After last week's deadly shooting rampage in Lake City, my first thought was "meth." KOMO News was broadcasting live footage of the event from a helicopter, and I watched as Seattle Police apprehended Tad-Michael Norman, a 33-year-old tech worker who is now facing five felonies, including two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder. As SPD dragged Norman out of the red Prius he'd stolen (after shooting and killing the driver), I saw a young-ish white man wearing shorts and socks but no shoes. "Yup," I thought. "That dude is fucked up on meth.”
We now know that it wasn't meth Norman was fucked up on. It was booze.
According to charging documents obtained by the Seattle Times, Norman told police after his arrest that he's a recovering alcoholic. He says he bought vodka, rum, and wine at a Fred Meyer on Wednesday, went home, and started drinking and playing video games on his Xbox. The next thing he knew, he told police, he was waking up in the hospital. The whole thing, he says, happened during a drunken blackout and he has no memory of what he did.
Now, it's possible that Norman is full of shit and he totally knew what he was doing and set up this whole "blackout" story as an attempt to shirk culpability for murdering two people, including a 76-year-old retired physician on his way home from playing pinochle. And as far as defenses go, it's not a bad one. In criminal law, the so-called "voluntary intoxication defense" is sometimes successfully used as a mitigating factor in sentencing. It's unlikely to get you out of jail free, but it has been used to reduce sentences. Will this be the case with Norman? I'm no lawyer, but considering the damage he did and the number of witnesses to his crime spree, the blackout defense seems unlikely to sway a jury, if he even sees one.
Still, blacking out is a very real phenomenon. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), blacking out is essentially a form of amnesia. It's sometimes confused with passing out, but those are two very different things. During blackouts, a person can engage in normal (or abnormal) behaviors and afterward, have absolutely no recollection of what happened.
There are two different kinds of blackouts. Most commonly, people report having spotty or incomplete memories. You may remember going out to the bar and having five shots of tequila, but you don't remember how you go home. This is referred to as a “fragmentary blackout,” a “grayout,” or a “brownout,” and it may be possible to piece together events using the memories that do exist. With total blackouts, or en bloc blackouts, however, there's no point in trying to recover memories because they just aren't there. They didn't disappear; they were never encoded.
According to the NIAAA, "it seems that alcohol produces blackouts by shutting down circuits that involve the hippocampus, a brain area which plays a central role in consolidating memories for what happens in our day-to-day lives. Information coming into the brain from the world around us is processed in various brain areas and then funneled to the hippocampus, which somehow weaves the information together into a running record of facts and events in our lives, a process called consolidation. By interfering with how these memory circuits work, alcohol creates a void in the record-keeping system." A person in the midst of a blackout may appear totally normal and can carry on conversations, tell stories, hit on the wrong person, fight, make up, have sex, and generally act like people do when they're drinking. It's not until the next morning when they realize, if they realize at all, that their memories are missing.
While not everyone who drinks, or even drinks heavily, will experience blackouts, it's not exactly uncommon. Most studies of blackouts conducted in the last century centered around middle-aged male alcoholics, often in hospital settings, but more contemporary research has found that between 30 and 50 percent of young, social drinkers blackout as well. Alcohol dependence isn't a requirement to blacking out, but research has also shown that some people may be predisposed to experiencing it. And this is a truly dangerous state to be in, because when you've drunk enough to blackout, your decision-making faculties aren't exactly going to be at their sharpest. Regret, post-blackout, is almost custom.
Alcohol isn't the only drug that causes blackouts. GHB (the so-called "date rape" drug), as well as benzodiazepines and barbiturates, can all cause similar forms of amnesia. But alcohol is the only one of those drugs you can get at nearly every corner store in America. There's a familiar, though easily ignored, warning label on all those bottles of booze: "GOVERNMENT WARNING,” it says in all caps: “(1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems." What that label fails to mention is that it may also cause memory loss, blackouts, organ failure, and, in the case of suspect Tad-Michael Norman, violence and murder. I have little hope that updating the warning label to more accurately reflect the consequences of drinking would do much to mitigate the public health nightmare that is alcohol consumption, but alcohol is, truly, a monstrous drug, one that destroys the lives of both those who abuse it and the people around them. What happened last week in Lake City is, tragically, more proof of that.