I am Liza L.’s kid

The author, age 11.

The author, age 11.

This is a hard post to write.

It’s easy to say, in the abstract, that calls for “more mental health services” in the wake of a mass murder are stigmatizing. It’s much harder to talk about how that stigma actually feels, what it looks like, what its consequences are.

Yesterday a lot of people I know started reposting an article called “Thinking the Unthinkable,” or its various re-posts under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The author of that article discusses, in detail, her 13-year-old son whom she describes as having uncontrollable outbursts. She says she feels that she is out of options for getting his behavior under control and, as a result, she is similarly situated to the mothers of the boys who shot dozens of people in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Sandy Hook. And, although she changed her son’s first name in the article, she published it under her full name and included a recent photograph of her son.

I hated the article. Not because I don’t sympathize with the mother but because I also, and more primarily, sympathize with her child. Even though I never, even at my worst, would have intentionally harmed another person, my mother could have written many of the same things about my behavior when I was around that age. Although actual violence is very rare among people with psychiatric disabilities, the sorts of behaviors that are described in this article – impulsive threats, verbal aggression (e.g., cursing at parents), fights with peers, and a tendency to try to escape, hit, or kick when approached or restrained during a meltdown – are not uncommon among kids with disabilities that affect impulse control, communication, and emotional regulation. As a friend of mine discussed in more detail in her blog post, “I Was One of the Scary Kids,” these kids are still unlikely to deliberately hurt others or engage in premeditated aggression, and their behavior often substantially improves by the time they reach adulthood as they gain the ability to escape from stressful situations.

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but imagine how I would feel if my mother had written something similar about me, documenting her impressions of my worst moments and comparing me to someone who had only recently killed 30 people, when I was only 13 years old. To know that that article was being shared among everyone I knew, including teachers, schoolmates, and extended family. To know that that article, attached to my mother’s full name and my photograph, would likely still be on the Internet years later, when I was applying to college or for jobs. At that age, I had a hard enough time forgiving or understanding my mother when she forced me to get off of the phone and do my homework (I had only two friends and they were the most important things in my life), and that’s the sort of thing that 13-year-olds have some  hope of understanding. How can any 13-year-old, let alone one with mental health issues, “understand” why his mother felt the need to tell the entire world that he is a potential mass murderer and that she’s run out of ideas of what to do about him?

Children with known psychiatric disabilities, especially those who also are seen as having persistent behavioral problems, already get typecast as potential killers despite the fact that there is no useful profile of school shooters and, as of 2009, most school shootings were by people with no history of mental health evaluation and no history of disruptive conduct at school. This typecasting leads to bullying at school, social isolation, and harassment by school administrators. This sort of treatment is not okay, even or even especially when the child actually has serious behavioral problems. How much worse must it be for the child discussed in this article, now that those perceptions have been reinforced, in a highly dramatic and public manner, by one’s own mother?

I would like to think I turned out really pretty well in the long run. I know what I have to do in stressful situations in order to keep myself calm and safe. I get angry a lot, but I’ve found ways to channel it into productive behavior (as I tell my friends, I’ve considered writing a motivational self-help book on how to succeed in stressful and competitive environments, which I plan to call “Do It For Spite”). I graduated high school, college, and law school. I’m now at a point in my life and my career where I have enough of a “track record” showing me to be a competent and non-homicidal person that I can admit to having a disability and having had emotional and impulse control issues in high school.

I’m not sure if I would have been able to do any of those things if my mother had, under her real name and using my photograph, written about my very worst moments in a very public way, and speculated without reasonable basis that I might someday kill people, when I was only 13 years old and still struggling. 

Kids with disabilities and their parents absolutely need support, both in the form of services and the sympathetic ear of others who’ve been there. But parents are not entitled to do things that harm their children in order to get that support. Unlike their children, parents of kids with disabilities are adults, and with that comes privileges and responsibilities their children do not yet have. Parents are far more powerful, both at home and in the public forum, than their minor children (what are the odds that a thirteen-year-old’s complaints about his mother’s unpredictable temper would have gone viral, even though it’s far more terrifying to live with a parent with emotional control issues than with a child?). Thirteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good at thinking about their future, but their parents are. Parents are responsible for their children’s lives, not the other way around.

As adults, parents need to consider the effect their public statements have on the long-term best interests of their children and others like their children. A 13-year-old child has the right to evolve and grow, and that right loses its meaning if there’s a dramatic narrative of the worst moments of their life at that age, published multiple places on the Internet, without meaningful protection of their anonymity. Parents also need to consider whether it’s worth saying things that perpetuate their child’s segregation and isolation from the community, in exchange for “better services.” Services help, but I’m not sure that any services help enough to outweigh the harm caused by encouraging people to see your child as a future murderer.

26 Comments

Filed under Being Weird, Children's Rights, Disabilities, Health Care, Uncategorized

26 responses to “I am Liza L.’s kid

  1. rachel cervantes

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you. I was very uncomfortable reading the article, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” that is making the rounds. While I agree that educating people about the very real need for mental health services, and while I believe the author’s intent was to educate, I was really bothered by it but I couldn’t articulate why. I am NOT criticizing the mother who wrote it. She’s trying to cope with a horrible situation and she’s worried. But I think we need to read this article, too.

  2. Raf

    Thankyou so much for speaking out. I agree so strongly with you and the many others who’ve spoken out for this young lad’s need for privacy, respect, and basic protection from further harm.

  3. Mark

    I don’t have anything to add other than to say this is a great piece and thanks for sharing.

  4. This is the best response I’ve read to that post. Thank you, very much.

  5. Thank You for your post / honesty, I am in a similar boat as you, because of the lack of understanding for my disability when I grew up, the stigma and abuse that came with that experience shaped me but still haunts me to this day… I haven’t been quite as promising as you have been, but I must admit you are absolutely right!!! If my mom took advantage of the tools and resources available today in order to “control me” as she enjoyed very much for most if not all of my life… Things would have been much worse for me today than they were when I was younger…

  6. Wendy Luckenbill

    Thanks for your thoughtful language out on this issue. I have always taken the position that families should not be asked to “tell their stories” in public, in part because their story is not just theirs, but is the story of everyone in their family, and once disclosed, even with the “permission” of the minor child, can’t be taken back. But also because I don’t think it is appropriate to ask families to relive their trauma through telling the story to a room full of strangers who then somehow will vicariously experience the perspective of the child and family and become more sensitized. I advise parents to speak about the general issues of stigma and lack of services that they have seen in their community. Still I do struggle with the unjust silence we are accepting. If children were suffering needlessly from any other challenge, cancer or asthma or starvation, we would not be afraid to speak out for fear of revealing things that could hurt a child. Surely a story of a child unable to function in a healthy happy way should be a story we all could tell and all should respond to compassionately. Hopefully this will come.

    • Twitchy Woman

      I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want any of my health information available on the internet without my express permission and consent. And I certainly wouldn’t want that description to include an inaccurate allegation that I’m a serious danger to others as a result of my health issues, or embarrassingly intimate descriptions of my medical symptoms. Cancer survivors also face real discrimination by potential employers, and besides it’s something that you don’t necessarily need strangers to know about you. Even if it’s not shameful, it’s still private.

  7. Love this! Thank you for sharing. It is through personal stories like yours, we can begin to make change. The days of the witch hunt must end now!!

  8. tedra

    Thank you for this. I am a mom who has written about my (and to a lesser extent, my son’s) anxiety and depression online. I take what you are saying here very seriously, especially this part:

    “parents are not entitled to do things that harm their children in order to get that support. Unlike their children, parents of kids with disabilities are adults, and with that comes privileges and responsibilities their children do not yet have. Parents are far more powerful, both at home and in the public forum, than their minor children.”

    Thank you for saying it so well and so clearly.

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  10. Dave

    Thank you! What that woman is doing to her boy is truly “Unthinkable”

  11. Sondra

    Thank you for this writing. We need to know all aspects of this issue.

  12. Amen! Thank you so much for your perspective. I’ve been able to be a part of the lives of a few young men as they’ve survived some excruciating years, forced into classrooms and expectations that were unbearable. We all muddled through, and happily, the schools are becoming more understanding and accommodating to the younger ones coming along. Sadly, it was a long, unforgiving road for these young men, but they were able to spread their wings, gain greater understanding of themselves and have such promising futures now. I was appalled by that woman’s article and hope that yours and the many voices like it are as widely read… I’m practically incoherent about the whole subject, so forgive my rambling, please, and accept my thanks!

  13. dontjudge

    I think when your child pulls a knife on you and threatens to kill you and possibly harm your other children, you have given up certain rights especially when the parent has tried everything to get help for that child. Its called ‘your actions have consequences regardless of your motives’. If that means that your consequences are you might have this article to haunt your future then thats what it is. Give this woman a break. She never claims to be a perfect parent. If you are a parent, then you will make some other catastrophic mistake. If you are not, you have no understanding at all what being a parent is like. Do not shame her for being an imperfect parent. We all are or will be imperfect.

    • Twitchy Woman

      Ok so let me make sure I’ve got this straight.

      When a 13-year-old kid with serious mental illness impulsively threatens his mother (NOT his siblings), he’s given up every right to privacy and it should haunt him for the rest of his life.

      But when a fully grown adult with no mental illness premeditatedly does something very public that might seriously harm her kid, it’s not okay even to point out that her actions might seriously harm her kid. Because that’s “shaming her.”

      If “your actions have consequences regardless of your motives,” that should apply to fully grown adults MORE than it applies to minor children. NOT less.

    • I think a big part of this, though, is that she could have written the same article without publishing her child’s picture on her blog, never mind allowing it to be published in major online news sources that might keep the article available for decades or longer. If she just needed to seek help or even vent she could have done it anonymously, in a way that wouldn’t limit her child’s future or invade her child’s privacy. There would still be things wrong with the article in this case, but it would be an order of a magnitude less and much more understandable.

      I’ve been in a position where I was a caretaker of children (no, I’m not a parent) and I have no patience for people who don’t take children’s safety seriously. She is morally entitled to seek help in insuring her and other people’s safety, but in doing so she has the responsibility to think about long term repercussions.

      The fact that she didn’t adauately think about it (or if she did, didn’t care) doesn’t make her the Worst Parent Ever but it’s part of a wider pattern where privacy and freedom of children with disabilities is not taken seriously by their patterns and other authority figures. This pattern is incredibly harmful to people with disabilities and does not actually help the parents in any practical way, so it’s worth pointing out what’s wrong with it and what she could have done differently..

      • I guess it’s worth mentioning that I see her willingness to have him involuntarily confined in a psychiatric hospital as a result of an impulsive comment is much worse than the article itself, to me. She should realize that this is not that different from sending him to the jail she thinks he doesn’t deserve.

        • Twitchy Woman

          I agree that involuntary hospitalization is very damaging to kids, but I am not sure it’s more damaging. I have a few friends who were hospitalized for psychiatric reasons more than once as children, and they’ve gone on to have pretty great lives. If the fact of their hospitalization – and the reasons for it – had been published on the Huffington Post, I’m not sure they would have been able to do a lot of the things they ultimately managed to do, which has included getting jobs working with children and attending highly selective places of higher education.

          In addition, I’m not sure whether there are very good community crisis services available where these people live. And a lot of professionals encourage parents to hospitalize their kids. So it’s possible that she really doesn’t know of a better alternative. Whereas there’s a pretty clear better alternative to publishing a narrative of your kid’s mental health issues on the Internet under your own name and with your kid’s picture attached.

          • “I have a few friends who were hospitalized for psychiatric reasons more than once as children, and they’ve gone on to have pretty great lives.”

            I would suggest that it will still be possible for this woman’s son to do that in spite of the article published about him, whereas you are less likely to have met the people who died in institutions or are spending their whole lives in and out of institutions. This article is unlikely to directly lead to her son’s death or confinement, although l suppose it might help anyone who has that goal.

            It doesn’t make sense to me to say that defamatory writing- and many of us have had things said about us that aren’t true or at least aren’t the whole picture- is on the same level as short term threats to a child’s short term safety and freedom, especially when those threats may go on to become long term. In many cases parents essentially have the authority to have their children committed, but this does not mean they have the authority for their children to be released.

            This is not to say that as an adult he will necessarily be able to overcome the defamatory writing or that as an adult he will necessarily be unable to overcome the potential mental, physiological, and practical issues surrounding institutionalization. It certainly could be the writing that has more long term consequences for him, depending on how things work out.

            • Twitchy Woman

              The people I’m thinking about are mainly people who experienced short-term crisis hospitalization, and I knew each of them before they experienced hospitalization. Being hospitalized for a few days during an acute mental health crisis can absolutely be traumatic, but it’s usually not fatal and usually doesn’t lead to long-term hospitalization.

              On the other hand, this sort of defamation can cause severe bullying and loss of opportunities, which in turn can cause severe depression. People commit suicide over this sort of thing. Not to mention that, most likely, “residential treatment” providers are likely to come out of the woodwork in response to her article and offer their services.

              I still don’t think that, in the anecdote that Liza L. tells, she should have hospitalized her kid. Suicide threats should always be taken seriously but hospitalization should be used only as a last resort when harm is imminent, not simply when someone says “I’m going to kill myself” while angry. But that individual hospitalization was, in my mind, not as life-changing and damaging as the article itself.

            • Twitchy Woman

              I was thinking about this some more and I feel like I should acknowledge that there is a major class issue at work in our respective experiences. And, to some extent, also a DD vs. MI dichotomy.

              My friends were either upper-middle class or upper-class kids who had not been perceived as having a disability before they started having mental health issues sometime in adolescence or early adulthood. Their parents were lawyers or close friends with lawyers, which probably protected them somewhat from the dangers inherent in a psychiatric hospitalization (I should also note that, while I don’t know why everyone was hospitalized, at least one had attempted suicide and nearly died, and wanted to go to the hospital for a bit afterward because they were scared of what they’d do otherwise). Also, parents in our community tended to assume that everything could be “fixed” and that all of their children would eventually recover and go on to college and careers (which turned out not to be entirely true, but it did mean that parents were very resistant to the idea of long-term hospitalization). Most of the careers that these parents envisioned – and many of the careers that these kids went on to have – are the type where employers are guaranteed to google you and also guaranteed to not hire you if they find something on the internet suggesting that you have a mental health disability and are potentially homicidal. So putting up something online talking about how your child had a mental illness would be seen as far more harmful than taking your child to a hospital.

              • That makes some sense. I wouldn’t take it as a certainty that a prospective employer would do a google search on me and if they did I would expect some to give up after they couldn’t find me on any “social media.” If an article like this did surface about me I would have a couple job references to testify that I am relatively gentle and patient with working with children, that I have done a good job working with other people and leading certain groups, etc*. At this point I still might not be hired and the article would make things harder for me, but I would still have a pretty good chance of finding something eventually. Also, I guess the second part is that my extended family is from a mix of income backgrounds and I do have relatives who have, say, spent a large amount of time working in construction. I imagine the article having very little impact on a job like that so long as the person came across as clean, hard working, and polite during the interview.

                I can see how if one was looking to hire a small number of highly educated people the scrutiny could be larger. It’s still hard for me to see the failure to get one specific kind of job as a terrible thing, even though I suppose someone in that position might feel that way if she had spent her whole life working towards the realization of that goal.

                [*I know for various reasons that I am seen this way and I am making statements to that effect. I’m still a little dumbfounded by it since I haven’t forgotten the grocery store employer who told me that if I was older he would have hired me for night shift.]

                “And, to some extent, also a DD vs. MI dichotomy.”

                I’ve been considered to have both at various times, so… :/ But yeah prior to adolescence I had only been seen as having physical issues surrounding coordination and movement, during adolescence I was seen as mentally ill, possibly as having schizophrenia. Also, even though I have an autism spectrum diagnosis now, it is still seen as a mental illness by many people. At one point when I was unable to talk I showed the police my diagnosis papers (which I happened to have on me at the time) and I heard him start telling other people that I had mental health problems. So I’m not sure I believe in that kind of dichotomy, at least not as a stable thing.

              • I will also say that I think voluntary hospitalization is an entirely different kind of thing and I have with my own eyes seen short term hospitalization play a positive role surrounding suicide attempts. The vast majority of people who attempt suicide impulsively seem to regret it, generally as soon as the next morning or even earlier.

                Someone in this position also may or may not benefit from the increased attention- for a child this could mean something like being assigned a social worker who helps them deal with living in an abusive household and for an adult this could mean something like having housing assistance and SSI payments worked out- and the chance to get away from one’s problems can be enormously beneficial. When I was younger I had a friend who refused to go into a day program because it would mean ending “the only good thing” about being there. Of course, being around people having similar problems can be extremely helpful as well.

                I think the positive aspects could be accomplished more safely and effectively by something more like safehomes and less like a jail, but as this is not currently an option for most people I understand why someone might consider a psychiatric hospital her best choice.

    • Dave

      I like your response. It’s like you know Liza Long stabbed her son in the back, but it’s okay because he deserves it.
      He’s 13 and they have raging hormones. I’d like to blog about all of your finer moments when you were a teenager.

      • Dave

        sorry-that was for “dontjudge”

      • Twitchy Woman

        If he’d been arrested and convicted of assault for that incident, the records of his conviction would not be public and, when he turned 21, they would have been completely expunged and not visible on a background check.

        Sort of sad when the American criminal justice system has more regard for kids’ privacy than parents. Even if I have some sympathy for this kid’s mother since she’s struggling, I have zero sympathy for strangers on the Internet who think it’s okay to encourage her to harm her child.

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