Chances are, if you spent any time on the internet this weekend, a blog post originally titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” came across your radar. The piece was originally posted on the personal blog of writer Liza Long (pictured), a mom living in Boise, Idaho, who is obviously not literally the mother of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old man who has been identified as the shooter in Friday’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, CT. Long, however, is the single mother of 13-year-old boy she calls “Michael” in the piece, an apparently deeply troubled kid who has hard to diagnose mental health and behavioral and developmental issues that Long believes are similar to those had by Adam Lanza and the other young white men who have committed mass shootings in recent years.
“I live with a son who is mentally ill,” she writes. “I love my son. But he terrifies me.” A photo of Michael accompanies the piece, which has since been cross-posted on such high traffic websites as Gawker and Huffington Post.
Long writes about a recent instance when her son threatened to kill her because she insisted he abide by his school’s dress code. A few weeks prior, he actually pulled a knife on her and threatened to kill her and himself after she asked him to return his overdue library books. Since then, she has kept all of the sharp objects in her house in a Tupperware container, which she carries with her at all times so her son can’t access them. Her younger children have a procedure to follow whenever Michael gets violent — they run to the car and lock themselves inside. At 13, Michael is still small enough for Long to physically control, but that won’t last for long, she says.
Long and Michael have met with countless counselors, therapist, psychiatrists, teachers and probation officers, but no official diagnosis for Michael’s problem has been reached. He’s been on different medications, but nothing has worked.
I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people.
Aligning herself with mothers like Nancy Lanza, who was killed by her son before he went on his shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary, Long continues, “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.”
My initial response to this piece was one of deep compassion for both Long and her son. Mental illness and the help available to those who are suffering is something we absolutely do not talk enough about in this country. We especially don’t talk about mental illness and children, and I saw Long’s piece as a brutally honest, strangled cry for help. I shared her post on my Facebook wall, my Twitter, and my Tumblr, as did many others. But in the days since my first read, I’ve had some time to think and I’ve become far less comfortable with many aspects of Long’s piece.
I’m not alone. A couple of response pieces have been making the rounds, which criticize Long for drawing parallels between her son and Adam Lanza. Michael, after all, has not killed 26 people, including 20 children. And as much as Long may fear her son has the potential to commit a crime like that because of his current violent and aggressive behavior, very little is known about Adam Lanza’s mental health before or during his killing spree. To surmise that Adam Lanza shared the same behavioral and mental health issues as Michael, and that Nancy Lanza was dealing with the same stress and fear as she is, can’t be supported with any evidence because we simply don’t know anything about Adam Lanza yet.
“I felt that she was both exploiting and belittling the recent tragedy by associating the shooter’s name with her post about her young son,” said my friend Anna. “We know next to nothing about Nancy Lanza or her struggles raising her son, so for her to proclaim that they share the same complications is baffling. Did Ms. Long’s son shoot up a school? No? Then what the hell is she talking about it? How are they the same? How can she make a comparison so confidently? If Ms. Long wrote about her son independently of the tragedy in Newtown, I could judge it on its own merits. But to link the two when there isn’t a clear link–as least to me–seems sensationalistic.”
My friend Sam*, who has a son and a second child on the way, agreed. “No one really knows what Adam Lanza or his mother were like, do they?” he asked.
This is certainly true. But a lack of concrete information has not stopped the media from speculating extensively about Adam and Nancy Lanza. Long’s piece seems to be written in response to the narrative being told by the media that Adam had existing behavioral problems and may have had a developmental disorder — and what his mom did or did not do to deal with it. Given that her son has threatened her with a knife, I can see how she could fear that he could someday hurt others or himself like Adam unless he gets the help he needs. The title does a service — draws attention to a real issue, i.e. parents of mentally ill children needing compassion and help — and a disservice — by being sensationalistic.
“While I believe her title was meant to be attention grabbing, it becomes inflammatory if you don’t hear the real message,” my friend Stephanie, a special education teacher, told me. “Her real commonality with Nancy Lanza was helplessness. Many parents are ill-equipped and/or need supplemental resources when dealing with their special needs child. While many books address parenting strategies, the nuances and idiosyncrasies of a mental illness rarely have a one size fits all solution; hence, many parents are left out of ideas, resources and hope. She is not Lanza’s mother, but I bet they would have had a lot in common on Thursday afternoon.”
Sarah Kendzior was among the first to criticize Long for her piece and, in a blog post of her own, painted the mother as vindictive, cruel and mentally ill herself. Using Long’s previous blog posts as examples, Kendzior said Long never before indicated that her son had mental health issues, and characterizes her previous writings about her children as “violent and paranoid.” Personally, I think the examples Kendzior uses are first, taken out of context, and second, mischaracterized as serious when they are, in fact, typical of the hyperbolic tone of many mommy blogs, where mothers dramatically vent about their kids. When Long writes about wanting to throttle her children, for example, I think it’s clear that she’s kidding. She’s writing what many parents think on particularly frustrating days. The posts on Long’s blog are not at all atypical of what appears on your average mommy blog — however, they’re being heavily scrutinized in the wake of her post about Michael having gone viral. Long, for what it’s worth, has since retitled her original post on her blog “Thinking the Unthinkable.” (Michael’s photo continues to accompany it.)
“Everyone wants to throttle their kids at times, but most of us don’t say it out loud, let alone write it,” a mom friend of mine told me. “Being a single mom, with a mentally ill child in the mix, she’s probably often at the end her rope, and getting it all out in her blog is her means of survival.”
While I think Kendzior’s characterization of Long’s blog is pretty unfair, but I do think she makes an excellent point about Long’s decision to post specifically about Michael’s mental health issues. “Parenting is the hardest thing a person can do, and every parent feels frustration and anger towards their children at some point,” writes Kendzior. “But most of us do not blog about it using our child’s picture, under our real names. Her child’s privacy and reputation have been irrevocably damaged. If he gets the help he needs, he will still have his mother’s cruel words following him online for the rest of his life.”
My friend Katie* wrote to me with similar concerns. “I have a lot of problems with parents writing about their children. This stuff NEVER goes away.” She shared an anecdote from her own childhood as an example:
I grew up with extremely irresponsible adults. Mother and stepfather. Alcoholic, abused each other on a regular basis. One day my mom just up and left for a couple of years. No warning, nothing. My sister and I went to live with a relative. One day, my mom returned. She tried to get me and my sister to go live with her. My sister and I were enrolled in school and relatively stable. We did not want to go back to her life of crazy. I was old enough to put my foot down, so she grabbed my sister, who was about 7. She tried to take her out of the house. I grabbed a knife and threatened her. I’m not a violent person and had no history of violence but enough was ENOUGH. To my mom’s credit, at this point she realized it was really upsetting us both to think of being separated, so she stopped.
She was also a bit of a writer. Local newsletters and journals, etc. What if she had had a blog? What if she put this incident on her blog, telling it from HER point of view, leaving out all of her craziness, slapped MY face on it, and then it got picked up nationally and she used her real name? Suddenly I’m a future mass murderer? Yeah, that would have done wonders for my future.
Katie makes an excellent point. While I’m incredibly empathetic to Long’s situation with Michael, if it is indeed as she describes it in her viral post, and understand that she is clearly frustrated, in pain, and desperate for help, what about the long-term effects publicizing such private details will have on Michael’s already in peril emotional well-being? While I’m guessing she had no idea that her personal blog post would go viral, it has, and her son’s photo is plastered on every reposting of it on high traffic sites, and has been featured in the television interviews she’s been doing since it spread across the web. Her son’s visage is now being associated, however loosely, with the potential for mentally ill kids to become mass murderers — when there might not be any direct link at all.
“Most psychotic individuals are non violent,” said a Facebook friend of mine, who works as a mental health professional. “The bottom line for me is there is only speculation that Michael is as ill or dangerous as Long describes and I see little relevance in how her story relates to the current crisis in Newtown. Besides, we also can’t guess at what someone might do based on their so called “illness” or “sanity” — we do our best to protect as we can.”
My gut believes that anyone who shoots 20 children multiple times has to be sick in the head, that “evil” of that magnitude is mental illness. But while the tragedy in Newtown should absolutely motivate our country to do more when it comes to mental health awareness and treatment — to aid women like Liza Long and her son — there is little evidence that mental illness equates to violence, especially to the degree seen in the Newtown shooting.
“My intuition also tells me her situation was not actually like the Lanzas,” wrote my friend Lise. “Rage expressed like that is often — but not always — triggered by feeling a sudden loss of power. And I keep tapping into isolation as being an issue with this one. Plus, reading about how few of these mass killing shooters actually show blatantly obvious warning signs further confirms these things for me. Mental health is a piece of this… It is, but maybe not in the way Long is suggesting. Does that mean we should ignore her then? Of course it doesn’t. She, and parents like her need help. We SHOULD help them regardless of whether it prevents the next potential Newtown.”
In that regard, I do think some good could come from Long’s post about Michael going viral, in that it does inspire compassion for parents of mentally ill kids and a desire to understand what exactly mental illness looks like in a child. It’s just incredibly unfortunate that Michael’s privacy has been sacrificed for that and that his story is being used in a misguided attempt to understand such a horrific tragedy. This morning, Long and Kendzior released a joint statement on Long’s blog:
We would like to release a public statement on the need for a respectful national conversation on mental health. Whatever our prior disagreements, we both believe that the stigma attached to mental illness needs to end. We need to provide affordable, quality mental health care for families. We need to provide support for families who have a relative who is struggling.We both agree that privacy for family members, especially children, is important. Neither of us anticipated the viral response to our posts. We love our children and hope you will respect their privacy.Our nation has suffered enough in the aftermath of Newtown. We are not interested in being part of a ‘mommy war’. We are interested in opening a serious conversation on what can be done for families in need. Let’s work together and make our country better.”
Here’s hoping that Michael, Liza Long, and every other parent and child dealing with mental illness and developmental and/or behavioral disorders get the help they need.
* Names have been changed.