The Ethics of Publishing "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother"
If you have access to US social media, you've probably seen the blog post, "Thinking the Unthinkable," at least once since last Friday's horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Its author, Anarchist Soccer Mom (hereinafter referred to as "ASM"), shares harrowing episodes of life with her gifted but mentally ill 13-year-old son, and her frustrations with a failing mental health system. She writes that her son has threatened to kill himself and her. She says he pulled a knife on her because she told him to change his pants. Doctors, police, school officials -- no one has a good explanation for why it's happening, or how to fix it:
"When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. 'If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,' he said. 'That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.'"
Sound familiar? No? Perhaps you know it better by its viral headline, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother." That's the way it got picked up first by the Blue Review, and then Gawker, Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and others. The headline is a direct quote from the essay.
And that's where my questions began.
Because while ASM has raised important issues facing her family and many others, she also identified her child as a potential future mass murderer. She changed his name, but it's not hard for people who know her to figure out who she's talking about. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is among those who've called her out on this:
"I can understand the exhaustion and the helplessness that his mother feels; I can even understand harboring fear for the future in her own heart. Fear is fear; it can’t be argued with. But if you’re going to write about something so personal, so wrenching, so frightening, so painful that involves your minor child, common sense dictates that you use pseudonyms -- not just for the child, but for yourself and for everyone else concerned. And for the love of God, you do not use a photo."
ASM didn't realize that her cri de coeur would be so widely disseminated. She said as much in a joint statement released today with Sarah Kendzior, one of the bloggers who had criticized her over the weekend:
"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."
Wanting to understand the decision-making process behind publishing the essay under the author's name and with a photo and the more sensational headline, I contacted Nathaniel Hoffman, editor of The Blue Review, a three-month-old journal of "popular scholarship in the public interest."
In a telephone interview, Hoffman told me that he plucked the title from the essay because, "I just thought it was a really powerful line." When I asked whether he was worried that the title, and the paragraph it came from, seemed to label ASM's son as a potential mass murderer, he responded, "That's what the headline says, but if you read the article, she's raising a lot of questions, too."
Hoffman went on to say that he felt that they had taken adequate steps to protect the privacy of ASM's son, noting, "We didn't identify the child. The picture doesn't look like him any more." All of the editorial decisions were made in collaboration with the author, he added.