Local Spin: Unbalanced Truth
If we don’t heed the warnings, we’ll doom ourselves.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Of all of the terribly sad, chilling news since Friday, when a deranged man barely out of his teens took weapons owned by his mother and – after shooting her four times in the face – went to a grade school and murdered six other adults and 20 6 – and 7-year-olds, here are two things that resonate with me:
First was the report that the mother, gun aficionado and former stockbroker Nancy Lanza, once told a babysitter looking after her then-young son Adam to never turn his back on the boy, to never leave him alone, not even long enough to go to the bathroom. And second, an essay by an Idaho woman published on Boise State University’s Blue Review website titled, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother.”
In it, Liza Long writes of her son, who at 13 has already begun a struggle with an undiagnosed mental illness that sends him into violent fits of rage. The rage is so bad that Long and her husband have a safety plan in place for their younger children (lock yourselves in the car, they are instructed), and Long writes that while she loves her older son, “He terrifies me.”
In Salinas, business owner and mom Jessica James says she thought she tucked away the worst of her own memories of an event that happened five years ago. But the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., followed by Liza Long’s now-viral essay, serve as reminders: If Long could be Adam Lanza’s mother, James could be his sister.
On Aug. 23, 2007, James’ older half-brother, a mentally ill 44-year-old named John Vierra, murdered their mother in her Salinas home. About a month earlier, James says, Vierra had stopped taking the medication that kept his paranoid schizophrenia mostly in check. The voices, the same ones that told him to sit on the roof of North Salinas High and wait for the Mayans, the ones that drove him to sit in a neighborhood park at 3am, started speaking to him again in earnest, James says. Her mother, Maria Lopez-James, was frustrated and worried.
When John was on the medication, he could be responsible and even helpful; when off it, he could stay awake endlessly and argue about minor things. But Vierra’s psychiatrist told her they couldn’t force him to medicate.
“‘He has rights,’” James says the psychiatrist told her mom. “‘If he doesn’t want to be on the medication, then he won’t be on it. But he will never harm anyone.”
The voices came anyway, and they told him his mother was going to take a handgun kept in the home and kill him. Normally, the two wouldn’t have been alone in the house, but James’ father, J.T. James, a veteran Monterey County sheriff’s deputy, had been hospitalized two days earlier for complications related to brain cancer.
So Vierra struck first, stabbing his mother once in the back.
Maria James lived long enough to call 911, but she died in her home. Her son went outside and waited on the lawn for police to arrive. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Napa State Hospital; he’ll likely remain there for the rest of his life.
As she sits inside Fluff, the pretty cupcake store she owns, under a photo mural depicting her grandmother, her mother and herself, James wonders where and how the rights of her mentally ill brother to not take his medication should have ended. She wishes she had listened to the little voice in her own head warning her that her brother was dangerous, despite what the psychiatrist said.
At one point, James says, she thought about lying about her brother and trying to convince authorities he was violent, because then someone might force him to take his medication. Their lives could have gone on.
“My mother wanted help with him,” James says. “She chose to keep him at home, but I don’t think she knew how sick he was. She didn’t get it. None of us did.”
John had told the psychiatrist he was having dark thoughts about his mother, James says. But the rest of the family only found that out after he killed her. And while he was on his meds, he was never deemed sick enough for hospitalization.
Maybe Nancy Lanza could have related to Maria James. So little is known about Adam, about his diagnosis and treatment, if any. We can’t know if she warned the babysitter because she was afraid of her child, or for him. And it’s impossible to say why she kept weapons where Adam could access them. She’s dead, and so is he.
In Maria James’ case, her paranoid son thought she would use a gun on him. And, Jessica James says, her mother was afraid for her child, not of him.
“My brother loved my mother when he was medicated. He loved her,” James says. “She wanted to protect him. She always thought he would end up as the victim.”
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her at twitter.com/maryrduan