Is there a parent anywhere whose heart did not go out to JoAnn and John Hinckley Sr. as they testified at their son's trial? Even those fortunate people whose children have brought them nothing but joy will sympathize with this mother and father. They tried to understand and help a child whose behavior was a puzzle to them. The failure of their effort must cause every parent to wonder who is really to blame, and whether anyone could have done a better job.
There are families like the Hinckleys in every economic bracket--successful, hard-working families in which all the children but one seem to turn out well. Brothers and sisters complete their education, work, marry and settle down, but one child drops out, turns off or, in some cases, gets into serious trouble. In many families, as with the Hinckleys, a large part of the family resources, both financial and emotional, is directed to dealing with the child in trouble. The guilt, of which there is an ample measure, is passed around for all to share. Classically, mother was at fault because she was too lenient, father because he expected too much and the siblings because they were born first or were too successful or didn't pay enough attention.
In this case there is a 26-year-old man--let's stop calling him a boy--who admits to a terrible crime and suggests that others are in some way responsible for his conduct. According to testimony, John Hinckley Jr. had for some years lived an aimless life and was entirely dependent on his parents for financial support. When they urged him to complete school, he told them he was going to be a rock star. When he said he wanted to be a writer, they paid for a course at Yale, which he promptly abandoned. As he moved into his mid-twenties with no education, skills or plan for life, they sought help. Doctors found no physical or mental illness, only a growing resentment in this young man because he had not been given a large amount of money to pursue his chosen life style.
In desperation, and on expert advice, the Hinckleys embarked upon a plan to force their son to accept some responsibility for his life. This was not a 14-year-old sent out on his own, but an adult. A jury may yet find that young Hinckley was mentally ill when he shot the president and four others, but that was not the judgment of the psychiatrist his parents had engaged.
Freud put a terrific burden on parents, some of which may not be deserved. Parents can offer education, opportunity, support, psychiatric help and love. Some children will thrive and others, inexplicably, will not. No parent can claim full responsibility for his child's achievements and none should be saddled with all the guilt for a child's shortcomings. In this respect, the Hinckleys are like all the rest of us.