Toward a Clinical Understanding of Dylann Roof’s Role in the Emanuel AME Church Massacre

As a clinical psychologist who focuses specifically on psychopathy and “the violent mind,” I feel compelled to reflect upon Dylann Roof and the Emmanuel American African Episcopal Church massacre through this psychological lens. In my mind, there is no doubt that Roof suffers from some kind of mental illness, but at the same time, I have reservations about the danger of interjecting a clinical perspective on an incident like this. In writing, speaking, and thinking about the events in South Carolina, we must be careful not to diminish the enormity of the crime and to show respect for the innocent victims, almost all of whom lived through, suffered in, and fought to change the legally segregated and discriminatory South. For this reason I can only write about this incident by prefacing any clinically oriented observations offered here by placing a frame around their limitations and pointing to the blind spots of the forensic clinical perspective for understanding the event and its meaning for American life.


Before I explore Dylann Roof’s psychological motivations, I want to make it clear that individual psychology, normal or abnormal, does not alone address why our society is generating monstrosities, empowering them with weapons, and arming them with political agendas that incorporate racism and xenophobia as motives to justify acting out their pathology in the public arena, in the form of violent speech and violent action, and not confine them to video games or twisted fantasies. This week, former presidential candidate and conservative commentator, Pat Buchanan attempted to divert our attention from the raw reality of how the AME massacre exposes America’s unresolved racisms. During an appearance on the McLaughlin Group show, he blamed the massacre solely on mental illness, denying that it had any meaningful racial motivation connected to the broader society.

By viewing this case from a clinical lens, I do not want to change the subject or deflect responsibilities by suggesting Roof’s acts were all about mental illness. At same time, I want to be clear that there is as-of-yet no evidence that Mr. Roof was anything other than criminally responsible for his acts, knew that his acts were criminal and punishable, and that he had the capacity to have acted otherwise. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a firm basis for a viable insanity defense.

One final caveat is that no clinician can render a diagnosis at a distance and with such limited data. That will not be the intent of anything in this blog. Nonetheless, the public is due an early consideration of clinical issues that may pertain to Mr. Roof’s offenses. In the following I attempt to offer something toward considering those issues.


The Canary Principle

The proper starting point for a forensic examination of this situation is understanding that the mentally ill in our society are like the proverbial canaries that were once carried in mines to detect the presence of noxious gas. If dangerous levels of poison gas were present, casualties would be limited to these hyper-sensitive animals, whose deaths would be a life-saving warning to the miners. Similarly, individuals with mental illnesses are particularly sensitive to cultural and social factors that are played out through interpersonal relationships and attitudes. We would be foolhardy to observe the desperate or violent measures of the mentally ill and see nothing of our fate in theirs.

Was Dylann Roof Displaying the Early Signs of Schizophrenia?

Many of the aspects of what we know about Mr. Roof suggest that he may have been one of the many young adults with incipient schizophrenia. The onset for schizophrenia is often in the early twenties for males, about the time many are dealing with the pressures of going to college or starting an occupation. Schizophrenia is not a rare disorder, affecting about one half to one percent of males over a lifespan.

The following list of early warning signs of schizophrenia were compiled from the National Association of for the Mentally Ill and the Mayo Clinic websites. Mr. Roof appears to have exhibited these early signs:

  1. Extreme reaction to criticism
  2. Flat, expressionless gaze
  3. Foundering at school or work in grades or job performance; Social withdrawal
  4. Hostility or suspiciousness
  5. Inability to cry or express joy
  6. Inappropriate emotional expressions
  7. Irritability
  8. Odd or irrational statements
  9. Sleep disturbance

Evidence for Mr. Roof exhibiting the following sign is lacking or absent:

  1. Depression
  2. Deterioration of personal hygiene
  3. Forgetful; unable to concentrate
  4. Strange use of words or way of speech

As I see the situation, using the partial and certainly somewhat unreliable information now available, the majority of these early symptoms seem to apply to Dylann Roof. Hallucinations and delusions in the absence of obvious brain drug toxicity or catastrophic brain trauma are the clearest indicators of the full onset of major mental illness like schizophrenia and delusional disorders. Mr. Roof is not now known to have reported hallucinations. However his racist beliefs and his experience of “insights” that uncovered the meaning of race in society, revealed to him that “someone had to do something about” and engendered in him the grandiose self-identification as the One to do something about it. Roof is an unread dropout with no essentially no skills or accomplishments. The grandiosity of coming to this “insight” of his pivotal historical role in saving white society, pushes past the boarder on the psychotic. These aspects of his behavior appear to be somewhat attenuated versions of the grandiosity, self-reference, and system making from tenuous connections that are seen in in a more florid version in delusional disorders and schizophrenia.

It is possible that it will be revealed that Mr. Roof was associated with a racist cell or a paternal figure responsible for guiding him in these beliefs. Right now, however, it appears that his case is similar to that of the Unabomber—a lone wolf being guided by distorted views of social and political ideas, by his own grandiosity, by a sense of desperation and catastrophic urgency, and most significantly by an insidious underlying psychotic process. The very insidious, barely perceptible to the self, nature of the incipient psychosis provokes a sense that something ominous is happening in the world, that it has to do with the self, and that some breakthrough must be had that will lead to decisive action and resolution. He was given the rare middle name Storm (given to only .008 percent of boys as a first name) in a family not connected to Storm lineage. His middle name may have been a lifelong subliminal message that the final breakthrough would come in in the form of explosive and random destruction.

Schizophrenia may have a dramatic sudden onset, but more commonly the onset is a slow worsening of early signs into clear symptoms, which is called the prodromal period. The prodromal period in schizophrenia may last from several months to several years, beginning with moderately severe personality problems (neurotic symptoms, fragile narcissism) and attenuated psychotic symptoms, such as change in the sense of self and the world (delusional mood) (Bowers 1968) and suspiciousness (Carpenter 1985). Mr. Roof’s African American friend from grade school has said that Roof had changed over the last five years from a boy who was accepting of his unpopularity to someone obsessed with race. As Roof marked the change in his manifesto:

“The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words ‘black on White crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.”

This is the kind of aha-experience that culminates in a redefinition of self is consistent with prodromal symptoms of the schizophrenia and a move toward a “delusional mood.” As an interesting aside, as in the passage quoted above, Roof always capitalizes White and does not capitalize black in his so-called manifesto.

Psychopathy-like Characteristics Increase the Danger of Instrumental Violence

If Mr. Roof is suffering from the prodromal phase of schizophrenia, it is also possible that he has a significant level of psychopathy that complicates his condition. Descriptions from his friends, school, police, and his conduct before, during, and after the massacre suggest psychopathic traits. His juvenile record (if he has any) is likely to be closed, but his friends and police have not referred to what could be considered extensive delinquency, or early behavioral problems, such as fighting or fire-setting, or rebellion against adult authority. The absence of early criminality and conduct problems, argues against high psychopathy, but does not rule it out. The Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) developed by Robert Hare, PhD, is the best measure of psychopathy consisting of clinical rating scale with 20 items that fall into five facets. Mr. Roof cannot be accurately scored on this instrument without much more information, including a full juvenile and adult criminal record, and preferably, a clinical interview. Nevertheless, the PCL-R can be used as a lens to gain an early reconnaissance of Roof in regard to the significance of psychopathy to his behavior. The paragraph below examines what is currently known about Mr. Roof in the light of psychopathy, with the PCL-R psychopathy traits that may apply to him in bold.

Roof appeared to be casing the local mall in a manner that appeared highly deceptive. He was attempting to be stealthy in collecting information, although he was awkward, drew attention to himself by dressing in all black, and tried to veil his motives and odd behavior with the explanation that he was following his parents’ directive to find a job, and relinquish his parasitic dependency on them. He was found to have illegal drugs, and probably violated conditions of release by the possession of gun and the use of it. He was clearly grandiose in his estimation of himself as having a historic role. His claims of erudition in the study of fields relevant to his racial rants have something of the quality of the superficial glibness of psychopathy, but may be more likely related to psychosis. Roof reportedly told friends that he was going to shoot people at a local college, and a friend expressed the view that Roof had impulsively switched the target to the AME church. However because he chose the target of his attack, Roof’s violence was instrumental. It was instrumental in that he meant to deliver a message, create an image for himself, and provoke a racial conflagration. He was not acting out an immediate rage, or a brooding need to revenge a specific humiliation or harm.

Probably most evocative of psychopathy is his cold and callous ruthlessness and lack of empathy that made it possible for him to carry out his plan of slaughtering innocents after an hour of intense interaction with his victims. The victims were older and had welcomed Mr. Roof into their Bible study. He is now proud of his murders and has no sign of remorse, but told the arresting officers that he feels he has “done something big.” Beyond being deceptive and manipulative in the extreme, his manner of gaining access to the victims seems sufficient to have introduced emotional ambivalence about killing people who were only abstractly representative of a race. Mr. Roof was not unfamiliar with black people and unlike racists, who may never interact with blacks, many of his friends, at least until recent years, were black. His ability to follow through on his murderous plans after these interactions reflect a shallow affective capacity. His taking pride in his acts and considering them heroic and necessary are clear indications of lack of remorse, and failure to take responsibility for the real effects of his acts rather that holding on to the imaginary, delusional effects that support his grandiose view of himself.

What is missing from the bolded characteristics of psychopathy in the description above are the traits that make up the Antisocial Acts facet of psychopathy—the other three facets being Interpersonal, Affective, and Criminal Lifestyle characteristics. Although Roof ‘s personality seems to a very strong expression of the Affective features of psychopathy, a fair estimate of his overall psychopathy score would place him at about the same level as the average male offender in North America. It should be stressed that with the limited information now available, it is impossible to know how severe or longstanding these characteristics are, and therefore whether they truly are personality traits, or ways of typifying a short-term maladjustment related to mental illness or an ideological conversion syndrome.

The Schizopath: Double Trouble

Hans Kohut once coined the term Schizopath for individuals who were both schizophrenic and psychopathic in their personality makeup. This concept might be a useful one to explore in understanding Mr. Roof’s actions, especially if more psychopathic and frankly schizophrenic characteristics are uncovered over the next months and years. I think that the schizopath concept should be entertained when there are elements of frank or attenuated psychotic thinking is combined with planned, instrumental violence. A recent case that has many of these characteristics is that of Robert Durst, the subject of the HBO series, The Jinx, who probably combines the elements of psychopathic utilitarian violence and dissociative personality elements triggered by strong emotion in a weak personality structure.

Roof’s Identification with Himizu, the Mole

One possible lead to parceling out the antisocial/psychopathic elements is found in Mr. Roof’s allusion in his manifest to his favorite movie, the Japanese film Himizu. To justify his acts, Roof extracted a somewhat clichéd statement from the film spoken by the central character to justify his violent acts: “Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society.” The significance of Mr. Roof selecting a non-white character (in this case Japanese) to identify with is unclear, although it is patently clear that it has significance for him. His friends have indicated that he had a conflict with his parents over his choice to have black friends, so the theme of ambivalence about identifying and relating to nonwhites continues in this identification with the young Japanese boy in the film who is abused and misunderstood by his father. Also important in the statement is the Zero state of self-esteem that the quotation refers to, and which Roof was probably trying to fend off by doing something big that would make him a somebody.

In the film, the main character is a teen from an abusive family. He is called “Himizu,” or mole, because he is trying to stay underground, keeping a low profile so his real self will not be at risk. After an earthquake and tsunami destroy the city, he ultimately reveals himself as a consummate warrior who moves through the ruins slaying people who he views as evil, but who in fact are mentally disturbed. According to synopses of this movie, an attractive girl who is unaccountably obsessed with Himizu tries to convince Himizu that he himself is disturbed—a view that Himizu does not accept. That Mr. Roof closely identified himself with this film, and the disturbed family drama that it depicts and symbolizes, is suggestive of the confused enmeshment of early-phase schizophrenia.

The film’s consideration of the possibility that the character Himizu is disturbed and Himizu refusal to accept it may be a foreshadowing of Mr. Roof’s probable rejection of a mental state defense in the forthcoming trial. Like Timothy McVeigh, who wanted to start a new Civil War on his anti-government ideologies for the long-term “good of society” and left 168 innocent people dead in his wake, Roof may be unable to accept the idea of clinicians and the courts probing into the possibility that his race war and racial animus are the products of a mental illness, and ruining his chance at being a somebody.

These catastrophic events in Japanese films, whether caused by tsunami, earthquake, nuclear accident, or ancient monsters awakened by our arrogant science or greedy commercialism, they all have the same moral. Mankind is responsible for shaping the environment he lives in, he creates, awakens, or becomes the monsters he must defeat or die trying. These films use the concrete narrative form of the tale to address the much more abstract call to shaping our cultural environment. I for one have no doubt that most of the monsters we now face are mutations being brought on and empowered by cultural and social factors. The important questions now are can we develop ways to bring other moles like Roof from underground before they grow fangs as claws? And do we have the courage to learn how to stop breeding and feeding mutant moles in the first place?