Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

On the Ethics and Implications of Outing a Child in the Media: The I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother Debacle

I don’t think I’ve ever been as troubled by a piece of online writing as I’ve been by the now infamous I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother piece. After fielding the steady flow of comments from my last article in response to it, I’ve learned a great deal about how people are thinking about issues like privacy and safety, and it’s becoming clear to me why the quality of the national conversation about violence and mental health (including the spurious belief that violent people are always mentally ill) is so off base.

The news isn’t good. Two major things stand out for me:

1) In the minds of a great many people, children do not seem to exist as whole human beings with interior lives. This is especially the case for mentally ill or otherwise disabled children.

2) Fear is leading the way, and when people are afraid, they become illogical and cannot stay on point.

I think that these two things account for some of the truly illogical backflips I’ve seen people doing in order to rationalize the fact that the mother of an emotionally fragile child thought it was perfectly all right to talk about him in the media in the way that she did, at the precise moment when people were so traumatized that they were highly unlikely to respond with very much rationality or thoughtfulness at all.

When people are running scared, it’s probably not the best time to compare your kid to a school shooter. This fact seems to have been lost on a great many people. In fact, a great many people seem to feel that it was the perfect time.

Here are some of the basic themes that emerged yesterday. I have seen them emerge on a number of other sites. I let through some of the comments that expressed these sentiments and I responded to them directly yesterday. Others, I did not let through, because the content was so disturbing that I had to hold them back until I could speak to them separately and at some length.

1. How dare you criticize this mother?

That was a constant refrain. People said they were appalled. They told me that I was being mean and that I ought to be ashamed of myself.

And the whole time, I’m thinking to myself, “How is criticizing a mother for publicly comparing her minor child to the most hated person in America somehow more appalling than the fact that she publicly compared her minor child to the most hated person in America?” At this point, I’m hearing far more anger directed at people who criticize this choice than at the person who actually made this choice.

2. The public safety is more important than a child’s privacy.

There are people who said that it was perfectly all right to publish a child’s photograph next to the words I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother because, they opined, we need to know who these people are.  Yes. I got comments like that. I imagine that these are the same people who think that a woman wearing a hijab and carrying the Q’uran shouldn’t be allowed on an airplane.

Look, we’re talking about a 13-year-old kid who is seriously acting out inside his own family — a family that has been through a bitter divorce and custody battle. And now, in the national mind, he’s potentially the next school shooter from whom society needs protecting. On what are people basing their image of this young man? A blog post. One blog post. They read it on HuffPo, and now they feel perfectly qualified to make a judgment about someone they’ve never met.

I realize that people are raw and afraid after the shootings last Friday. But how does a mother talking about her kid, someone whom none of us has ever met, make anyone feel safer, hundreds of miles away?

Or would you like every mother of a troubled child to post her child’s picture on the Internet next to a title that reads I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother? How about we put the photographs on milk cartons? I’m sure it would be a great boon to the mental health of these kids. Public shaming always works to calm emotionally dysregulated people right down.

And besides, we’ll have created a whole new subclass of human beings to fear. We’re awfully good at that in America. We generate them like cars off an assembly line. It’s a sign of our abundantly good mental health. So far, we’ve got LGBT people, autistics, black men, people with mental illness, Muslims, genderqueer people, and vaccine manufacturers to fear. Hey, what’s one more?

3. Privacy is just an abstraction.

No, privacy isn’t just an abstraction, nor is the impact of having a mother go on the Internet and talk about how her child might grow up to be a mass murderer an abstraction. The impact is stigmatizing and very likely humiliating.

People are human beings, who have these things called emotions, and it tends to wreak havoc with their emotions when they don’t feel that they have the same right to privacy as putatively “normal” people.

4. It’s too bad she had to potentially compromise the mental health of her child by going public, but it’s important that we have this conversation, and you’re distracting us from it.

If the only way we can have a national conversation about mental health is by saying these things publicly about a 13-year-old child, we need to be looking at our own mental health as a country. We need to figure out why we think that’s healthy, why we rationalize it, and why we think that a child’s reputation and sense of safety are potentially expendable as long as the adults get to have their conversation. And we also need to look at our national ethics and think about why a mother outing a 13-year-old kid barely registers on most people’s moral compasses.

5. The mother was just trying to get help for her child.

This is not a reality show. This is real life. In real life, people don’t just show up and say, “Hey, great blog post. I’m here to fix all your problems.”

What does this say about us as a country, and about our clarity of thought, that we think these kinds of things will work? And why do we conveniently forget that the media, in its shameless opportunism, is exploiting both a national tragedy and the pain of this woman’s family for page views and advertising dollars? This is the same media that, in the past week, has engaged in the following activities:

a) Interviewed children from Sandy Hook Elementary School the day their schoolmates were killed.

b) Incorrectly reported that the shooter’s brother was the murderer, resulting in the shooter’s brother being publicly reviled while he was in a state of shock and grief over the loss of his mother and the actions of his brother.

c) Propagated a false and dangerous equation between Asperger’s and violence — with the result that, in just my small circle of friends, at least two have gotten phone calls from relatives asking whether their little autistic kids are going to grow up to be school shooters. One can only imagine the verbal abuse and bullying of autistic children going on in the schools this week. A number of my adult friends are living in fear.

How does any of that hold the promise of a solution to anyone’s problems? How is that a safe or productive environment in which to publicize your child’s issues?

6. What would you prefer? That the woman suffer in silence?

It’s not a choice between suffering in silence and stigmatizing a child in the national media. If people can’t find any territory between those two extremes, they need to do some serious self-reflection.

7. It’s important to talk about these things openly in order to break the stigma of mental illness.

Yes, it’s important to talk about these things openly in the proper context. The day after one of the worst school shootings in American history is not the day to announce to the world that you think your kid is going to grow up and do the same thing. That does not destigmatize mental illness. Not in any way, shape, or form. When people are reeling in pain, grief, fear, and shock, for a person to publicly announce I think my mentally ill kid could do the same thing someday does not destigmatize anything. It engenders fear of mentally ill people, and the likely result is that mentally ill people will not seek help because they do not want to end up being stigmatized as the next school shooter.

How people could miss the point so spectacularly is really beyond me.

8. You have no idea how people feel in these situations.

Maybe not. Could someone express concern for the child now?

9. The mother was just crying out for help.

Perhaps she was. Could someone express concern for the child now?

10. This isn’t about the child.

Yes, it is. It absolutely is. Could someone express concern for the child now?

Please?

References

The Huffington Post. “‘I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother’: A Mom’s Perspective On The Mental Illness Conversation In America.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother-mental-illness-conversation_n_2311009.html. December 16, 2012. Accessed December 16, 2012.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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  1. 12/19/2012 | 8:21 am Permalink

    Perfect! Thank you for writing this! As the mother of a child with a disability and someone who works in the field, I was horrified at 1) the article, and 2) the glorification of the mother’s actions by people who read it, and, most importantly, 3) the lack of people’s concern for this badge this child is now carrying!

    I thought about my adult self-advocate friends and those adults that I work with who have yet to find their voice due to the stigmatization that they carry with them, and I am furious and full of concern!

  2. 12/19/2012 | 9:36 am Permalink

    Could someone express concern for the child now?
    Could someone express concern for a whole lot of children now?
    The children of every parent who thinks doing that was OK deserve the concern that their parents might out them to national media. The child of this mother deserves the concern for the fact that she just did.
    Someone tried to tell me that it didn’t matter that his classmates knew he had that potential now because they would already have known, that violent outbursts meant his classmates and teachers would already have thought he could do such a thing. I doubt it, since the two aren’t actually related, but if they did already think so, that’s a bigger problem.
    (It was on this post, which is why my comments are now moderated: http://yesthattoo.blogspot.com/2012/12/a-moment-for-her-son.html )

  3. 12/19/2012 | 10:15 am Permalink

    When I read “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” I too was shocked, and frightened for “Michael.” He will certainly see the post on the net. How does one get over a wound like seeing those words from your own mother, broadcast to the world? My heart broke for him.

    I just wanted to say that, because you feel like few people are telling you that they were concerned for him. Before I even was aware of any net reactions, my first feeling was similar to yours.

    Years ago when my daughter was small, I knew a family in which one of the sons had Asperger’s. His mom had been trained as an occupational therapist. When her son was in preschool, he always seemed to react to frustration with other kids by hitting or biting them. He was treated by the school as a behavioral problem. Her reaction was not to punish him, but to be curious about why he was having this hard time. This lead to a diagnosis, and to an approach she always took with him, which was extremely empathetic and warm while being very clear about boundaries. She saw his emotional struggles as suffering. (I am sure her professional training helped in terms of knowing how to create an effective toolbox as well.)

    I understand how people might be afraid. I would have had a hard time seeing the person trapped by difficulties that could hurt others, if I had not known this family.

    I do not mean to imply that dangerous behavior should be dealt with incautiously. I mean to say that it is inaccurate, ineffective, and violent to treat anyone as less than fully human.

    I am grateful to have found this blog. I have a couple of family members with disabilities who I think will like it. The beautiful design is a great bonus. :)

    Thank you for your posts.

  4. 12/19/2012 | 12:25 pm Permalink

    BRILLIANT.
    Thank you for saying what needs to be said. I know that you are my friend and I love you but I am also a professor of Ethics and Philosophy and I think i can say pretty objectively that you RULE.

  5. 12/19/2012 | 11:03 pm Permalink

    THANK YOU. I have been seriously disturbed and angered by the reception that mother’s piece has received. She has done great harm to her son, and the ethical failings of the entire situation (made even worse by her now-launched media tour) are seriously appalling. How in the world could anyone think her actions would help him? I cannot even imagine how hurt, violated, and betrayed that young man must feel.

    Thank you for so eloquently expressing all that is so disturbing about this entire situation. Thank you for speaking up for her son.

  6. 12/19/2012 | 11:13 pm Permalink

    Thanks for writing this. I think you are spot on regarding the privacy issue. She could have expressed her concerns anonymously to protect her son, without sacrificing any of her honesty. (I have to say that when I first began reading the piece, I assumed he was dead. But even then, it would be troublesome to write about your child this way.)

    I wonder, though, if you have concerns other than the effects on her son. Do you object to the content of what she wrote? It sounds like you do. Even if she wrote it anonymously, she is still sounding the alarm about volatile children like hers son, who (unlike Lanza, apparently) has a history of violence. Can you say a bit more about what you would find objectionable if she wrote her piece completely anonymously, so that her son could not be identified?

    I have my own worries, but I would be interested to hear yours.

    Ruth

    PS Very nicely written, BTW.

  7. 12/20/2012 | 1:31 am Permalink

    This seems to be a trend in the world today. You need to post your personal and private information on the internet for the whole world to see. To those of us who are rational we just shudder to think how many people are out there doing that exact thing. I truly feel sorry for the trails this women has obviously been through; but I feel even more for the young man who now (more than likely) feels worse than before. Maybe one day we’ll learn, along with the National Media, that EVERYTHING under the sun does not need to be published.

    God bless you for what you’ve said, I for one know that it helped me know what I was feeling.

  8. 12/20/2012 | 7:17 am Permalink

    Look, I agree with your points. The piece would have been much better anonymously and without the child’s name. And I don’t see why she could not have done that. Doing this to her child is really probelmatic. But unfortunately, I do feel the only way people will currently have a constructive conversation about public health – i.e. the kind of conversation where people are saying “we need to improve the treatment of mental health” and not “the mentally ill are dangerous, let’s beat them up” is by putting a face on it and by a cry of help. I’m hearing a lot of the latter, but that article is the only one I saw generate a discussion of the former. It’s working. Does that justify doing that to the child? Probably not; but please let some good come out of it.

    • 12/20/2012 | 10:46 am Permalink

      Dorit, I’m not sure what discussions you’ve been reading, but I’ve been reading comments that suggest that the woman’s child should be lobotomized, institutionalized, locked up, and drugged; I’ve read others saying that he was a genetic mistake who should never have been born because people like him wreak havoc on society; and I’ve read still others that suggest that all people with autism and mental illness should be put away — and worse. And I have not yet heard the woman publicly defend her son (or anyone else) and say, “Stop saying such horrifying things about my beautiful child, and stop saying such horrifying things about people with autism and mental illness.”

      Those kinds of comments are very much along the lines of the “mentally ill people are dangerous” variety. On my own blog, people said that it was important that mothers break anonymity so that “we know who these people are,” with the clear implication that they are a danger to society. The I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother article drew a clear and direct line between mental illness and school shootings — a correlation that has yet to be proven by anyone. In so doing, it added to the store of stigma against mental illness. It didn’t subtract from it one iota. And it had that effect not just because of its content, but because it was published at the exact moment that people were frightened and in shock. That is not the moment in which people are going to be able to have a thoughtful discussion.

      If we’re going to reform the mental health system, we can’t do it because we think that mentally ill people are going to grow up to be school shooters; we have to do it because mentally ill people deserve to live decent and fulfilled lives. If the whole basis of reforming the system is that mentally ill people are potentially dangerous (which is true for only a very, very, very small fraction of people with mental illness), then the reforms are going to go in the wrong direction entirely.

  9. 12/20/2012 | 7:22 am Permalink

    I just read your original point, and I wanted to reemphasize: I think you’re right. Completely. This should not have been done to the child. His life will never be the same again, and in a horribly bad way. I take back the “probably not”. But I still say, this is the ONLY piece I’ve seen that led to comments of the “let’s fix our mental health system” variety rather than “mentally ill people are dangerous” variety. But doing it on the back of a child is very distressing.

  10. 12/20/2012 | 6:39 pm Permalink

    Perfect piece Rachel. Could someone please worry about this child, instead of telling us how “brave”this narcissistic sad excuse for a parent happens to be. Also just out of curiosity, why does everyone think that what she is saying is the honest truth? What makes everyone think that she is not only culpable in the child’s issues, but that she is doing everything she can to help him simply because she says so?

    Also where is the boys father in all of this? Where is social services? Where are the police? Where is the juvenile system?If this child is as dangerous as this mother alludes why is there no intervention from the state? A child with issues does not act out only at home where no one else sees it. We all know that behavioral issues are not controllable and don’t only shows itself at specific times during the day preferably when there are no witnesses to the problems. Could it be that the reason there are no services for this youngman because all he is, is an adolescent acting out against his parents own self-centered narcissistic existence?

  11. 12/20/2012 | 8:43 pm Permalink

    Thank you for this article. I hope others will read it and learn. No matter how much one might identify with or applaud this woman for at least trying to address her son’s problems, to do so in such a public forum seems very cruel.

  12. 12/27/2012 | 10:25 am Permalink

    If she hadn’t written about this in the media but instead written something similar to a team of mental health professionals, and specifically pursued solutions out of concern not just for her child, but for her own safety and the safety of her other children, would you have a different reaction?

    What if she described this whole experience pseudononymously? I have a feeling a lot of people read that article and thought to themselves, “Wow. I’m not the only parent who lives like this!”

    • 12/27/2012 | 10:57 am Permalink

      Yes, my concern was that she wrote about it in the media without using pseudonyms for all concerned. I would have had no problem with the piece if she had written it for the benefit of professionals required by law to protect her son’s privacy and sense of safety.

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