In early January of 1985, an unusual three-page handwritten letter found its way to my desk in the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times. A psychologist whom I will call Gary Harding, writing on his letterhead stationery from a not-too-distant city in a bordering state, was communicating on behalf of his patient. The patient wondered whether the newspaper would be interested in the diary he had been keeping. The patient's diary, Harding explained, "revolves around his inner struggle to keep from killing again."
The psychologist believed that his patient's desire to communicate in this fashion represented "positive reflections of some of the gains this man has achieved." Such disclosure would be "therapeutic." Make no mistake, Harding cautioned, the patient "remains a highly disturbed man. He is a man who has killed and who on numerous occasions has been very close to mass killing and suicide. He speaks of impulses to 'go into a store and open fire. . . .' He feels, and I agree, that an account of his ordeal would provide a greater understanding to the general public about the kinds of things that go through the mind of someone who has been diagnosed as dangerously mentally disturbed."
Harding also thought the diary might provide some insight "into the darker side that exists within most of us" and might reflect on "certain societal influences and inadequacies." His patient-- educated and articulate--had been locked in psychiatric wards six times, treated by 16 different psychologists and psychiatrists, given 18 different psychotropic medicines and exposed to electroshock therapy. "Yet he is on the streets and functioning," Harding wrote, "his inner struggles unbeknownst to those he encounters, even those who would say they know him well."
The psychologist concluded: "If you do have an interest in this man, you may contact him through me at the letterhead address."
The letter intrigued me, in part for the unstated ethical question: What of Harding's own responsibility regarding this patient? Only six months before, James Oliver Huberty had gunned down 21 children and adults at a McDonald's in San Diego. Did Harding feel a duty to inform the police, or did his pledge of confidentiality to his patient take precedence? I wanted to speak with him as much as with his patient. So it was that on a crisp Monday morning in early February of 1985, I stepped off an airplane in a medium-sized city in the southwest corner of the United States.
Gary Harding's home, like many in that region, was a modest, earth-toned structure on an undeveloped, open plain dotted by sagebrush and cactus. He opened his front door dressed in casual khaki slacks and a brown tweed sport jacket. He was a thin man approaching 40, slightly over six feet tall, with light brown hair and a beard just turning to gray. His face was narrow, almost gaunt, and he had a slight stoop. "Hello," he said cautiously. "I'm Dr. Harding."
We sat down in a living room filled with books and manuscripts that spilled from assorted tables and chairs. Most related to psychology. The dry desert stretched out before us beyond a wall of sliding glass doors. Although he had a small office downtown, Harding explained, he conducted much of his practice from his home.
A problem had come up, he said. His patient had become fearful about meeting me. It would be best, the psychologist said, if we first talked at length about the case. The patient would drop by later if he felt more comfortable. "Given his background, his paranoia and tentativeness, this is to be expected," Harding said. So we began.
Cooper, as I will call the patient, had first contacted Harding eight years before, the psychologist said.
"He was very tentative at first. Several times he literally fled the office. He thought he was going to fall down and pass out. He thought his heart was going to burst. He wasn't revealing much, but from the start I perceived him as highly disturbed. When anyone comes in and says he is deeply depressed, I know the flip side of that is anger. I was surprised when the anger didn't come out, and also worried. This guy's suppressed anger seemed to me very dangerous."
Cooper gradually began to open up and reveal a world full of unremitting pain to Harding.
Cooper's family was not overtly abusive, Harding said. "The father was a professional, an engineer, president of a company, involved in civic organizations. Theirs was the best house on the block, in an upper-middle-class area. Everything seemed normal. But it was an emotionally sterile household. Cooper can't remember any caring interaction among the parents or the kids. The parents were not mean or evil, just emotionally retarded."