by Beryl Gorbman
I am in the USA, where massacres are occuring with increasing regularity. They are not politically motivated and they are not done during robberies. They are done by mentally ill men with delusions. Since the US “de-institutionalized” severely mentally ill people, this trend has accelerated.
The USA is a horribly violent country. Children play with toys that simulate destruction of other living things. Television is full of fully detailed violence, often glorified. Hero action figures are killers, framed as “protectors.” Even cartoons are extremely violent – full of blood, graphic splats, and maimed bodies – with a laugh track.
Fortunately, most people are able to put our violent culture into some kind of perspective, but the mentally ill often do not. When a person is delusional and thinks neighbors are devils or police officers are aliens, he can get his hands on a gun and bravely destroy as many of them as possible.
I am tired of hearing about gun control. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for gun control, but it isn’t going to happen. And it has little to do with these killings. The right to bear arms is in our constitution and many people are so attached to that that will die fighting for this privilege. Right or wrong, guns are here to stay and there is no controlling them.
Mental illness, however, can be treated – but it is not. It is the shame and tragedy of this great country. It is not possible to get the mental health or police authorities to take a threatening person seriously unless they do something violent – and then it is usually too late. I know this from personal experience and it is the heartbreak of my life.
Here are a series of letters generated today. The first is by me, to the Seattle Times.
BG’s letter to the Seattle Times, 12/16/2012
“We want to break the escalating cycle of violence and incarceration that our son is experiencing. The charges of assault, malicious mischief, and attempt to elude that he currently faces constitute the latest in a series of progressively violent episodes dating back almost three years and resulting in various incarcerations and commitments. Almost all these incidents have involved weapons. The event that resulted in his hospitalization in March 2010 involved a loaded shotgun that he kept near the front door of his apartment. …… While he was hospitalized, our son said to us, “I am not afraid to die.” At another point in his incarceration, he told us he would rather be killed by police than spend more time in jail.
We fear that left untreated, our son will escalate his violent behavior to the targeting of individuals, either random or specific……”
No one is jumping on this. Why?
Mental health services have been increasingly gutted in this state for many years. It is almost impossible to get effective help for mentally ill people until they do something unspeakable.
Yes, it is true that the two Washington State men mentioned above had access to guns,but the tools they used are not the causes of the horrific events. Besides, the right to bear arms is a fiercely guarded part of our constitution and it won’t change. Plenty of people have guns, but it is the mentally ill who commit unspeakable crimes, justifiable only in their own tortured minds.
A letter from Eleanor Owen, Mental Health Advocate, to her sister and to me.
Gloria phoned me this morning with concerns about guns and people with
mental disturbances using them. Mildred phoned with similar concerns.
This is a letter I wrote to Gloria. Mildred wants to organize a letter
campaign to Anderson Cooper villifying the laws of the land regarding the
closure of hospitals and the difficulty parents have in getting treatment
and early intervention. Of course she is correct. However, bizarre and
unthinkable tragedies such as happened to those innocent children will
happen; they are really not preventable, just as suicide is really not
preventable, regardless of the protections that may be in place.
I told Mildred that I had responded to Gloria with a plea to stop focusing
on guns and begin to focus on who we are as a people and the profit that
can be made by “selling violence.” That is something we, as a nation,
have some control over.
Mildred said she would come by to pick up this note. Reassure her that I
will write to Anderson Cooper.
In reading of the “unspeakable loss” that took place at the hands of a
very disturbed young man who clearly must have been brooding or
hallucinating for years, let’s place the emphasis of violence where it
belongs– not on the weapon, but on his personal motivation (about which
little might have been possible), and on our culture (about which we can
not do much).
We live in the most violent developed country on this planet (and
possibly more violent than underdeveloped ones, too). Why is this so?
We are descendants of criminals clever enough to escape capture in their
own lands, risk takers who were fearless enough to cross perilous seas
in icy winter storms, pioneers who endured scorched earth, starvation
and crippling thirst in covered wagons as they trekked inland.
And, today, their descendants live in a culture of violence,
self-absorption, and personal greed. Every child is exposed to violent,
weird, titillating video games that glorify those human traits. TV,
video games, movies, printed media–Wall Street (I made a killing on
that stock deal.)
Yes, killing is glorified by male dominated industries. Selling killing
is easy and profitable: And mass killing heads the list. It is the
“lust for the kill” that a marine wrote a book about that honestly
exposed why he wanted to join the marines. He said his first “kill” was
more thrilling than the best sex he had ever had. He couldn’t wait to
do it again.
It is this aspect of male human instinct that must be explored and faced
In today’s NY Times, the front page featuring headlines report the
mindless killing of innocent children and their teachers; inside a
school child focuses on a contraption in her hand with the challenge of
killing or destroying an outer space “villain.”
Parents buy these “toys and the games that are included.” Good parents,
blind to what their children are learning and believing as worthwhile
It’s time to do what this country did with cigarettes–make them less
appealing; make advertising illegal and place heavy monetary penalties
upon those who offend. The result? Fifty years ago doctors, movie
stars, sports idols, all smoked. Today, almost none. They no longer
are mentors for young people.
Let’s start making noble acts exciting, dramatize exciting aspects of
courage, sacrifice , compassion, devotion, loyalty. Show the repulsive
aspects of violence. Young people today don’t see their pet lamb
slaughtered, dogs in cities never run in front of cars where a youth might
see him crushed. Both examples of tragedies that teach empathy.
No doubt, one of the painful outcomes of this tragedy in Connecticut,
will be a heightening of compassion. But the cost to those families and
those innocent babies is too high; we can do better as a nation.
>>> And finally, let’s have open discussions on the male instinct to kill.
>>> Let’s examine and accept this impulse and rein it in. Let us begin to
>>> highlight and focus on the value and rewards of restraint and generosity
>>> towards others. These virtues are also part of the human condition;
>>> let’s figure out a way, if need be, to make them profitable. I believe
>>> it can happen. But, I believe, we must start with curtailing the sale
>>> of the vicarious joys and glorification of doing harm to others.
Imagine the joy and collective glory that is possible to experience as a
nation of people that aspires to, and elevates kindness toward others
rather than dominance and hate. Other nations (Northern Europeans) have
succeeded. It’s possible!
Letter from a Terrified Mom published by ”The Blue Review.”
Mom who says, ‘I am Adam Lanza’s mother,’ details life with terrifying son
Published in ”The Blue Review.”
In the post-Newtown debate over mental illness, a distraught and exhausted mother has written a chilling article describing life with her troubled son and the health care system’s shortage of options. The boy, “Michael,” remains undiagnosed, and despite medication he continues to exhibit a hair-trigger temper. His mother says Michael shares characteristics with gunman Adam Lanza and other mass killers, and during his unpredictable episodes he makes frightening and violent threats. The mother’s lack of help is typified by her meeting with a social worker who informed her that their best option is to get Michael charged with a crime, because “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.”
Friday’s horrific national tragedy—the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut—has ignited a new discussion on violence in America. In kitchens and coffee shops across the country, we tearfully debate the many faces of violence in America: gun culture, media violence, lack of mental health services, overt and covert wars abroad, religion, politics and the way we raise our children. Liza Long, a writer based in Boise, says it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.
“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.
“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”
“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”
“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.
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.
That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.
We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.
At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.
Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.
The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”
“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”
His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”
That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.
“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”
“You know where we are going,” I replied.
“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”
I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”
Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.
The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork—“Were there any difficulties with… at what age did your child… were there any problems with.. has your child ever experienced.. does your child have…”
At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.
For days, my son insisted that I was lying—that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”
By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.
On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”
And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.
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.
According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.
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.
With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.
No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”
I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.
God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.