The Troubled Life of Jared Loughner

Suspect Jared Loughner seems to have broken with reality before the Tucson shootings. But did political rhetoric push him over the edge? Psychological research shows that's highly unlikely

  • Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME; Photograph: Pima County Sheriff's Department / AFP / Getty Images

    Navigating the cluttered corridors of Jared Loughner's mind will take psychiatrists months or years. We will likely never know all the reasons he took a cab to that Safeway on Jan. 8, paid with a $20 bill, calmly got his change and then killed six people and wounded 14 others.

    But snapshots of his life are accumulating from acquaintances and his few friends. (His parents issued a short statement of apology, but they are said to be too distraught to speak about their son.) These snapshots depict a quiet, normal boy who had grown into a man descending steadily into serious mental illness. A partisan, highly nonscientific debate has erupted over whether extreme right-wing rhetoric could have inflamed whatever illness he may have and caused him to target Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords. We don't know the answer, but psychological research suggests that political rhetoric could never be the single cause that leads a person with complex mental problems to commit violence.

    Case History
    Pinpointing the precise moment a mental illness takes root is guesswork at best. As a young man, Loughner seemed ordinary enough — occasionally withdrawn, as all teens can be, and a little nerdy. He loved music and played the sax well. A classmate who had known him since elementary school, Ashley Buysman, says that when she heard the charges against him, "it just blew my mind."

    But a darkness began massing around Loughner sometime after he dropped out of Mountain View High School in Tucson, Ariz., before his senior year. He started drinking a lot, according to Kylie Smith, who had known him since preschool. She lost contact with him between 2006 and 2008 and was stunned by how much he had changed. "He seemed out of it, like he was somewhere else," she says. "I could tell he wasn't just drunk and he wasn't just high."

    Was a psychiatric illness beginning? Maybe, but it's difficult to tell, because Loughner had by then used a lot of drugs — not just pot but also hallucinogens like acid, according to Smith. It was at about this time that Loughner did something odd: he worked out for months so he could join the Army. Yet after traveling to the military processing station in Phoenix, he told an Army official that he smoked marijuana excessively — which meant he would never be accepted. The weird part: he actually passed a drug test that day, so he had not been using for at least a couple of weeks.

    Loughner's behavior became increasingly erratic after the Army incident. Friends say he would occasionally speak in random strings of words. He had run-ins with police over drugs and his vandalization of a street sign. He became paranoid that the government was trying to control him — or everyone. He couldn't keep jobs at Quiznos and an animal shelter because he wouldn't — or could no longer — follow instructions.

    When classes began at Pima Community College last year, Loughner's behavior frightened fellow students from Day One. "He had this hysterical kind of laugh, laughing to himself," says Benjamin McGahee, his math professor. He would say nonsensical things about "denying math." Says McGahee: "One lady in the back of the classroom said she was scared for her life, literally."

    Such Stuff as Dreams
    It seems clear that Loughner was developing a mental illness, but which one? Many signs point to one of the psychotic disorders — delusional disorder, say, or schizophrenia, for which the average age of onset is roughly 20, about when Loughner started showing symptoms. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes "substance-induced psychotic disorder," which is also a possibility in Loughner's case.

    By several accounts, Loughner had become fascinated with lucid dreaming, a dream state you can enter when you're half asleep. You are aware while you're in that state that you're dreaming. Loughner's interest in his lucid dreams is significant, because last year the European Science Foundation reported that lucid dreaming "creates distinct patterns of electrical activity in the brain that have similarities to the patterns made by psychotic conditions." Loughner's drug use could have kept him from falling into deep sleep and encouraged lucid dreaming. The European group said paranoid delusions can occur when lucid dreams are replayed repeatedly after the subject wakes up. Loughner was replaying his lucid dreams in an extensive dream journal, according to his friend Bryce Tierney, who spoke with Mother Jones magazine.

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