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Duly Noted

Sunday, Dec 16, 2012, 9:40 pm

On Being, Or Not Being, Adam Lanza’s Mother

By Lindsay Beyerstein

Dave Young, Creative Commons.

On Friday, as the nation grieved the mass shooting in Newtown, a mother blogged about her fears for her 13-year-old son, Michael:

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.
 
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.
 
That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.
The post was called "Thinking the Unthinkable," it was later republished under the headline "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother." It quickly went viral.

Michael's mother, who blogs as "Anarchist Soccer Mom," described what it's like to fear that your child is going to kill people, and have nobody take you seriously:

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
A vicious backlash against ASM is already underway. A widely-cited post entitled "You Are Not Adam Lanza's Mother," accuses her of dehumanizing the mentally ill, trafficking in stereotypes, and overmedicating her son. (This Monday morning quarterbacking of psych meds really bothers me. It's extraordinarily presumptuous for this blogger to second-guess the doctors of a kid s/he's never met.) 
 
We need to put ASM's post in context without demonizing her as a person. We shouldn't take her post as a commentary on all mental illness or on any particular disorder. She's not a professional or an expert. She's a mom who's terrified that her kid is going to hurt someone or himself.
 
Here's the truth: Most people with mental illnesses are not violent. Most disturbed kids don't grow up to be murderers. Hell, most murderers don't become mass murderers.

ASM doesn't blame her son's behavior on any particular condition. She says various professionals have bandied about terms like "autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant-, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder," but she says nobody knows what's wrong with him.
 
She's afraid that her kid is going to end up killing people, not because of some label, but because he pulled a knife on her and threatened her other kids.
 
Michael is an individual, not an metaphor for all people with mental illness, or autism, or blond hair, or anything else. Are we going to tell ASM, not knowing her kid, that she's wrong to be worried?
 
If a kid's own mother says there's a good chance that he's going to kill people, that's as big a red flag as anyone could possibly wave. It's insulting for total strangers to be discounting her fears out of hand and shaming her for voicing them.
 
Some critics are angry at ASM for violating her son's privacy. In this case, I think she was right to go public. Her blog is pseudonymous, but the post got republished under her real name.
 
A social worker warned ASM that nobody will take her seriously unless Michael's charged with a crime, but she doesn't want to send him to jail. At least by getting her story on the record, she's forcing doctors, administrators, and law enforcement to take her seriously. If Michael hurts somebody, they won't be able to say they weren't warned. Yes, a blog post could follow Michael around, but it's a lot better than a criminal record. Privacy is important, but it's not an absolute right. Michael is violent and the people around him have a right to know what he's already done and what his mother fears he might be capable of.
 
Another blogger, Sarah Kendzior, is spelunking through ASM's archives, trying to prove that she's a bad mom or a liar, or something. This is despicable.
 
I read ASM's entire archive, which consists of about 35 posts, spread out over 5 years. Kendzior promises "the truth" about ASM. I'm here to tell you Kendzior's full of shit. Malicious shit.
 
The post about Michael's illness is a major departure for ASM. She usually writes about being a classics profs, religion, the books she's reading, cheap chic outfits, her divorce, and her own adjustment to life as a single mother of four.
 
Kendzior implies that ASM is lying about her son because there's another post from January 2012 that describes him as a typical annoying teenager, as opposed to a maniac.* Guess what? Mentally ill teens are teens. They're walking the same developmental path as their neurotypical peers. As ASM said in her mental illness post, Michael is charming and intelligent on his good days.
 
Kendzior holds up this goofy Irma Bombeck-like post as evidence of ASM's parental depravity. ASM jokes that she could throttle her kids. What a monster. Get a load of this part:
Finally, Mr. Teen Hero in the front seat, blasting your music through your Skullcandies, if you take the name of Our Lord in vain one more time, I will tell all your facebook friends that you are really listening to Justin Bieber instead of Linkin Park.
In her greatest creative excess, Kendzior accuses ASM of having "Abraham-Isaac murder fantasies" for this pseudo-philosophical reflection on mountain climbing:
Why then do we choose not to summit a mountain? That question is more difficult for me. We choose because when we reach the moment of decision, we find ourselves insufficiently aware, informed, prepared. We choose not to succeed at some things because the risks outweigh the benefits. To give up something that you value greatly for those you love is to know the meaning of sacrifice in the Biblical sense. As I turned back from Mr. Regan’s taunting summit, as I wedged my body between sheer rock faces with vertical drops of more than 30 feet, as I scavenged for handholds in flaking granite, I thought of Abraham, knife poised above the body of his innocent son. Why does God give us these urges, then tell us not to act on them?
As if all this truth weren't shocking enough, Kendzior solemnly reminds us that ASM is D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D. Classy.

Kendzior went out of her way to malign a parent in crisis, a woman who's already living in fear that her son will kill her or her children.

Is this some sick manifestation of the "just world hypothesis'? Does Kendzior assume that only a bad mom would end up with a violent, mentally ill son?

It's ironic that the real Nancy Lanza's corpse wasn't even cold before people started attacking her for failing to control her son. With zero evidence, strangers were ranting and raving about how she didn't do enough to stop Adam.

Conservative pundit Ann Althouse even speculated that Nancy conspired to kill school children:

Why did Adam, after killing his mother, travel to the school where she worked? Shouldn't some suspicion fall on the mother? She looks like a victim, but could she and her son have been operating together?

ASM is afraid that her son might be violent. She had the courage to voice her fears. Now she's being vilified for trying to prevent another tragedy. Total strangers, again with no evidence, are lecturing her about her own son.

A mom just can't win.

*The post might not even be about Michael. ASM has two teenage sons, and the post doesn't mention any names.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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