UT Tower shootings: An anniversary with no answers

This story originally was published on August 1, 2006.

After former University of Texas Police Chief Allen Hamilton's files on the 1966 Tower shootings turned up at Half-Price Books the other day, I got a glimpse of the future. Someday my children will come across the three sagging boxes labeled "Whitman" in my garage and ask the same question that Hamilton's family did: What to do with all this stuff?

Their course of action likely will be the one I took when I cleaned out my father's file cabinet before his move to a nursing home. Except for a few yellowed clippings, I dumped it all, the archive of his last, most satisfying years as a newspaperman, into garbage bags.

When my own children finally slip my Whitman boxes into the trash, it will be the last chapter in a story that began for me, for Hamilton, and for countless others 40 years ago today.

As a UT student, I had just flunked a quiz in Shakespeare class the day Charles Whitman began shooting at passers-by on the South Mall, not far from our building, now called Parlin Hall. Long after Whitman was slain, after blood was scrubbed from the pavement for blocks around the Tower, I walked the silent campus alone, wondering how I would ever make sense of what I'd seen.

I did not become a reporter for several more years, but I was burning with questions. Journalists are hard-wired to seek answers; it's what we do. Our stories have a beginning and an end; we need to wrap things up. When a story resists closure, we tend to turn away.

The Tower "accident, " as many victims euphemistically called it, became such a story for me. The answer to the big question — why did Charlie do it? — seemed to elude journalistic inquiry. But I couldn't let it go.

From the moment I saw Claire Wilson lying on the South Mall, gut-shot, pregnant and in obvious pain, that day was all about our loss of control over what was happening — just as Whitman's rampage was about seizing it. It made some police officers so sick at heart that they went home to gather themselves before filing their reports.

As a Jungian therapist can tell you, the ritualistic retelling of the sniper story on anniversaries such as this one springs from our need to claim some illusion of control. In framing the narrative, we can run the show.

So I wrote lengthy stories about the shootings 10 and then 20 years later. In research for a book, never finished, I interviewed Whitman’s father, his friends, his wounded victims. I talked to the doctor who declared him dead on the observation deck of the Tower, the pathologist who took apart his shotgunned brain, the psychiatrists who tried to piece together, postmortem, his shattered psyche and turbulent family history. I filled boxes with my notebooks, with copies of Whitman's diaries and police reports, which authorities refused to release for decades, and other records I wasn't supposed to have.

This was so long ago — before Columbine, before Luby's, before the mass murders that have inured us to such events — that the wide sweep of sadness gathered in those boxes took my breath away. The children and parents, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters who struggled with their grief; the marriages that cracked up; the ripples that continued to spread through people's lives, year after year, unremarked.

"That was unspeakably evil, what he did to the victims, " said Stuart Brown, one of the psychiatrists on the committee appointed by Gov. John Connally to investigate the case. (Its full report was never made public, partly because of fears of it might lead to litigation against UT.)

Almost everyone who delves deeply into the Whitman archives is repelled by the banality of that evil. His neatly penned diaries are studies in triviality. His avowals of love for his wife, Kathy ("my most treasured possession"), whom he stabbed to death with a bayonet, grow more chilling with each repetition.

"The outstanding quality of this diary is the fact that it is written at all, " wrote the late Dr. Hilde Bruch, a Baylor Medical School professor of psychiatry. "Most of his statements read like they were taken from magazines. For a man obviously non- introspective to have written daily ... is unusual behavior."

Though he lacked insight as to why, by the spring of 1966, Whitman knew he was coming apart. When he sought help for depression at the student health center — no real psychological counseling program existed at UT until after the shootings — he saw a doctor who had struggled with his own mental problems.

Dr. Maurice Heatly was not a certified psychiatrist but was on the state payroll as a psychiatric consultant. Whitman famously told Heatly that he felt like going up on the Tower with a deer rifle. He received a prescription for Valium, an anti-anxiety drug.

He didn't show for a second appointment. Heatly never followed up.

A rumor about a tumor

In its abridged report issued in September 1966, the Connally committee focused on the two axioms of sniper lore: the report of a tiny tumor near Whitman's brain stem and the psychological damage caused by his father, C.A. Whitman. Though little-noted at the time, the experts disputed the tumor.

As described by pathologist Coleman deChenar, who performed the autopsy on Whitman, the growth was the size of a cherry pit — non-malignant, slow-growing, unlikely to have affected mental function. But de- Chenar's slides apparently showed a very different kind of tumor, a malignant, fast-grow- ing glioblastoma multiformae.

Which was it? A month later, the committee had Whitman's body exhumed in Florida, where he had grown up, and his brain subjected to the most sophisticated analysis available. The brain tissue was a mess, but the finding was clear: no evidence of glioblastoma multiformae or a tumor of any kind.

Why did the "rumor about a tumor" (in the words of a Kinky Friedman song) persist? Perhaps because everyone wanted to believe it, from state officials seeking cover from lawsuits over Heatly's culpability, to a shocked public that needed a simple explanation for a horrifying episode. As former chairman of the Board of Regents Frank Erwin said, "There had to be something that made him do it."

According to the commission, there was: Whitman's upbringing in a spectacularly blighted family. All three sons died young — Charlie and John Mike of gunshots; their brother, Patrick, of AIDS.

"We didn't expect to find as much as we found. I thought this would be one of those psychotic events you can't deconstruct from the outside, " Brown said from his home in Carmel Valley, Calif. "But after a week or two in Florida, we had a real feeling of what this kid's life was like. People we interviewed wouldn't sit with their backs to a window because they were afraid the father might shoot them."

Among the facts the committee gathered: As a young boy, C.A. Whitman was abandoned by his father and grew up in an orphanage; his mother, he said, was "not the mothering type." His teenage bride charged him with assault when she was pregnant with Charlie, their first child, and severe mental and physical abuse would be the continuing motif of their marriage. Subsequent testing in 1967 revealed that the elder Whitman had a type of bipolar disorder that subjected him to rapid changes of mood, a condition his sons probably inherited, Brown said.

Under intense pressure from his father to succeed, Charlie made Eagle Scout at age 12 but was denied a normal childhood. He received his last beating at 18. He was never allowed to play sports; the nuns at his parochial school recalled that he didn't seem to know how to play, period.

To Brown, founder of the California-based Institute for Play, that explains a lot. The Whitman case led him to other studies of violent behavior, and eventually to research on the importance of play in normal brain development. Compared with thousands of individuals Brown studied, Charles Whitman offers "the most systematic suppression of free play than anyone I've come in contact with, " he said.

Considering his untreated manic depression and family experience with violence, Whitman could be seen not as a monster, but a kind of perfect psychological storm waiting to happen. "In any study of human behavior, what you find is a bell-shaped curve, a huge norm. He was at the extreme end. There just aren't many people like that, " Brown said.

On a mythic level, the story of Whitman punches so many hot buttons it seems scripted by the Greeks. A shadow figure — our archetypal dark side, the abiding source of evil — takes to a high place and wreaks havoc upon innocents in his rage against a tyrannical father — in Jungian terms, the "terrible father" — whom he desperately fears.

Like many evildoers, he has hidden his true nature behind a facade of normality; he is the villain you would least suspect. His victims become surrogates for the hated father. Overcoming frightful obstacles, heroes ascend the fortress to slay him, restoring order to the realm. For a time.

So in the end, it doesn't matter what happens to my boxes. Nor does it matter whether the answers to the questions implicit in this story are insufficient. Answers aren't really the point.

We will return to this tale as long as we are here, because, as it turns out, that's what human beings do. We are born in mystery and we will die there, telling our stories along the way.

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