The unexpected violence at Newtown, Connecticut, sparked much controversy about legislating tougher gun control laws. Moreover, there has been much discussion about mental illness and the role it plays in these nightmare scenarios where children are murdered by a depressed or belligerent teenager. How can we identify the loner, the mentally unbalanced person, before he acts out his violent fantasies?
Chronicle does not answer any questions, but as a former high school principal for many years, I can tell you that the alienation and loneliness of Seattle high-school teenager Andrew Detmer depicted in this dark, disturbing, and profanity-laden film ring true. I recall vividly a student in my school who always was absorbed in her own world, who had very little meaningful connection to her peers, and who generally seemed depressed. About five years after she graduated, I read in the newspaper that she had been murdered. I never learned the details, but her tragic end was not surprising to me. She was the victim, not the perpetrator, but her social isolation set the stage for a turbulent future.
In Chronicle, we can actually trace the evolution of a high school loner into a full-fledged murderer. To those who interact with him in a pleasant way, Andrew is a decent guy; but under the quiet façade is an angry young man poised to do terrible things.
To combat loneliness, Andrew buys an expensive camera and takes it everywhere to record his life. He is obsessed with filming his day to day existence, which is very unhappy. His mother is dying of cancer, his father yells at him and beats him, and the kids at school bully him. Using the video camera enables him to distance himself from the sordid life he is actually living and allows him to create his own reality.
The crux of the film details the encounter of Andrew and his friends Matt and Steve with a strange substance that gives all of them telekinetic powers. At first, the use of these special gifts is a game, but they soon realize that it is a gift that can be used for good or bad, to create or destroy, to help or to harm.
Over time, Andrew becomes more isolated from everyone and hostile to those who make fun of him. Away from friends and family, he begins to see himself as an “apex predator,” someone who feels no guilt for using his power to inflict pain on those who hurt him. His isolation grows and he ultimately decides to steal and physically to hurt other people to accomplish his personal goals, which to him are reasonable and just. As Andrew’s power grows, he uses it more to advance his own personal agenda, and people feel his wrath.
The Talmud instructs us not to separate from the community. The community is the anchor to normality and connects us to concerns other than our own. Moreover, the community elevates us and enables us to achieve higher levels of spiritual transcendence and holiness. That’s why Jews pray preferably pray in a quorum of ten because ten in Jewish tradition represents the community. Separation from it creates risks for all. Andrew’s aberrant behavior reminds us of this.
Linkage to community perhaps is the antidote to the loneliness that fosters disconnectedness and, in a worst case scenario, destructive behavior. The violence at Newtown should make us think about the idea and reality of community. Do we do enough to welcome the stranger, to make the loner feel accepted as part of a larger community? Do we bring the loner into the family of man or do we let him struggle as he defines himself as an outsider? Jewish tradition tells us that there is more that binds us than divides us. We are all created in God’s image, and there is no fixed image of a godly person. In truth, it is the divinity within every man that connects us all, regardless of how we look or present ourselves to others. If we understand this, then we can make the outsider an insider.