On Knowing and Responding

On this the liberal and the right-wing columnists seem to agree:

Adults are responsible for not controlling the behavior of Littleton, Colorado’s

“trench coat mafia” killers. Eileen McNamara, liberal columnist for the Globe, suggests that the parents of Eric Harris and

Dylan Klebold “must have known” what their kids were planning and that they

surrendered “parental guidance and authority.” Right-winger Jeff Jacoby claims

that these kids’ lives “were filled with adults who never set limits, never

imposed rules, never made it clear that certain kinds of behavior would not be tolerated.”

How these particular columnists Eileen McNamara’s April 25th column is headlined,

“Parents must have known.” In it, she details the overwhelming evidence that the

parents could not conceivably have missed the Hitler paraphenalia, the stockpiling of

weapons, the diaries detailing shooting plans, and their sons’ ongoing alienation

from school peers – all of which, at least in hindsight, appear to be stepping stones

leading clearly, directly, and irreversibly to a massacre.

There are two things I believe Eileen McNamara is not considering.

One is the power of denial. The other is the overwhelming difficulty of overcoming denial

when doing so will cause you to confront hopelessness and powerlessness.

On denial, here are some anecdotes. My sister, working in a women’s

health clinic, meets a teenage patient, visibly in advanced stages of pregnancy, and her

mother. The girl “thinks” she might be pregnant and wants to see if she can get

an abortion. My sister examines her and finds her to be 8 and a half months pregnant. By

law, my sister tells her, she won’t be having an abortion, she’ll be having a

baby. In about 2 weeks. Mother and daughter are aghast. How could that mother not have


Mothers routinely stay in marriages when there are clear cut signs

that a daughter is being abused by her father. How could she not have known?

My guess is that on some level these mothers did know. But facing

into these situations would require taking on more than they felt they could. Coming to

grips with the fact that your teenage daughter is pregnant requires delving into her

sexuality; helping her assess her life prospects with and without a kid; determining her

options – all of which are potentially painful and life-changing – abortion,

childbirth, adoption, motherhood; and rallying resources to pursue some path. For many,

these are extremely different issues to entertain. They may call to mind your own

inadequacies and will confront you head-on with numerous systemic difficulties such as,

drawing from the examples above, the difficulty of finding and being able to afford an

abortion, admitting to being sexually active, recognizing the extreme difficulty of being

a teen mother raising a child in poverty, the economic hurdles faced by a woman leaving

her husband, the overriding of lessons learned all her life to trust and depend on a man,


Here are two more examples of denial that have very different

endings. I walked into my third floor apartment after having done some very dirty

demolition work on a house we were buying. The air seemed “blurry” somehow. I

rubbed my eyes thinking the plaster dust was affecting my vision. After taking a shower,

everything still looked “cloudy.” I went down to the second floor apartment

where a friend was taking care of my baby along with her own. Now I smelled something. We

both sniffed the air and, puzzled, actually checked our babies’ diapers for the

offending source. As it turned out, the house was on fire. We called 911 and the fire

department put the fire out within minutes leaving little damage. When I look back on that

incident, what strikes me is that, despite obvious signals – smoky air and a burning

smell – I had a hard time allowing it to seep into my brain that the house was

actually on fire.

In another incident, I left my 4-year old at a swimming pool in the

care of her aunt. Some time later, I realized I had forgotten something at the pool and so

returned – only to find a small blond-haired child in a pink bathing suit submerged

underwater. Clearly, it was my daughter. But my brain – at least for a second –

completely shut down against the possibility that that could be her. If it were her, then

that would mean she would be drowning. A completely unacceptable possibility. I actually

lifted my eyes from that submerged child for a moment to scan the rest of the pool for my

real daughter. It took me about one second to get over this insane denial of reality, at

which point I raced over and pulled her out. She was fine. I took away from the experience

a new consciousness of how powerfully our minds can work to shut out a reality that seems

too painful to bear.

In these last two stories, denial is powerful but momentary. Why?

Because the action that needed to be taken was relatively straightforward, involved no

self-reflection, did not challenge major societal institutions, would be 100% supported by

any parties involved, and would almost definitely be effective. In the first case, I

called 911. In the second, I reached into the water, grabbed my kid by the hair, and

pulled her to the surface. Neither action confronts long-held biases or threw me into an

abyss of poor choices with little support and no resources for acting on them.

In his Globe column that

self-righteously blames parental lack of discipline for the Columbine killings, Jeff

Jacoby fondly remembers the scolding he got when he told a lie at school. The lie had to

do with claiming his parents had given him permission to avoid some school activity. His

punishment was thorough, and he claims to have carried away from the whole experience the

important lesson that adults were watching over him. He claims that simple discipline is a

thing of the past.

I disagree. His parochial school probably had a clear and

straightforward approach to meting out punishment when its authority was challenged.

Scolding a kid for lying about gym class (or whatever) is easy and helps maintain the

status quo. But what if a teacher overheard a racial epithet in the playground? Would that

infraction bring about a swift uncompromising adult response? It’s unlikely –

partly because there is no swift uncompromising response to racism. A proper adult way to

address a kid’s racist expression would be complicated at best: The adult might have

to come to grips with her own racist preconceptions; she might have to uncover the ways

the child picked up on racist thinking from popular culture; she might have to analyze the

systems that perpetuate racism, the institutions that carry it out every day, and the

myths that give racism weight. She would have to figure out how to tell the child that

racism is wrong even though multiple examples exist in force all around. She would have to

go against the grain of mainstream social norms, customs, and institutions. And she would

have to do all of this effectively for a child. She would have little support or role

models. If she went so far as to think through all of this she might reasonably conclude

that it’s hopeless, and do nothing.

Discipline and parental guidance are easy in some instances. Your

kid pisses in his pants, you select from an array of potty-training methods. Nobody goes

into denial about it. You simply choose from the plethora of books, experts, and

approaches to fit any parenting style – from the child-led method to the

wetness-triggered alarm that you can wire to your bedwetting kid’s pajamas. But what

do you do when you discover your child is taking on explicitly racist thinking? Who do you

go to? Who will take you seriously and help you respond? What if your child’s racism

at least partly reflects your own so that you are more inclined to relate to his feelings

rather than reject them? Then who will deal with Harris and Klebold of Columbine High clearly took their brand of

alienation, anti-social violence, racism, and hatred to an extreme. Their parents harbor

responsibility for seemingly not paying attention to their teenagers’ attitudes and

behaviors. Surely, denial played a role. How difficult it would be to face the possibility

that your child might literally be planning a massacre. It’s unthinkable. I imagine

there would be no limit to the contortions you might go through in an effort to avoid such

a reality. Combine that with the fact that if you were to face into it, what would you do? Turn to your local anti-violence, anti-racism

trainers and their support staff? Look to popular culture for examples of people solving

problems with words rather than guns? Expose your child to more mainstream media and

institutions which are clear organs of democratic expression and fulfilling activities?

Just as for the mother of the pregnant teen and the abused daughter, options are few,

support is nil, consequences are dire, and power is overwhelmingly concentrated elsewhere.

Bill Clinton says, “We must do more to reach out to our

children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words,

not weapons.” This while diplomatic opportunities in Yugoslavia are squandered and

the bombs rain down. How come no one is suggesting Clinton is responsible for the

Columbine killings? After all, Clinton actually modeled aggression, and legions of society’s

institutions contribute to making it look like a moral

choice. Harris and Klebold’s parents, all they did was nothing.

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