On August 19, an 88-year-old Oakland man named William Roberts killed his 57-year-old quadriplegic daughter Marion Roberts and then turned the gun on himself. Information about the case has been sparse, but it’s clear that Mr. Roberts was terminally ill with liver cancer and lung disease, and that he had cared for his daughter for over 25 years — first with his wife and then with his son. His daughter had become quadriplegic and had sustained traumatic brain injury from a fall in 1987. She needed assistance with all of the basic tasks of life, and it appears that she received that assistance with a great deal of love.
So what would drive a man to commit such an act at the end of his life?
I think about these kinds of issues a great deal. When a healthy parent, in the prime of life, kills a disabled child, my immediate response is to condemn the perpetrator. I do not want to hear about a lack of services, or about the perpetrator’s fear and hardships. No. You bring a child into the world and you are responsible for protecting the life of that child. That is my immediate response.
So I was surprised, as I read the story of William Roberts and Marion Roberts, that my response was not nearly so visceral. The gating issue, for me, was Mr. Robert’s terminal illness. His impending death seems to have been the motivator here, not his daughter’s disability. I see no evidence that he killed her because he wanted a “normal” life, or because he resented having a disabled daughter, or because he thought life had done him wrong. After all, he had cared for her for 25 years — into his 60s, 70s, and 80s.
I don’t know the man or the family, but it is possible that William Roberts killed his daughter because he was dying and he was terrified of leaving her in the hands of strangers. This is a fear that afflicts a great many parents of severely disabled children. And he had good reason to be terrified. His daughter was likely headed straight for substandard care in the disability gulag. Marion’s brother Thomas helped with her care, but it appears that the bulk of the caregiving fell on the father and that he was frightened about his increasing inability to care for her. Who knows whether anyone had stepped up to reassure him that they would be there after he died? Or whether he could trust those assurances even if they had come?
I’m beginning to realize the necessity of separating the responses to these stories — which inevitably follow the tired and bigoted logic of “disabled people are suffering and the parent/caregivers are putting them out of their misery” — from what might have been going on for the people involved. I don’t think that William Roberts killed his daughter because he thought she was suffering in the here and now. In fact, there is no evidence that she was suffering in the here and now, and there is no evidence that he thought she was. I think it’s possible that he killed her to prevent her from suffering abuse, neglect, loneliness, and indignity at the hands of uncaring strangers after he died.
The man was faced with an impossible choice on his daughter’s behalf: What is better? Death or hell? That someone who spent his elder years caring for his daughter would ultimately take her life (and his own) says far more about the world we live in than it says about him. I feel for this man in a way that I don’t usually feel for people who commit these murders. There was no good ethical choice here because the world didn’t leave him with one.
Is murdering your child an ethical choice? No. I can’t see how that’s arguable, ever.
Is leaving your adult child to be warehoused in hell an ethical choice? No. I can’t see how that’s arguable, ever.
The absolute lack of an ethical choice is not on William Roberts. It’s on the world.
To me, this is very different from a healthy person in the prime of life who kills a child and ends up being excused because they couldn’t get proper support services. Bullshit to that. Not getting proper support services while you’re in the prime of life is a very different thing from being tortured by what will happen after your death when your death is clearly around the corner. This man spent 25 years caring for his daughter and, by all accounts, did an outstanding job. His worry was not about a lack of support services when he was still alive. He could make up for that lack. But after he was dead — what then?
As I age, my greatest fear is to fall into the hands of strangers for my care. I do not fear pain, or further disability, or even death as much as I fear entering the medical system on my own. It is my worst nightmare. I think that it was likely William Roberts’ worst nightmare for his daughter.
Do I condone what William Roberts did? No. I don’t. A murder-suicide is ghastly. I don’t consider it a noble act.
Do I condone the unconscionable choice the world gave William Roberts? No. I don’t. I grieve for a world in which death or abandonment into hell are the choices people are given.
If my condemnation is going to fall, I’m going to let it fall on a world that creates these unconscionable choices.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
The scapegoating continues.
This week’s New York Times Op-Ed page features an utterly irresponsible article in which psychiatrist Paul Steinberg baselessly blames schizophrenia for mass shootings. In a truly chilling fashion, Dr. Steinberg argues that, in order to prevent such tragedies, we need to stop worrying our heads about the civil rights of people with schizophrenia:
[W]e have too much concern about privacy, labeling and stereotyping, about the civil liberties of people who have horrifically distorted thinking. In our concern for the rights of people with mental illness, we have come to neglect the rights of ordinary Americans to be safe from the fear of being shot — at home and at schools, in movie theaters, houses of worship and shopping malls.
Dr. Steinberg makes a pejorative and unsubstantiated association here between schizophrenia and the mass shootings that have taken place in 2012. He refers to shootings “at home and at schools” (a clear reference to the December 14 Newtown, Connecticut massacre), “in movie theaters” (a clear reference to the July 20 Aurora, Colorado theater shooting), “houses of worship” (a clear reference to the August 5 shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin), and “shopping malls” (a clear reference to the December 11 shooting at a shopping mall in Portland, Oregon).
Terrifying events, to be sure. But before we start tossing people’s civil liberties out the window, let’s look at whether any of the perpetrators of these violent acts actually had schizophrenia:
As far as we know, Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, was not diagnosed with schizophrenia, nor have we heard evidence that he was delusional.
James Holmes, the shooter in Aurora, saw a psychiatrist who specializes in schizophrenia — which means precisely nothing regarding his own diagnosis. Her practice was not limited to people with schizophrenia. He has not been diagnosed with the condition.
Wade Michael Page, who murdered six people at a Sikh Temple, was a racist skinhead who no one has ever remotely hinted showed signs of schizophrenia.
Jacob Tyler Roberts, who was responsible for the shooting at the mall in Portland showed no signs of delusional thinking to anyone around him, including his girlfriend.
But that doesn’t stop Dr. Steinberg from coming up with two new culprits:
At Virginia Tech, where Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people in a rampage shooting in 2007, professors knew something was terribly wrong, but he was not hospitalized for long enough to get well. The parents and community-college classmates of Jared L. Loughner, who killed 6 people and shot and injured 13 others (including a member of Congress) in 2011, did not know where to turn.
Of course, Seung-Hui Cho was never diagnosed with schizophrenia in his lifetime. Psychiatrists like Dr. Steinberg have only done so post-mortem, and the more responsible ones acknowledge that they cannot make such a diagnosis with any certainty. The only mass murderer to whom Dr. Steinberg makes reference who has actually been diagnosed with schizophrenia is Jared Lee Loughner.
There are very good reasons that psychiatrists have to meet a client in person in order to render a diagnosis: second- and third-hand testimony is notoriously unreliable, and diagnostic assessments can take days to complete. Oddly enough, Dr. Steinberg seems to be aware that he is breaking the ethical standards of his profession by diagnosing people he has neither met nor treated:
I write this despite the so-called Goldwater Rule, an ethical standard the American Psychiatric Association adopted in the 1970s that directs psychiatrists not to comment on someone’s mental state if they have not examined him and gotten permission to discuss his case. It has had a chilling effect. After mass murders, our airwaves are filled with unfounded speculations about video games, our culture of hedonism and our loss of religious faith, while psychiatrists, the ones who know the most about severe mental illness, are largely marginalized.
As far as I can see, the only “unfounded speculations” here are coming from Dr. Steinberg. It is hard to imagine how an affluent psychiatrist in private practice could imagine himself to be “marginalized,” particularly when it comes to armchair diagnoses. Given that his entire piece further marginalizes an entire group of people who already far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than to be the perpetrators, the term rings especially hollow.
To his credit, Dr. Steinberg does acknowledge schizophrenia is not generally associated with violence, though he then turns around and contradicts himself:
The vast majority of people with schizophrenia, treated or untreated, are not violent, though they are more likely than others to commit violent crimes.
Dr. Steinberg rather skews the evidence here. In fact, people with schizophrenia are not more likely to commit violent crime when one factors in the presence of substance abuse. A PLoS study found that, when controlling for the presence of drug and alcohol abuse, people with psychosis are no more likely to commit violent crime that people without psychosis:
Importantly the authors found that risk estimates of violence in people with substance abuse but no psychosis were similar to those in people with substance abuse and psychosis and higher than those in people with psychosis alone. (Gulati et al. 2009)
In other words, people with no psychosis who abuse alcohol and drugs have a higher risk of committing a violent crime than people with psychosis who do not abuse alcohol and drugs, and a similar risk to people with psychosis who do. The factor to be looking at is drug and alcohol abuse, not schizophrenia.
That point seems to have been lost on Dr. Steinberg. He should know better. Shame on him.
ABC News. “Clackamas Town Center Shooting: Who Is the Alleged Shooter?” http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/clackamas-town-center-shooting-jacob-roberts-alleged-shooter-17959547. December 13, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
The Atlantic. “Diagnosing Adam Lanza.” http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/diagnosing-adam-lanza/266322/#. December 13, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Billeaud, Jacques. “Trial not likely for Jared Lee Loughner in 2012.” Boston.com, January 6, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012. http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2012/01/06/trial_not_likely_for_jared_lee_loughner_in_2012/.
Gulati, Gautam, Louise Linsell, John R. Geddes, and Martin Grann. “Schizophrenia and Violence: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” PLoS Med 6, no. 8 (2009). doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000120.
Laris, Michael, Jerry Markon, and William Branigin. “Wade Michael Page, Sikh temple shooter, identified as skinhead band leader.” The Washington Post, August 6, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-08-06/world/35491487_1_end-apathy-sikh-temple-skinhead-band.
PBS News Hour. “Alleged Colorado Shooter Saw Schizophrenia Expert.” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/social_issues/july-dec12/colorado_07-27.html. July 27, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Psychiatric News Alert. “People With Schizophrenia More Likely to Be Victims, Not Perpetrators of Violence.” http://alert.psychiatricnews.org/2012/05/people-with-schizophrenia-more-likely.html. May 10, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012.
Steinberg, Paul. “Our Failed Approach to Schizophrenia.” The New York Times, December 25, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/26/opinion/our-failed-approach-to-schizophrenia.html?_r=0.
Welner, Michael. “Cho Likely Schizophrenic, Evidence Suggests.” ABC News, April 17, 2007. Accessed December 27, 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/VATec h/cho-schizophrenic-evidence-suggests/story?id=3050483#.UNxJWnfLBQF.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Despite a number of clarifications in The New York Times and on ABC News, NBC News, and CNN that Asperger’s is not a predisposing factor for premeditated violence, the spurious association of Asperger’s with the violence in Newtown, CT is still strong. In part, the media is responsible for not having clarified early on that yes, Adam Lanza shot 27 people and yes, Adam Lanza was apparently autistic, and no, one had nothing to do with the other. Such failures were rife. For example, in exploring a possible explanation for the shooting, Dr. Xavier Amador opined on Piers Morgan Tonight that people with Asperger’s are missing an essential element of humanity:
Well, actually, a symptom of Asperger’s, and this is one report coming out which may or may not be true, is something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety.
But the media’s response is only a symptom of a much larger problem. Its willingness to blame Asperger’s is a reflection of a cultural association between disability and evil that has lasted for centuries. As Colin Barnes writes:
Throughout the Middle Ages, disabled people were the subject of superstition, persecution, and rejection. Haffter (1968) has pointed out that in medieval Europe disability was associated with evil and witchcraft. Deformed and disabled children were seen as ‘changelings’ or the Devil’s substitutes for human children, the outcome of their parents’ involvement with the black arts of sorcery. The Malleus Maleficarum of 1487 declared that these children were the product of the mothers’ intercourse with Satan… Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) proclaimed that he saw the Devil in a profoundly disabled child. If these children lived, Luther recommended killing them.” (Barnes 2010, 21)
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century eugenicists picked up this connection between disability and depravity, believing “that there were genetic links between physical and mental impairments, crime, unemployment and other social evils” (Barnes 2010, 26). The linkage has come down to the present day in the pernicious belief that disability is synonymous with narcissism and anti-social behavior (Siebers 2011, 34-35).
I’ve read a number of comments online that suggest that autistic people and autism parents are overplaying the scapegoating of Asperger’s. People say that the mainstream media has issued its clarifications and that the problem is solved. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Once this iteration of the cultural narrative about disability hit the airwaves, it quickly took root among ordinary people. Giving life to a well-worn untruth while people are in a state of nearly irrational fear is a difficult thing to undo. To give you a sense of just how deep the damage goes, I offer the following examples.
On the Volconvo forum, one commenter refers to people with autism and mental illness as “broken-minded defects” who are “dangerous” and whom society needs to monitor and imprison inside locked wards:
A commenter on a TIME article suggests that autistic people are “mutants” who need to be placed in “psychiatric facilities” and ultimately removed from the gene pool for the good of society:
And then there was the person who started a Facebook page and called for the killing of autistic children. (To its credit, Facebook quickly removed the page.)
This kind of scapegoating has begun the inevitable creep off the major news sites and social media and into the lives of ordinary autistic people and their families. Three friends have given me permission to share their experiences.
Here is the story told by my friend Sara, a woman with Asperger’s. While standing at the post office five days after the tragedy, she spoke to a woman, an Ivy League graduate, who said that Asperger’s — and Asperger’s alone — had caused the Sandy Hook shooting. Sara posted the following on her Facebook status:
Another friend describes a situation in which a false belief in a link between autism and violence caused his wholly nonviolent autistic child to become suspect in the eyes of a relative:
Finally, my friend C describes a more frightening scenario. Her son J, who is 14 years old, had gone to Wal-Mart to look for a Christmas tree. He has Asperger’s and bipolar disorder, and people in his community are aware of his diagnoses. He was wearing headphones to block out sensory input, and, at one point, attempted to find a quieter place in the store. He had his hand on a price list in his pocket when someone who knew him went into a panic — a panic that resulted in the young man’s injury:
Like Trayvon Martin in his hoodie, the scary guy on the block appears to be, in the minds of some people, the kid with Asperger’s with his hands in his pockets. I’m just waiting for someone to suggest that, as Geraldo Rivera said about black men giving up their hoodies, young men with Asperger’s should wear pocketless clothing.
The stunning level of irrationality and fear being leveled at people with autism is tremendous cause for concern. In the face of this scapegoating, autistic people and autism parents are countering with positive images of autistic children and adults that show us as full human beings — ordinary, extraordinary, beautiful, and proud. To see these images, please go to the following Facebook pages:
Let’s spread the word to end the scapegoating. And let’s keep doing it, now and always, wherever and whenever we can.
Barnes, Colin. “A Brief History of Discrimination and Disabled People.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 20-32. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Christopher, Tommy. “Piers Morgan Quack Says People With Autism Lack Empathy: ‘Something’s Missing In The Brain’.” Mediaite, December 14, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.mediaite.com/tv/piers-morgan-quack-says-people-with-autism-lack-empathy-somethings-missing-in-the-brain/.
Facebook. www.facebook.com. Accessed December 24, 2012.
— “Autism Shines.” http://www.facebook.com/AutismShines?fref=ts. Accessed December 24, 2012.
— “Autistics, Not Monsters.” http://www.facebook.com/AutisticsNotMonsters?ref=ts&fref=ts. Accessed December 24, 2012.
— “Disability and Representation.” http://www.facebook.com/DisabilityAndRepresentation. Accessed December 24, 2012.
Falco, Miriam. “Groups: Autism not to blame for violence. CNN, December 19, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/17/health/connecticut-shooting-autism/index.html.
Fox, Maggie. “Asperger’s not an explanation for Lanza’s Connecticut killing spree, experts say.” NBC News, December 18, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/12/18/15994353-aspergers-not-an-explanation-for-lanzas-connecticut-killing-spree-experts-say?lite.
Gilman, Priscilla. “Don’t Blame Autism for Newtown.” The New York Times, December 17, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/opinion/dont-blame-autism-for-newtown.html.
Nano, Stephanie. “Experts: No Link Between Asperger’s, Violence. ABC News, December 16, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/experts-link-aspergers-violence-17987339#.UNj7VHfLBQG.
Rochman, Bonnie. “Guilt by Association: Troubling Legacy of Sandy Hook May Be Backlash Against Children with Autism.” TIME, December 19, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012. http://healthland.time.com/2012/12/19/guilt-by-associationtroubling-legacy-of-sandy-hook-may-be-backlash-against-children-with-autism/.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
Volconvo. “Kindergarten isn’t just about identifying colors, shapes and sizes anymore.” http://www.volconvo.com/forums/society-rights/43038-kindergarten-isn-t-just-about-identifying.html. December 14, 2012. Accessed December 24, 2012.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
It’s Happened Again: Apparently, It’s Let’s Publicly Defame a Family Member By Comparing Him to Adam Lanza Week
Last Friday, there was the infamous I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother piece.
This Friday, there is an equally disgraceful piece called My brother is not Adam Lanza, but he could be, in which the author, under her own name, with a photo of her brother, says that he could be the next Adam Lanza. Or that he could have been. If his parents hadn’t done such a good job. And he weren’t such a nice person. Or something.
Please, dear readers, answer me two questions: What makes people unable to restrain themselves from blowing the privacy of family members? And what compels them to put a photo of a family member in a piece in which said family member is likened to Adam Lanza?
The author acknowledges that Asperger’s isn’t associated with violence. She acknowledges that her brother, who has Asperger’s, has never committed a violent act in his life. The closest he has ever come has been to get up into her face, with his fists, once.
It was only years later as I watched my brother shaking with rage, as he struggled to hold himself together, with his fist clenched inches from my face that I understood how intense frustration and pain could explode out of a person.
He has never hit me, or any family member, although there are times he uses up every ounce of self- control restraining himself. This incredible effort and bravery, is testament to his goodness.
On these rare occasions I wonder what it would take to push him over the edge. Is that the difference between him and Adam Lanza?
So, apparently, in the mind of Pamela Mirghani, shaking with rage at a family member, if the person shaking with rage happens to have Asperger’s, suggests a risk for committing mass murder. I can’t even begin to parse the logic there, because there isn’t any. The statement is completely prejudicial. Does she realize how many non-autistic people get up in other people’s faces with their fists, and worse, and don’t go on to shoot up schools?
Millions of people, all over the world, feel like hitting people and they don’t do it. And millions of people, all over the world, feel like hitting people and — unlike her brother — they do. Does that make all of these people potential mass murderers? Of course not. And even if it did, why in God’s name link it to Asperger’s, especially when she admits that Asperger’s isn’t linked to violence at all:
While violence may not be linked to autism, frustration is. Without the tools, help and support to cope with that frustration it can overwhelm the sufferer.
I am not Adam Lanza’s sister. My brother is NOT Adam Lanza. But he could have been, maybe could still be under certain circumstances. And acknowledging this is not wrong.
Yes, folks. She just said that her brother with Asperger’s, who has never been violent, who on “rare occasions” has gotten so upset that he wanted to hit someone, could become a mass murderer under certain circumstances — purely because his Asperger’s makes him frustrated. Of course, that blithely ignores the fact that all studies show that Asperger’s is not associated with premeditated violence, and that there is no evidence that mere frustration makes someone load weapons into his car, drive to a school, and commit murder and mayhem. But hey, who needs studies — not to mention common sense — when you can defame and violate the privacy of a family member for no good reason?
So yes, Pamela. Acknowledging something, when it’s entirely false, prejudicial, and defamatory, is wrong. Saying that anyone with Asperger’s could become a mass murderer under certain circumstances, simply because the person has Asperger’s, is wrong. Saying that your own brother could become a mass murderer, merely because he shares a diagnosis with someone who just committed an unthinkable act, is wrong. There is nothing about Asperger’s that predisposes people to premeditated violence. Nothing at all.
To suggest that your brother with Asperger’s is capable of such a thing, purely because of his disability, not only tars and feathers him, but also tars and feathers everyone who has Asperger’s.
Do you know what that means? Do you know the harm that could come from articles like this one? Do you know the kind of fear that autistic people are feeling right now because we’re being scapegoated in the media for the evil that was done last week? Any idea at all? Do you know how this stigmatizes your brother? Do you understand the humiliation involved in calling him a potential mass murderer? Do you grasp the fact that it puts your brother — and all of us — in potential danger for you to say such a thing in public?
Great job, Pamela. What a nice Christmas present to your brother, to autistic people, and to those who love us. Merry Christmas to you, too.
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.
Mirghani, Pamela. “My brother is not Adam Lanza, but he could be.” National Times. December 21, 2012. Accessed December 21, 2012. http://www.watoday.com.au/opinion/my-brother-is-not-adam-lanza-but-he-could-be-20121221-2bql1.html.
Note: Anyone who would like to protest the nature of Pamela Mirghani’s article is welcome to share a link to this piece in an email to email@example.com. You can also find WA Today, on whose site the piece appears, on Twitter at @watoday.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Yesterday morning in Newtown, Connecticut, a young man murdered 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with six adults, having already killed his own mother. When I saw the news, I broke down and cried. All I could say, over and over, was Why would anyone kill little children? How could anyone do such evil?
Yes, I’m using the word evil. I can’t think of any word that even comes close to describing the actions of someone who is so angry, so desperate, and so full of self-pity that he decides to take 20 children with him. And really, there is no answer to the question of why. Sometimes, people do evil because they can, because they decide to discard their moral compass, because they decide to inflict pain.
But of course, we live in a society in which simply saying that evil is afoot doesn’t cut it anymore. We want answers. We want control. We want it fixed. So we make it a sickness, because we hope that someday sickness will have a cure.
And so we find scapegoats. When another atrocity happens, we hear people say that the shooter must have been mentally ill. We hear people say that the shooter must have had autism. In this case, the media is engaging in scapegoating both groups: more than one news outlet has reported that the shooter was both mentally ill and autistic, as though being mentally ill and autistic were an explanation for killing 27 people.
Yes, it’s happening again. It’s becoming predictable. In the past 24 hours, I have been involved in discussions in which people have not only engaged in the usual He must have been mentally ill speculations, but have also said that because autistic people have meltdowns, it’s plausible that the shooter simply had a meltdown.
Let’s get something straight right now. Autistic people have meltdowns because their sensory systems get overloaded and it hurts more than anyone who has never experienced it could understand. And yes, sometimes, people strike out in the course of a meltdown. Not always, but sometimes. Often, they strike out at themselves. And when they do strike out, it’s a spontaneous act. It’s a neurological response that is not even remotely close to premeditating a murder.
People in the midst of a meltdown do not take the time and the forethought to arm themselves with a bullet-proof vest and several weapons, make their way to an elementary school, and consciously target two particular classrooms of children and the school office. In fact, most people in the midst of a meltdown just want to withdraw and get away from people and the stressors that cause overload.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Autism is not a predisposing factor to premeditated violence. Autistic people are far, far more likely to be the victims of crime than its perpetrators.
And the same goes for mental illness. Most mentally ill people do not harm anyone and are at much greater risk of being the victims of violence.
If you must ask the question of why, take a look at what all the school shooters have in common: they are young men. Of course, simply being a man does not predispose anyone to violence. But perhaps the fact that we equate manhood with power and domination in our society does. Maybe, just maybe, we need to separate violence from the definition of being a man. Maybe, just maybe, we need to start looking at the way that we glorify violence among men.
That’s not scapegoating. That’s taking a good look at we do, as a culture, to make it more likely that people choose evil.
Scapegoating innocent, vulnerable groups of disabled people — people with autism, people with mental illness — is irresponsible. It has the potential to wreak havoc in the lives of people who are already struggling against stigma and exclusion.
So let’s do some self-reflection as a culture. Let’s look at what we’re communicating to our young men about what it means to be a man.
And when we do, let’s leave disabled people out of it.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Trigger warning: Contains a quoted example of disability hate speech.
I am finding it difficult to begin this piece.
It’s not that I can’t find the words. When I’m writing, I can almost always find the words. It’s that what I want to write about is painful almost beyond words.
In the wake of Joe Scarborough’s uttering the falsehood that autism is linked to mass murder and his erroneous statement that most mass murderers are autistic, well over 11,000 people signed a petition demanding a retraction. To date, Mr. Scarborough and MSNBC have still not seen fit to fulfill their journalistic obligation of setting the record straight. Autism Speaks put out an absolutely useless statement that did not, in any way, refute Mr. Scarborough’s remarks; the organization might as well have remained completely silent. Only the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the Autism Society of America, and the Autism Society Canada spoke up in protest.
In the wake of these failures of conscience, people in the autism and autistic communities have been left to deal with the fallout. And yes, there has been fallout. I have been talking with autistic people, autism parents, and allies about this issue for nearly two weeks, and the constant refrain I hear is, “We are afraid of what will happen to us, to our children, to our loved ones, and to our friends.”
Like them, I have feared the impact of Mr. Scarborough’s words. And then, last Monday, one week after the Morning Joe broadcast, my fears were realized. I found the following on the Facebook page of my friend and colleague Karla Fisher, who an autism educator on the autism spectrum and the general manager of a professional women’s football team in Oregon:
This weekend I hosted my football team at my farm for a camp out. They asked me questions about my autism work and I told them that autistic people grow up to be lawyers and doctors and teachers and janitors and Moms and…. I was uninterrupted by one of the girls who said, “And mass murderers”. I asked her if she was kidding. She was not. EVERYONE thought Holmes is autistic and that link was connected very clearly in that room.
This is real life folks and real bad for all of us.
I don’t have enough to words to describe how disturbing I find this story, but I can tell you why I find it so disturbing: Karla’s teammates know her, and they know that she is autistic. Karla is very open about it, and her teammates provide all manner of accommodations in order to be inclusive of her. They consider her a friend. They respect her as an athlete. But she was standing right in front of them, and what mattered more was a media representation of autism than the reality of Karla’s life and being. The disconnect is terrifying — as is the fact that someone would say such a thing to an autistic person, anywhere, without any consciousness of the hurt it would cause.
The truth of the statement was taken entirely for granted. The utterance of it was acceptable.
No one said a word.
But there is more. On August 2, ten days after the Morning Joe broadcast, my friend and colleague Lynne Soraya, who writes a blog for Psychology Today called Asperger’s Diary, received a comment that can only be described as hate speech. It came in response to a piece that she wrote in April called Stigma and the ‘Othering’ of Autism. The commenter took the time to find a four-month-old post in order to comment on the Colorado shooting and express the opinion that all of us on the spectrum should die:
“Neurodiversity”? F*ck you! You have no right to tell me that ‘tards are people if I don’t want to believe that. Grow up and stop believing in fairy tales, nerd.
Hey, one of you DnD faptards just shot 72 people in a movie theater, and 15 of them DIED. Jimbo the Joker Holmes has “special rights” because he’s an “emotionally sensitive” neuroscience geek who probably gets “excited” by Batman/Robin slashfic? He wants to see his brain light up, give him a special seat with ol’ Sparky!
I hear there’s a new movie out about you f*ckwits that someone else can have a free-for-all with: It’s called Eat Sh*t Die. Tagline: Read. Follow. Repeat.
Needless to say, given its content, the comment has now been taken down. But the message is clear: The writer believes James Holmes to be autistic, that autistic people are not human, and that autistic people don’t deserve to live.
In the space of a week, two of my friends have encountered people who believe that autism predisposes people to mass murder. Two people in my own circle of friends. I have not scoured the Internet looking for this information; it’s happening to people I know. How many more have had this experience, but are too afraid or in too much pain to speak up?
I have been aware of the stigma of autism for a long time, and much of my work on autism and empathy has been driven by the desire to dispel the myths that plague us. The idea that someone would think that I am not an empathetic person has been the source of enormous pain to me, but it is as nothing compared to having now been stigmatized with the mother of all stigmas. The lack of safety that I feel cuts right through me. Perhaps this stigma will never rise up to greet me personally. Perhaps it will rise up tomorrow. Perhaps it will rise up just when I’m starting to feel comfortable and welcome in a group of people. I don’t know when it will rise up, and that is what is so dangerous and so vicious about stigma — it is entirely unpredictable.
I’m sure that there will be people who will pass off my feelings by saying, “Oh, autistic people are always fearful. It’s just part of the condition.” They will tell themselves such a convenient lie only because they do not want to face the reality that we are fearful because we live in a world that not only scapegoats us and maligns us, but remains silent when it happens. They will tell themselves such a story because they want to ignore the fact that, when these things happen, we stand up for ourselves, but very few stand up with us. Most people would rather flee stigmatized people than run the risk of being stigmatized by association.
Over the past two weeks, as I’ve felt this fear permeate my being, I’ve realized that I have a choice. I can either let the fear make me fearless, or let it make me hide.
I choose to be fearless. It doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid sometimes. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the gravity of the situation. It means that I don’t let the fear stop me. It means that I take the fear and transform it into courage and power.
I’m not sure anything can fully repair the damage done by Mr. Scarborough’s remarks. His words went out to a half million people, and have been passed on by millions more. There is no way to reach every one of those people and make this wrong right. But conscience demands that people speak up. Joe Scarborough, and MSNBC, and Autism Speaks may remain silent. But autism parents, autistic people, allies, friends, and loved ones will keep on speaking up. And we will put them all to shame.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Dear Mr. Scarborough and MSNBC:
Nearly one week has passed since you, Mr. Scarborough, made the false and unsupportable claim that most people who commit the kind of violence seen in Aurora, Colorado are on the autism spectrum.
Your statement was both prejudicial and factually incorrect. Not a single mass murderer has ever been diagnosed with autism. Not one. Moreover, there is no evidence linking autism to premeditated, criminal violence. Absolutely none.
You have not set the record straight. Your employers as MSNBC have not set the record straight. Why is that? Journalists have an obligation to provide accurate information and to issue a retraction when they are in error. It’s really quite simple. What has gone awry at MSNBC that no such retraction has occurred?
It’s not as though, in the past week, retractions and apologies are without precedent. The president of ABC News has issued an apology for Brian Ross’ irresponsible statement that the Colorado shooter was a member of the Tea Party. Why has MSNBC not followed their lead? Why has MSNBC failed to retract and apologize for an equally incorrect and potentially damaging statement?
Many of us have spent years in the trenches educating people about autism, dispelling myths, working toward acceptance, and advocating for inclusion. Many of us have spent countless hours worrying about what will happen to people on the autism spectrum — the children coming up, the young adults beginning to make their way in the world, the older people dealing with a lifetime of rejection — in a world full of so much negative and false information. Many on the spectrum have borne the brunt of physical violence, bullying, and shunning. Countless family members and friends have watched their loved ones bear it.
And all of us — all of us — have cried bitter, bitter tears over a world that does not see people on the autism spectrum as fully worthy of the rights and protections that most people take for granted.
And yet, through our tears, we keep trying. We keep building. We keep working.
And then you come along, Mr. Scarborough, with both the privilege and the responsibility that come with reaching millions of people, and you utter falsehoods that have the potential to undo the progress we have labored for so long to achieve. And you did it at a moment at which the nation was wounded and our hearts were bleeding — a moment at which we were hungry for answers.
And you gave America the wrong answer, Mr. Scarborough. You made a group of innocent people the representatives of the horror wrought by one man.
You can go a long way toward healing the damage. You can take responsibility for yourself and for your words. You can issue a full on-air retraction, one that will reach millions of viewers, and you can clarify that autism does not in any way, shape, or form predispose people toward the kind of heinous violence perpetrated in that movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
And if you don’t take responsibility, Mr. Scarborough, your employers at MSNBC certainly should.
Over 10,000 people have signed a Change.org petition demanding a full retraction, and the numbers are growing. They are outraged, and rightly so. They know an injustice when they see it.
Listen to them. They are telling you what you need to know. Please fulfill your professional and ethical obligations. Set the record straight.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
We in the disability community knew it was coming. We’d known it for days.
After a young man in Aurora, Colorado took the lives of 12 people, wounded 58, and left nothing but grief and misery behind him, we knew they’d start rounding up the usual suspects. They always do.
And they did — on the television, in the newspapers, and on the Internet. Pundits, reporters, and ordinary people all decided one thing: He must have been mentally ill. After all, how could a sane person do such a thing?
It’s as though utterly ordinary people don’t do atrocious, violent, unthinkable things every day of the week. I sometimes wonder whether people in this country are aware of the sheer level of violence that goes on all over the world, every minute of every day, perpetrated by folks who are neither mentally ill nor delusional. And I sometimes wonder why the message hasn’t gotten through that most mentally ill or delusional people never harm anyone — except perhaps themselves.
And then I remember: Oh yeah. People love a scapegoat. So, hey, they figure, let’s go after some of the most vulnerable, stigmatized people out there. Let’s choose people who are the victims of crime far, far more often than they are the perpetrators. Let’s choose people on the margins, without a lot of power. Let’s choose people who have already been kicked to the gutter. Yeah. Let’s do that. The hell with them. They’re not worth much anyway.
And, by all means, let’s ignore the fact that most of the people who commit these crimes have two things in common: they are young and they are men. God forbid that we should ask ourselves, What are we doing to our young men that makes them do such things? What are we teaching them? What are we not teaching them? No. It has to be someone else — that crazy person over there. Not my son. Not my neighbor. Not someone I might chat with on my front porch. Someone else. Someone other.
I saw it beginning to happen. And then there was more. I saw people in You Tube videos and in the comments on news sites opining that the shooter must have been autistic — as though that would explain it. It was disturbing to read, but I thought, You know, Rachel, you can’t get upset with every ignorant person with an Internet connection and a YouTube account. Don’t give them your energy. I figured that the folks whose words I was reading didn’t have that much reach, and I comforted myself in the knowledge that people were speaking up and countering the ignorance with information. It was an uneasy kind of comfort, but it was comfort nonetheless.
And then I woke up this morning, and I read what had come out of Joe Scarborough’s mouth. On Morning Joe, an MSNBC program with an audience of millions of viewers, Joe decided that it was time to join the He Must Be Autistic chorus. According to an article on Politico.com:
“You don’t want to generalize,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said today before saying that James Holmes, the suspected Aurora, Colo., shooter, was “on the autism scale.”
“As soon as I hear about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society — it happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale,” said Scarborough, whose son has Asperger’s syndrome. “I don’t know if that’s the case here, but it happens more often than not. People that can walk around in society, they can function on college campuses — they can even excel on college campuses — but are socially disconnected.”
Whenever I hear the phrase You don’t want to generalize, I brace for impact, because I know that what’s about to come next is a disaster. In this case, the disaster was, as my kid would say, epic. The disaster consisted of two bombshells falling to earth, one right after another, and blowing to smithereens the hard work of autism advocacy carried out by thousands of autistic people, autism parents, and autism professionals.
First, there is the absolutely false idea that people who commit mass murder are on the autism spectrum. According to Joe, it happens more often than not. What? Where’s the evidence? Oh, right. There isn’t any. Because it’s not true. There has never been any evidence whatsoever that autism is associated with criminal violence. It makes me feel sick to even have to counter this nonsense, but I have to, because now, millions of people are going to believe it.
And then, there’s the image of autistic people who can “walk around in society” looking like everyone else, putting together respectable GPAs, and seeming so utterly, utterly ordinary, until one day — well, you know. I’d like to take this moment to thank Joe for representing autistic people, in the popular mind, as ticking time bombs. Well done, Joe! I’m sure the next ethical, talented, gentle autistic young man who doesn’t get a job because the hiring manager thinks he might be the next office shooter will thank you. Maybe he’ll even name his kid after you. And what about the shy kid with Asperger’s who already has difficulty making friends? What will happen to him with such falsehoods circulating in the world he inhabits? And what of older autistic people, heading into their elder years facing exclusion and ignorance? What about them?
I wonder sometimes. Do people like Joe Scarborough know what it means to be that stigmatized? Do they have any idea of the fear it engenders in people? Do they have any idea of how it tears at the heart?
I don’t know. But I do know this: We can’t let such things go without protest. So please, let Joe Scarborough and the folks at MSNBC know how you feel by leaving your comments at the Morning Joe feedback page. And remember to sign my online petition asking Joe Scarborough and MSNBC to issue a full retraction of Joe’s remarks.
Please add your voice to the outcry. Thank you.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
The following is a revised version of a post I wrote for Journeys with Autism about the murder of four-year-old Daniel Corby.
Another autistic person has been murdered. This time, a four-year-old boy named Daniel Corby has been killed, allegedly by his mother.
And of course, someone had to say it. Because, when these things happen, someone always does. According to 10News.com in San Diego:
San Diego police sources told 10News Corby was a stay-at-home mother pushed to the edge handling a difficult child with autism.
Well, that explains it. The autism made her do it. Actually, it was her “difficult” four-year-old who made her do it. Oh, yes. Somehow, a tiny, defenseless child turned a loving mother into a homicidal monster.
And then there are the comments on the news story. Some of them are absolutely spot-on, condemning the murder without apology or explanation. But as always, there are those that plead for people to understand the difficulties of the caregiver and the impact of a lack of support. As one commenter said:
This is a tragic loss of life. However, I must say that until you have an autistic child you have no idea of how difficult it is to raise an autistic child… Without a proper support system and the needed services I really do see how it can drive someone to the brink.
Yes, families don’t have enough support. Disabled people don’t have enough support. No one has enough support. And as long as disabled lives are devalued, we will never, ever get that support. So what happens in the meantime? We don’t get support because our lives are devalued. We get killed because our lives our devalued. And as long as people feel that without support, it is “understandable” that we are killed, our lives will continue to be devalued. We will be caught in an endless cycle without the possibility of change.
All attempts to explain this tragedy hide from view an essential fact about becoming a parent: In having a child, you make a commitment that, even if you end up in the worst extremity, you’ll protect the child’s life. That’s a basic, sacred trust. The child didn’t ask to be born, didn’t ask to be difficult, didn’t ask to be disabled. When people don’t speak to that commitment and that trust, but start talking about how difficult the child was, and how the parents lacked services, I get really scared. Because there will always be people without adequate support. And if people can’t simply say, “I don’t care how bad the parent’s life is. The parent broke a sacred trust with the child and had no right to do so,” I don’t see that there is any protection for disabled people at all. It’s very frightening to me. It means that I live in a society that is nothing short of barbaric.
When a four-year-old child is drowned by his mother, it’s not the time to wonder why she did it. It’s time to condemn that she did, and it’s time to look at how much we devalue disabled life that a mother thought her life would be better with her son dead.
Because the problem isn’t the lack of services. The problem is the devaluation.
And how do disabled lives get devalued? There are so many ways, it would be impossible to list them all here. But let’s begin with language, because language is the way that we understand, well, everything. What is the language that people use to describe disability and disabled people?
Burdens on their families. Burdens on the taxpayers. Tragic suffering. Waste of money. Not fully human. Should never have been born.
What do you think happens when you dehumanize people? What kind of culture do you think you are creating? What do you think the outcome will be when people are treated to a constant and unrelenting stream of words like that?
I’ll tell you what happens. A four-year-old boy is murdered, and people blame his disability.
This is what you get when you call disabled people burdens.
This is what you get when you call disability a tragedy.
This is what you get when you call disability a waste of money.
This is what you get when you say that disabled people are not fully human.
This is what you get when you say that disabled people should never have been born.
This is what you get. A four year boy. Drowned.
This is what you get.
And in the face of this disaster, I have one question — and it is the only question that matters:
Is this what you want?
San Diego News. “Boy, 4, Allegedly Killed By Mother Identified.” http://www.10news.com/news/30820120/detail.html. April 2, 2012. Accessed June 2, 2012.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg