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Writing & Published Work

Greenwich Post
November 20, 2008

Channeling pain: Professor combines experience, research on school shootings into nonfiction book

By Christina Alex

Since Greenwich resident Jonathan Fast has published eight novels, he feared readers might think his shocking new book "Ceremonial Violence" was fiction. Yet the school rampage shootings he spent five years researching as a Yeshiva University social worker professor are more macabre than anything he could imagine.
Time magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly have recently praised the nonfiction debut of Fast, the 60-year-old son of the late Greenwich bestseller Howard Fast (author of “Spartacus” and “Freedom Road”). The family business also extends to his daughter Molly Jong-Fast, who helped him create pages on My Space and Facebook to invite his students to readings, his uncle Julian Fast, his ex-wife Erica Jong and distant relative Sholom Aleichem. Fast, who graduated from Princeton, Columbia and Yeshiva, lives with his wife Barbara, a Unitarian minister. Their two sons, now in college, attended Central Middle School and Greenwich High School. 
“Ceremonial Violence” was partially motivated by Fast’s painful childhood memories of being bullied by his peers. As he counseled young people and their families and published academic articles on aggression and school safety in the 1990s, the idea began to crystallize. Talking to colleagues after the Jonesboro, Arkansas shooting in 1998 led to the book’s premise – what are the factors that separate unhappy kids from unhappy killers?
He spent five long years researching court transcripts and small town newspaper archives - 2,000 pages of police documentation for Columbine alone. He didn’t talk to families because he felt “exploitative.” Fast finally narrowed his list to 13 tragedies – including Jonesboro, Arkansas and Columbine – by focusing on adolescent shooters who killed at least two people (besides themselves if it was a suicide) on school grounds.
Fast’s original goal was to develop a profile of a typical school shooter, but he “abandoned that idea early on” after learning that even the FBI can’t predict who will be a serial killer. Fast’s profiles, like the FBI’s, are retrospective constellations of factors that led these teens to kill, but the only way to prevent these crimes is to identify specific plausible threats. This often depends on cooperation from teens who know the shooters, since Fast believes the perpetrators plan their attack as a public ceremony for which they may choose special clothes, weapons and music, as Fast’s title suggests.
What complicates these crimes – and makes them so wrenching – is that the shooters are underdogs and victims. For instance, the infamous Columbine duo Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris suffered relentless verbal and physical bullying. Others were abused at home, like Evan Ramsey, who spent his early years in foster care, and Luke Woodham, a victim of his mother’s emotional incest and bullying at school. Many shooters were of small stature, learning disabled or mentally impaired. Some were gay in intolerant or even dangerous households and communities.
Many of Fast’s subjects bought into the macho idea that violence is a problem-solving strategy. For these reasons, Fast believes anti-bullying programs are the “best thing you can do.” The toughest challenge for schools in general is addressing relational bullying behaviors, such as spreading rumors and intentionally isolating people.
However, the crucial factor that separated these perpetrators from others who might have had the idea was access to firearms, a truth that fuels Fast’s passion for gun control. “The second amendment ruling was horrifying to me,” he says of the Supreme Court’s upholding citizen’s right to bear arms. He quotes five studies that looked at states with more guns and found that, not surprisingly, more killings took place there. Fast admits that when he was 9, if he had a gun he would’ve shot a fellow camper who teased him.
Research shows that the media doesn't inspire violence, but may help shape the type of violence for teenagers who have already decided to kill. Still "if they don't want the jeans, no amount of advertising will convince them." Because of the increased media coverage, "Each case study [in the book] was 30% longer than the next."
Fast still "goes to pieces" every time he does a presentation where he shows a slide of the first Columbine High victim Rachel Joy Scott's car alone in the parking lot. "People started leaving flowers and notes [on the car.]" In order to cope with the dark material, he retreated to a very intellectual part of his head when writing it.
The good news is that since Columbine, many tragedies have been prevented, such as the "grand shooting planned in Massachusetts -  New Bedford High - which was thwarted by one student” in 2001. This is the kind of copycatting that Fast hopes his book will promote – teens defying peer pressure to report their suspicions to adult, and saving countless lives.

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