has examined about 8,000 people and their histories of play. If Whitman had been allowed to play during his life, Brown said, he could have developed the flexibility and social skills to cope with stressful situations without turning to violence.

But Whitman, who gained attention as the nation’s youngest Eagle Scout, achieving that honor at the age of 12, never had a chance, according to Brown.

A joyless boy

The Connally Commission studied Whitman’s past and his life in Austin, including looking into whether he had a brain tumor that might have affected his behavior.

The FBI delved into Whitman’s use of the stimulant Dexedrine.

There were no definitive answers, but the researchers spent considerable time establishing Whitman’s oppressive upbringing.

He described his father as brutal, domineering and extremely demanding. The boy wasn’t allowed to have friends, and other children weren’t allowed to visit his house. His teachers recalled that Whitman didn’t know how to play as a child. He would mimic the play behaviors of other children but seemed to take no joy in them.

Brown sees a child who never developed social skills that would prepare him to cope with stress.

In his journals and personal writings, Whitman admitted having overwhelming periods of hostility with little provocation.

He joined the Marine Corps without telling his father and spent five years in the Marines. The police officers who fatally shot Whitman found in his wallet a laminated card issued by the Marine Corps indicating he had been honorably discharged. But according to a 1963 investigation report, Whitman was court-martialed, demoted from corporal to private and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor for being a loan shark to the men in his company.

His father intervened; otherwise, he might have been dishonorably dismissed from military service. But he was kept on, and during his remaining service he wrote about how much he loathed the Marines.

Whitman, who spoke of love for his wife, physically assaulted her at least twice and ultimately stabbed her to death.

Before he gunned down passers-by on campus, Whitman told a doctor at UT that he imagined himself “going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people.”

The doctor told him to schedule a follow-up for the next week, and Whitman received a prescription for Valium, an anti-anxiety drug.

Not just horsing around

His investigation of Whitman later led Brown to study others with violent behavior, and he eventually focused on the importance of play.

Play is something done for its own sake, Brown said, seemingly purposeless activity that’s just fun. It must be voluntary and without the anxiety about outcomes that typify competitive sports. While it’s difficult to define, Brown said, play arises from deep centers in the brain and is one of the brain’s best forms of exercise. Play also gives the brain courage to develop ideas, he said.

Play is never just one thing; each person plays differently, with temperament, gender and culture influencing the pattern. Its origins are pre-verbal. Babies are at play when they coo and giggle at their smiling mothers. More complex play builds on this base, Brown said.

Play opens the brain to new ideas, and it promotes resiliency, flexibility, adaptability, tolerance and empathy. It very much molds who a child is and who he becomes, Brown said. “It’s absolutely crucial for normal development.”

But if there is serious early play deprivation, there are social and emotional deficits, including a lack of trust, empathy, altruism and ability to sustain intimacy, Brown said.

“The toxic effects of play deprivation kill off our society,” he said.

Re-prioritizing play

The need for more free play rings of counterculture in our technology-heavy society, in which screen-time for children has replaced less structured outdoor play. An emphasis on testing in the school system and funding cuts have reduced recess time.

Yet there are hints of Brown’s theories in a growing push to incorporate play in the school day to promote emotional and social development.

Educators can be trained to recognize play deficiencies in children and help them catch up. Research trials have shown that organized play throughout the school day improved physical activity, decreased disciplinary issues and increased classroom participation.

Modern children don’t need more rigid structure, Brown said, and if parents and schools want better results, they need to emphasize play, not cut it.

“I think if parents and teachers were looking for performance outcome, academic and physiologic, to curtail free play is essentially self-defeating and makes no sense at all,” he said.

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