It is always terrifying to be a parent, but especially so in the last four days. This weekend, as Liza Long’s post “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” made its way around the Facebook feeds of many mothers, it prompted a visceral emotional response, not just because of the heartbreaking violence in Connecticut, but in the tapping of our worst collective fears: not only the possibility that our own children might be harmed, but the devastating idea that we ultimately can never control what they might do.
Long’s essay prompted a strong backlash from bloggers like academic Sarah Kendzior, who took Long to task for publicly discussing her son’s mental-health issues and “promoting him as a future mass murderer.” (Today, after Long and Kendzior had a chance to talk to each other directly, they issued a joint statement that called for an end to the stigma against the mentally ill.) While some of the criticisms against Long are valid — writing what she did about her son was a terrible thing to do to a child — I’ll admit that reading her post did touch a maternal nerve. Moms like me shared it because it reminded us that, in addition to feeling sorrow for the victims and their families, on some level we sympathize with moms everywhere who are afraid of their children.
With tragedies like this, we look for explanations. We search for bread crumbs in the killer’s life that will lead us back to the root cause of his breakdown. We look at our own lives to see if something like this could happen to us or the people we know. We retroactively examine every tantrum thrown by our kids. In some totally irrational part of our minds, we let ourselves wonder, Was my child’s bad behavior the product of his being overtired and frustrated, or is he a future misanthrope?
Raising children is an unpredictable landscape of inevitable mishaps, dispiriting setbacks, and, on good days, great triumphs. But there are no assurances or guarantees. A gentle first-grader can turn into a recalcitrant, withdrawn teen. A tantrum-prone 10-year-old or a frighteningly callous 16-year-old might morph into a loving son again once his malleable brain has finished developing.
Long may one day regret her essay or look back ruefully from a future time when her son’s mental-health issues are much improved and wonder how it could have ever seemed so bleak. But her brutally raw admission is a reminder that the true test of empathy is not only to grieve along with the parents who lost their children, but to also identify with those whose children have gone on to do unimaginable harm.