As you are certainly aware, Adam Lanza is the disturbed young man responsible for the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newton, Conn. A former babysitter claims that Lanza’s mother was aware of her son’s inclinations, and that she told the babysitter “to keep an eye on him at all times … to never turn my back, or even to go to the bathroom or anything like that.” Which makes a lot of us question whether, if she knew that her son was this disturbed, should she have taken more action? Should she have locked him up, or had him institutionalized? What was her duty as a parent, and as a member of society?
If you have not yet read it, there is a wonderful piece on The Blue Collar review entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”. She is not, of course, Adam Lanza’s mother, because Adam Lanza’s mother was shot by him before he went on to kill 26 other people. However, she is a woman dealing with a son she feels has similar issues. She begins by discussing a recent dispute with him which ran:
“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises. “They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.” “They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”
Here is the thing. I think if you replaced the pants with a strapless Lily Pulitzer dress, a “stupid bitch” with “insufferable cow” and the thing about America with threats to move to France, you would have had me at 13. The entire thing would have been topped off by some sobbing in my closet. And while I am still sometimes temperamental, I’m a fairly functioning adult. I have a job. I have long lasting friendships and relationships. I like to think my parents are proud of me. My mother and I can laugh about ways I was rotten as a pre-teen, now. And, most importantly, I have never shot anyone. However, one commenter on Gawker, where the piece was reposted remarks:
If you have a child that you know is capable of committing mass murder you have a responsibility to contain them by whatever means are necessary. Your child assaults you? Press charges. Medicate them. Even if it turns them into a zombie. Have them committed to a mental institution. Even if it’s a shitty one. Can’t get them into one? Lock them in their bedroom. Surrender them to the state. They threaten to kill themselves? Let them. Because one day they will kill you. And your other children. And perfect strangers. Just because all the choices are shitty it doesn’t mean that you don’t have choices. Pick one. Do something because they are your responsibility. And for fuck sake, don’t own firearms.
First of all, no, you don’t “let anyone kill themselves.” This comment was seemingly written by someone who has never had a family member with any issues, or perhaps, had a family member, period.
The son whose mother likens him to Adam Lanza seems to have other, more serious issues than her child not wanting to follow his school’s dress code. However, I think, as a parent, there seems like there would be a terrible difficulty in figuring out what qualifies your child as dangerously disturbed. Especially because we know that teenagers are supposed to rebel. We know that they’re supposed to get upset and test boundaries and try to figure out who they are outside of the family unit. But, then, there is this story, again from a Gawker commenter:
I grew up in a house with a brother who had severe ADHD and routinely lashed out violently at myself and my parents, he came after us with knives and one time tried to use a power drill to lobotomize my father.
Right, yes, I think we all agree that anyone trying to lobotomize people with a power drill should not be in polite society. That seems pretty evident. But most people’s teenage years fall somewhere between “being okay” and “being about to perform an at home lobotomy on their father.” How can you ever know precisely where the tipping point is that indicates that your child – who you, naturally, love – is simply too disturbed to be around other people? I find myself thinking of this article that ran in the New York Times a while ago entitled “Can You Call a 9-Year Old a Sociopath?” In it, they talk of one nine year old called Michael who sounds like he… might very well be a sociopath. For instance:
At one point, while Michael was downstairs, Jake clambered goofily onto the computer chair and accidentally unpaused Michael’s Pokémon video. Allan giggled, and even Miguel smiled affectionately. But the amusement was brief. Hearing Michael on the stairs, Miguel said, “Uh oh!” and whisked Jake out of the chair. He wasn’t fast enough. Seeing the video playing, Michael gave a keening scream, then scanned the room for the guilty party. His gaze settled on Allan. Grabbing a wooden chair, he hoisted it overhead as though to do violence but paused for several seconds, giving Miguel a chance to yank it away… From the bedroom, Michael called out: “He knows the consequences, so I don’t know why he does it. I will hurt him.” Miguel: “No you won’t.” Michael: “I’m coming for you, Allan.”
Right, okay, this sounds very bad to me. I do not think anyone would agree that the consequences for un-pausing a video should be “death.”
But also, as the article suggests with their title, it is really hard to tell whether a child is a real risk, or just an unruly child who will, ultimately, grow up into a fairly normal and reasonable person. After all, some of the most interesting people (especially creative people) went through unruly periods in their younger years. I imagine Charles Bukowski, or Jack Kerouac, were nightmares to raise. I think it’s especially interesting from a parental perspective:
Anne is a strict disciplinarian, she said, particularly with Michael, who she worries would otherwise simply run wild. She mentioned an episode of “Criminal Minds” that terrified her, in which a couple’s younger son was murdered by his older brother. “In the show, the older brother didn’t show any remorse. He just said, ‘He deserved it, because he broke my plane.’ When I saw that, I said, ‘Oh my God, I so don’t need that episode to be my life story down the line.’ ” She laughed awkwardly, then shook her head. “I’ve always said that Michael will grow up to be either a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer.”
To be fair, he could be Henry Kissinger, you don’t have to pick just one. But it’s impossible for parents to identify what’s going on with their kids accurately in part because there’s not really a ton of research regarding whether or not the kid even has problems. However, there are reasons for that, too.
John Edens, a clinical psychologist at Texas A&M University, has cautioned against spending money on research to identify children at risk of psychopathy. “This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,” Edens observes. “Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.”
But look. Let’s say there was a system to enable us to tell whether or not you had a child who was likely to hurt others. Let’s say we did put a ton of funding into being able to determine, Minority Report style whether or not your child was likely to attack and harm people later in life. Then let’s assume that it was determined that, yes, you were dealing with a cold blooded psychopath.
As a mother, would you be able to send your child away?
I don’t have children, but I’m under the impression that the love you feel for them is pretty intense. Like, the most intense. I’ve done some pretty dumb stuff for people I loved who were not even related to me by blood.
I do not think that, if it were someone I loved, even if I knew they were “bad”, I would have the strength to send them to jail, knowing the horrific conditions that exist there. I don’t think I could. I think the guilt would cripple me.
But one thing that I do think we can agree on is that there needs to be a support system in place for parents who are dealing with angry children, whether those children are angry because they’re rebellious teenagers or they’re angry because they are deeply mentally ill.
The part of the article by Liza Long that troubled me most was the part where she remarked:
On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”
And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.
It seems terribly sad that we do not have more support systems in place for the mothers and fathers who are dealing with this. Because the only option should not be to “lock them up” or “let them kill themselves.”
Picture via We Need To Talk About Kevin