In the wake of Friday's horrific shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children and eight adults (including the shooter, Adam Lanza, who shot himself, and his mother), a personal essay written by the mother of a mentally unstable teenager made the rounds, earning her widespread accolades. But by the beginning of the week, some detractors were saying that Liza Long of Idaho – who says her 13-year-old son suffers from an undiagnosed mental illness that often finds him in violent rages – has grabbed too significant a place in the public dialogue about what needs to be done to prevent another such horror.
Long's essay, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," first published on The Blue Review site, was at the forefront of Internet chatter about the mass killing this weekend, having been picked up by the Huffington Post, Gawker and then countless blogs. The bulk of the piece describes in detail the day-to-day struggles of raising a bright but troubled child who will threaten to kill his mother for insisting he return overdue library books. "I love my son," Long writes," but he terrifies me."
Describing a decision (like others before it) to commit her son temporarily to a pyschiatric hospital, Long describes her helplessness: “This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options.” She goes on to argue that a serious discussion about mental illness – not gun control – is what the country needs to prevent another Sandy Hook.
It's human nature to want to empathize with victims of such a senseless tragedy. Still, in times like these, the collective desire to identify with those directly affected can begin to take on a competitive tone: As if the more a person has in common with the victims and survivors of the tragedy, the more seriously his or her commentary should be taken. But as a post on Jezebel points out, Long is not "Adam Lanza's mother." Adam Lanza's mother Nancy is dead, and while both women appear to have been parents to mentally disturbed children (though it is still unclear if Lanza had a diagnosis beyond Asperger's syndrome, which is classified as a developmental disorder, not a mental illness), that may well be where the similarities end.
The Jezebel story points out a critical difference: Nancy Lanza was an avid gun collector, and her son used weapons she kept (apparently unsecured) in the house to kill her and then 26 other people. Still, on the virtue of one stirring, brutally candid essay alone, Long was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as some kind of self-appointed authority on the state of mental health care in the United States, and whether or not stricter gun laws are the solution for curbing violence.
Detractors are questioning Long's qualifications as a spokeswoman for any cause, citing her own struggles with self-described “insanity” and her willingness to make public her son's emotional struggles and irrational outbursts – something that would be mortifying to even the healthiest of 13-year-olds. While Long uses a pseudonym for her son in “I Am Adam Lanza's Mother,” she has photos of her children on her personal blog, “Anarchist Soccer Mom,” which paints an even more unsettling picture of her overall family dynamic than the essay does.
Journalist and academic Sarah Kendzior called attention to the more troubling aspects of Long's story on Sunday, in a post on her personal blog that also was widely distributed online (though to a lesser degree than Long's essay):
“Liza Long ... is being held up as a heroic woman warranting sympathy for bring the plight of her mentally ill son to the public,” Kendzior writes. “Her blog tells a different story. Long has written a series of vindictive and cruel posts about her children. ... In most posts, her allegedly insane and violent son is portrayed as a normal boy who incites her wrath by being messy, buying too many Apple products and supporting Obama.”
Indeed, though Long's blog indicates that her ex-husband characterizes the children as mentally ill, in that same post she criticizes him for “incarcerating” their son “for not doing his chores.” In a 2010 post she admits that her husband divorced her after an episode where she “went stark raving mad.” But Long also has perfectly sensible and thoughtful posts about the challenges of co-parenting.
Still, Kendzior and fellow skeptics warn that Long's story as she presents it should not be taken uncritically at face value.
“[Long's] children could be in real danger if her goal was to capitalize on the Newtown tragedy by creating a media campaign designed to give her sympathy,” Kendzior wrote. “This 'national conversation' on mental illness needs to include the mental illness of mothers and the online privacy of their children.”
In response to aggressive backlash, Kendzior later "clarified" her post, and reminded her critics that she too is a mother. “I hope this family gets compassion and support,” she wrote. “I hope Long’s call for better mental health services and understanding of the pressures parents face is heeded. The points Long made in her post were important. But she did not need to hurt her son to make them.”
Still later Monday, Long and Kendzior released a joint statement, published on both their blogs. In it, the two call for a respectful dialogue about mental health, and explain that neither anticipated the degree of attention their writing has received. “Our nation has suffered enough in the aftermath of Newtown,” they wrote. “We are not interested in being part of a ‘mommy war’. We are interested in opening a serious conversation on what can be done for families in need. Let’s work together and make our country better.”
On Tuesday, Long will appear on NBC News, where she will no doubt face questions about why she chose to make her story public.
“Every time I hear about a mass shooting,” Long said in a promo clip released by NBC, “I think about my son. And I wonder if someday I will be that mom.”