As the world tries to grapple with the acts of evil committed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut, the mother of a mentally ill child has set off a national dialogue of her own — with the help of her detractors. On her blog the Anarchist Soccer Mom, Boise resident Liza Long declared on Friday — with the horrors of Sandy Hook Elementary fresh in her heart — "I love my son. But he terrifies me." She wrote of her 13-year-old, pseudonymously called Michael, describing both his violent episodes and tender moments of genius: "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."
The essay, republished on Gawker, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and beyond, may go on to be the defining document of this tragedy both for the issues it has raised and for the strength of the responses it has generated.
"You are NOT Adam Lanza’s mother," wrote the blogger at the Girl Who Was Thursday, slicing through an outpouring of praise for Long's brave first-person account. "The sort of quasi-solidarity expressed in 'We are [oppressed people]' or 'I am [dead person]' appropriates the experiences of people who are unheard, in this case the victim of a mass homicide, and uses that to bolster a narrative that doesn't even attempt to discover or represent the experiences of those they claim to speak for. Don't do that."
Elsewhere, writer Sarah Kendzior explored previous entries on Long's website, calling her dispatches from motherhood "vindictive and cruel" and worrying about the attention Long was drawing to her teenager, "who has already had his reputation destroyed and who may be facing serious harm." She added, "This 'national conversation' on mental illness needs to include the mental illness of mothers and the online privacy of their children."
"A child does not deserve to have his mother embark on a media tour promoting him as a future mass murderer," Kendzior said in a follow-up. "The Long family deserves help and understanding, but above all, her children deserve privacy. Long seems to have little interest in this and is embarking on a media tour tomorrow. I hope she changes her mind for the sake of her son."
This morning, Long acknowledged Kendzior's "important points," and the two released a joint statement: "Whatever our prior disagreements, we both believe that the stigma attached to mental illness needs to end. We need to provide affordable, quality mental health care for families. We need to provide support for families who have a relative who is struggling," they wrote. "We both agree that privacy for family members, especially children, is important. Neither of us anticipated the viral response to our posts. We love our children and hope you will respect their privacy."
Still, Long proceeded with her scheduled media appearances, telling NBC, "I closed the door to my office and started to shiver," upon hearing Friday's news. "Every time I hear about a mass shooting, I think about my son," she said. "And I wonder if someday I'll be that mom."
But she's already that mom who pushed these ugly issues to the forefront, where they belong, in concert with conversations about gun control. As with limiting access to weapons, though, addressing this country's problems with mental health is not as simple as signing an executive order. Instead, change must be enacted slowly, pushed beyond the collective memory span of a national tragedy and held up by those who can't and won't just move on. Long, and those so affected by her account, now have a chance and a responsibility to be those voices fighting to not be forgotten.
"Our nation has suffered enough in the aftermath of Newtown," Long and Kendzior concluded in their message of solidarity. "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."