The Character of Our Culture Defines Our Children


If you have access to the Internet, you likely have read a viral blog post by single mother of four Liza Long titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The piece has had millions of hits on the various sites on which it has been published. If you haven’t seen it, check your email. Someone has forwarded it to you by now.

The title refers to 20-year-old Adam Lanza, now infamous for killing his mother, as well as 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before fatally shooting himself. The writer obviously is not Lanza’s mother, but a woman who feels she may know what Nancy Lanza experienced in raising her son.

The riveting essay reveals the struggle of a mother of a 13-year-old boy whose violent outbursts and erratic behavior have prompted the family to adopt a “safety plan” to escape his potentially deadly actions. With gripping detail, she recounts a recent incident in which “Michael” — not his real name, a bit of a pointless exercise in anonymity because the byline is hers — wielded a knife and threatened to kill Ms. Long and himself. She recounts the trauma of admitting him to a hospital for evaluation and treatment.

It’s hard to read.

Though little is known about Adam Lanza or his mother (Lanza destroyed his computer beyond repair and therefore has eliminated the most useful source of information about his state of mind before the attack), Ms. Long fears her son’s mental illness could result in actions that would put her in the company of Nancy Lanza and other women whose sons have perpetrated some of our nation’s most heinous mass murders.

“I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys — and their mothers — need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”

Like most of us who read Ms. Long’s article, I immediately sympathized with her plea for help and her desire to focus our national dialogue not on the political issue of gun control, but on the deeper and more complex subject of treating mental illness.

But Ms. Long’s essay quickly came under fire despite its seemingly good intent. Slate bloggers Hannah Rosin and Sarah Kendzior dug deeper into Ms. Long’s writing and called into question her own mental health, as well as her judgment for writing this and other damaging essays about her children.

Ms. Long and Ms. Kendzior ultimately released a joint statement in which they claimed not to be interested in a “mommy war” about blogger ethics, but rather agree that the privacy of children and the need for meaningful dialogue about mental illness are paramount.

I wish, in the aftermath of yet another unspeakable act of violence, we would roll up our sleeves and have the conversation instead about our national crisis in cultural character.

Mental illness is the devil’s playground, and in nearly all of the descriptions of the young men involved in mass murders, a common theme is revealed: a fixation on violent media and video games in which inflicting suffering on others brings enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment.

Only 10 months ago in the aftermath of the shooting at Chardon High School near Cleveland, in which two students were killed by a fellow teen, I wrote, “The harder yet more damning truth may be that children in this culture cannot escape the relentless messages of immorality that permeate the culture in which they live.

“Despite the best efforts of parents and families, schools and communities, the media-saturated existence of our youth — filled as it is with violence and vulgarity, evil and insanity — is defining too many of our children and presenting them with horrific examples of human behavior.”

What’s that they say about the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result?


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  • When I read Ms. Long’s article the first question I had was, “where is the boy’s father?” A father is not mentioned in the essay and appears to be out of the picture. Could the boy’s angry, violent outbursts be at least in part due to the absence of a male role model? Is he angry that he does not have his Dad in his life? Adam Lanza’s mother was divorced, too.

    I realize that other mass shooters did have their fathers, so this is not a complete answer. But the crisis affecting young men is a crisis of boyhood, and boys need their fathers. I think if we’re looking for answers, that’s a good place to start.

  • Laura

    “I wish, in the aftermath of yet another unspeakable act of violence, we
    would roll up our sleeves and have the conversation instead about our
    national crisis in cultural character.”

    I think your comments on the culture diminish the importance of treating serious mental illness. In no way do I promote violent media, but I think these young men behind the mass shootings, more importantly, needed psychological and medical intervention and support systems. Your writing implies that school shootings are primarily or only the result of “relentless messages of immorality” instead of the consequences of severe mental illness compounded by such messages.

    • As a person who suffers serious mental illness I can tell you, though, that “all roads lead to Rome” (as one of my doctors once told me): it’s all interconnected. Immorality in the culture certainly doesn’t help.

  • What young people most desperately need is known to all of us: stable households with a Mom and a Dad who are sacramentally married; preferably brothers and sisters; clear rules and values formation to promote healthy self-esteem and self-discipline; solid religious formation; and minimal exposure to unhealthy forms of recreation like violent video games and dark novels. I’m betting that if we were able to provide these things for our children, violence of Adam Lanza’s sort would drop by 90%. It doesn’t take a village, someone once said – it takes parents.