On Understanding Dylann Roof

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Dylann Roof suffered from two delusions. The first was that the actions of others, that specific groups of others were responsible for his own distress and failures, his limitations, his hopeless future. From the little we know of him, I think we can assume his target might have been a different group of others, perhaps Jews, in another place and time and context.

The second delusion was that he, an undereducated, unemployed 21 year-old boy, could and should engage in a single act of violence that would, he believed, change the course of history.

How should we think of this, beyond such words as racism, terror, evil, horror, derangement, and tragedy?

If we want to prevent this happening again we do need to try to understand it. We do need to understand if this was a singular inexplicable event, ultimately unpredictable and not preventable, or the failure of the mental health system, the correctional system, the educational system, the policing system, or one vulnerable kid acting on both the subliminal and overt attitudes of many others.

The human brain, especially the 21 year-old human brain, craves explanation, organization, ways of understanding its perception and experience. It especially demands ways of understanding failure, distress, fear and limitations. And up to a point it is natural in the adolescent phase of development to blame others: teachers, parents, rules, cops, peers, the referee, bad luck. In different times and different contexts this young brain is easily directed by propaganda to blaming Jews, Infidels, Apostates, Indians, Chinese, The Government, Hispanics, Blacks.

One of the jobs of parents and teachers is to adjust these assumptions and conclusions, sometimes gently, sometimes decisively.

By 21 we hope our children have learned to assume some personal responsibility, that their brains are figuring out and accepting the nuances and subtleties of cause and effect, of external and internal control, of responsibility. We hope that they are developing some empathy for others, even others quite different from themselves.

We also hope that their assessments of themselves within this world are beginning to be grounded in reality.

That first delusion. We can arrive at that first delusion, the belief that a group of relatively disenfranchised others (not crooked politicians, recessions and depressions, wall-street barons, lack of educational opportunities) are ruining our lives, through two routes.

The first may be actual, definable, treatable, mental illness: The inability to engage with others, to share information, to process all the complex nuances of interpersonal life, an inability to understand messages of avoidance, of intimacy, of competition, of friend or foe, and because of this, an inability to gain a realistic appreciation of how I fit in, of who is responsible for what.

A delusion satisfies the craving for explanation. But when a delusion is the product of illness it is usually very autistic, a conclusion that one’s life is being controlled by a microchip or radio waves, for example. Though it is quite possible for an ill person to further conclude that certain person(s), or a non-human for that matter, are behind this nefarious plot. The delusion derived from illness, from schizophrenia or depression or mania, does not need corroboration. It does not need anyone agreeing with it. It does not need sanction. And thus it is usually seen by everyone else as crazy, improbable, if not impossible. It is usually suffered privately. It is usually only harmful to self and family. And, of course, it is treatable.

But it is not necessary to have a brain illness, a biological cognitive deficit to come to terrible conclusions. It can arise from reaching 21 still blaming others, still searching for external answers to explain one’s limitations, fears and failures. And from a failure of parents to nudge that teen to healthier schemata, and from access to information, propaganda, symbols and persuasive people who tell this boy, “It is not your fault that you are helpless, useless, hopeless, that you can’t get a girl or a job. It is their fault.”

And then this boy looks around his neighbourhood and sees that many others quietly believe the same. And now on the Internet he can find a revisionist history and many persuasive (persuasive if one’s knowledge and maturity are limited) voices exhorting the same viewpoint. “It is their fault. They are taking away my power, control, my future.”

So for Dylann Roof this was, in a non-clinical sense, a delusion. The externalization of control and blame. A belief shared by too many others. But it was not the autistic delusion that emanates from a treatable psychotic illness.

The second delusion is more problematic. Dylann came to believe that he could and should engage in a single violent act that would change the course of history. Without this second delusion he might have spent his life sober, drunk, employed or unemployed, living with someone, or living alone in a cabin in the woods, occasionally, especially when drunk, upsetting people with a racist rant.

But he came to the manic, grandiose conclusion that he, an uneducated unemployed boy with an average I.Q. and no notable skills or talents, no formal allegiances, should do this thing. But he didn’t behave in a manic fashion, simply grandiose and narcissistic, and without empathy. Perhaps he was simply sufficiently narcissistic, sufficiently naïve, sufficiently sociopathic, to believe he could do this thing, cause a revolt, change the course of history, and be hailed as a hero.

He could read the symbol on the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse. He could fill himself with hate propaganda on the Internet, all of which would overtly or covertly demand action. And he could absorb the subliminal messages all around him, even in the street names of Charlestown.

The tool to do this thing was easily available. He did not need a complex plan to acquire and conceal a gun. He bought it and carried it.

So, how do we prevent another of these events?

  • A better mental health system would be fine, but might not have helped Dylann. This was probably not, strictly speaking, the product of a treatable mental illness.
  • A more functional and stable family? Yes. But we have no way of making this happen.
  • A better educational system? Yes. Definitely. And one that offers alternative programs for those inclined to drop out.
  • Good, dignified employment. Yes. Let’s work on that through social policy at all levels of government.
  • Gun control? Yes. Definitely. It is social and legislative insanity to let a 21 year old buy any guns, let alone handguns. Pure and simple. It should not happen. And while murder can be committed by other means, those other means are not as deadly, not as easy, and not as amenable to a momentary impulse.
  • And then we have communal attitudes, overt attitudes, subliminal attitudes, and symbols of hatred, fear and racism. They have a lot of work to do down there. Leaders need to watch the language they use (e.g. “Take back our country”) lest it be mistaken for a call to arms by the less stable among us. And the symbols. The State could quickly remove those symbols of defiance and racism and confine them to the museum. And the State could take a leaf from Germany and ensure the present generation understands and appreciates the truth of their country’s past.

Well, so far, though it looks like Dylann Roof’s name will be long remembered, his actions may have brought about something quite opposite to what he imagined.

David Laing Dawson is the author of The Adolescent Owners’ Manual

To better understand what delusions from a serious mental illness look like, read Katherine Flannery Dering’s blog about her brother

7 thoughts on “On Understanding Dylann Roof

  1. With respect, you have lapsed into a Freudian myth-making suppositions with family- blaming implications in your “A stable and functional family” could prevent serious diseases of the brain,like schizophrenia, for example.


    Such never-proven unscientific ideas presented by an assumed professional is taken seriously and is accepted as a scientific truth by unknowing, unsophisticated citizens. And casts pain and shame on families who are already dealing with the heartbreak of chronic mental illnesses in their loved ones.

    I am not convinced that recommending reading of other folks’ horrendous stories about mental illnesses in their lives is the best suggestion. We already know all about that in spades. We want to concentrate on people who can help us with the practical services we need:humane services for those who have mental illnesses now, open a clearly reasonable number of psychiatric beds to cover their medical needs–just a few of their desperate needs to make their lives bearable.

    Better we should keep families informed about the kind of scientific research
    into these brain diseases, to give us at least a faint hope for a cure. Regularly send scientific research to our politicians.


    1. June – with respect, he was not saying this action was the result of a mental illness. He stated: “This was probably not, strictly speaking, the product of a treatable mental illness.”

      And, he did say that in cases where it is not, could a more functional and stable family have helped and he said yes but not likely. He also posited a number of other possible causes for this action and wondered how helpful those would have been.

      Nowhere did he blame the family for causing mental illness


    2. I did not say or imply that mental illness is caused by parents.
      Much of the commentary about, and immediate reactions to, that event in Charleston include an array of words used to express an attitude, an emotional reaction rather than an understanding. Evil, terror, hate crime, loner, terrorist, racist, psychotic, mentally ill, crazy, delusional…
      I think it is important to try to figure out when untreated mental illness is the problem and when it is not, when some other factors are afoot. Had Vince Li been adequately treated for his mental illness the Greyhound Bus tragedy would not have occurred. But a better mental health system and prescriptions of our anti-psychotic medications will not stop ISIS beheadings. Unless of course we are allowed to render all of them somnolent for a few years.
      So I wrote that piece hoping that by writing through it I would come to understand it better. Like many writers I write to clarify my own thoughts.
      But a word about families and parents. There are always a notable few of us who have grown up in and thrived on adversity, who not only overcome their dysfunctional families but are propelled by them to early self-reliance, maturity, responsibility, and a life mission. You would be hard pressed to find a psychiatrist who is not, at least in part, pursuing his or her vocation because of mental illness in his family.
      But, generally speaking, healthy, happy, responsible, mature, stable, alert, kind, loving, law abiding parent(s) are better for both mentally healthy children and mentally ill children and teenagers and post-teenagers.
      That includes knowing what their children are posting on the internet, what attitudes they are espousing, how many knives and guns they have in their bedrooms, whether they are going to school or looking for a job, what they are doing in the garage after midnight, and how much they are drinking.
      The boy who murdered so many at Sandy Hook was undoubtedly on the Autistic Spectrum and becoming psychotic, delusional. He needed help. But the three guns he took to school came from his mother’s extensive collection.



  2. You bring up some important points here, particularly around adolescent brain development and the susceptibilities such limitations can bring, yet I found the use of the perpetrator’s name in the title and throughout your article to be concerning. I think Anderson Cooper has it right when he insists on not using the names of the perpetrators of these all-too-frequent mass shootings. He believes that this canonizes the act and notoriety of the assailant and can (unintentionally) encourage others who seek similar notoriety. I appreciate your hypotheses about what maybe going on for him, but I fear such articles bestow perhaps the wrong kind of attention on those who commit these acts. I believe we can understand the psychodynamics and issues without contributing to the idea that this is a way to become famous. The victims are the ones whose names should be remembered.


  3. As always Dr Dawson your writing is a joy and a revelation of clear headed, considered, sensitive, committed and intelligent thought. Thank you!


    1. John, I certainly agree that Dawson talks sense and is sensitive to the major issues.
      The Sandy Hook shooter ‘s mother had some very serious mental problems if she actually took her autistic spectrum son to a firing range and let them show him how to use arms . Hardly a wise move, but some people actually believe that anybody can and should be permitted and therefore allowed(enabled) to do anything. We do stop certain people from having driving licences for Pete’s sake.


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