It’s been almost a week since Newtown.
A couple of months ago there was a shooting at a signage business, three minutes from the school I teach at. A number of people were killed, and it’s still a little bit of a mystery why the killer did it. Recently the parents of the killer were interviewed on the evening news. They clearly had no answers. They understood the finger pointing others did, although they questioned what they could’ve done. But the pain was heavy on them, you could feel it. The mother said something I’ve thought about a lot since hearing it. “I’ve heard Alzheimer’s called “the long goodbye.” I felt like we were saying goodbye to our son for fifteen years.”
As a teacher, I believe you can see the signs of instability in a child early. But so what? What does that mean? After you see the signs, then what? As a parent, putting myself in the position of these parents, I’m utterly lost.
We point fingers because we need responsibility. But the parents of killers don’t necessarily know what their kid is going to become. Or, if they have a feeling, an intuition, about their kid, I can understand how hard it is to know what to do next.
You can see the crisis of parents in some parent horror movies. In Thirteen, a single mom tries to ride the wave of her rapidly transgressive teenage girl. Now, this mom is not doing anything particularly wrong. She has a nice way with her daughter and her daughter’s friends. She asks questions, seems to understand adolescence (perhaps too well), makes herself available for anything her daughter needs. But when she learns just how much trouble her daughter is in, she’s shocked. Because sometimes parents don’t know, until they know. They might be able to put the clues together later, but we are all geniuses in hindsight. Or what about We Need to Talk About Kevin? (Even that title makes me shiver.) In this film, a teenager commits mass murder. Clearly a kid with problems. The film shows the antagonism between the son and his mother. The mother is trying to deal with this kid that is draining her on a daily basis, and has drained her since birth. This kid is killing her, and she feels guilty about that. As a parent, what’s unsettling to watch in this film is how the mother eats all this pain. She doesn’t want to spend time with her problem child, but she knows a good mother doesn’t feel like that. Unfortunately the more time she spends with her son, it doesn’t help, it just illuminates the horrible relationship they have. So everyone just settles into this sad life management. It’s not a truce, because there’s antagonism all the time. But again, when violence happens, the mother is horrified. She’s not surprised that her child is capable of such violence, but she’s still shocked it happened.
What do you do as a parent, when you can see what your kids will become? I can promise you, I know my kids. I KNOW them. I can see their futures, because I know them. I can tell you what will become of my kids. I can tell you if they’re going to get in trouble at school, who they will not be friends with, what type of first semester they will have in college, how hard they will work in their future jobs. And my job is to watch that happen. I should try to adjust the angles of their trajectories in some ways, but ultimately I’m to watch them fly. Or crash.
In my 20s, I was positive I was not going to get married and have kids. My reasoning for this was because as a teacher I saw so many clueless parents, and I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I had a teacher, a good friend and mother of two, take me to task for such thinking. You don’t go into parenting thinking about how many bad things you could do, she explained; you become a parent to make the world better, through making a better world for your child. My retort to my friend was a whine: “But what if your kid is a fuckup?” My friend looked right at me. “But it’s your fuckup.” My excuses, my friend was telling me, does not allow me to stop being a parent.
Parenting means fully embracing everything about your child. Which can be hard to do if you’re dealing with your child’s mental illness. Clearly Adam Lanza was mentally ill, for a long time. That would be a heavy burden for his parents. I’m not sure what their response should’ve been. There’s no doubt that parents of killers have deep shame, and that’s completely appropriate. But what then? Could counseling stop mass shootings? Could alternative schools help a depressed teenager? Could “tough love” engage a kid to life once again? The answer, of course, is nobody knows and yet you do whatever you have to help your child. Everything.