Play deprivation seen as one of the factors that led to UT tower shooting in 1966

Anusha Lalani

After studying the life of UT Tower shooter Charles Whitman, one psychiatrist found that play deprivation as a child and an overbearing father may have driven him to carry out the attack. 

After the shooting, which over 30 people wounded and 13 dead, 1966 Governor John Connally commissioned a study of Whitman’s life and what might have caused him to commit the crime. The commission consisted of more than 30 experts including psychiatrists, neurosurgeons and pathologists who studied Whitman’s life and a tumor that was found in his brain. 

The pathology experts concluded “the data obtained provide no evidence that [Whitman] had a clinical neurological abnormality, and there is no evidence from the pathological reports that [a tumor] interrupted pathways leading to detectable neurological signs.” 

However, the psychiatrists on the commission believed Whitman’s relationship with his father was one of the factors that led to the massacre.  

“Charles J. Whitman was deeply concerned over the chronic marital discord and recent separation of his parents,” reads the report. “He often had strong, variable, inconsistent feelings of hostility toward members of his family, particularly his father.”

The report also mentioned a particular episode from Whitman’s childhood when his father became aggressive at a family gathering.

“Charles A. Whitman insisted that his son play the piano for them,” the report said. “When the son experienced some difficulty in giving a perfect performance, his father threw a Coke bottle at him, striking him on the side of his head.”

Stuart Brown, one of the commission’s psychiatrists, also noted Whitman’s previous knowledge of weaponry and the culminating tension he faced during his final months. 

“Whitman’s long developmental trajectory and [the lack of] healthy free play, combined with the repetitive family violence perpetrated by his father, his familiarity and excellence in weaponry and the triggering events and stress over the last months of his life were also contributory [to his motives for the shooting],” Brown said.

Brown, who founded the National Institute for Play, an organization created to study and raise awareness of the impact of play, said he was able to study Whitman’s entire life by interviewing his friends, family and gradeschool teachers. From this, Brown found that Whitman’s father had high expectations for his son, including a wish for Whitman to be president of the United States one day. These hopes from Whitman’s father interfered with him receiving the proper amount of play as a child, Brown said. 

Hallie Speranza is a lecturer and master teacher at the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory, which allows students to interact with children and observe their development in problem-solving, self-esteem and self-control. She said play has a major impact on a lot of aspects of a child’s future, such as interacting with others. 

“[Play is] one place where, neurologically, we’re making connections that are important for our future problem-solving,” Speranza said. “It’s really important for building the intellect, really thinking about situations and problem-solving as opposed to being academic.”

The report found Whitman did not have the opportunity to develop these problem-solving skills at a young age. 

“[Whitman] seemed to achieve no sense of pleasure or feeling of mastery from learning a subject, and appeared always to be dissatisfied with himself whenever studying, with problem solving, or incompleting projects,” the report said. 

Speranza, along with Brown, said children today are not getting enough play and interaction with other children, which can have lasting impacts on their futures. Speranza said the opportunity to play is being replaced with the need to be involved in academic-related activities. 

“At times when children have the opportunity to play,  there’s now more of a pressure to take on academic knowledge and skills,” Speranza said. “Sometimes it’s referred to as the push-down: all of the things that used to happen in first grade, now happen in kindergarten so those children are losing that time when they could really be interacting with other children and being creative.”

Robert Crosnoe, a UT sociology and psychology professor and expert in family, said lack of play, facilitated by his father, couldn’t have been the only driving force that led Whitman to the Tower. 

“Parents have enormous effects — good and bad — on the kinds of adults their children turn out to be, both because of genetics, the environment that they create for them and how they parent them,” Crosnoe said. “However, when a clearly disturbed man commits mass murder, we need to refrain from trying to find a single reason for it. It is likely a lot more complicated than the parents he had, and it is certainly more complicated than a single thing that a parent did.”