The Ethics of Publishing "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"
If you have access to US social media, you've probably seen the blog post, "Thinking the Unthinkable," at least once since last Friday's horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Its author, Anarchist Soccer Mom (hereinafter referred to as "ASM"), shares harrowing episodes of life with her gifted but mentally ill 13-year-old son, and her frustrations with a failing mental health system. She writes that her son has threatened to kill himself and her. She says he pulled a knife on her because she told him to change his pants. Doctors, police, school officials -- no one has a good explanation for why it's happening, or how to fix it:
"When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. 'If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,' he said. 'That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.'"
Sound familiar? No? Perhaps you know it better by its viral headline, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother." That's the way it got picked up first by the Blue Review, and then Gawker, Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and others. The headline is a direct quote from the essay.
And that's where my questions began.
Because while ASM has raised important issues facing her family and many others, she also identified her child as a potential future mass murderer. She changed his name, but it's not hard for people who know her to figure out who she's talking about. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is among those who've called her out on this:
"I can understand the exhaustion and the helplessness that his mother feels; I can even understand harboring fear for the future in her own heart. Fear is fear; it can’t be argued with. But if you’re going to write about something so personal, so wrenching, so frightening, so painful that involves your minor child, common sense dictates that you use pseudonyms -- not just for the child, but for yourself and for everyone else concerned. And for the love of God, you do not use a photo."
ASM didn't realize that her cri de coeur would be so widely disseminated. She said as much in a joint statement released today with Sarah Kendzior, one of the bloggers who had criticized her over the weekend:
"We would like to release a public statement on the need for a respectful national conversation on mental health. Whatever disagreements we have had, we both believe that the stigma attached to mental illness needs to end. We need to provide affordable, quality mental health care for families. We need to provide support for families who have a relative who is struggling.
"We both agree that privacy for family members, especially children, is important. Neither of us anticipated the viral response to our posts. We love our children and hope you will respect their privacy."
Wanting to understand the decision-making process behind publishing the essay under the author's name and with a photo and the more sensational headline, I contacted Nathaniel Hoffman, editor of The Blue Review, a three-month-old journal of "popular scholarship in the public interest."
In a telephone interview, Hoffman told me that he plucked the title from the essay because, "I just thought it was a really powerful line." When I asked whether he was worried that the title, and the paragraph it came from, seemed to label ASM's son as a potential mass murderer, he responded, "That's what the headline says, but if you read the article, she's raising a lot of questions, too."
Hoffman went on to say that he felt that they had taken adequate steps to protect the privacy of ASM's son, noting, "We didn't identify the child. The picture doesn't look like him any more." All of the editorial decisions were made in collaboration with the author, he added.
At the same time, he said, the essay opens up an important but long-ignored aspect of the national conversation about these kinds of violent incidents:
"I think [the essay is] a valuable contribution. It's first-person, not an anonymous source talking to a newspaper." It helps us, he added, "To have empathy for even the killer and even the murderers' family."
"Parents of mentally ill children and young adults can’t say they are afraid of their own children or admit that they know what it’s like to have bright children whose rages could, under circumstances they can’t predict, lead them to kill innocent people the way Adam Lanza is alleged to have done at Sandy Hook Elementary."
Hoffman said he knows ASM and her family and has been aware of their struggles for some time. "I worry abour her son a lot," he said. ASM has been contending openly with these issues for a long time, often writing about them on her blog. "It's not like this came out of the blue," he added. He used the author's name because, as a former newspaperman, "I'm a big advocate of transparency and putting your name on stuff. I understand privacy, but I believe in social and public commentary."
ASM appeared, unnamed, on the TODAY show this morning, reading parts of her essay. A discussion followed about the difficulties parents face in getting help for mentally ill children. Hoffman says that's exactly what he and ASM hoped. "I'd like to see this continue to be discussed. I think it should be something that our country takes seriously, a discussion on mental health and whatever public policy elements we need."
I second their hopes. I just wonder whether, with a bit of editing, the point could have been made and this child's privacy could have been more protected.
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