Jo Scott-Coe discusses the 54th anniversary of the 1966 UT Austin shooting, & influences of Catholicism on violence & sexism.
The University of Texas Austin shooting took place on August 1, 1966. It has been covered many times over the past 50 years. What made you return to this subject?
JO SCOTT-COE: I have been writing about violence in public-private spaces for a very long time. My first book, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute 2010), asked a lot of questions about what we care about — who we listen to, who we believe — long before any gun goes off on campus. In MASS, I was trying to understand a story that had been told over and over again, reinforcing silences and narrative patterns that I found deeply unsatisfying, if not disturbing.
Before the shooter, Charles Whitman, picked off his victims from the tower at the University of Texas, he murdered two women in private: his mother, Margaret, and his wife, Kathleen. The horrific events of that day became a terrible fusion of domestic terror at home and bullets in a public space.
What drew you to explore the religious angle of a mass murder?
In the U.S., we tend to talk about religion in fairly simplistic terms. We zero-in on religion in violent cases only if we can connect it to an obvious, salacious extreme (Satanism, cults like Jonestown or the Branch Davidians). We also use religion for nationalistic or political purposes and to blame non-Western peoples or places. Since 9/11, politicians have exploited bigotry and prejudice to target immigrants, particularly those who have brown or black skin, or who identify as Islamic.
Once I had a grasp on the upbringing of the shooter, Charles Whitman, I saw significant elements of mid-20th-century American Catholic identity that I recognized from my own education and upbringing. I couldn’t ignore these things. Catholics at that time, even before Kennedy’s election, were beginning to take a place in the American middle class. Whitman’s childhood — down to everyday school routines for the greater part of 18 years — was ordered by daily mass, altar serving, catechism, Catholic scouting, and parochial schools. He was baptized, confirmed, and married in the Church. He had a Catholic burial and funeral. The church was more than a casual “blip” of influence.
Furthermore, the template of intense mid-century Catholic boyhood intersected with many other very ordinary factors in Whitman’s upbringing, including Southern good ol’ boy networks and racism, domestic abuse (what he witnessed as well as replicated), intense military training, and brittle expectations about men, women, and sex. All of these ordinary elements combined together for a poisonous stew.
Are you saying that being Catholic made Charles Whitman a murderer?
No. For millions of Americans (including myself), Catholic identity offered significant benefits in education and community life. However, I am saying that the template for making violence holy is a volatile theology in many religions, in Christianity generally, and in Catholic history and ritual in particular. I’m not the first person to notice this. The theology of the sacred or perfect “victim” was explicitly central in the mass liturgy prior to Vatican II, and this loaded idea has a far-reaching impact in the lives of Catholics even if no gun is drawn. Who, then, is the “sacred perpetrator”?
In Roman Catholicism, isolating male priests in sacred authority away from women has created deep problems, especially when those men make the rules about marriage, divorce, sexual behavior, and identity. Models of entitlement and domination/submission get deeply ingrained in secular patterns of interaction. So even if a guy says, “Hey, I’m not even Christian anymore,” or “I’m not Catholic. … The pope is stupid. … I don’t go to mass,” those mental habits can be hard to break, especially when male voices remain the default model of authority.
I’ve been seated at many a table with a “woke” dude delivering a sermon where nobody else gets heard. Constantine’s empire may seem to be dead, but there are little popes and emperors all around us.
Where did the priest come into this story?
From the time he was nine years old until roughly seven days before he committed the tower shooting, Charles Whitman had a significant connection to a Catholic scoutmaster and priest named Father Leduc. The connection was notable because it transcended geographical separations over the greater part of 15 years. This was not a relationship that had ever been explored, which somewhat surprised me at first. Then again, no one had written about Whitman and religion at all.
Over six years of work, I found that Leduc fit most elements of the pattern researchers such as Richard Sipe have established about the criminal priest — from seminary hops to name changes, from dodgy finances to dalliances with shady property, fragmented assignment records, time in jail, and a general skill for disappearing into the woodwork: parish to parish, diocese to diocese, and state to state — in Leduc’s case, from Connecticut to Florida to Texas and even to Alaska (to name only a few!).
Leduc’s story was deeply buried. It bothered me that asking fairly obvious, simple questions often felt uncomfortable, and a lot of people gave me the side-eye for bothering to follow his trail. Whatever I was stepping into, I claimed the right to ask. If you have seen Philomena, Spotlight, or The Keepers, you know how veils of secrecy and denial in religious systems are always toxic.
By the way, it’s no small postscript to add that nine months after MASS was published, Leduc was identified as “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children. I believe that my research on Leduc was vindicated by that revelation, but I also know all too well that official “naming” is only the first step to justice for victims.
What kind of Catholic are you, anyway?
I identify as a stray. Not “strayed,” to be very clear. (Cultural Weekly published a long essay I wrote about this identity a few years back.) Basically, I hang around at the edge of the flock. I keep an eye on shepherds. I make friends with creatures inside and outside the periphery, but I well understand how things work inside the lines.
I had a very traditional upbringing and a mostly positive experience in Catholic parochial schools. I also know how traditional Catholic teaching — especially about sexuality, divorce, the role of women — can deeply mess with a person’s head even as other aspects of Catholic social justice tradition and community building can be energizing and transformative. I have known — and have met during this work — good priests with very human struggles. In my childhood, like so many girls, I thought nuns were amazing.
MASS returned me to Catholic teaching and history in a way I didn’t expect. I saw how the reforms of Vatican II have taken the most vivid shape in the activism of laypeople, both Catholic and not, who demand that clergy listen for real — most urgently when the news is bad or demands change.
How was the work of MASS different from the work you have been doing about Whitman’s wife, Kathy Leissner Whitman?
Kathy’s story is about wanting connection and love as if they were the most natural, uncalculated impulses life could offer. MASS is a story about how toxic social agreements, usually among groups of men — formal and informal, spoken and unspoken, within households and across institutions — can exploit and outright violate this impulse, through habit as much as through intention.
Access to Kathy’s letters and the memories from her family members and friends enabled me to understand how Kathy married into a “guy’s world” where she could not be fully heard or acknowledged in three dimensions. MASS explores the social forces that simultaneously put her on a pedestal, ignored her, and then devoured her.
I think we need to understand how ordinary, how ingrained, that pattern remains. We still have very limiting stereotypes about intimate partner violence, and our ideas of “victim” are often dismissive and reductive. So are our notions of what a perpetrator looks like. The violent partner is often handsome, charming, and wearing nice clothes.
Do you have any final words on the matter?
Mass shootings are only one form of violence. Other forms of violence with a much more massive and pervasive impact — especially in private, offscreen — get largely ignored. A great deal of violence is also committed in our name, by police officers, border “guards,” or our military. I think we need to recognize how our citizenry is implicated.
Understandable survival techniques for avoiding these questions only ensure the cycle will keep repeating. Every time a gun goes off, you’ll hear the rote phrases: “senseless killing” and “senseless violence.” (I wrote an essay exploring this idea several years ago that appeared in The Chaffey Review.) What does “sensible” violence look like then? It’s pretty much everywhere, but we never call it that. We just don’t comment when it happens.
So we reshape violent stories as hero stories, with the obvious villain and the good guys or saints. It’s gotten to the point where people will say — with no irony — that a horrific act (like a mass shooting) really “brings us together.” That’s evocative of the Christian communion, where Christ’s execution is the horror transcended (we hope) by his resurrection. But when we join hands, are we honoring a loving act or sentimentalizing a death cult? I think we need to examine our conscience more deeply about that.