Home » Blog » James Holmes: Portrait of an Alleged Murderer

James Holmes: Portrait of an Alleged Murderer

James Holmes: Portrait of an Alleged MurdererBlack coat, white shoes, black hat, Cadillac
Yeah, the boy’s a time bomb.

~ Rancid

Who is James Holmes and why should you care? He’s the 24-year-old guy in Colorado who allegedly shot and killed 12 people in a movie theater more than a month ago, and left 58 wounded.

News media have been desperately trying to piece together information about Mr. Holmes’ life, because he had so little of a digital footprint. And because the neuroscience graduate program he attended at the University of Colorado, Denver has been tight-lipped about his short time there.

So the New York Times did some good old-fashioned reporting, digging into his friends, social life, and even talking to a few of his professors to cobble together a glimpse of the life and personality of James Holmes.

What emerges is a list of traits that — while they could be associated with a mass-murderer — could just as easily be associated with any introspective, quiet person in America. And that’s what makes such arm-chair psychologist profiling especially dangerous.

The overwhelming sense of the person who is James Holmes that you get from the Times profile is a very smart but very shy and somewhat awkward first-year graduate student. Interviews with people who knew or had contact with him before the attack tell a story of a man struggling with a mental illness and losing his footing, according to the Times story.

Those who worked side by side with him saw an amiable if intensely shy student with a quick smile and a laconic air, whose quirky sense of humor surfaced in goofy jokes — “Take that to the bank,” he said while giving a presentation about an enzyme known as A.T.M. — and wry one-liners. There was no question that he was intelligent. “James is really smart,” one graduate student whispered to another after a first-semester class. Yet he floated apart, locked inside a private world they could neither share nor penetrate.

And that’s really the entire gist of what the Times uncovered. There was no smoking gun. There were few telltale signs that suggested he was about to escalate. Because as every mental health professional knows, it’s one thing to talk about awful, unspeakable thoughts one has — and which mental health professionals and therapists hear everyday from different patients. It’s quite another to actually carry them out.

Some students claimed he got “quieter” and even less talkative or joking in the spring semester. But since apparently nobody ever really got close to him, these are simply retrospective beliefs inescapably colored by what we now know about him. Isolating oneself is not a sign of someone about to commit murder — it’s more often a sign of a person about to commit suicide.

In any case, professionals were alerted, but since he didn’t meet any of the legal requirements for a forced commitment, little else could be done. After all, you can’t imprison people in the U.S. based upon suspicion alone.

The worst part is that some of his acquaintances believed they could have or should have done more to help him before he deteriorated. Some said they wished they had tried harder to break through his loneliness, a student recalled and told the Times. But that’s just 20/20 hindsight speaking. Multiple students tried multiple times and in multiple ways to reach out to him, to make a human, social connection. He just wasn’t interested.

Maybe it was due in part to his mental illness — he texted a fellow student about “dysphoric mania” in the months leading up to his alleged rampage.

But maybe it was also just due to his personality.

Or maybe it was just due to someone who had criminal thoughts and then acted on them. I suspect it’ll be a long time — if ever — before we know the real answer.

Read the full article (lengthy, but worth it if this topic interests you): Before Gunfire, Hints of ‘Bad News’

James Holmes: Portrait of an Alleged Murderer

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

4 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). James Holmes: Portrait of an Alleged Murderer. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Aug 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.