A Sad Nobody: Mental Illness and Gun Control

After the Sandy Hook shooting, a statement circulated around Facebook that was falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman about the role of the media in glamorizing perpetrators of gun violence. That the author of the statement not only remained anonymous but projected his or her feelings onto a high profile Hollywood actor should be reason enough to ignore the sentiments expressed within it. But this didn’t stop the Huffington Post from reprinting the comments along with remarks by L. Steven Sieden, who seemed to feel that this faceless author had a point. “Do we dare to think for ourselves rather than allowing the media to dictate how the world is and should be?” Sieden asks – implying that had Adam Lanza been more of an independent thinker, he would have just died ‘a sad nobody’ and everyone else would have been better off for it. In fact if the media would just stop glorifying mass shootings, ‘disturbed people’ would simply do the mature thing and blow themselves away in private. If you want to take your own life, you’re free to do it – just don’t make it anyone else’s business.

I, for one, have a problem with that. It wasn’t the promise of media hype – hype that he wouldn’t live to enjoy – that prompted Adam Lanza to kill his mother, twenty children, six teachers, and then himself. It wasn’t video games, the latest Hollywood flick, Lanza’s genetic make-up, his parents’ divorce, or the possibility that he might have suffered from a mild form of autism that caused him to do it. Lanza committed murder and completed suicide because 1) he was mentally ill – not mentally disabled, but mentally ill – and 2) he had access to guns. Remove either one of those two factors from the equation, and twenty-eight people might still be alive today and the rest of us would be going on with our lives blissfully unaware that a little place called Newtown, Connecticut even exists.

I come from a town much like Newtown, if the gushing descriptions of the place are to be believed. My parents bought a house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1974, the year I was born; my mother was pregnant with me when she and my father repainted the exterior of the house yellow. I remember dodging caterpillars, wriggling earthworms and the occasional garden snake on the way to school in the mornings. After school I played in the street with the kids on the block and in summer went swimming at the local pool. There were bushes along the street where blackberries grew in spring, and my grandmother and I used to harvest them if she happened to be in town for a visit. I saw Michael Jordan play basketball when he was just a freshman at UNC and watched jealously as my neighbor piled her kids in the car and rushed up to Franklin Street to celebrate when the Tarheels brought home NCAA titles. (We weren’t allowed to go; ‘too dangerous,’ my father said. I still remember going to school the next day and listening to stories of schoolmates who arrived on Franklin Street with their parents and five minutes later found themselves drenched in beer.) If it sounds idyllic, it’s because it was; even today Chapel Hill can be found listed among the top ten best places to live in the United States.

Still my father decided to invest in a gun. This may seem odd in a place where neighbors left their front doors wide open on hot summer nights and sometimes never bothered locking their back doors at all. But it seems less odd when I try to put myself in my father’s shoes. Both my parents came of age in Mississippi during a time when a Black child couldn’t attend a majority white school without the protection of federal marshals. Now here my parents were twenty years later sending their children off to integrated schools, with no references to draw upon and no idea what to expect. It must have been baffling at times, if not downright frightening. And in my father’s mind, having a weapon in the house and making sure his wife and daughter knew how to use it was at least one way to ensure our safety.

It never occurred to him or to any of us that my mother would one day use the gun to take her own life. In retrospect the signs were all there; on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, there’s a long list of risk factors for suicide, and more than a few apply in my mother’s case: a history of mental illness, a recent loss, feelings of isolation, and, near the bottom of the list, easy access to lethal methods – in other words, guns. In 2009, 56% of men and 30% of women who died by suicide used a firearm, making guns the leading means of suicide death among men and the second most prevalent among women. Firearms offer an alternative that is quick and immediate; a gunshot wound to the chest or head can snuff out a life a lot faster that sleeping pills or a razor blade. The chances that a friend or family member might discover the suicide in progress – and consequently the chances of survival – are far slimmer in cases where firearms are used.

My mother, taking no chances, planned her death long in advance. She chose to use my father’s gun, but only after procuring four bottles of prescription sleeping pills, a supply it must have taken weeks to collect. She had always been responsible for the family finances, and she arranged bill payments a solid three months in advance to ensure my father had a comfortable grace period before he was forced to take over her responsibilities. She shot herself in the bathroom, the only room in the house with a lock, probably because she knew that her husband would be more likely to force open a locked door than her daughter. She chose the bathtub, not an especially comfortable or romantic place to end one’s life, but easy to clean up in case things got messy. And lastly she slipped away to complete her suicide when she was least likely to draw attention to herself – on a Sunday morning while her husband was out doing yard work and her teenage daughter was holed up in her room with music blaring. My mother committed the ‘sad nobody’ kind of suicide, the kind of suicide that’s sanctioned by our right as Americans to do whatever we want with our lives as long as we don’t make it anyone else’s business.

In the twenty years since I lost her, in twenty years of missing her, in twenty years of wondering if I could have done anything to stop her, I’ve never once paused to think about the role of the media in her death. I’ve never wondered which violent film or graphic video game might have desensitized her to the grief her decision would inflict on her family. Maybe I should learn to be proud that my mother, even in the depths of her depression, still had the sense to die sad and lonely instead of making a murderous spectacle of herself and shooting up the local elementary school. But even though her death didn’t make front page news and didn’t break the nation’s heart, it broke three hearts at least: my father’s, my brother’s and mine. And though I’m now finally able to move beyond my grief and embrace my life as a gift that I would trade for nothing in the world, I refuse to reduce my mother, who gave me this life and who nurtured me in spite of her depression for as long as she could, to a ‘sad nobody’ who vanished from among us without a trace.

Before we start blaming the media for turning ‘sad nobodies’ into cold-blooded mass murderers, we should ask ourselves who’s really the more desensitized. The direct correlation between the presence of firearms and the likelihood of suicide completion has been proven again and again. But it seems we don’t actually care enough about suicidal people to act on these facts unless they kill someone else along with themselves, unless they choose to be ‘monsters’ instead of ‘nobodies.’ Maybe it’s because we’re scared of mental illness. If gun control could help curb heart disease or lung cancer, maybe we’d be more inclined to talk about it. But we’re barely at the point where we can talk plainly and knowledgeably about depression, let alone suicide. We still cling to the belief that a person only needs offspring, a stable home, and a successful spouse to keep her rooted firmly to this earth, even though there is plenty of evidence pointing to the contrary.

Don’t try to pin that one on the media. Our denial is all our own fault. And only we can change it.

Even though my mother was dangerously ill, she probably would not have shot herself if she had not had access to a loaded firearm. She might have used pills or another method, but at least then there would have been some chance, however small, of a timely intervention. And the beautiful, graceful woman who was as much my beloved elder as she was my best girlfriend might still be alive today.

It may sound as if I blame my father for bringing a gun into the house in the first place. I don’t blame him, not at all. To do so would be to ignore the complex history of gun ownership in America and the real dangers that Black people have faced throughout that history. I clearly recall driving with my parents through Alabama late one night after visiting relatives in Mississippi and sampling what for my parents must have been a common occurrence when they were my age. The car was running low on gas, so my father stopped at the first place we saw, which was a tiny gas station on a remote section of the highway. My father pulled the car into the station, but he didn’t get out to fill the tank; he just sat very still, looking into the windows of the station. The lights were on, and there were clearly people mulling about inside. My mother followed his gaze and then looked back at him; from the backseat I heard her ask, ‘You think it’s Klan?’ My father replied by gunning the engine and driving away. This wasn’t 1950; this was the late 1980s. And there it was, the word ‘Klan,’ rolling off my mother’s tongue with frightening ease. It’s no wonder to me that my father opted to keep a weapon in the house. But it is a wonder to me that the gun owners whose raucous voices dominate the debate on gun control look so little like my father and so very much like the figures I saw through the gas station window that night.

In debating gun control, there is a great deal of paranoia about protecting the Second Amendment at all costs. Radical gun nuts who seem to think the United States is still a British colony have received a rather remarkable wealth of air time for their outrageous views. I wish that more air time was given to gun owners with legitimate fears. When we unpack these fears, acknowledge them and address them, we might better empower gun owners to give up their weapons, making their homes and communities safer for their loved ones and opening up spaces where conversations about healing can finally take place.