Secrets and Shame

On a recent CBS Evening News broadcast, it was announced that over 500 pages of formally classified information relating to Jared Lee Lougner, the 22-year-old schizophrenic who gravely injured Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and killed or wounded 19 others, are now available for public consumption. According to these files, Jared Lougner’s parents were aware of their son’s increasingly odd behavior. I can’t help but wonder: if his parents had insisted on a mental health evaluation for their son, would his eventual actions been thwarted?

One could well ask the exact same question to the parents of James Holmes, the Colorado graduate student who, months after moving to the Mile-High City suburb of Aurora, CO, carefully devised a systematic plan to destroy as many lives as possible in his midnight-movie rampage last summer. Did his parents, or other family members, not realize that this obviously brilliant young man was also deeply troubled?

And what are we to make of Adam Lanza? Surely his mother must have known her son was mentally disturbed. After all, at the time of his unspeakable crimes, she lived alone with him in their Newtown, Connecticut home, and presumably knew him better than anyone else. The troubling issue of why she encouraged her son’s love affair with guns and violence is a question that will never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, especially not the families of those gunned down by Lanza with merciless abandon last December. My question is a simple one: What role, if any, did secret-keeping play in all three of these terrible tragedies?

At the time of my grandfather’s crime in 1937, and, in fact, ever since mankind first recorded the behaviors of the deranged among them, having a mentally ill family member often evoked feelings of shame. This in turn, drove many people to keep their loved one’s condition a secret, hidden behind closed doors for as long as possible. Why? Because unlike cancer, or almost any other disease, mental illness often carries with it a unique stigma: shame. Whether the diagnosis is schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or major depression, the public rarely sees these illnesses in a compassionate light. Are we, the “normal” people in society, justified in our perception that all who suffer from mental illness are a violent and dangerous element to be avoided at all costs? According to an article in Scientific American (July 8, 2011), “Surveys show that 60 to 80 percent of the public believes that those diagnosed with schizophrenia, in particular, are likely to commit violent acts.”  The article continues by saying that while  “… studies have pointed to a slight increase in the risk of violent behaviors among those afflicted with major psychiatric ailments, a closer examination of the research suggests that these disorders are not strong predictors of aggressive behavior. In reality, severely mentally ill people account for only 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes in the general population.”

Unfortunately, as the press continues to report, in minute and gory detail, each horrific tale of murder and mayhem by a mentally ill individual, the perceptions about a strong link between violence and the mentally ill will persist. I say rather than blaming the parents, or other family members as many have done in the cases mentioned above, we consider eradicating the stigma attached to mental illness through education. Perhaps then families such as mine would not feel compelled to close ranks and keep secret the truth about their disturbed child, spouse, or sibling.

Think about it.

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What would you do?

Now that The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing That Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family has officially launched on both the Amazon and the Barnes & Noble websites, many readers are sharing their thoughts about a wide range of topics related to the contents of the book.

In response to comments regarding the highly controversial nature of my story, I have come to the conclusion that there is but one simple question I would ask every reader to consider: What, if you were the parents of a seriously mentally ill child, would you do in a  situation such as the one my grandfather faced? Certainly, in today’s world, most parents would first locate an experienced psychiatrist or other mental health professional for a proper evaluation of their child’s condition; next, they would ensure, to the best of their ability, that their child was taking the proper type and dosage of psychotherapeutic medication; and then, hopefully, these same parents would seek emotional support and educational resources for themselves and other family members as they embark on the long and difficult roller-coaster ride through a major mental illness that is, in some cases, incurable. Bottom line: As a nation, we have come a long way in our treatment of the mentally ill. Not the entire distance, of course, but a very long way. However, keep in mind that in this book we are talking about an immigrant father in the year 1937; a desperate man who has just been told he must commit his child to an insane asylum-possibly for life. He did not have the options that parents of severely mentally ill children have in America today.

When my grandfather received the devastating news that his youngest daughter, 16-year old Sally, had been diagnosed with dementia praecox (schizophrenia), and posed a danger to herself and to others, the moral dilemma he faced was unfathomable. As an orthodox Jew, my grandfather surely understood he was in religious, if not legal, violation of every law imaginable. Yet, he made a momentous judgment call that turned his family’s life upside down and thrust them, and himself, into a quagmire of shame and regret.

Locating details of an event that happened over seven decades ago was extremely challenging, and would have been impossible without guidance from of one particular volunteer researcher at the Wyoming State Archives. Because of his efforts, I found myself sitting in a small room at the Denver Federal Records Center, my heart pounding wildly in anticipation of what was about to be revealed. I will never forget the look on the staff person’s face when she handed me the innocuous-looking box which I knew held crucial information about my family’s secret past. With my trembling hand poised on the lid, I waited for her to leave me to my private moment of discovery, As she did, I couldn’t help but notice the touch of sadness in her voice when she said: “I think this is one of the most incredibly tragic stories I have ever read.”

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