Like any normal person, Whitman had committed a few minor transgressions and endured some troubles, but collectively, they didn't explain why, on July 31st, 1966, he shot his mother, and hours later, repeatedly stabbed his wife. The next day, he perched himself atop the Tower at the University of Texas and started shooting.
The mayhem was sheer, random, senseless. Whitman shot pedestrians. He shot students. He even gunned down the paramedics and good Samaritans who tried to aid those that had been hit. He didn't relent until he himself was riddled with bullets by police.
In the wake of what was then the worst mass murder in American history, people were plagued with the one question that always shadows such a dark event: Why did this happen?
The answer actually came from Whitman, himself. In the months preceding the killing spree, he began experiencing unexplainable, intense fits of rage and unquenchable desires to inflict pain. All of this he chronicled in his journal. In his writing, Whitman seemed almost at war with himself, struggling to quell his violent urges. But eventually, he surrendered to them. After deciding to kill his wife, he introspectively wrote:
"I don't really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average, reasonable, and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can't recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks. In March... I consulted a Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had. I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt some overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is an visible physical disorder."After Whitman's violent death, an autopsy was indeed performed, and what the examiner discovered was revealing. He found a malignant glioblastoma in the white matter above Whitman's brain stem. The nickel-sized tumor was impinging on the nearby amygdalae, which are involved in regulating fear and aggression.
In the days following the shooting, a large commission composed of neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, pathologists, and psychologists determined that the tumor conceivably could have had an influence on Whitman's actions. Additionally, the commission discerned that if left untreated, it likely would have killed him by the end the year.
This story is incredibly striking to me, because it exhibits how such a seemingly slight alteration to the brain's physiology and structure can catastrophically change one's psyche.