Stop Blaming Mom: For Nancy Lanza And All Women Who Share A Home With Someone With Mental Illness

When a story about family violence makes the news, I’m really not interested in how the victim could have behaved better. Maybe because I used to have a spouse with a mental illness who I feared would kill me.

Jan 2, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

I remember a greeting card from the 90s, on display in my local independent, natural food store, that featured two men smiling with their arms around each other. The caption read: “Nature vs. Nurture -- One thing we agree on: it’s all Mom’s fault!”

I thought of that card when I read mainstream coverage of the Connecticut shooter’s first victim, his mother, Nancy Lanza. 

She hadn’t been dead for even a few days before she became the subject of gossip. She went to shooting ranges and shot at targets! She enjoyed drinking beer in bars!

If the Connecticut gunman had left behind his father (a person who does exist, though we’ve heard very little about him) as the first of his victims, and he shared the same pastimes, they would not only be unremarkable to news sources, they would make him a regular guy, as famously “likeable” as George W. Bush was purported to be.

Even liberal, feminist friends used words like “negligent” to talk about Nancy Lanza. When a story about family violence makes the news, I’m really not interested in how the victim, especially a woman, could have behaved better.  Maybe because I used to have a spouse with a mental illness, and for a time, I feared she would kill me. 

Before the moment I became afraid of her, my spouse was the opposite of a threat. If someone took a poll among all the people who knew us and asked, “Which half of this couple is most likely to become violent,” I feel confident all of them would have chosen me.

I don’t have any history of violence -- unless you count that time when I beat to death my malfunctioning inkjet printer (I was provoked). But pretty much everyone, including me, was more impatient, more aggressive and quicker to anger than my ex was. 

One day when she was about to go running, my spouse and I had an argument. The argument wasn’t particularly long or heated, but before I knew what was happening, my spouse was hitting the wall next to the stairs with her fist, repeatedly, until a gaping hole about the size of my head formed. Afterward, she looked at what she had done, rubbed her knuckles -- and went out for her run. 

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This was the hole. 

In our nearly three and a half years together, my spouse had gone off her medication twice. The first time she didn’t tell me. Instead of being her usual, quiet self, she turned silent, a disturbed and disturbing absence in the room. Her eyes glittered with frustration and hostility. I asked, “What’s going on?” She still wouldn’t tell me. Weeks later, she confessed and refilled her prescription.

The second time she went off her medication she punched the wall. 

After my spouse left, I kept thinking: if she had continued to face me instead of turning away when she started punching she would have hit my stomach instead of the wall. For what seemed like days but was just an hour or so, I listened for the sound of the front door opening again. When she was back, I told my spouse she needed to leave. She thought I was overreacting. I told her if she didn’t leave, then I would have to. 

I called a couple we knew, told them what had happened and asked when they could pick me up. They said a couple of hours. I didn’t want to take public transportation to their place because I didn’t like thinking what might happen as I made my way out, alone. 

I printed up a “safety contract” modeled on the contracts clients and residents of the human service organizations I had worked for sometimes had to sign to stay in a program. The client contract was usually a promise that the client would not hurt herself. This contract was a promise from my spouse not to hurt me or my cat for 24 hours. I left the contract on the kitchen table as I packed.

After at first refusing to sign, my spouse picked up the pen and put her name on the paper. I don’t know why I thought that piece of paper would keep me safe. Maybe because my spouse had at first resisted signing it -- so I thought she probably took the contract seriously. I called my friends and told them, for that night anyway, I was staying put. 

My spouse hugged me. She wanted us to fuck to make up, like we would after an ordinary argument. I told her no. “You scare me,” I said.

I had 24 hours until the contract ran out. If I saw the incident as she did, a momentary lapse, easily forgiven, I knew I couldn’t stay friends with the couple I’d called. Someone who is under arrest gets only one phone call, and someone in acute, life-threatening distress gets to call friends to rescue her only once as well.

I knew any future incidents (what I knew about domestic violence was: odds were good future incidents would happen) would seem less and less urgent to my friends. If I had to call them another time, I could see them saying to one another, “This again?”

I also knew that I couldn’t have any of my friends over to the home my spouse and I shared anymore -- not if along with a vegan entree and tiramisu, my spouse punching a hole in the wall (or worse) could also be part of the evening’s fare.

I did not want to become the woman who is a hostage in her own home because of her spouse. I didn’t want to be conscripted into the army of women in this country who are expected to care for all the people no one else (and certainly no social service program) will take responsibility for: their severely disabled, adult children, unpredictable husbands or infirm parents or in-laws. Those women are largely isolated from the rest of us. When I read about Nancy Lanza never inviting any of the people she socialized with into the house she shared with her son, I understood exactly why. 

My spouse told me she had gone back on her medication, but I didn’t relish the idea of a few little pills, which she could stop taking without warning at any time, being the only thing between me and a punch. I told my spouse she needed to get help: voluntary hospitalization was one option. She refused.

 In my years of working with the homeless, I remembered that someone has to either be a danger to herself or to assault someone else (not just a wall) to be forced to undergo treatment for mental illness. But even if I had had the opportunity to involuntarily hospitalize my spouse, I don't know if I could have gone through with it. My spouse had been briefly hospitalized years before we’d met. She hadn’t talked much about being in a hospital, but I knew she had hated being there. 

Even though on some level I realized her actions were not entirely her fault I was incredibly pissed off at my spouse. The bottom line was: She had chosen to stop taking her medication and now refused to see that her actions warranted treatment. But my ex seemed to fear going back to the hospital more than anything else, and as angry as I was, I did not wish to torture her with another stay. If we as a culture want to encourage more mentally ill people to voluntarily enter treatment or their loved ones to be more likely to send them, we need to make hospital stays more like help and less like jail. 

Our marriage was over. I couldn’t stay with someone who was a threat to my safety, and she couldn’t stay with someone who had asked her to hospitalize herself. My ex was livid with me -- which was as uncharacteristic and startling as the Dalai Lama having a hissy fit. Everything I had thought I knew about my spouse seemed to be wrong. I started to think she might try to kill me. 

I got zero help from the legal system: Someone who has destroyed property, even during an argument, is not considered enough of a threat to merit a restraining order. I lived with my ex for over a month after our split while I looked for a permanent place to move.

I was afraid if I left to stay temporarily with folks I knew -- who couldn't take in my cat -- that my ex, who was furious with me and had always been a lot fonder of me than of my cat, would take that opportunity to kill or maim her. No laws were on the books then to prevent my ex from doing so. When I told her why I couldn’t leave immediately, she was insulted.

“I would never do anything to hurt her,” she said of the cat. A month before, my ex could have said the same about me.  Now I told her, “You know I can’t trust you on that.” 

Thanks to the “remember password” function, I periodically snooped in my ex’s email (the first, and I hope last time I’ve had to do so in a relationship) to make sure she wasn’t planning to kill or hurt me. Except for the extreme hostility with which she wrote about me, she seemed almost normal in the messages she sent. 

I was a feminist who had spent a lot of time listening to women tell their stories, including those of domestic abuse. I knew the right places to call and the right people that I needed to give me support and to help me get the fuck out. Everyone, for the most part, couldn't have been nicer.  I'm also not someone who often second-guesses myself, especially not after I've made an important decision, but I have never felt more stupid and unsure than I did in that month before I moved out, even as I soldiered ahead, searching for apartments online while holed up in my home office. 

I felt like I might have made a mistake. We had been married only a few months. My ex had said she was sorry, sort of. My mother told me my father (no prize himself) had, during their long marriage, once punched a hole in the wall too. Later I would read that domestic violence often starts with the destruction of property. Later I would read the first incident is often shortly after the wedding. I didn’t know these things then. I just knew that I remained extremely frightened of my ex and trusted that fear as reason enough to leave. 

All the people who think the Connecticut shooter's mother or the wife/mother/girlfriend (never the husband/father/boyfriend) of the next shooter should have "known" or "done something" or "taken action" or was "negligent" need to listen to those of us who have lived with someone who has a mental illness.

They also need to know that my ex, whether she got treatment or not (I don’t know: the last contact I had with her was years ago) seems, from the distance of the opposite coast to be doing fine now in a new career and city. Maybe the divorce forced her to examine her actions. Or maybe her punching that wall was, as she'd always insisted, a one-time thing and I was foolish to make such a fuss about it.

Or maybe not.