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On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas at Austin’s clock tower and performed the first televised and (at the time) deadliest mass shooting in American history. Two weeks after the murders, FBI agents interviewed a Catholic priest in Alaska who had known Whitman and his family for fifteen years.
Jo Scott-Coe discovered the report of this interview in an online search about the shooting nearly fifty years later. As a stray Catholic, she was intrigued: Was the priest still alive? What was the nature of his connection to the sniper? How had he been affected by his friend’s violence? What light did this relationship shed on the sniper’s experience of religion?
A search for simple answers led to more questions and five years of research, through archives and cross-country site visits, through interviews, newspaper reports, and public records. The winding path of the priest’s buried story—a mixed-up life with its own sad and ambiguous ending—led deeper into the rabbit-hole of mid-century American (and mostly male) power structures in the Church, in middle-class white families, in marriages, in scouting, in the military. “Normalcy,” at least on the outside, could hide a host of dysfunctions, perpetuated by unspoken allegiances and toxic permission. Invisible brotherhoods made it too easy for special men to lead double lives, turn destruction inwards, or lash out violently against those they claimed to love.
Not much has changed. Half a century since Whitman’s rampage, we now consume seemingly endless images of domestic terror from men wielding guns in public places: at schools, in movie theaters, churches, nightclubs, and city streets. But the “breaking news” ritual still blinds us to the terror such perpetrators have often first inflicted in private and have (sometimes) endured in their own childhoods.
Rather than deflecting Whitman’s responsibility or seeking a single cause for his final violent acts, MASS traces Scott-Coe’s struggle to explore the intersecting lives of adult men whose values imprinted upon Whitman long before he ever killed anyone. Scott-Coe turns the camera away from the spectacle and towards overlapping narratives in a broader cultural moment, showing how the sniper and his two fathers—one biological, one religious—were united by the most damaging traditions of American priesthood, both secular and sacred.
Employing a three-part structure that fuses two lyric meditations alongside a core of intensely researched narrative history, MASS probes the hidden wounds of paternal-pastoral failure and interrogates our collective American conscience. Extensive supplementary materials are also available, including author’s notes and sources.
“Is there any connection between religion and mass murder? Scott-Coe analyzes the example of the then-most deadly televised American rampage—the Whitman case in 1966. She extrapolates the essential elements that help us understand current tragic events with the insight of an investigative reporter and the skill of a novelist. ”A.W.Richard Sipe, author of Sex, Priests and Power: the Anatomy of a Crisis
Jo Scott-Coe is the author of Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute). Her first-ever portrait of Kathy Leissner Whitman, “Listening to Kathy” (Catapult) received a Notable listing in Best American Essays and is now available in print. Scott-Coe's nonfiction has appeared in Talking Writing, Tahoma Literary Review, Cultural Weekly, American Studies Journal, Pacific Coast Philology, Superstition Review, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, Salon, and many other publications. She is an associate professor of English composition at Riverside City College, where she was named 57th Distinguished Faculty Lecturer for her research on the epistolary history of Kathy Leissner. Scott-Coe also facilitates community writing workshops for the Inlandia Institute.
More information at www.joscottcoe.com