12/18/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Notes From the Couch: Arms and the Boy

In the safe place that is psychotherapy, adolescent boys will bring up thoughts, feelings, and even dreams that they won't discuss anywhere else. In my experience, these confidences often revolve around the kinds of fears and feelings of inadequacy that are always part of the human condition. The difference is that today's boys who are becoming men have little help in the struggle for perspective. Worse, still, they are very much influenced by a culture saturated in violence.

A few days before Newtown, a small, smart and anxious teenager asked me if I wanted to hear about his recent dream. We had talked about dreams before, and how the mind works actively on feelings and problems, using symbols, even as our bodies are at rest. In his recurring nightmare, "I tried to fire a gun, but all it did was go `click, click.'" In my style of dream work, called dream interviewing, I asked him to tell me more about the dream, rather than immediately applying my own interpretation.

In the key moment in the dream, my young client stood with his father, in his own suburban backyard, facing a raccoon. This boy had previously told me how he hated raccoons ("they're rodents, you know!"), because of the way they tip over trash cans and make his yard messy. Without a word being exchanged, he knew that his father expected him to kill the raccoon. In his dream, he was not surprised to find he had a weapon tucked in the waistband of his pants. He aimed and pulled the trigger, and nothing happened -- just the sound of those powerless clicks. Somehow the raccoon forced him to the ground and bit him on the leg. David felt no physical pain, but as he awakened he felt humiliated.

As we talked, this teenager recognized that he is always eager for his father's approval, though his father didn't talk much. And he was often confused about what it means to be masculine and competent. He was embarrassed to have failed this test of manliness in front of his dad. Puberty had not yet worked its magic and, small for his age, he has been bullied at home and elsewhere.

Like every teenage male I have seen in my private practice, he was so accustomed to guns, shooting, and killing that these elements of his dream were unremarkable to him. This acceptance is easy to understand. He spends much of his free time playing video games that require him to aim and shoot at images of people, supernatural creatures, and inanimate objects. Also, like most young men his age and military recruits who train with similar games, he has developed highly-responsive reflexes and has become a very good shot. In short, he comfortably shoots to kill. The gaming community is a world where height, weight, acne and social awkwardness are meaningless. He is comfortable there, a place where killing is "funny."
In becoming a competent killer in video games, a teenager gains a sense of mastery and wins acceptance, admiration and a sense of connection with peers worldwide, known only through avatars and headphones.

Back in my office, I asked my client to tell me, as though I was a Martian new to life on Earth: "What is a gun?" His answer was matter-of-fact. "It's a thing that makes people listen to you. And maybe be scared of you." Months earlier, he had brought his most prized possession to a session, a very real-looking weapon called an airsoft gun. After reassuring me that it wasn't dangerous, he pointed it at me and at his own head, smiling. I believe that when I said that the gun frightened me, I was the first person to ever say such a thing to him so directly. He was thoroughly surprised and offered to put it under the pillow of the couch. He admitted that it was hard to keep from playing with it, because he just liked the way it felt in his hand.

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, our media and our conversations are filled with questions about the young man who killed so many people with such callous ease and efficiency. We don't know whether he ever saw a therapist or, if he did, whether the subjects of guns and killing arose. I do know that these topics are relevant to every young person I have every treated. I also know that too many of them are isolated in families and communities where real conversations about guns, power, masculinity and empathy never happen. Considering the world these young people occupy and the terrible consequence Newtown represents, silence on the subject can no longer be accepted. We all better start talking with young people about guns as if our lives depend on it.

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