I was Adam Lanza: a response to “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”

The Huffington Post article “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” left out a crucial set of details. This mother would have us believe that her child is scary and terrifying and that it is just part of who he is. He is mentally ill, and it’s biological, and nothing bad ever happened to him to make him act that way. I realize that she was trying to raise awareness about mental illness and that she didn’t want to go delving into the dark closets of her family life, but I was the little boy she describes. And I helped raise the little boy she describes for a few years, as well, and I know that there is more to the story.

I was watching Angel, the tv spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the other day and I watched an episode in which a little boy is evil and is terrorizing his family and they are afraid of him. And I have seen this portrayal before, and it hurts. Why does it hurt? Why did reading that article make me feel so sad and angry? Because children aren’t evil, folks. And if they are, it’s because we’ve failed them. It’s not an inborn thing.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother–who “raised” me from the time I was 2–told me that I had a mean streak and she said it like what she meant was that I was evil. When I got older, she told me that I had been an “angry child” like it completely mystified her. When I was maybe 12 or so and I pushed my sister over, she told me that if I ever touched my sister again, she would call the police.

I can’t really remember most of what went on and what I did in my childhood–a result of severe dissociation–but my sister tells me that I used to beat her up a lot. And I believe her. I think that I was an angry, mean, scary, feral child. I do remember biting my preschool teacher hard enough to draw blood and then throwing chairs down in her way as we raced around and around the classroom with her trying to catch me.

But then things must have calmed down. I dissociated the angry, violent part of myself away, and as far as I know, it remains dormant somewhere inside of me to this day. And I didn’t even realize that I had it until I found myself a few years ago helping to raise a little boy who is just exactly like I must have been. And like this woman’s son.

The little guy that I had is a sweet, creative, funny, amazing little guy. For the few years I lived with him, he loved to accessorize–wearing red cowboy boots and an omnitrex. He invented pulley systems to transfer important notes from one end of the house to the other. And he could make a joke about anything.

And sometimes he was scary. Really really scary. Like when he yanked the headlight of our car out with his bare hands at the age of six. Like when he opened the car door and ran across three lanes of traffic and we had to call the police to restrain him. Like when he’d throw a tantrum and yank out wads and wads of our hair and break everything he could get his hands on in our house. Like when he lured his little brother to a bridge above a stream and pushed him off. (His brother was OK.)

I know where the popular stories about demon-possessed children come from. I have lived with one, and I was one. And I have no doubt that the woman who wrote that article lives with one, as well. Though I’m not convinced that Adam Lanza himself actually was one. There are other types of mental illness than the one that looks like this.

But this one is no more inborn and “biological” than the rest of them. When my grandmother told me that I seemed “possessed,” looking back, I’m sure that it appeared that way. And that it did mystify her. But here’s the thing: I was passed back and forth between houses 8 times by the age of five. I was stolen and taken to Mexico for 6 months. I lived in filth and drugs and cockroaches. By the time I was six, two of my aunts who took care of me had been murdered and/or had killed themselves. I had been sexually abused by two men. And I was living with a woman who completely emotionally withdrew from the world when her daughters died.

And what the foster care systems don’t pay attention to about passing children back and forth between adults is that the child is often forced to completely change allegiances with every move. The adults are fighting–each thinking they know what’s best for the child–and the child has no sense of nuance or how each adult might be right in a different way. No, it’s survival. And survival means that when you are with these adults, you think that they are right and you kiss up to them, and you do what they say. And when you are with those adults, you believe what they say and do what they want you to.

A child can’t mentally handle that kind of dissonance in a healthy, sane way, so he learns to dissociate different parts of himself. But there is rage and pain, and it gets dissociated, too, and it comes out in violent fits that seem unrelated to anything and make the adults think the child is possessed. But he’s not. And they aren’t unrelated.

And I have a feeling that it’s the smartest kids who do this. Because on some level they learn that they can keep alive by splitting off like this. Dumber kids just curl up and die or go so deep inside of themselves that they will never be found.

The little boy that I had went back and forth between his crazy teen mother and us like a billion times. And when he was with her, often he wasn’t allowed any contact with us. And when he was with us, often she would just completely disappear from the scene for months, years. There were also drugs and poverty and death and violence in his early years. And I was sometimes frightened of him. And I could see that he dissociated. Sometimes he would do something, and he would be convinced that he had been unjustly accused of it–he would believe he hadn’t done it, even when there was no other POSSIBLE explanation. Even when his rational brain had to tell him that. But I know he wasn’t lying.

Dissociation is how really smart children deal with really severe trauma. Especially when none of the adults in their lives are willing or able to help them process the trauma. And I think this splitting off of the “naughty” and “nice” sides is a fundamental part of early childhood dissociation. And it might look like the child is “evil” or “possessed” when he throws a tantrum that leaves all of the windows in the house smashed. But he’s not. He’s trying to deal with pain that he has no resources whatsoever to deal with.

And our response can NOT be to then tell the child that there is something wrong with him on some deep, fundamental level. Or to propagate images of children who are demonically possessed. Because that, again, reinforces the idea that it’s the child’s fault or that some children are just “wrong” somehow. They’re not. True evil does not exist.

UPDATE: For those of you just reading this blog for the first time: this is a site that I keep to raise awareness about kids who are going through painful things. And about what we as people who work with and write books for those kids can do to help them. I don’t believe that ANY children are born essentially evil. And as much as I want to support free discussion, I won’t allow comments to that affect on here. There are plenty of other forums right now to express opinions to that affect. But if they are posted here, they will be deleted. I’m sorry.

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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25 Responses to I was Adam Lanza: a response to “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”

  1. Susan Lea says:

    Regardless of whether her son’s problems are caused by nature or nurture, the mother owes it to society to have her son committed before he harms anyone. I expect the mother of Adam Lanza should have done the same thing, and maybe the parents of other mass murderers. It is difficult to see the problem when you are so close.

    • Anna says:

      How does one get their child committed? I’m not sure that’s possible these days…

      • momof2 says:

        When your child is an adult, they need to make a specific threat in order to be put on a psych hold. It’s often too late. People are more conerned about ‘privacy’ and ‘my body, my right’ than the big picture. And every doctor will tell you when it is a CHILD, the symptoms are confused and blurry with behavioral issues. You can’t put every naughty child in a mental hospital. So until it is your child do not judge. It’s a lot of work and involves a lot of reading, research, and prayer.

      • pamwatts says:

        I don’t know that it is. And it is certainly not the answer. There are special therepeutic homes for children with issues too big for their parents to handle. I don’t know that they are good places. But if their issues are that big, there is a pretty good chance that their homes aren’t actually any better.

        What we need, I think, is far more research into the affects of trauma and abuse on children. And we need better therapies for PTSD and dissociation. And we need more social workers and teachers trained in the new methods that they need to develop to work with these kids.

        I can’t stress enough that these children have been HURT MASSIVELY. And our response cannot be to hurt them further or condemn them as evil or alienate them or tell them there is something fundamentally wrong with them!

    • Has is occurred to you that when the kid comes out of the psych ward he’s been committed to, he will be filled with even more violent rage for being abandoned to an institution by those who were supposed to care about him, for being locked up and abused?

  2. pamwatts says:

    I don’t think that’s the answer. I don’t know what the answer is. But I think we need to figure out as a society how to recognize and help those who need help.

  3. Susan Lea says:

    No its not a great answer, but its the best I can do. We have to put the safety of many against the freedom of a few.

  4. pamwatts says:

    No, Susan. You can’t take every child who has ever thrown a scary tantrum because they are severely traumatized and lock them away forever. There is no way of knowing who will kill someone and who won’t.

    If you lock someone away, you pretty much make the choice for them: they will be evil. If you give them understanding and love, then you quite possibly create some of the strongest, most beautiful people the world has ever known who have the power to heal our society.

    You cannot punish children en masse for the crimes that were committed against them.

    • anonymouse says:

      I’m anon here, but a man I deeply love was a holy terror as a child/teen as a result of his father’s suicide and other trauma. As in, had this been now and not the 1970-early 80s when it happened, he would have likely been locked up and written off. Because it was back then, in a fistfight culture rather than a hyper-paranoid gun culture, and his mom was perhaps way too permissive… he ended up not killing anyone and instead becoming a shy, introverted, deeply caring and emotional man who happens to have created some of the most beautiful music in the world in both the heavy metal and classical genres…and who is the furthest thing from a sociopath ever. Troubled youth do not always become evil adults.

      • pamwatts says:

        And that is another really good point. I am a writer. He’s a musician. Many of the former holy terror children that I know have grown into intensely compassionate, creative, wonderful adults. In fact, I’d say that almost none of the holy terror children I’ve known have grown into violent, sociopathic adults. Don’t get me wrong. We have other issues. But the violence that we expressed as children in nearly all cases gets subjugated by adulthood.

  5. kobefamily says:

    My son has issues. Hard to tell if they are behavioral or mental in nature. Doctors and counselors don’t even know for sure. Teachers, social workers….they are all trained and most of them tell me it’s ineffective parenting or he’ll grow out of it or it isn’t serious…but I’m his mom and I feel scared for his future sometimes, when he’s having an episode. Should I shoot him in the head now to save other people’s kids? Should I sacrifice his life for something he will likely NOT ever do? Sacrifice my life? Should I ‘just in case’ put him in a mental hospital because he is defiant…even though he most likely will turn out completely normal when he grows up? Tell me what to do. You are all obviously smarter than me.

  6. pamwatts says:

    I am so sorry. And I don’t specialize in answers. I have some experience with some things, but the little boy that I had is still scary sometimes and I am afraid for the people around him sometimes, and I am afraid for him.

    But what seems to be helping is that he is in regular therapy. And he has an IEP and is working with people who are really trying to understand what is going on and what he has been through. And more than that, his mom is in therapy and in parenting classes and is working really really hard to figure out her own messes. Honestly trying. Not just going through the motions like a lot of people do when they say they’re “trying” to figure things out and they’re doing everything they can.

    If your son acts really scary sometimes and you wonder if he might be possessed, he has survived trauma. Now I don’t know what that trauma is. I don’t know if you know what that trauma is. But if what you really want to know is what to do about it, and you really want my opinion, then I would say find out what happened to your son. And do everything you can to figure out how that has affected him. Get him in therapy and maybe more. And let him know that you love him.

  7. John says:

    Unfortunately, the people who are in the best position to evaluate a child’s behavior are the parents, and by default, the parents are often blind to the truth regarding their children. There is a huge, and I mean HUGE, difference between a child having a hissy fit for whatever reason and a child that’s exhibiting sociopathic behavior. The bottom line is that if you recognize that your child poses a real threat to others’ safety, it’s ultimately not society’s job to intervene. It’s your responsibility as a parent to attempt to view the situation (whatever it may be) objectively, and make some potentially heart-breaking choices for the good of both the child and the rest of the world.

    • John says:

      I would add that the real tragedy in this, of course, is that these types of children are generally the product of parents who are the base cause of the behavior themselves or who otherwise don’t pay enough attention (for example, because of drug use). By recognizing the fact that there’s a problem, and loving your child enough to get him the help he or she needs, you’ve made most of the progress already.

  8. Nathanial Dread says:

    So you do not believe that some people are simply born with clinical psychopathy?
    You can have a child who grows up in normal circumstances, but by a genetic fluke their brain doesn’t allow them to feel empathy or connect with other human beings?

    I have read other articles about children who exhibit symptoms of psychopathy (search NYTimes.com for “Can You Call A Child A Psychopath”) and it seems to me that it may be possible. Rare, certainly, but possible.
    I would take the mother at her word: if she knew that there may be some trauma in her son’s past that might explain his behavior, I’m sure that’s where she would start. She seems to me to be at loose ends, with nothing to go on.

    Her son may have been born with it.

    • Rita says:

      I’ve read in some articles that Liza Long’s son did not start acting up until the bitter divorce between his parents, and that his father had been abusive to him.

  9. pamwatts says:

    I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible, but no, I don’t believe it. And I wouldn’t take the mother at her word. She didn’t mention her divorce. She didn’t mention any strife in the family. And I saw my own parent explain away everything in our house in these terms. Not because our problems were really innate, organic “chemical imbalances of the mind” as she called them, but because she couldn’t face the fact that bad things had happened in our life and that she hadn’t been able to or willing to stop them. And I don’t blame her for that or this mother. Life is really really hard. Who among us has the courage to really own up to our failures? Who has the courage to examine the darkest things in our life and in ourself? Almost no one.

    But by telling a child that he’s just bad, we make it worse. We make it much worse. And I think that’s inexcusable.

    And for the record, I have known and worked with A LOT of children. A LOT. And I have known and worked with A LOT of children who ordinary folks would instantly label sociopathic, psychotic, evil, insane. And they’re not. Not a single one of them. Not one.

    I know one scary child who I don’t know why he’s like he is. No one I know knows why he is like he is. But I’m pretty sure it’s that we just don’t know what’s going on. His parents are divorced and he splits his time between them. And I’m pretty sure that there is something not OK going on when he’s with his dad. But the fact that none of us knows why he throws his really scary tantrums doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. It just means we don’t know what it is.

    So no, I don’t think that there are kids who are just born sociopaths. Even theoretically. And I certainly don’t think this woman’s son is. The fact that she was willing to tell the whole world that her son terrorizes them proves is enough with nothing else to suggest that there is significant empathy lacking in their relationship.

  10. eriktrips says:

    Thanks for this. I am becoming convinced myself that there is more childhood trauma in the US than is generally recognized, and that it may have deep, systemic, cultural roots. What I hope is that some conversation can be started about this without all of it getting drowned out in reactionary responses, out of the denial that I think is probably covering for a great deal of what happens to kids.

    I do want to address one thing: I am not certain that it is intelligence that determines a child’s response to trauma, or that determines whether the rage that is inevitable in trauma will split off in a way that it can still be expressed. I was one who went so deep inside of myself that I almost got lost, but I found my way back out, sorta, mostly, and I had been as dissociated as anyone the whole time! : ) Anger was absolutely forbidden in my family. The message I got was that that part of me had to be kept tightly under wraps if I was to survive. So it was split off, but then cast into some black hole I managed to create within myself. It did of course spit itself back out eventually, but it took quite a long time, and I am still not always familiar with my own anger.

    But in any case I think any human neurological system is complex and quite marvelously adaptable. Surviving some of the things we have survived at all is a feat, but kids do it again and again and again. There probably are different “talents” for adapting this way or that, and I suppose one could say that those are different kinds of intelligence, but to me they are all intelligence.

    That’s a bit of a tangent. Mainly I wanted to let you know that you are not alone in many of your hunches. Maybe you already know that, but I know how hard it can be to take the risk of talking about anything approaching this topic in our culture.

  11. pamwatts says:

    Thank you. And I think I only made the side comment about intelligence because kids who respond to trauma this way get called so many nasty names. I guess I wanted to say that there was something special and adaptive about them to counterbalance the rest. I don’t actually know a thing about intelligence or IQ. And I don’t want anyone who dealt with trauma another way to feel dumb.

    Thank you for your response, in any case. I didn’t talk about my life for many years. And I’ve been keeping this blog for two years, but with very few readers and that has felt kind of safe for me. Now with a thousand views today and knowing that some of my family members have started to read it, I’m feeling alittle exposed. But I do this for a reason. I hope it helps. Thank you for stopping by.

  12. andrea says:

    … we all see and process “things” our own way, based on individual background and formed beliefs – no two cases are the same, EVER. This response may and most like may not relate; as we know Adam did take the guns and used them quite effectively while the “responder” did not; and the little evil she mentioned that she brought up? We just don’t know – yet

  13. dm says:

    Although I do agree with you that children are not born “evil” and that their negative actions are mostly likely a result of attempting to cope with situations they are neither mentally nor emotionally developed to handle, I must disagree with your statement that “True evil does not exist.” Perhaps your implication was to suggest that there is no true evil in children, but evil most definintely exists in this world.

    • Rita says:

      I honestly think that the dichotomy of “good” and “evil” can be very problematic and actually unhelpful. There really is no such thing as “evil” as in it is not something that can be defined clearly. It basically means “something unfavorable” and people use the label of “evil” to distance themselves from Others (which can sometimes have horrific consequences and scapegoat, marginalize, and dehumanize groups of people).

      When school shootings and mass murders occur, people try to distance themselves from the murderer by saying he was obviously crazy (even if there is no evidence that supports that mentally illness played a central role in the act), so mental illness becomes the “evil” that people try to distance themselves from. It’s a way of saying “I’m not like him. He’s evil. He’s crazy. I’m not”. And it ends up scapegoating and demonizing mentally ill people rather than actually solving the problem. And the problem ultimately is society and culture, which no one wants to admit because it’s so close to home.

  14. pamwatts says:

    I guess the question of whether or not “Evil” exists is mainly a question of theory. I don’t think that there is evil, real evil. And every time I try to divide people into evil and good, I find that I have to have compassion for even those I’d put in the “evil” camp.

    But that theoretical question aside, kids who act horrid do so for a reason. Of that I am sure. And my point here has been an attempt to start figuring out how to help those kids so that they don’t grow up to do really bad things.

    However, since this is a blog about children’s literature primarily, I think that there are many interesting portrayals of evil in children’s literature that might be a great jumping off point for discussion. Afew of my favorites are:

    Buffy The Vampire Slayer
    and the spin-off Angel
    Tender Morsels
    The Savage by Dave McKean and David Almond

    Any others?

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