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.