Shootings, Troubled Boys, and System Failures

I hesitated a lot in writing this.  It leaves the door open to be directly or indirectly judged and devalued.  Some might view it as sensationalizing the tragedy for my own gain or trying to garner attention away from it.  What follows is me sharing what is extremely hard to share because there has been no space for these conversations in our culture.  I make no claims to be or to know Adam Lanza; after all, in the end I didn't do what he did.  But in my adolescence, the impulse was palpable though the opportunity wasn't.    

As early as ten years old, I experienced suicidal fantasies; that was also the year of my first attempt.  I tried to electrocute myself (in rather pathetic conditions in hindsight).  I would try two more times in the next six years; once with a knife and once with pills.  I mired in a depressive suicidal slump for seven years of my life during which nary a day would pass where I didn't think about death; mine and at times, others. 

One day, a neighborhood kid showed me his gun (by sneaking up behind me and pointing it at my head). I told him it wasn't real and that he wouldn't do it, neither of which I hoped were true.  It was a starter gun for races and I remember the disappointment.  I had shimmering hopes that I could end my life and maybe even others’ lives.  For a few days afterward, I hoped that maybe he could get me a gun.

In my teenage years, I certainly thought much about doing what Lanza actually did.  If I had access to a gun, I and maybe others wouldn't be alive today.  I thank the powers that be that my mother did not get a gun until I was into my 20s and I had gained distance from where I was in my teenage years.  But there was a time in which I wanted that “power.”    I hated myself, my family, and the world around me for making me feel the way I did; too fat, too stylistically deficient, too unmanly--just not enough of this and too much of that.  The self-loathing, teasing, and sense of displacement simmered and boiled enough so that I regularly fantasized about taking control of my life with a gun. "That would show them."  The classic line of so many people who felt wronged by the world around them.  Though I probably never spoke the lines, the words echoed in my fantasies.  

I took inspiration from another student at my school.  He was regularly harassed by the jocks and others.  He always carried large duffle bag and the rumor mill produced a story that he had been found with a "hit list" and weapons in the bag.  The myth was that he planned to attack and do serious harm to others.  As much as that gave me grounds to also harass, or at least gossip, about him (in my feeble attempts to fit in by talking about others; after all, if they were talking about him, they were not talking about me), I also took his idea to heart.  I wondered who would be on my "hit list."  Who would be my targets?  Specific people or just everyone?  Regularly, I would play these detailed scenarios out in my mind. 

This was a major feature of my adolescence.  Few would have been privy to it at the time.  If the opportunity afforded itself and I did commit some heinous crime, many would have been just as dumbstruck as people now express about Lanza.  Of course, that's not entirely true.  We often know something is up but we don't pursue it.  We say it's not our business or that we're too busy or that it's not true.  The friends, families and neighbors of most serial killers or mass murderers claim utter disbelief and that he (and we're largely talking about "he") was a good person.  We lie to ourselves.  It's easier to say, "I didn't know" than to grapple with the fact that we had some hints about it.  Because then we would have to ask ourselves, "What more could I have done?" and the answer in the wake of dead bodies is usually, "something."  

Was I mentally ill?  Probably, but I flew just below the radar.  No one saw the full picture of what was going on.  My parents got hints, friends (though at times I believed I had none) got hints, and other adults did as well.  I physically and verbally lashed out in anger at people and things and other times, I was the sweetest kid.  But nobody really put in the effort to get the full picture.  I lived in a state of hiding but showing.  This was no soduko puzzle; it was connect-the-dots.  There is a clear element in these tragedies; the signs are there if we but take the time.  Culturally speaking, we don't do mentally ill; it's too complicated; it's too gray.  It would mean not only looking at our children and our friends differently and with extreme amounts of empathy and understanding, but in the big picture, re-evaluating crime and the closely-held beliefs of freedom and self-reliance.

The structure we have created for youth grossly fails us at times.  For every Lanza who takes actions, there are many who suffer silently or inflict their wounds solely upon themselves through self-mutilation or suicide (like myself).  The industrialized education system, that is supposed to simultaneously socialize us and educate us, comes up drastically short in this.  It tries to do both but often fails; we get very intelligent people who have trouble fitting in and social butterflies who can't do the mathematics required for a checkbook.  

Though this isn't an anti-gun rant, guns do play a role in this.  I respect and appreciate the presence of guns in the world.  However, a lack of access to guns prevented me from substantively doing anything more than fantasizing.  That I would have to talk with others and track down a gun by some means was a significant deterrent for someone like me.  I can only think that is the case for a great deal of people in similar states of mind.  

All of this is in the far distance past--literally, half a lifetime ago.  In total, I have spent months of my life addressing and repairing those parts of me through a variety of methods and through a great deal of help from friends and loved ones.  All of which has moved me from a place of hopelessness to a place of hopefulness.  I'd no sooner take my life or anyone's now than I would decide to believe the world is flat; it's an utterly ludicrous idea in my head.  But it wasn't always.  In the mind of that young boy, filled with hate and self-loathing, isolated and disconnected from the world around him, wanting help but never quite capable of asking for it, it was a reality.  

The Sandy Hook shooting was but one of several tragic mass-shootings this year. It triggers a variety of responses.  Some are quick to lose faith in humanity.  Others quickly blame the guns.  Still, others point to failures to address mental illness in real ways.  Some just claim it is a "crazy person" and we can't account for such random acts.  People are wildly reactive and rightfully so, that's what happens when we are faced with trauma.  When tragedy hits, we want quick fixes and easy answers.   We regress to childhood and just want it to go away.  But as adults, we should know better.  There are no easy answers; life is a complicated mess and what happened in Newtown only emphasizes that.

I only wonder though if our failure to address the mental health and illness, the structure of adolescence, and the worship of guns in our culture don't make for the perfect formula for the repetition of these events.  When Columbine happened, like other tragedies, we said it must happen "never again."  But I knew it would.  Because in all honesty, what has actually changed since Columbine?  What can we say that has substantively addressed the issues that caused that event?  Draconian no-tolerance policies against bullying?  That's punitive but doesn't address and engage ways in which we talk about the pressure to create hierarchy in the school setting.  Little has changed because we're not having the right conversations--skip the music selection or the video game choices, those are distractions. Focus on the real issues.  Otherwise, we will continue to see more shootings like Sandy Hook, and grow increasingly fearful of one another. 


  1. Lance,
    Thank you for examining this difficult topic through the lens of your own struggle. This is truly courageous of you. I think it is important for men to "come out of the gun closet," so to speak, and talk about their repressed anger and other feelings. I don't think many people realize how much our society shames the expression of feelings, particularly by boys, but by girls and by different groups as well.

    1. Thanks Tricia!

      I appreciate you reading and taking the time to respond. I think the shame and repression are key parts for sure; I think the hard part is peeling all the layers related to it...

  2. Wonderful piece, what a terrible place you were in, I admire the strength it took to get from there to here. Men/boys don't talk about their feelings, it's too bad we as a society have silenced them, and shame on us for doing that..

    1. Thanks Missy. It certainly was a rough time. Though I do feel lucky for having made it past it, but I wonder just how we can move into a place of having that conversation of men, women, adults, and children being capable to deal with shame and pain in non-lethal manners.

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  4. For one, it shouldn't be shameful to feel anything, including thoughts of self harm or violence towards others. We live in a world where certain thoughts and feelings are invalidated, usually by adults{towards children} I know I tried very hard not to do that while raising my children. I don't like it when someone insists what I feel isn't right, I need no one to validate my feelings, they are mine. I think this is how children are consistently handled thru their formative years{the invalidation of feelings and shaming them for thinking that way if they do share}, and I love that you mention the schools and socialization and how warped it is compared to real life....

    I think that is definitely a place this conversation should start. Mental health care should be easy to obtain for anyone who needs it, schools oh wow, yes {YES!} they need an overhaul...not sure why I never thought of that, but it's definitely a clear starting place. How do we get anyone to listen??

    1. Hi Missy,

      Sorry for the long delay in response--I somehow missed this comment. You're right on about feelings--of course, we don't just get it from our parents, but unfortunately it is a central piece of our culture to be reserved in our emotions.

      I think getting people to listen is a challenge in everything (I'm a teacher--and it's all about getting them to listen)...


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