Mental Illness

I’m Not There, But I Can See It From Here

“Thank God there weren’t school shootings when we were growing up,” my sister said. I knew what she meant.


I cannot claim to be Adam Lanza’s mother, or his sister, or anybody who knows anything about what happened in Sandy Hook last week. But I also cannot stop thinking about Adam Lanza’s brother. I don’t know what it was like in their household. I do know what it was like in mine.

Abandoned nursery with rickety metal beds and peeling paint on the walls
An abandoned nursery in a town near Chornobyl. (

We adopted Tommy into our family when he was 2, or maybe 3, or maybe 4, I don’t know, he’s four years older than me and my memories of his adoption are fuzzy. My memories of my entire childhood are fuzzy. I know he was a foster kid, one of several that my parents took in, and that his family life was too terrible for him to go back.

I don’t remember him setting fire to the garage. I don’t remember him throwing a block of wood at my mother’s face. I don’t remember him being locked out of the house at times when my dad was out of town and Tommy was out of control and it was the only way to protect the rest of us until he would calm down.

I do remember him punching my father, hard enough to break his glasses and cause a black eye. I do remember the way my parents, who were – Jesus – not much older than I am now, both of them sitting on Tommy to restrain him in the way that the mental health professionals had trained them, Tommy face down with my mother on his back and my father holding his head to the ground so he couldn’t thrash. I do remember mental health professionals coming to our house and talking to us about “warm fuzzies” and having us draw pictures, like that would help.

Like it would help the impossibility of loving somebody as your big brother, the kid who took you fishing and played LEGOs with you, and being terrified of him at the same time. Like it would help my older sister deal with the fact that at 8 or 9 years old, she ran to the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife and returned to her room, threatening to kill Tommy, and meaning it, if he didn’t get off my other sister and stop punching her in the face. Like it would help the fucking mental destruction that happens when your brother is locked out of your house for your safety and he puts a ladder up to your window and begs you to let him in. Your brother.

We all remember that time differently. My older siblings have a clearer picture of Tommy and his outbursts, and the childhood they went through was one of fear, but also one they comprehended. My younger siblings barely remember Tommy at all, he asked to be returned to foster care at 14, but they do remember chaos and uncertainty and internalized much of it. As for me, I remember trying desperately to reconcile love and hatred, protection for and protection from. The worst nightmare of my life occurred when I was around 8: I was at gunpoint, and I had to choose to shoot Tommy or shoot myself. I have had hundreds of nightmares since. None have come close to the terror, the sadness, the despair of that dream.

One of the child psychologists who saw Tommy, who was apparently one of the best-respected child-mental-health professionals in the State of Illinois, said he would have classified Tommy as having an antisocial personality disorder, but state law prohibited him from assigning that diagnosis due to Tommy’s age at that time. That same psychologist had assessed thousands of kids in his career. He told our mom that out of all of those kids, Tommy was one of a few (three or four) who he would have, had it not been illegal, given that diagnosis.

I don’t know what Adam Lanza’s internal life was like, nor do I know what their home was like. I have no idea if there were parallels between his house and mine. Until the last few days, I never thought Tommy could have been capable of what Adam did – my memories were of a bad kid but not an evil one. The Sandy Hook shooting sparked a conversation amongst my siblings, and many holes have been filled in. I think I didn’t believe he was capable of that kind of violence because he was my big brother and I knew I had to love him. My older siblings think, unequivocally, that he was capable. That he is capable.

He’s in prison now, making his way through an adult-life that has been filled with crimes, at least two batches of kids removed from his custody, gang life and prison and domestic violence and car accidents and robberies.

My news feed, as has everybody’s, I’m sure, has been filled with solutions to the Sandy Hook shootings. More gun control. Arm teachers. Spank kids when they are bad. Preach Christianity in schools. More mental health care. Less talk about mental health when it maybe had nothing to do with what happened anyway and to bring it up is to increase stigma. Everybody looks at this horrible tragedy and sees it as a way to promote the beliefs they already have.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t think there is an answer. My mom said that the mental health services were woefully inadequate, that she kept trying to get help for Tommy, but also for the rest of us, and his problems were glossed over. “I could so clearly see the potential, and it was like they had never thought of it, and that it might be my own issue for thinking of such things. One of the paralyzing things was that I felt like if I gave up, it would only expose other people to his violence, and I felt a sort of responsibility,” she wrote in an e-mail.

But truthfully, I don’t know if anything would have helped. I really don’t. And here I am an adult, still unable to reconcile my thoughts and feelings, he deserved a chance to live and maybe be helped, and yet nothing helped and I don’t think anything could have helped. He belonged in our family so we could try to repair the damage and the pain inside of him, and yet nothing helped and I don’t think anything could have helped. He is a person with dreams and potential and occasional kindnesses and passion, and yet nothing helped and I don’t think anything could have helped.

And his entire life has been spent destroying other people’s lives.

I don’t know about gun control. I mean, I know about gun control. I’m for it. I think we should gather up every single goddamn gun in the world and throw them into the bottom of the ocean. Just kidding, that would be horribly polluting. I think we should recycle them and turn them into public transportation railways. I am ashamed and embarrassed that the United States has such ridiculously lax laws, and that so many people so strongly believe that without guns, we all become prisoners of the government.

But I don’t know that gun control really makes that much of a difference. The science is unclear; or, rather, it’s clear in favor about as often as it is clear against gun control. Tommy didn’t kill 20 children and 7 adults and go down in a blaze of glory, but he’s killed (directly and indirectly) a handful of people and he’s got a long life left in him.

And the kind of mental health opportunities that would have healed the part of Tommy’s brain that made him want to hurt people – I don’t think they exist. Yes, we need better mental health care and access. But I don’t know that for Tommy it would matter.

I am afraid, really, truly afraid, that for all the talk, for all the solutions, there are no solutions. That there is no way to stop these things from happening; as long as guns exist, laws restricting them don’t seem to matter. As long as violent tendencies exist, some of them are just not solvable.

Thank God there weren’t school shootings when we were growing up.

(His name isn’t really Tommy. I changed it because I don’t know why.)

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

11 replies on “I’m Not There, But I Can See It From Here”

I can speak casually about living in Vietnam as a 4th grader in 1963, my father an Army adviser to the South Vietnamese Army. At the time, my concerns were those of a 4th grade girl and I didn’t know how the sublimated horrors of that time would affect the rest of my life. It’s impossible to see insanity from within the walls of the asylum.

In junior high, I had such a crush on Tommy. I was so sad when he moved away. Of course I didn’t know any of the above details, of what he was really like. I had heard a rumor or two, but nothing to that extent.

Do you know I ran into him once, years later? When I was in college, one summer I worked for a call center in Wichita, and it was next door to one of those facilities that does urine tests for parole conditions or whatever. One day he was there, out on the curb. He seemed so normal, but also condescending, like, “little girl, you don’t know who you’re talking to anymore.”

I do wonder what it was like for other people in town – what it looked like from the outside. I know he got in trouble at school, but probably not more than a lot of other kids? And then when he “moved away” he was going back to the state. I don’t know how much we talked about in terms of that stuff.

I’ve talked to him as an adult, he calls occasionally, and it is…strange. On one hand totally normal, on the other…totally not.

What I remember almost as much as thinking he was adorable was Jenny Ryan bawling in vocal after he left. I think that I believed he was going away to “get treatment” for something vague or something….

So from the outside, I remember having the theory that something bad must have happened to him before your family adopted him. And that he was “troubled.” But I had only the vaguest idea of what that meant.

OMG. Tears, so much tears. I can’t even pretend to know what it was that you went through, but all I can tell you is that your story really resonated with me and you have my deepest sympathy. And like you, I thank God (or whatever higher power you believe in) that your brother didn’t grow up in a time of school shootings. Personally, I’m all for gun control, but with all the resistance that’s been coming from the right, I don’t know how that’s ever gonna come to pass. Much hugs and love to you, and hopes that everything will turn out okay.

This was a really interesting read, Susan. As an “out of interest”, there’s an article I’ve had bookmarked for some time now and it came to mind as soon as you mentioned ASPD:

There are so many issues to consider in all this, and it’s really interesting to see how you’ve tackled them, in particular, given your experience. Thank you for sharing this.

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