On the Ethics and Implications of Outing a Child in the Media: The I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother Debacle
December 18th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I don’t think I’ve ever been as troubled by a piece of online writing as I’ve been by the now infamous I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother piece. After fielding the steady flow of comments from my last article in response to it, I’ve learned a great deal about how people are thinking about issues like privacy and safety, and it’s becoming clear to me why the quality of the national conversation about violence and mental health (including the spurious belief that violent people are always mentally ill) is so off base.

The news isn’t good. Two major things stand out for me:

1) In the minds of a great many people, children do not seem to exist as whole human beings with interior lives. This is especially the case for mentally ill or otherwise disabled children.

2) Fear is leading the way, and when people are afraid, they become illogical and cannot stay on point.

I think that these two things account for some of the truly illogical backflips I’ve seen people doing in order to rationalize the fact that the mother of an emotionally fragile child thought it was perfectly all right to talk about him in the media in the way that she did, at the precise moment when people were so traumatized that they were highly unlikely to respond with very much rationality or thoughtfulness at all.

When people are running scared, it’s probably not the best time to compare your kid to a school shooter. This fact seems to have been lost on a great many people. In fact, a great many people seem to feel that it was the perfect time.

Here are some of the basic themes that emerged yesterday. I have seen them emerge on a number of other sites. I let through some of the comments that expressed these sentiments and I responded to them directly yesterday. Others, I did not let through, because the content was so disturbing that I had to hold them back until I could speak to them separately and at some length.

1. How dare you criticize this mother?

That was a constant refrain. People said they were appalled. They told me that I was being mean and that I ought to be ashamed of myself.

And the whole time, I’m thinking to myself, “How is criticizing a mother for publicly comparing her minor child to the most hated person in America somehow more appalling than the fact that she publicly compared her minor child to the most hated person in America?” At this point, I’m hearing far more anger directed at people who criticize this choice than at the person who actually made this choice.

2. The public safety is more important than a child’s privacy.

There are people who said that it was perfectly all right to publish a child’s photograph next to the words I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother because, they opined, we need to know who these people are. Yes. I got comments like that. I imagine that these are the same people who think that a woman wearing a hijab and carrying the Q’uran shouldn’t be allowed on an airplane.

Look, we’re talking about a 13-year-old kid who is seriously acting out inside his own family — a family that has been through a bitter divorce and custody battle. And now, in the national mind, he’s potentially the next school shooter from whom society needs protecting. On what are people basing their image of this young man? A blog post. One blog post. They read it on HuffPo, and now they feel perfectly qualified to make a judgment about someone they’ve never met.

I realize that people are raw and afraid after the shootings last Friday. But how does a mother talking about her kid, someone whom none of us has ever met, make anyone feel safer, hundreds of miles away?

Or would you like every mother of a troubled child to post her child’s picture on the Internet next to a title that reads I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother? How about we put the photographs on milk cartons? I’m sure it would be a great boon to the mental health of these kids. Public shaming always works to calm emotionally dysregulated people right down.

And besides, we’ll have created a whole new subclass of human beings to fear. We’re awfully good at that in America. We generate them like cars off an assembly line. It’s a sign of our abundantly good mental health. So far, we’ve got LGBT people, autistics, black men, people with mental illness, Muslims, genderqueer people, and vaccine manufacturers to fear. Hey, what’s one more?

3. Privacy is just an abstraction.

No, privacy isn’t just an abstraction, nor is the impact of having a mother go on the Internet and talk about how her child might grow up to be a mass murderer an abstraction. The impact is stigmatizing and very likely humiliating.

People are human beings, who have these things called emotions, and it tends to wreak havoc with their emotions when they don’t feel that they have the same right to privacy as putatively “normal” people.

4. It’s too bad she had to potentially compromise the mental health of her child by going public, but it’s important that we have this conversation, and you’re distracting us from it.

If the only way we can have a national conversation about mental health is by saying these things publicly about a 13-year-old child, we need to be looking at our own mental health as a country. We need to figure out why we think that’s healthy, why we rationalize it, and why we think that a child’s reputation and sense of safety are potentially expendable as long as the adults get to have their conversation. And we also need to look at our national ethics and think about why a mother outing a 13-year-old kid barely registers on most people’s moral compasses.

5. The mother was just trying to get help for her child.

This is not a reality show. This is real life. In real life, people don’t just show up and say, “Hey, great blog post. I’m here to fix all your problems.”

What does this say about us as a country, and about our clarity of thought, that we think these kinds of things will work? And why do we conveniently forget that the media, in its shameless opportunism, is exploiting both a national tragedy and the pain of this woman’s family for page views and advertising dollars? This is the same media that, in the past week, has engaged in the following activities:

a) Interviewed children from Sandy Hook Elementary School the day their schoolmates were killed.

b) Incorrectly reported that the shooter’s brother was the murderer, resulting in the shooter’s brother being publicly reviled while he was in a state of shock and grief over the loss of his mother and the actions of his brother.

c) Propagated a false and dangerous equation between Asperger’s and violence — with the result that, in just my small circle of friends, at least two have gotten phone calls from relatives asking whether their little autistic kids are going to grow up to be school shooters. One can only imagine the verbal abuse and bullying of autistic children going on in the schools this week. A number of my adult friends are living in fear.

How does any of that hold the promise of a solution to anyone’s problems? How is that a safe or productive environment in which to publicize your child’s issues?

6. What would you prefer? That the woman suffer in silence?

It’s not a choice between suffering in silence and stigmatizing a child in the national media. If people can’t find any territory between those two extremes, they need to do some serious self-reflection.

7. It’s important to talk about these things openly in order to break the stigma of mental illness.

Yes, it’s important to talk about these things openly in the proper context. The day after one of the worst school shootings in American history is not the day to announce to the world that you think your kid is going to grow up and do the same thing. That does not destigmatize mental illness. Not in any way, shape, or form. When people are reeling in pain, grief, fear, and shock, for a person to publicly announce I think my mentally ill kid could do the same thing someday does not destigmatize anything. It engenders fear of mentally ill people, and the likely result is that mentally ill people will not seek help because they do not want to end up being stigmatized as the next school shooter.

How people could miss the point so spectacularly is really beyond me.

8. You have no idea how people feel in these situations.

Maybe not. Could someone express concern for the child now?

9. The mother was just crying out for help.

Perhaps she was. Could someone express concern for the child now?

10. This isn’t about the child.

Yes, it is. It absolutely is. Could someone express concern for the child now?



The Huffington Post. “‘I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother’: A Mom’s Perspective On The Mental Illness Conversation In America.” December 16, 2012. Accessed December 16, 2012.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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