Safe From Harm

The first time I read Liza Long’s “Thinking the Unthinkable,” all I felt was compassion for the woman who wrote it and the horrifying and dangerous situation she described. Maybe that’s what you felt, too. (If you haven’t read that post, this one isn’t going to make much sense.)

The second time I read it, I saw something else. I saw her son, the one she describes as a killer in waiting. And I saw all the other kids who stand behind him—the ones who, like me, experienced adolescence as a war. The ones who didn’t grow up to hurt others, but instead to remember the things that happened to us with a clarity we probably all regret.

I don’t know Liza Long, and I don’t know her children. I know that last weekend, nearly everyone I know on the internet linked to her story. Even people known for their advocacy of children’s rights, and for their level-headedness during moral panics and moments of fear. I know that she posted a photo of her son, and that anyone who can connect him to his mother’s online presence will, for the rest of his life, find her assessment of him as a potential killer of innocent children.

I also know that we read and reread and linked to her post in a moment of desperation, while we were starving for something to give meaning to what we witnessed on Friday, and have been witnessing since in the constant loops of reporters invading shattered lives to give us the thing we hunger for.

We’re desperate for anything that helps us understand something that our brains shrink from like panicking horses. And let’s be clear, despite the ready comparisons from the talking heads: Sandy Hook isn’t Columbine. We can understand that teenagers in institutions do horrible things to each other, and we can understand the idea of revenge. What happened last week is something else. To gun down six-year-olds is to explode a bomb in the heart of humanity. It is to burn the world. It is not intelligible.

In the face of that blankness, we scramble harder.


In the legend, the pied piper of Hamelin leads away the village’s children—takes them underground, like Persephone, in the version I read as a child. And in the later versions of the story, the children are restored again after the town pays the man his promised fee and makes right their broken bargain. In the legend, the piper comes from outside, as a stranger. We live in fear of something closer, inside our walls, so we search frantically for something—anything—to tell us whom to exclude from our trust, to incarcerate or drug or commit to treatment, to keep our kids safe. It’s the most understandable thing, and the most basic.

We tell fairytales to babies because fairytales seem simple, and maybe because inside the stories’ ground-glass hearts are things that give us the kind of nightmares you only have as an adult. Maybe we use them like a killed virus, to inoculate the hearts of the ones we want to protect against damage that can’t be repaired.

Hamelin is a real place in Germany, and although no one knows exactly what happened there to shape the legend, something did. The town’s earliest written record, from 1384, states simply “It is 100 years since our children left.”


Let’s be clear: I’m not Adam Lanza’s mother. I’m not anyone’s mother. I have no standing. What I am is the grown-up version, 20 years on, of a raw-nerved girl in weird clothes who spooked friends and boyfriends and guidance counselors and a legion of well-meaning adults.

My parents, bless them, did all sorts of dumb things when they raised me, but they got many things really right. And one moment I remember down to the color of the carpet I stood on was the afternoon I told my mother I was going to kill myself. I was 13, and the kind of kid who feels everything double, including my parents’ marriage dissolving down the hall and the almost unbearable pain radiating off of them in their arguments and their silences. I wasn’t given to hysterics, and I’d never said anything like that before. My mother just looked at me, her face suddenly much older, and said “Okay. If that’s what you want.”

We’ve never talked about that moment, not once. I don’t know what it cost her to follow that instinct: to call my bluff—to give into my hands the weight of my own life.

I know it saved me. It didn’t fix everything that was broken between my mother and me, which wouldn’t happen until I left home and could untangle her own terrified childhood from the way she tried so hard to raise me. But it gave me a choice, and the choice made me care—for myself as a separate life I could choose to protect. It would no doubt be the wrong thing to say to a thousand other children. Maybe it would have been wrong even for some slightly alternate-universe version of me. But compared to sending me to a mental hospital, it was the wisdom of Solomon.

Whatever Liza Long’s experience, whatever led her to publish the details of a devastating divorce, of her husband’s abuse of their son, and of her own terror of “Michael,” she has clearly suffered. And I can’t be angry with her, precisely, any more than I can be angry at my own mother, or at all the 13-year-olds who panic and act like little wolverines when the adults meant to protect them from an irrational world can’t, or don’t. But it remains that Liza Long is an adult, and we are adults, and her son is not. He’s 13.


Our President said this on Sunday, in the middle of a meditation on unthinkable loss: that the task of keeping our children safe is something none of us can do alone. But that means all our children. The weird ones, the quiet ones, the “crazy” ones we treat like superheroes when they become billionaires, and pariahs until they do. Given care and respect, those kids can grow up good—but if we continue making it acceptable to ostracize, incarcerate, and abuse them, we create precisely the dangers we hope to avoid. As far as I can remember, childhood and insanity kept pretty close quarters all the way through, and sometimes the thing that gets you through is people trusting you until you’re worthy of it. And that’s on all of us, all the time—not just parents or counselors, not even just adults.

Mental illness, as we define it now, is widely considered not to correlate with higher rates of violence. If that’s true, when we focus on locking up and locking down the insane, we’re making two mistakes: we’re risking their lives through a failure to protect, and we’re ignoring all the violent potential of those who aren’t insane by our measures of madness.

Our word “psychosis” is straight from the Greek. Its ancient definition, as given by the OED, is the “fact or action of giving soul or life to, animation, principle of life.” The murderous, inexplicable act we grapple with during these sleepless, nightmare nights is the opposite of that. It’s something that cuts us off at the roots, that takes our breath away. But maybe we can be reminded that the thing we hold in our hands when we shelter and care for our quiet, weird children is nothing less than life.

So yes: Let us work with all the strength of our horror toward the things we know to be good. Toward much more accessible mental healthcare for our most vulnerable, and more support for families who must find ways to keep all their kids safe. Toward so many fewer guns in the hands of the desperate and raging. But also, let us remember that the direction all our children must come is toward our hearts and toward our trust. Toward steady, open arms and a love that does not fear.

Recommended reading

Things I read before I wrote this:

Things I’ve read since I started writing it: