Sea of heartbreak: Blog post by parents of killer John Shick leaves more questions than answers
Share with others:
From the moment we learned that Larry and Susan Shick are avid sailors who've spent a good deal of their retirement on a sailboat while their grown son, John, was in the states grappling with schizophrenia, I wondered about their removed posture.
Was the distance better for all of them? Had they had enough? Or were they just living their dream, thinking John was OK, or at least not on the verge of committing murder?
There was no way to answer those questions. But now the Shicks have offered their view of events before and after John's shooting rampage at Western Psych on March 8, killing one person and wounding five before being shot dead by police.
The Shicks have maintained a meticulous blog recounting their life at sea, but have kept their own counsel about their son. On Thursday, however, my colleague Jonathan Silver found a new posting: "The Death of John Shick." It's an oddly unemotional account told from their point of view. Some of it is hard to fathom.
When Larry Shick got the call about their son, he conveyed the news to his wife by drawing his finger across his throat. As they were in the Caribbean, and John was already dead, they took weeks getting back home, leaving his body in the morgue. And even then only Susan Shick came to Pittsburgh to wrap things up while her husband stayed with the boat.
In avoidance of the media they deleted all their messages wholesale, so the blog apologizes for not acknowledging condolences. But there are no condolences there for their son's victims or their families. They also write that John showed no signs of being violent, when in fact there were several incidents to the contrary.
Finally, there is this passage: "It does not take away from the horror of his means of death, nor the horror he inflicted on others, to observe that he got to choose the way he died, and that he died quickly, which are gifts given to few."
This last one, especially, is beyond strange, not to mention callous, and it says more about them than their son. I get their desire to find something redeeming in catastrophe, but the statement ignores that John had a complete break from reality. Are they saying it was his free will, and not his illness, that propelled him? Furthermore, his victims did not "get to choose" the way they died. No matter how quick it was, it was surely no "gift."
The couple must have gotten an earful about their detachment because the next day, they added an account of their attempts to help their son over the years. Weird as it was they didn't think to include those important details in the first place, it was a relief to find that they had stayed engaged with John. They also added that "our hearts go out to the victims and their families," which was better late then never.
Having said all that, I should make this perfectly clear: Parents of adult children with mental illness are not responsible for their offsprings' behavior. Period.
When a son or daughter develops a serious and persistent mental illness such as bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, it's a nightmare for the family. And it can get much worse once those children become adults, out of mom and dad's legal control. There's only so much the parents can do to help them, especially if they don't want help. And sometimes they don't, because believing they're not sick is a symptom of their illness.
The rest of us can barely imagine the heartbreak and frustration that such families live with every day. Negotiating the convoluted mental health system can be a full-time job. Psychotropic drugs may help ... until they don't, or until the patient stops taking them. And the laws that govern involuntary commitment in many states, including Pennsylvania, make it difficult to intervene before a sick person reaches the danger zone.
So when John Shick went commando, you can bet that some parents out there bowed their heads and whispered, "There, but for the grace ... ."
Mental illness by itself is not a predictor of violence, and only a small percentage of violent crime in this country is committed by people on that spectrum. Furthermore, the vast majority of mentally ill people can and do improve with the right kind of treatment. We just don't hear about them.
Yet we hear plenty about the tough cases where someone "goes crazy," in the vernacular, and mayhem ensues.
It's human nature to seek explanations for the inexplicable. Otherwise, the world makes no sense. So we wonder: If it had been my child, what would I have done?
In the case of the Shicks, many would answer: Not that. But then, most of us would not be living on a boat to begin with, and who's to say that anything else would have brought a different outcome?
Experts say that isolation is the worst thing for people like Shick, yet their bizarre behavior drives others away, which makes them even more alone. Would closer contact with his parents have made a difference?
Before you answer, look at Richard Baumhammers, who 12 years ago killed five people in a racially motivated shooting spree and paralyzed a sixth who later died. His history of mental illness and psychiatric treatment -- commitments, prescription drugs, counseling -- is documented in reams of reports. His parents stayed as close to him as was humanly possible -- he lived with them. And yet he spiraled out of control. Now he's sitting on death row while his lawyer appeals his sentence based on his mental illness.
Were the Baumhammers too close to their son? Were the Shicks too distant? We can attempt to parse the shooters' family lives, their breakdowns and their crimes a hundred ways, to no avail. If the Pittsburgh doctors who treated John Shick didn't see him as dangerous despite a warning from a physician in California, would his parents have known different even if they were here?
These are maddening questions precisely because they cannot be answered. Those of us asking them from the outside can only hope we never face them firsthand.
First Published June 10, 2012 12:00 am