What Do You Tell the Children?

When the Sandy Hook news first came along, my wife and I had the same instinct: turn off the news before the boy gets home. We’re practiced, here, in information lockdown; we’ve protected him from hearing about Aurora or the Sikh temple or any other of the mass shootings. There would be no NPR and no TV news; newspapers would go face down, into a private pile, where he couldn’t see a headline. The fact that someone had shot up a school whose oldest children were in his grade, maybe two hours from where we live, was not a fact we wanted to enter his emotional world.

Every parent I know had a different strategy, and rightly so. Every child is different. Ours has long had a particular anxiety about “bad guys” breaking in and trying to hurt him or his family. His mom is a prosecutor; while she doesn’t talk details, he does know there are some really bad people in the world who do bad things, and that when she can she keeps them in jail. His Lego projects have regularly included jails heavily fortified with armed guards. When his bike was stolen, he had nightmares for weeks. When we go out, he searches for the security cameras that will help keep us safe. We had no desire to trigger all that once again.

But by Saturday we began to reconsider. In his very diverse fourth-grade classroom, at least some of the other children would have seen the news. Did we want him to hear about it from the classroom’s troublemaker or from us?

And so on Sunday morning, over pancakes, we mentioned that he might hear that, on Friday, a crazy person had broken into a school and shot some children.

This was not my favorite life moment. He was visibly rattled. We stayed calm outwardly, as advised, although tears kept sneaking out of the corners of my eyes. We emphasized that this was national news precisely because it had never happened before. That almost everyone in the world will do just about anything to save children. That all the other adults in the school worked to protect the kids, and some were heroes who died doing it.

Our boy’s questions were simple and repetitive. Who did it? Where was he now? (Dead. He shot himself.) Why did he do it? (No one knows.) How many people did he shoot? How far away was it? Could he get into our school? (No, he’s dead.) Where is he now? (Dead. His body is in the morgue.) Could someone get into our boy’s classroom and do the same thing? (No. Adults would stop him in the main hall first.) Why did he do it? (There was something wrong with his mind.) Where is he now? (Dead. Dead. Safely dead, far away, he can never hurt you, my baby. I would race to the school, I would stop the bullets myself before they could ever reach you. That crazy man is dead.)

Our penance for openness was a daylong festival of Monopoly. He needed our company doing something very safe and mindlessly absorbing; he bought Boardwalk every game, and crushed us. The fact that he did not take refuge in shooting aliens on the Xbox told me that he was recoiling from guns, even virtual ones, at least for now—a reaction for which I am grateful. At bedtime, when he asked to sleep in our room, we set up a bed on the floor. And when he asked me to walk him to his classroom, I was happy to do it—and even happier that, as we approached his classroom, the embarrassment of being seen with one of his moms became stronger than the fear of being shot by a bad guy. He left me behind. That’s how it should be.

This is the horror of being a parent: We cannot protect our children from life’s terrifying vulnerability. But for God’s sake, we can do a better job than this. At Mother Jones, editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffrey have called for a parents’ movement to shut down the gun violence:

What, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, the Sikh temple shooting, and so many others, what would it take for the nation to grapple with the fact that America’s gun policy is the equivalent of leaving your gun cabinet unlocked with a "Murderers Help Yourself" sign on it?

… What has it taken in the past to change the seemingly unchangeable, from slavery and child labor to the disenfranchisement of women and minorities?

Lots of things, but one in particular: a group of people drawn together, often by a particular tragedy, who respond by putting themselves on the frontlines. A group whose determination and bravery in the face of threats both physical and political inspires or shames others to join them, adding strength and numbers until the status quo can no longer hold. A force that renders the pundits' "it'll never happen" irrelevant.

Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the leaders of the Liberian women who forced their country into peace talks, calls for the same thing at The Daily Beast: a mother’s movement against violence. Which of us Americans really wants to be in the same boat as Africans, fighting an undeclared civil war that’s being fought with guns? Surely we are, at long last, launched toward a sane discussion of gun policy, along the lines that Josh Horwitz asks for here at the Prospect.

Let me here urge us to look not just at the issue of guns—but also at the issue of social support for mental illness and severe emotional instability. Decades ago, the movement to deinstitutionalize mental illness succeeded—with the promise that those who were put back out on the street would be supported with clinics, social services, halfway houses, and more. That did not happen. Today, in order to have a family member who is a danger to themselves or others committed, the mentally ill person must threaten violence in the hearing of a hospital worker. The family’s knowledge and testimony doesn’t count, not even temporarily. There’s a storm, right now, about the Huffington Post piece “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” which includes this:

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.

...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….

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

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. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise -- in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.

It’s not clear that Liza Long, the author, is a reliable source. Should she have publicly declared her 13-year-old son to be a potential mass murderer? Some bloggers have mined Long’s blog to find distressing posts, and suggested that she might be the one who is crazy. But the issues her essay raises are absolutely urgent. A distant family member of mine shot himself to death—and left behind more guns and violently angry writings suggesting he had been planning to shoot up his former workplace. Thank God he killed only himself. The direction of his life had been terribly clear, for years. But the family could do nothing for him; he insisted he was fine.

Why is our nation either privatizing or criminalizing mental illness? By far most mental illness isn’t potentially violent. When it is, it’s urgent. Either families care for the mentally ill, at enormous emotional and financial cost; or those sick people are wandering the streets; or they’re imprisoned. Surely we can do better—if not for them, then to protect our schoolkids, our teachers, our members of Congress, our midnight moviegoers, our subway riders, ourselves.

Yes, by all means, let’s shut down private ownership of assault weapons, close down the gun show loopholes, and undo the toxic American link between guns and masculinity. And let’s also care for our ill before they kill. 

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