The XX Factor

Don’t Compare Your Son to Adam Lanza

A memorial for 6-year-old Noah Pozner, who was killed in the shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

Almost as soon as we learn the name of a twisted killer, we start to wonder about the women who knew and loved him: his girlfriend, his wife, or more often his mother. Susan Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan, wrote a wrenching essay in O about her experience knowing that everyone who saw her was thinking about “who had raised this monster.” She writes with tortured tenderness about her son and how much she missed him—because he is, after all, her son. In the Newtown tragedy we will never hear from Adam Lanza’s mother, of course, because he shot her too. We will never know whether she felt anguished that she had taken him to shooting ranges, or that she’d missed the signs.

Instead of the real mother, this time we have an imposter, Liza Long, blogger and single mother of four who wrote the incredible post “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” which was reprinted by Gawker and Huffington Post this weekend and viewed by millions. Long is of course not Adam Lanza’s mother. She is the mother of 13-year-old “Michael” (whose name she changed but so what, since her own name is public), who she describes as belligerent and mentally ill, so much so that “he terrifies me.” The pure sympathy phase for Long after her essay went viral lasted about 24 hours before another blogger, Sarah Kendzior, pointed out that Long had written a series of “vindictive and cruel posts about her children” and was not to be trusted. This morning, Long and Kendzior made up and issued a joint statement about “the need for a respectful national conversation on mental health” and declared that they were not interested in perpetuating a “mommy war.”

Good for them. “Michael,” meanwhile, has a long life to live, during which his neighbors and teachers and future employers will know that his mother regularly called the police on him, committed him to a mental institution, and considered seriously accusing him of a crime so she could send him to jail. (She didn’t because jail would exacerbate his “sensitivity to sensory stimuli,” she writes, a cold clinical rationale that in her piece passes for maternal sympathy.) People who meet “Michael” in the future have a good shot at finding out that his mother thinks he is the equivalent of a man who just shot 20 schoolchildren point blank, and that she once listed her son’s name in the pantheon of greats. (“I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am Jason Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother.”)

We have of course gotten used to mommy bloggers embarrassing their children, saying which child they like best or how much they drink while stuck at home doing art projects. Louis C.K. regularly embarrasses his kids and surely one day they will get their revenge. These are humiliations that might require a kid to get therapy later, but they are not on the same order as what Long did. They are unlikely, for example, to prevent the kids from getting a job. So far the children’s rights movement has focused on protecting children from neglect and abuse, but maybe it’s time to add a subcategory protecting them from libel, by their own parents. 

Long’s situation sounds genuinely terrifying. If she’s telling the truth, her son is prone to scary explosions. He calls her a “stupid bitch” and pulls a knife on her, and she and her other children have a kind of emergency evacuation plan when he goes into his rages. He sounds in fact very much like the children described in a recent New York Times magazine story, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?”

There are some critical differences, though, between the parents quoted in that story and Long: Those parents stayed anonymous, and did not publish photos of their children. They did not sentence their children but kept their minds open. (Note the question mark in the title.) These were kids who did much more disturbing things than Long describes her son doing; one, for example, slowly sliced the tail off the family cat. Still, the point of the story is to encourage parents NOT to condemn their children, because “psychopath” is not a certain fate. Also, the parents in that story seemed to have a reasonable parenting plan in place, a way of talking to their children that most parents can relate to, even if it isn’t always effective. (“Remember the brainstorming we did yesterday?” one mom asked her son.) Long, meanwhile, plays chicken with her son, threatening to take him to the mental hospital if he says “I’m going to kill myself” one more time. Maybe because doing a sudden U-turn in the car and heading for the mental ward is more dramatic than talking about “brainstorming.”

I might trust Long more if she doled out the drama a little more carefully. Is she actually going to call a parole officer if her 11-year-old doesn’t stop poking his brother, as she writes in one old post, or is that just something moms say when they’re frazzled? Does she really think it’s crazy for a 5-year-old to cry if he drops his lollipop, or for an 11-year-old to shoot rubberbands at his brother? Or was she just in a bad mood that day? Surely it was just a bad mood, right? But then she claims that her ex-husband actually did have their 11-year-old incarcerated for failing to do his chores, and their 14-year-old committed to a mental hospital, so these things are in the realm of possibility in their family, I guess.

One reasonable conclusion is that Long is in the middle of one of those lunatic divorces where the kids get sacrificed to the altar of parental hatred. Another is that she has some kind of mommy blogger Munchhausen syndrome, where she creates narcissistic fantasies in which she stars as the long-suffering mother. (Note the high tragic cadence of “I am Adam Lanza’s mother.”)

Or a more disturbing conclusion: In this era, when we worry about whether we need to keep a closer eye on the dangerous and mentally ill, “Michael” is not the one in that family we should be monitoring. Because this, from one of her older posts, is not the musing of a sane person:

Safety is never anything more than a pretty illusion for any of us, at any time. We are all just one car accident, one cancer diagnosis, one unimagined catastrophe away from death. But what makes this situation bad—no, intolerable—is that someone, somewhere, for some reason, is actively seeking to destroy me.

A boy wielding a knife perhaps?

Correction, December 17, 2012: This post originally mispelled Liza Long’s last name.