Many if not all of you have probably read Anarchist Soccer Mom’s blog post. Many of you may have read Chad Eagleton’s recollections of his brother. Other stories have popped up on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and blogs. Voices that say these people are not alone. And it helps to know you aren’t alone.
No one may know for sure what compelled the shooter on Friday, what compelled his mother before that. I won’t mention his name. If his intent was fame, I won’t give him that. Any of the hims.
Reading Soccer Mom’s blog was largely like reading an account of living with my niece. Threatened us with a knife? Check. Threatened to jump from a moving car? Check. Screamed, yelled, beat people up, and destroyed things? Check. Wearing the wrong thing to school and then pitching a fit when called out on not following the rules? Check. Threatened to harm herself? Check. Dread-filled trips to collect the lunatic from the hospital? Check. Promises, lies, fake remorse? Check. The terror of living as the hostage of a child? Check.
I’ve tried to write about a child like her, but I haven’t been able to yet. I can’t quite capture the fear and exasperation, the hopelessness and anger, the desperation and the loneliness. I’m not a good enough writer now. I may never be.
Or maybe it reads false because somewhere I know it still doesn’t come across as believable. Excepting the kind of horror movies once popular at middle school slumber parties, people still don’t want to think such children are real. No one wants to imagine how one could be afraid of a seven-year-old, a ten-year-old, a fourteen-year-old.
But it’s not the big things that make you think you’re crazy. It’s the little things. The constantly being told you’re lying. The constantly being questioned. The constantly hearing versions of “the truth” from teachers and social workers and the kid that in no way match anything you’ve witnessed. It’s the listening to the psychiatrist describe some child you’ve never met who has problems you’ve never heard of when you know you brought the child there because of the knives and the furniture throwing. It’s the people telling you it’s you, that she’s just a child, that she can’t help having problems, that she shouldn’t be labeled.
My niece was manipulative in small, frustrating ways, like needlessly lying to her reading teacher. She used to get an allowance, and because she was a foster kid, we had to give her a minimum amount each week. Because we were trying to instill responsibility, we required her to do chores to earn the rest. She never did a chore so she got a dollar a week. She wanted to buy the honey bun the teacher was selling, but she’d already spent her allowance on chips or sodas or just plain lost it – she lost things constantly – so she told the teacher that she was starving because her foster parents wouldn’t feed her breakfast. (We had plenty of breakfast foods, including Pop tarts and granola bars she could carry since she rolled out of bed minutes before school started. She was eligible for free breakfast at school.) He loaned her the money. She was supposed to pay him back. Eventually, he emailed me. Wanted to know why I wouldn’t give her the money to pay him back. By this point, she’d gotten her allowance again. She’d also borrowed three more dollars from the man. Eventually, I had to drop off the money in an envelope at the office and tell him to never lend her money again. He probably still thinks I’m a horrible person, denying the poor child of food and sweets. He happily has no idea what he was dealing with.
She hated math or her math teacher so she skipped math for two months. Their schedule was such that they had odd periods every other day for two hours. Every other day for two hours in the afternoon, she developed a headache or a stomachache or a back ache and went to the nurse. She’d have the school call my husband to come get her and take her home. He’s softhearted and he’s had medical issues so at first, he believed her, took her home, gave her ginger ale or Tylenol or a compress and put her to bed. Except he noticed that her headaches weren’t bothered by texting on her phone or playing on a computer or watching loud TV. He noticed her stomachaches magically improved the second school ended and she wanted to go play with her friends. By then, of course, I’d be home to tell her no.
She didn’t like no.
When she was seven, she repeatedly jumped out of moving cars when people told her no to things like ice cream and French fries and pizza or to staying up late or to watching another hour of TV. She’d throw things. She’d hit and kick and run away.
A few years later she was told she couldn’t go back to her friend’s house because it had gotten dark. She ran away. When found, she went berserk. The night ended with her beating her head against the glass window of a police car as it drove her away for yet another commitment.
Telling her no, she couldn’t go to her friend’s house after coming home early from school led to screaming, kicking, throwing things. It usually ended with her running out the door and disappearing. Or smashing things in her room until she wore herself out. By then, she wasn’t four or five, but fourteen.
Every afternoon was a battle. Every afternoon, I’d want to be drunk by the time she got out of school. Every afternoon, I’d be exhausted by the time my husband got off work. Trying to get her to do her homework (and she was failing everything) was like trying to braid a bear’s hair.
Little things could become big things. You never knew when “We’re having pasta for dinner” would turn into broken dishes and police cars on the lawn. You never knew when you’d expect lunacy and she’d flip a switch and want a hug, would be sugary sweet and seem almost sane.
She knew when to torture you. And how. Once I had a stomach virus or food poisoning. We never figured out what it was, but it made me violently ill. I could keep nothing down. I was weak and got dizzy trying to walk around. The husband had tickets to a basketball game. They were good seats, the kind you don’t turn down unless you have to. I don’t like to be bothered when sick and this is before we realized just how crazy my niece was. I told him to go, to have fun. That she could use her computer or watch TV. That we’d be fine. We weren’t fine. Of course we weren’t. She waited, angelic, until he was thirty miles away before she started.
“Can I go to my friend’s house?”
“No, you’re still grounded.”
“I can do whatever I want. You can’t stop me.”
This led to cursing. Screaming. She disappeared in the other part of the house and I heard things breaking.
She came back, threatened to hurt herself. Disappeared.
She came back, yelled about how much she hated me.
She went outside and started rummaging in the shed and came up with a can of spray paint that she threatened to use on the nice stone patio.
I staggered out to stop her and nearly passed out.
She threw the can and disappeared into the shed again only to come back with a pick axe.
I went inside, left her to her own devices. By this point, I felt so bad, I wasn’t sure I even cared if she killed herself. Hours of her yelling and screaming, threatening, and breaking things, had left me drained.
I locked her out.
She spent the next two hours beating coconuts with the pick axe.
What she did to the hamster was worse. What she did to the hamster, I’ll never forgive myself for.
When she moved in, she wanted a hamster. All the papers suggested she was good with animals and had had pets before, that she missed the dogs she’d once lived with, and that she could be trusted at least with animals. We had cats, but she wanted her own pet. Our first clue should have been the crying and screaming that happened when she had to wait a week. But we relented, let her pick out a poor little hamster, got it a little cage with a wheel. One of her chores was to take care of the hamster. And for a while, she did.
And then she didn’t. I should have known better. She didn’t take care of herself. She refused to bathe. She would go to the bathroom, run a bath and sit next to it playing on her phone. She’d come out, still smelling like a dirty gym locker, hair greasy. If you called her out on it, she’d yell, push you, scream that you’re telling lies on her. Or tell you she did. You didn’t know what you were talking about. Tell you that you were dumb, that “didn’t you hear the water?” Her clothes, she wouldn’t wash. She wouldn’t put in the pile with the others to be washed. She wouldn’t put in the drawer if you washed them. She’d take the clean clothes and throw them in the pile of dirty clothes. Her whole room smelled like decaying food and old sweat.
Which is why I should have known better. She said she couldn’t sleep with the hamster on her dresser, so she put him in the closet. It didn’t have doors, but it was far from the door, and wading through knee deep dirty clothes, torn books, old food wrappers, and broken dishes to get to was not only gross, but sometimes dangerous. And sometimes she’d hide out in there, like a bear in a cave, growling and threatening all who dared to enter.
Still, I should have done more for the hamster. It wasn’t his fault. But by then, I wasn’t sure I was in my right mind either. I was shaking half the time, on the verge of tears the rest. I locked my husband and I in our bedroom at night. I kept my phone on me at all times. I never set it down. When it updated itself I locked myself in a room until it was done.
And that’s how the hamster never got water. And the hamster died. And I’m a horrible person. And it broke my husband’s heart to find that small dead body.
I won’t pretend to know what the mother of these shooters felt or experienced. I can’t know why they made the choices they did.
But I know one reason I never had children of my own was the terrible fear that if my niece was that damaged and crazy, it was in our gene pool. That it was a possibility for my own offspring. A relative you foster, you can return to the system. People might frown on you or think terrible things about you, but legally, you can say, “No. I’ve had enough.” You don’t get to do that with your own child. You don’t get reprieve until the child does something so heinous to you (or someone else), or the state suspects you’ve done something so heinous to him/her (which is more likely), that they take the little demon away.
Then, the town may shun you. Coworkers may distrust you. Churches may close their doors to you. State workers may lecture you or treat you like a criminal.
And it’s all offset by the overwhelming relief, tinged with sadness, with regret and questioning. But still, relief.
I don’t know how this problem gets solved. I don’t know how you draw the line between help helps and nothing helps. I don’t know what becomes of these people in the ideal world. Now, they mostly end up in prison, homeless, drifting, dead. I don’t think that’s the best option. But allowing parents to still flounder, to blame them, to pepper them with random services that are inadequate or too little too late is unacceptable.