The holiday season is often difficult for me. It’s s a time of particular loneliness for many on the spectrum – where the emphasis is on a social world that isn’t easy for us to navigate. For me, it’s also difficult for other reasons. Because it brings back bad memories.
When I was 13, I was hit by a car – just after returning from a Christmas visit with my mother. The same day, she was admitted to a different, distant, hospital with a life-threatening heart infection. A couple of years later, my appendix nearly burst. The next morning, I woke up hearing a voice from the hospital room TV announce the commemoration of the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. At 19, I was hit again. This time, the week after Christmas.
These memories always make it a little more difficult for me during this time of the year. My emotions hover just a little bit closer to the surface. This is why, I think, I’ve taken the events in Newtown Connecticut so hard. I wasn’t exactly starting from zero.
It’s taken me until now to even to begin to make sense of and articulate my feelings. Surprisingly, it’s the memories of events I’ve mentioned, the ones that make this season difficult for me, that have provided the framework I needed to begin to do so. Something I find very interesting.
When reading the coverage in the media, I read a lot about our psychological need for safety and security. This confused me a little. I did a lot of thinking about why that was. Finally I realized why. I’ve long since made peace with the fact that this world isn’t a safe place. At some level, I guess I was surprised that this wasn’t common knowledge.
The beginnings of realizing this, for me, came in grade school. It’s hard to believe in safety when you can’t walk down your school’s hallway without expecting assault, or wear your hair in ponytail, for fear of it being used by a classmate as a convenient tool to drag you around the schoolyard. This feeling was only clinched by the events that led up to the first time I was hit by a car.
Among my classmates, the fact that I was the person who was hit was the ultimate irony. For years, I’d been a crusader for street-crossing safety in a community of kids where disobeying safety rules was a way of life. Kids played chicken with their lives on the street where I was hit every day. Crosswalks were inconvenient and too far apart. It was common practice to just make a run for it, through four lanes of 45-55 mile an hour traffic. I was the one stick in the mud who refused.
After I was hit, I found myself asking a lot of questions – why questions especially. I still had a lingering feeling of the world as a just place, where bad things were only anomalies, or the result of some kind of carelessness or wrongdoing. Thus I struggled. Why did this happen to me? Eventually, I had an idea. Maybe, this happened to me as an example. Maybe it would help the other kids to stay safe, causing the change in behavior I’d been campaigning for. After all, if it could happen to me when all I was following the rules, how much more likely would it be for those who didn’t?
Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way. One day, I stood in front of my school, only feet away from where I was hit, watching a group of classmates as they ran for it. I was afraid. I held my breath. Was I about to witness my worst nightmare? Was I going to have to watch someone get hit, when there was nothing I could do to stop it?
They didn’t quite make it. They were forced to stop square in the middle of the road, with traffic whizzing by on either side. I found myself worrying what would happen if any of them lost their footing, or got jostled out of the small pocket of safe road they were in. Their focus was on the remaining two lanes of traffic, when something happened behind them. A car pulled up. A police car.
As ugly as the sentiment was, I felt a certain satisfaction that they got caught. I was angry that they hadn’t learned from what happened to me. How many more times would they tempt fate before someone else got hurt? Maybe, if they didn’t listen to me, or pay attention to what happened to me, the dressing down from the policeman would do the trick.
But it didn’t work out that way. As they ran past me giggling, I heard them chattering about the encounter with glee. It was a badge of honor, a teenage version of counting coup. In frustration, I remember trying to talk to the leader of the pack. If it could happen to me, it could surely happen to them. Couldn’t he see that?
This made sense to me, but not to him. Everyone ran across the road. I was the only one who took the crosswalk and obeyed the lights. Judging the results, he retorted, running for it was safer. That was when I realized how irrational people can be when it comes to beliefs about safety.
I know the kid was trying to get my goat. I know that my worry on behalf of my classmates was viewed as annoying. And I knew my attempts to get them to change dangerous behavior was viewed as interfering. But, the fact that they continued this behavior implied that they believed at some level that it was safe.
They were invested, as so many are, in the “not me” mentality. This blew away the idea that they would learn from what happened to me. Without that, well, it seemed purposeless. Which brought me back to the question, “Why?” I still couldn’t answer that. Eventually I had to face the fact that this question got me nowhere.
When it comes to the tragedy in Newtown, it seems much of the commentary and news coverage is stuck on the same question, “Why?” Unfortunately, when it comes to tragedies like this, there are no good answers to that question. Whatever the answer you did come up with is likely to be wrong. It does nothing bring the victims back, nor provide solace to their loved ones.
With the wrong focus, asking “Why” does considerable damage. When bad things happen, it challenges the view of safety as the status quo. So what do people do? They find some influence, some “other,” to describe why danger interfered with normality. We’ve already seen our share of this – speculation ranging from video games, to lack of prayer in schools, to mental illness, to Asperger’s.
All of this speculation is simplistic at best, but has other consequences as well. Some seem to blame the victims. If, for example, victims or parents of the victims supported keeping prayer out of public schools, then speculation of this sort basically implies that they are complicit in their own deaths or the death of their loved ones. That’s an ugly statement to make at a time like this.
Speculations about mental illness and Asperger’s have been even more damaging. Say you’re a person with Asperger’s who’s subject to stigma and struggles to make friends to start with, how is your ability to make friends impacted by the implication (contrary to scientific evidence) that Asperger’s is related to violence? Does that increase in isolation help society, or honor the victims? Further, how does this speculation empower the prejudice and hate that already exists against those of us who are different?
Within a day or two of the last time this implication was made, I received a particularly profane comment here on the blog. Amongst other things, the writer said, “’People’ is a subjective term and sorry, you're too bawwtistic to ride that rollercoaster. Unless you want to ride it unbuckled and go splat from 5,000 feet high." A few days ago, a post on Facebook began making the rounds, saying of autistic people, “…these monsters need to be locked up…ALL OF THEM.” Another person opened up a fan page for Asperger’s “prevention.” The description read, “When we reach 50 likes, we will find an autistic kid and set it on fire.”
We don’t always know why bad things happen. We can’t just create a reason to protect our own paradigms, sacrificing others to allay the anxieties that keep us awake at night. Two of the victims, Dylan Hockley, and Josephine Gay were autistic. It doesn’t honor them, or any of the other victims, to stir up hate in their name, especially not against autistic people.
I don’t know that we’ll ever have a clear-cut answer for what ultimately causes tragedies like these. If we are to have any hope of doing so, it’s important that we assess the issues rationally, rather than speculating reactively. We can only do that if we see the world as it really is – danger, warts and all. Danger is part of the human condition, whether we choose to see it or not.
We don’t know what drove Adam Lanza to kill. We do know that a lot of people in this country are hurting. It’s a time for mourning. Let’s honor the victims by remembering them with love. Let’s be careful that our own insecurities don’t drive us to dishonor their memories by doing harmful things in their name.
Let’s support the families in their grief. Unfortunately, they have learned what I learned so long ago: Life is precious, and it can be short. You never know when the unthinkable could happen. It’s important to recognize that reality, and live our lives accordingly.
When babies die, when people die, we respond with appropriate action and measures to prevent loss as much as we can.
But when we are too frightened to acknowledge our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others, we take away their space to grieve. There is honesty and honor and strength in acknowledging someone's loss without erasing their vulnerability or our own. When we think of reasons, of explanations why this tragedy happened to someone else, to a baby, to a child, we are actually disconnecting from the person experiencing the loss. Or disconnecting from other people. We are disconnecting because we feel too frightened, too vulnerable, too at risk for our own tragedies and losses.
My 11-year-old son is diagnosed with Asperger's, soon to be simply "autism," thanks to impending changes in the DSM5. He is a rowdy giant of an 11-year-old who loves tumbling play with his brothers, but his spirit couldn't be more gentle. When he finds a spider in the house, he carefully gathers it in a tissue and places it outside, alive. He can't bear to watch people crack tree nuts, like pecans, because being something of a tree nut himself, he feels pain on behalf of the nuts. He is so attuned to all of my nonverbal communication that he will recognize and respond to a fluctuation in my mood faster than anyone else in our house, including my husband.
He knows about the Dec. 14 shootings in Connecticut. When he learned about them, his first response was to turn away in the chair where he was sitting, drooping his head over the back. He stayed that way for many long minutes, quiet and still. When he turned around again, my child who rarely, rarely cries, had tears in his eyes. And then, his first urgent concern: That we break from homeschooling and go get his brother, our youngest son and in first grade, from school ... now.
Whenever something horrible happens the public and the media look for answers . . . factoids to explain what may be truly inexplicable. Whatever information can be discovered is tossed out into public view in the hope that somehow a bunch of discrete facts and data points will somehow provide the answers everyone is seeking.
This happens whether the event is a catastrophic fire, a plane crash, or a mass killing. Thanks to the Internet, people all over the world speculate about what happened and why, often in the absence of any firsthand information. The result: a rush to judgment, and all too often - innocent people harmed.
Scapegoating, Stereotyping, & Projecting Won’t Make Us Safer
I grew concerned because in moments of violence and trauma (be they hours, days, or even generations) an un-psychological eye can easily project onto a person or group all the qualities it wants to split off and thereby scapegoat those people and groups. This happens when some folks project onto our gay brothers and sisters that they are more dangerous to the precious children; this happens when some project hostility onto our black brothers and sisters as if violence is not epidemic amongst all racial groups and in too many homes of people of all colors.
Examples are too numerous to enumerate here. The point is this: stereotyping and projecting can give a momentary feeling of security when we feel we have caught the beast, but projecting onto others is a form of violence not to be taken lightly. It harms. Psychology should not be used to feed our hunger for security in this way; psychology should make us more aware of the very tendency to project and stereotype and help us do no harm.
Mass Shooters Aren't Inherently Mentally Ill
In fact, only about 4% of the violence that happens in the United States can be attributed to mental illness (Friedman, 2012). In rare cases when the mentally ill are dangerous, they are actually far more dangerous to themselves than they are to others, and most dangerous after self to family members and people they know rather than the general public. In fact, alcohol consumption puts one at far higher risk for becoming violent than does mental illness, and yet, is that binge drinker stigmatized or feared as the mentally ill are?