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Evil is Made, Not Born: My Son is Not a Monster


I know I’m far from the only person who is deeply saddened by the events in Newtown, Connecticut last week. When I heard of the loss of so many innocent lives, I didn’t even know how to react. I had to fight the urge to drive to my son’s school and bring him home, to be able to hug him (even though he hates it) and know for sure he was okay.

I don’t want to make this situation about me because it’s clearly not about me. It’s a week before Christmas and families are trying to fathom their lives without their children. Nothing I have ever gone through can touch that, and I’m grateful.

This tragedy has brought up a lot of discussion about gun control, mental illness, parenting skills, and a slew of other topics. This is a good thing; we need to have these conversations, even when doing so is difficult.

But I think we also need to remember that a lot of elements go into the creation of a human being who can do something so unthinkable, so awful. It’s not just about guns or mental illness or how he was parented. It’s not just about video games or how he may or may not have been treated in 3rd grade or whatever. While all of those things could have played a role, none of us knows exactly what was going through his mind.

Over the weekend, the conversation turned to autism and the guy’s “possible history of Asperger’s.” A theory that, as far as I can tell, was invented by someone in the media with no evidence whatsoever. Elsewhere on the internet, mother shared a story about her own son’s struggles with mental illness and her fear that he could grow up to do something just as terrible. I watched and listened in horror as people called for kids with autism to be euthanized, as they blamed the shooter’s mother for owning guns, as they screamed that mental illnesses don’t exist.

As most of you know, my son has Asperger’s Syndrome. I have PTSD. Both sides of my son’s family have various quirks and diagnoses and oddities, as I’m sure most families do. There was no way any of that could have been predicted, just as 20 sets of parents couldn’t predict the terrible fate awaiting their children last Friday.

Jayden heard some of the ranting about autism on the news late Saturday night. He came running to my office, something that’s rare these days, and sat down in the chair next to my desk.

“Mom?” he said. “I have a question. Are autistic people more likely to be violent or go crazy and kill people?”

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I’m not violent. I don’t want to hurt anyone. But now people are going to think I’m some kind of monster.”

As much as I wanted to assure him that there’s no way that will happen, he’s right. People make assumptions all the time.

Well, X event happened to me and *I* didn’t need medication.

My parents didn’t talk to me about what I did wrong; they busted my ass!  

Asperger’s is just a fancy name for bratty kids. 

When things go wrong, it’s human nature to look for answers. We want some kind of definitive reason why something bad happened or ideas about what we can do to prevent it. We want to feel safer during times (like right now) when even sending our children to school seems dangerous.

I don’t have those answers and I doubt anyone else does. I just know that pointing fingers and villifying innocent people who haven’t done anything wrong isn’t productive, especially in situations like this.

No child is born evil. No child grows up to become a psychopath without some major environmental factors influencing his or her development. And the fact that some children are born with disabilities, whether physical or mental, does not mean that those children are any more or less likely to harm someone else.

My son is not a monster. He is an amazing, compassionate teenage boy who happens to struggle in a number of areas. And I resent the reporters who have used the horror in Newtown to make him question his own motives and capabilities as a human being. I resent the fact that I can’t feel sorrow for the families who are dealing with unfathomable loss because I’m too busy being outraged on behalf of my child, who has nothing to do with this. I am pissed off to see the number of my own friends who are willing to jump on Facebook and make blanket statements and assumptions about autism based on nothing.

But mostly I’m angry because I feel helpless and vulnerable living in a world where kids aren’t always safe and people don’t always make logical choices. And there’s nothing I can do about it.


  1. Andrea, I am so sorry about what people have been saying, and that it's caused you so much hurt. Your son is absolutely not a monster, nor should you have any reason to suspect that he would become one because he has a diagnosable mental illness—like about a quarter of all Americans. Statistically, people diagnosed with some sort of mental illness (which can be anything from depression and anxiety to psychopathy) are *less* likely to ever engage in a violent act than someone without some sort of diagnosis, and are *more* likely to be a victim of a violent crime. These are the things we should talk about when we talk about mental illness and violence.

    But I do need to correct you on your assertion that "evil is made, not born." This is just not true. There may be environmental factors that exacerbate certain behaviours, but generally speaking, mental illness is genetic — a result of some DNA going haywire — and not created by environmental factors. Using psychopathy as an example, the brain of someone diagnosed as psychopathic is literally different than yours or mine, just like Jayden's brain is a little different than yours or mine — and has been since he was born. Not lesser, not violent, but just different. About one percent of the population would be identified as psychopathic, but certainly 1 in every 100 people aren't shooting up schools. Even a disease as devastating as psychopathy isn't an indication of future violence, so Asperger's certainly isn't. Like any other illness, we are genetically predisposed to certain things over others. For instance, I've never suffered from anxiety and depression not because I'm stronger than someone who does (LOL! Yeah right.) but because I'm not genetically predisposed to it. Certain things are absolutely within our control (that is, if you know you're predisposed to addictive tendencies, you can choose to stay away from alcohol), but by and large, when we talk about mental illness, it has to be about the brain's chemistry, and not about environmental factors. I actually wrote a pretty substantial magazine piece on this topic, but since it won't be published for a few weeks now, you'll have to take my word for it. 🙂

    All that said, there hasn't yet been a clinician who treated Adam Lanza speak out to say he had this or that diagnosis, so for now, we (and by we, I mean the general public) need to stop hypothesizing about "what went wrong," lest some innocent people get hurt along the way, like your son.

    I'm sorry to give you such a lecture so early in the morning (and of course feel free to delete it if you want), but I just feel like saying psychopaths are "made, not born" is not a far cry from saying Asperger's is "made, not born," and I certainly don't want anyone to ever see that happen. And again, I'm so sorry that what some people are saying (the *untruths* they are saying!) is causing so much grief for you and Jayden. It's totally unacceptable, and I hope someone sets them straight soon in a major way.

    • I didn’t say mental illness wasn’t genetic; I said evil isn’t. And it’s not. You can’t agree with me that mental illness doesn’t predispose someone to violence, then turn around and say that use the genetic quality of mental illness to discuss people who choose to do things because they are evil, terrible people.

      I worked with children and teens with mental illnesses for seven years as a therapist. Out of all the children who exhibited violent behaviors, not one of them was born with some “violence disease” that made them act that way. They might have been born with a mental illness, but the violent behavior was (largely) learned. Now we can talk about kids (or even adults) with psychotic disorders who flip out and attack others due to hallucinations, but those aren’t generally the people who are oriented enough to plan and carry out an assault like the one on Friday. The manipulating, cold, detached qualities that cause someone to harm others in a calculated way with no remorse are CREATED, usually due to years of abuse and neglect.

      I don’t mean this to be offensive, but I don’t care how many papers you write; you can’t replace my years of actually standing in the middle of this issue and seeing what happens to these kids with my own eyes. It’s ignorant to think that mental illness exists independent of the environment in which a person is raised; both factors work together to create something entirely different from the child who was born.

      • Evil is not a diagnosis.

        And I appreciate that you spent years working with these kids, but you can't let seven years of observation trump decades of methodologically sound, objective, scientific research. Otherwise you're no better than the people who claim those with Asperger's are prone to violence because they one time saw a kid with Asperger's lose it and become violent.

        • I never said evil was a diagnosis. That's the whole point – that people who commit these atrocities are not doing so because of mental illness.

          I wouldn't call seven years of treating children in a psychiatric hospital "observation." And writing a magazine article doesn't refute years and years of research on the impact of environment on behavior.

  2. Anne_UGifter says

    *sigh* One can only hope that the drive to discuss mental illness results in a net positive. Unfortunately, labeling all these things as evil isn't doing anyone any good and is very detrimental to some people, your son included!

  3. Andrea, I'm so sorry that what happened in Newtown is having a negative impact on Jayden. I so hope he isn't treated any differently at school or anywhere else in your community.
    I saw a brief TV interview last night with a couple, man and woman, who said they were neighbors of Nancy Lanza. They both said that she'd told them that Adam had Asperger's, so that's the origin of that theory. Who knows who they are and what they know.
    You know, when horrific events like this happen, I'm so glad I don't have children. I think I'd lose my blanking mind worrying about them!

  4. Eloquent as always Miss Andrea, I'm sorry people have been making assumptions about your son. I think when tragedies like this happen people are willing to latch on to whichever reason makes them feel safe again. I'm sorry this is happening to you.

  5. I am sorry to see this happening Andrea. This is the unfortunate aftermath of any tragedy. The masses cling to anything that will make them feel better and most of that time it is without using common sense or reasoning. I cannot comprehend how your son feels and I hope you are able to work through it.

  6. momoneymohouses says

    Great post and yes I think these discussions need to happen but there's no point pointing the finger at innocent people.

  7. There have been a few pieces about asperger's and newtown in the NYT today. Check out this one:

  8. Andrea, people suck. You know that as well as the next person. Thanks for speaking out… It's time we stopped letting labels define our children. The reason I pulled my son out of the public school system was the labels they wanted to slap on him. ODD, ADHD, etc etc etc.

    My son deals with some social anxiety. I know the root causes and they have their beginnings right here at home. We, collectively and in general as parents, are so hesitant to admit that we're not all perfect parents that we turn the blame onto the children, and then we say it's not blame, it's concern, and start tossing around discussions of genetics, diagnoses… etc etc etc… and the kids' voices are getting lost in the shouting match. (and for the record, I think you're one of those parents who recognizes your own strengths and weaknesses and advocates from a place of what he needs, which is the only way to save our kids from the chaos).

    In my son's situation… I'm a reasonably good mom, in the context of society. My ex was a reasonably good dad. Our kids have never gone hungry, never wanted for much of anything. They don't always get what they want. They have chores and rules, love and freedom… and yet my son has this anxiety. My ex and I have both made mistakes, which I think have triggered a condition he was genetically predisposed to. Who's to blame? Well, I'd love to point fingers, but the truth is… there are so many factors it's impossible to pinpoint just one. So I don't try… Instead, I try to understand what he needs. I try to provide him with understanding, support and the structure he needs to function and develop into independence.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is… as a society, we need to be careful. All these theories and diagnoses and labels… they are all about real, living, breathing children, each of whom is an individual who can't be stuffed into a box and neatly packaged and labeled by journalists, by strangers, or even by the people who love them most.

    Your son is lucky to have a mom who goes Mamma bear on anyone who dares call him damaged. He's special and incredible. He's his own unique individual. He has all he needs to grow up into the awesome human being he's intended to be. You can tell him for me that another mom, who doesn't know him, but who has a pretty special son of her own, says that he's awesome, and I hope that helps counteract some of the stuff he's heard from idiot talking heads on television who don't have a clue.
    (And I hope all that makes sense….. it's early and I have had no caffeine yet.) lol
    Take care of you

  9. Andrea, beautiful and eloquent post. Fear causes people to stop thinking logically. This should be a wake-up call for people to realize just how vulnerable our schools are and cause a discussion on how we can make them safer. Sadly, within hours, it was being used to push people's agendas. Unfortunately when people use tradgedy to manipulate the crowd, other innocent people often become vicimized.

  10. I actually noticed one instance where a news story made specific mention of Asperger's, as if it was a contributing factor to what happened. A few days later, I noticed another story where it was mentioned – but they made the effort to note that as being unrelated to the tragedy. So, maybe people have backed off the dumb comments a bit, and are getting more educated.

    Tough situation for those families. This tragedy just seems different, which I feel bad saying, because we have had a lot of them over the years – both man-made and via nature.

    Nice post.

  11. man you handled that well with Jayden. "what do you think?" I've been trying to do that with my girls more often. Instead of just telling them how it is, letting them tell me what they think. Let's us think through situations together; and it lets them know that there isn't always aright answer.

    I hadn't heard the autism = violent thing. Dumb media. They've got so much time to fill with the 24 hrs news cycle that they just grab sutff outta nowhere and throw it out there. And only dummies pay any attention to it.

  12. Frugal Portland says

    sending a long-distance hug.

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