On caregiving & domestic violence

Okay I've read Thinking the Unthinkable (reprinted elsewhere as "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"). How could I not? It was linked on social media more than any article I've seen since that tiger mother lady said she doesn't let her kids get up from the piano to pee. And now I've started reading the backlash. You Are Not Adam Lanza's Mother, not to be confused with No, You Are Not Adam Lanza's Mother or I am NOT Adam Lanza's Mother. There was Want the Truth Behind "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"? Read her blog (retracted, sorta, here). There was I Was One of the Scary Kids (which I found thoughtful), and For the Last Time, Stop Conflating Violence and Mental Illness (also thoughtful). And then the backlash-to-the-backlash, like Sorry Everyone, Now We Are Not Allowed To Talk About Mental Health Either. I'm sure there's much more.

I just need to say one thing.

If a woman in any other circumstance were to write that she lives in daily fear that a male she lives with might kill her, or hurt or kill her children, we would put her safety above all other considerations. We wouldn't worry about whether she's violated his privacy. We wouldn't berate her for not understanding his side of the story. We wouldn't comb through her biography for clues that she has faults, too, or why would he behave that way? We wouldn't tell her she caused his behavior in the first place. We wouldn't say yes, we get where you're coming from, but you're his sole source of financial support, so you need to tough it out for his sake. We wouldn't chastise her for giving him a reputation for violence, as if that's worse than the actual violence he is already committing. We wouldn't tell her that she needs to stick with it and reform him, somehow, through love, on her own, whatever the risk, because it's her responsibility to ensure that he doesn't hurt anyone else. If she insisted that she were committed to this relationship and that she was sure he could change and that she was going to do everything she could to help him, even at the risk to her children, we would try to gently counsel her out of that belief. If she persisted in it, we might intervene legally.

If it were her partner, her parent, an older sibling or another relative or even an adult son who was terrorizing her family, we would recognize that this woman is being verbally, emotionally, and physically abused. Of course it's different when the male in question is a 13-year-old child, and no one understands that better than the mother herself. She surmises, correctly, that no one will love and advocate for him the way she will (she's his mother!), so she can't just walk away. But when she says, "I love him and want to help him, but I've run out of ideas and I need help," the response should be, "You're right. We need to figure out a way to make this system work better, for you and for him." What you DON'T do is tag her with every woman-erasing cliche that domestic violence victims used to face routinely.

As far as the real Adam Lanza is concerned, we keep hearing that he left behind twenty-six victims. There were actually twenty-seven; the first one was his mother. I understand why we're not mourning Adam's own suicide the way we're mourning the women and children that he murdered, but it's telling that we are ignoring his mother, too, as if she's implicated equally in this crime. I'm sure some will say she can't possibly be worthy of sympathy if she raised a son like that. Others will fault her for being the one to introduce her son to guns in the first place. I wonder about these things myself, if only because his act was so horrifically incomprehensible. I've thought that it was a mercy that he killed her, because as a parent how could you live with that?

But there is no evidence that anything Adam Lanza's mother did was so heinous it merited her execution. When we dodge the fact that she, too, was a victim, the implications go beyond this one event. We are sending the message to all mothers that they are on their own with this stuff, that they will continue to serve as our scapegoat. Reforming gun laws is a political nightmare. Fixing the mental health system without (re-)stigmatizing mental illness is difficult. And challenging America's culture of violence will probably take generations. But blaming mothers, that's easy. Likewise telling women they are responsible for violence committed by a man. We know how to do that. We've been doing it for centuries.

3 Responses to “On caregiving & domestic violence”

  1. tanyad Says:

    Thank you for this. Very thoughtful and well-considered. Also, it made me realize another thing we seem to have forgotten in all the fracas around Thinking the Unthinkable: a thirteen-year-old male is essentially an adult. As I read your piece, my brain cleared and I thought — wow, a thirteen-year-old male is . . . not a boy . . . but a man. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  2. LauraFo Says:

    A 13-year-old is still a child intellectually and emotionally. But depending on his size he can still hurt an adult. He can definitely hurt younger siblings. And with weapons, all bets are off.

    I want to say, really emphatically, that this shouldn't be sufficient reason to treat middle schoolers as dangerous across the board. It sickens me when I see an eleven-year-old tried as an adult, and I'm worried that we're about to amp up the post-Columbine zero-tolerance climate that's already in place, making it even more unsafe for teenagers to express concerns about depression or bullying for fear of being labeled "pre-violent." What I'm talking about here is the specific fear of living with someone who's already violent, and/or makes regular threats to harm the people in his household.

  3. Pat Says:

    At one time I too lived in this fear. Thank you so much for writing this. I felt exactly like a victim of domestic violence. Yet, I was told it was my fault. What was my duty of care to my other children? They begged me to protect them from their violent, drug addicted sibling. And I was (almost) happy to be labelled as a bad mother if I could get any of them help.

Leave a Reply