An Open Letter to the Parents of the Dayton Shooter

The math of curious compassion.

Posted Aug 05, 2019

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Betts,

Earlier on Saturday, before Connor committed a mass shooting, I wrote a post reflecting on the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. I wrote about how I was consumed by the math of cruelty of that incident, how we are all nestled in concentric circles impacted by such a mass trauma. And as a professor, I was struck by the image of people gunned down while buying school supplies.

And then I went to bed and woke up to learn that my calculations of the weekend’s carnage were terribly wrong because I had not learned of what happened in Dayton when I filed that post. 

Natalie Chaney/ Unsplash
Source: Natalie Chaney/ Unsplash

As soon as I heard the news of what your son did, I found myself equal parts interested in why young men are doing this and in what the people closest to men like this intuited years ago. And so I became interested in your perceptions of society’s reactions as people everywhere are speculating why and how.  

I imagine some might blame you completely for what happened, or want you dead, or thrown in prison, or otherwise punished and excommunicated. That all strikes me as too easy, and it’s also how we keep getting in these messes as a society.

Sociology is my passion and perhaps my curse: What drives me is complete and utter curiosity—in this case, a desire to know what this looks like from your point of view. 

Who was that boy you gave birth to, brought home from the hospital, snuggled, and read to? What do you remember? I bet you remember Legos and race cars and snowsuits and sleds and birthday parties. Popsicles and fireworks, pumpkins and trick or treating. Christmas morning. The way the light hit his head in front of the window as he opened presents. Or the day he learned to talk or read or ride a bike, or when you took him to his first baseball game. 

At any point, did he seem like he was going astray? Was he reachable, at least to you? What qualities in him made it so you could go on loving him? Did you ever see that remarkable film, We Need to Talk About Kevin? In too many ways, the film's outcome is eerily similar to what happened this weekend. There was a mother in that film who knew deep in her bones that her son was not right. But when she tried to seek medical attention for him, she was denied. Her concerns were minimized, even by her husband. Did this happen with you? Did it strain your marriage

Here are some other things I wish I could understand:

  • Did your child ever make you feel unsafe? 
  • What do you think of our gun laws? 
  • What do you think causes someone to do this? 
  • Did your child witness violence at home? 
  • Have the thoughts and prayers helped? 

My friend, the mother of a woman who was murdered by their son-in-law, used to say that as horribly painful as it was to lose a child to murder, she thinks it would have been worse to have birthed a killer. But now you are grieving both, since your son murdered your daughter. So, what do you think? 

  • What is your first memory of your child when he was little? 
  • What did he do to make you smile and laugh? 
  • What did he do that made you angry?
  • What did he do that made you concerned?
  • Is there a history of addiction, mental illness, and trauma that may have made your son more likely to be at risk? 
  • What did you try to do to help him? Did institutions fail you?

Perhaps most disturbing to me are reports that indicate your son had a hit list of people he wanted to kill (mainly boys) and people he wanted to rape (mainly girls). I keep wondering, Why do you think he hated women so much? When this hit list surfaced, what did the school really try to do or conceal, and how did you both handle that then? It’s frighteningly prophetic that young women are quoted in the news for saying they were unsurprised that Connor would have done this, based on what they remember about him in high school. Yet how profoundly, bone-chillingly sad it must make a parent feel to hear that this is how their child is remembered. 

I bet the Connor you knew simultaneously was and was not the Connor the world just met. I bet the Connor you knew was an angel at times, though he is now seen by the world as demonic. I imagine that in your memory you can access a teddy bear of a guy under the armor of what the country is calling a disturbed monster.

I wonder if you see him as all of these things. Or if you can’t bear to see him as evil, because on some level, he was also good. Did you observe a capacity for kindness overrun by his capacity for cruelty and vengeance? 

As a sociologist, I am no stranger to talk of toxic masculinity and of fragile white masculinity. Yet, somehow, when I think of you, I imagine how these concepts might fall short or feel academic and pedantic. I believe we have to address the nexus of masculinity and whiteness and violence, but I also believe that has to be about not just gendered and racialized power, but also about more complicated perceptions of a lack of power and self-worth on the part of young men like Connor. 

I find myself consumed with a new kind of math. Rather than a math of cruelty, it’s more like a math of compassion or a math of curiosity. The web of connection of serial cruelty that links all of us in these mass shootings, at the same time it isolates and alienates us and makes us absolutist in our thinking, also presents an opportunity to be compassionate and curious with parents like you who are forced to walk a tightrope of ambivalence.

There’s the ambivalence of a boy you must love who has committed the worst of crimes. There’s the ambivalence of remembering and knowing his humanity even as you have to reconcile all the inhumane things he has done. There’s the ambivalence of how to grieve the death of a son who took your daughter. There’s likely the ambivalence of how to go on living amid this legacy. 

You are the parents of Megan, a young woman who was killed in a mass shooting, and you are the parents of Connor, a young man who killed nine people and injured at least 27. Your family is a microcosm of all of us, of all of our contradictory realities and lived paradoxes, of our blended lives, of our love and trust and hate and fear, of our shattered hopes and grief

What if as a society we held you close and asked these questions, not out of judgment or disgust but out of curious compassion, and sat with all of your ambiguity and ambivalence and questioning? Might we then find our way into more answers?