So everyone has decided to share an essay by a mother about her 13-year-old son and her fears that the boy will* commit one of these notorious shootings. Whereas normally, such a shooting must actually happen (and, often, the killer must have already offed himself) for there to be an accompanying photo, this mother takes pains to change the first name of her son (but not her own name), yet provides a sweet photo of the boy, a photo that's now made its way around the entire Internet. (The Gawker version does not include this photo, so that's the one I'm linking to.) [Fixed!] All this boy has done is shown himself to be a very troubled kid.
Will Baude sees this story as fitting in with my running theme of "dirty laundry" - parents writing tell-alls about their still-minor children. The parent (almost always the mother, although there's every so often a father really miffed that his son can't get into Harvard) will be congratulated for her bravery, and everyone will forget that the person whose story is being told by definition had no say in the matter.
Anyway, I've said before and I'll say again that I don't think parents have the (moral, legal of course they do) right to hold forth about their real-life children for a mass audience. I make the following exceptions:
-The child is very young and seriously ill, or severely mentally disabled, and will never read the thing in question. Plus, the parent is doing a particular service to others in the same situation, who must feel quite alone. The same cannot be said for mothers who write about how their daughters struggle with a stubborn extra ten pounds.
-Names and details were changed, other children discussed as well, such that the parent isn't writing about her own child directly, even if one might infer this entered into the research.
-Small-scale online sharing (emails, parenting forums, Facebook, etc.), where a parent imagines a tiny audience, but there's always the remote possibility that something gets reposted somewhere big.
This latest is, I suppose, an ambiguous case. We don't get the kid's real name, which, along with the great possibility he doesn't have the same last name as his mother, makes it at least a bit of a research project to figure out who he is. (I haven't, at any rate, tried.) The photo, though, might be worse, faces being that much more unique than names. And I know nothing of "The Blue Review," whether this is a mass-audience sort of site or not, nor whether the author herself wanted the story to get as huge as it has. And finally, being the mother* of an apparent sociopath would seem to be an unusual-enough situation that other parents in that boat would need support. One can't help but feel for the author. On the inevitable spectrum of self-promotion to cry-for-help, this is a piece of parenting-writing that falls closer to the latter.
Ultimately my take on the article has less to do with the dirty-laundry angle - present and problematic as it is - and more with the conclusions the author comes to in it. First, there's her assumption that mass murder should be regarded as a "highly visible sign of mental illness." As if no killer is ever just, you know, bad news. Then, of course, there's the stigmatization (in a piece ostensibly against stigmatization!) of the mentally ill, exceedingly few of whom are going to do anything like this. Oh, and there's this: "In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness." I understand why this mother is thinking about mental illness, but in what way shape or form is it easy to talk about guns, in the let's-have-a-national-conversation sense?
As for the "meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health" the author would like... again, let's remember that she is launching this conversation by telling us that her son seems like he'll go and kill a bunch of people any minute now. And this is supposed to convince us not to want him in jail, assuming he committed a violent crime that got him there? But the author's argument, buried under the let's-have-a-conversation gloss, is that people like her son should be institutionalized, and that the state should pay for it. Is that what 'have a conversation about mental illness' is a euphemism for? Isn't forced institutionalization problematic as well? Or do we think if society were just more aware, these extremely troubled kids would magically find the answer to their psychiatric woes, and a problem that has plagued humanity since the get-go - really messed-up individuals bent on destruction - would vanish? Isn't it far more likely that if we decide that this is about mental illness, not guns, communities are going to engage in more of a witch-hunt than they already do for strange but innocuous behavior? Sure, an expert might be able to tell the difference, but it takes a village to locate subjective and imprecise Warning Signs.