December 18, 2012

You’ve probably read it already.  The essay has a million likes on Facebook. It’s dominating the Huffington Post.

Titled “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” it is a gorgeously written piece, the tale of a mother struggling to cope with her son’s mental illness. “I live with a son who is mentally ill,” Long writes. “I love my son. But he terrifies me.” It’s deeply personal, humanizing an issue that is too often abstract and remote. It tugs you in the right places and is capable of kick-starting a necessary conversation. 

If only we’d let it.

Instead, we’re in a backlash. It’s not unmerited. One of the perennial questions of people who step or trip into the limelight in order to “draw attention to issues” is what, exactly, they are hoping to draw attention to. Peruse the rest of Liza Long’s “Anarchist Soccer Mom” blog, and you can — as Slate’s Hanna Rosin and Sarah Kendzior have noted — emerge with a picture of someone who, while she’s a terrific writer, can evoke bizarre-sounding conspiracies (Did her ex-husband seriously incarcerate their 11-year-old? Who is this “someone, somewhere, for some reason” who “is actively seeking to destroy me”?) as skillfully as she paints the daily tribulations of mothering. And what impact will the essay have on her son?

But the more we talk about Liza Long, the easier it is to let the necessary conversation slide away.

It is so much easier to pore through one mother’s life, to worry about her exposure of her son and whether he’ll ever be able to escape from the shadow of the post, than it is to talk about the underlying issue. The longer we talk about Liza, the less we talk about the real problem: how hard it is to start talking about these situations, how hard it is to get people necessary help, how we can change. The answer to the nagging fear that the essay was written to draw attention to Liza Long is not to pay all our attention to Liza Long. Besides, if our condition for broaching the subject of mental health is that an Unimpeachable Human Being has to start the conversation, we’ll never have the conversation at all.

In the wake of all the controversy, Kendzior and Long posted a joint blog saying exactly this. They wrote:

“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.

 

Our nation has suffered enough in the aftermath of Newtown. We are not interested in being part of a ‘mommy war.’ We are interested in opening a serious conversation on what can be done for families in need. Let’s work together and make our country better.”

If we stay where we are now, stuck at the current level of willingness to discuss mental health issues, fortifying the stigma around the subject, Long’s piece might well become the hanging albatross that Kendzior and Rosin fear. But if we actually have the conversation, it won’t be as bad, and some good might come out of it. Sometimes you have to be the first domino you want to fall.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.