Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Norway Narrative

As you almost certainly know, last Friday a massive explosion rocked Oslo, Norway. Shortly thereafter, a gunman opened fire at a camp run by the Labour Party on a nearby island. In all, 76 people were killed and many more injured. Many of the victims were children.

For a brief time on Friday, it was reported that a previously unknown radical Islamist group had taken responsibility for the attacks. The stories in the mainstream media generally represented two different views of this (we now know incorrect) fact.

View 1 was that this showed how dangerous Muslims in Europe are. View 2 was that this was a case of a small minority of Muslims twisting the religion to suit their own purposes and beliefs, and should not be viewed as typical of all Muslims or the religion itself.

Soon it came out that, in fact, the perpetrator in these attacks was a Norwegian citizen upset over immigration and multiculturalism. Two views quickly emerged about this as well. View 1 holds that this is the inevitable result of dangerous rhetoric on the part of conservatives. View 2 holds that this man is clearly mentally ill, and his actions should not be held against an entire political ideology.

There are certainly parallels between these two sets of views. Either the person responsible is representative of their group or they are the exception but not the rule. But there is one notable difference -- in the first scenario, neither view considers mental illness to be a factor.

What is going on here, in both scenarios, is people's attempt to distance themselves from those responsible. They are not like us. They are other. They are different. That means that we are not at risk of becoming like them, and we are less vulnerable to them because their difference may be easy to detect. In the first scenario, the difference in question is one of religion. American mainstream media is largely a Judeo-Christian business. From that perspective, Muslims, whether a handful of radicals or an entire religion, are not "us."

Once it was clear that the perpetrator was European, however, we regrouped. For those on the political left, it was easy to point to him as being on the political right. For those on the right, however, "othering" him was more difficult. He must be mentally ill.

I actually think that this perpetrator probably is mentally ill. Whether that is the whole story or political ideology also plays a part is open for debate. What is interesting to me, though, is that we tend not to consider that suicide bombers from Al-Qaeda, or Osama Bin Laden, or anyone in that general category may be mentally ill. Some of that is racism. Some of it is the ease of separating ourselves from them if we are not Muslim ourselves.

But if you consider it, the narrative of the Oslo massacre probably should be that these attacks were carried out by a deranged person or persons. What religion or ethnic group they are from is not, from that perspective, all that important.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Guests at the Hadley House

Mary Jo and Blake Hadley were murdered on Saturday afternoon, allegedly by their 17 year-old son. Specifically, the son posted an invitation to a party at his house then allegedly bludgeoned his parents with a hammer and hid their bodies in the master bedroom. He then hosted between 40 and 60 people for the party that night as his parent's bodies lay behind closed doors in the house.

There is certainly plenty of awfulness to comment on here. There's the horror of a kid killing his own parents and the brutality of how he did it. There's the unbelievable callousness of hosting a party with your parents lying dead in the same house. How unfeeling can one person be?

My thoughts, however, go to a less-examined aspect of this case. There are between 40 and 60 people out there who found out on Sunday that they had partied Saturday night away at a crime scene, just feet away from the victims' bodies. Think about that. How would you feel?

Interestingly, my first thought was that these kids wouldn't care. I mean, who goes to a party at the house of a kid who kills his parents anyway? I had to stop myself. Most if not all of these guests didn't know what had happened. They were doing something that appears unbelievably heartless, but they didn't know they were doing it.

One of the things that people often struggle with after a traumatic event is guilt. We believe, rightly or wrongly, that we should have done something differently and that our doing something differently would have made a difference. Most often, however, we are basing our ideas of what we should have done on information we only got after the event. That's certainly true in this case.

I doubt there was one person at that party who, if the invitation to the party had read, "Come on over to my house for a party. My parents will be dead in the master bedroom," would have thought that was a good idea. At the same time, I'll bet there are a lot of people freaked out by the thought that they were there and thinking, in hindsight, they should have known.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leiby Kletzky, May His Memory Be for a Blessing

Leiby Kletzky won't be home for Shabbat dinner tomorrow night. He won't be home next week, or the week after, or for any Shabbat or holiday or regular dinner ever again. Leiby was 8 years old when his parents let him walk alone, for the first time, from his summer camp in Brooklyn, NY to meet them a few blocks away on Monday. He took a wrong turn and asked a stranger for directions. Leiby Kletzky is dead, and that stranger has reportedly confessed to killing him and dismembering his body.

There are news stories that upset me. There are news stories that scare me. There are news stories that make me angry. There are very few news stories that make me physically ill. This is one of them.

I've been trying to identify just what it is that has made me feel like I was going to throw up since the moment the details of this case came to light. I've been doing crisis work for a long time, and I've heard some pretty awful stories. The murder of children is always particularly poignant, but this one is different.

I think there are two aspects to this case that cause me to feel that connection in a particularly personal way. The first is that, this week, I sent my own 6 year-old son on a plane as an unaccompanied minor to visit his grandparents in Washington, DC for the first time. We've done this countless times with his oldest sister and it has always gone smoothly.

We are careful, or so we think. We make sure not just that the airline has the information they need to keep the kids safe, but that they know what to do if someone isn't there to pick them up, if their seatmate is bothering them or making them uncomfortable, if they get lost or if someone other than an airline employee offers to take them someplace. We trust that these precautions, coupled with the help of the airline and the common sense of our kids, will keep them safe.  Leiby Kletzky's parents thought there wasn't much that could go wrong, too. They were a few blocks away. He would walk right to them. What could go wrong?

Today, when I went to pick my son up at the airport, I got stuck in traffic. His plane arrived early. The line to get a security pass to go to the gate was slow. The security line was long. I knew that he was off the plane, and I found myself in a panic. We had a plan for this. All he had to do was stay with the airline employees. But what if he didn't?

One of the deeply held beliefs about the world that we have as parents is that we can keep our children safe. My kids will tell you that I often say that that is my most important job as a mom -- keeping them safe. Leiby's parents were doing that job as best they could with the information they had. And it wasn't enough. That shakes my own belief in a world that will work the way it should.

The other poignant piece of this case for me was that it occurred in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. I am not Hasidic and have never been. I lived for a while in a heavily Jewish section of Pittsburgh, PA that had many Hasidim, and as a Jew I feel a connection to that part of my roots. Hasidic communities are famously close knit. You can see this in the sheer number of people who turned out within an hour or two after Leiby went missing to look for him. It may be Brooklyn, NY, but it is a small shtetl in many ways. This isn't supposed to happen. The fact that the accused killer is also an Orthodox Jew, albeit not a Hasid, makes it even worse.

Of course, no one should do this to anyone else. The fact that Leiby was Jewish or Hasidic doesn't make his death any more or less important than that of any other child. But just as it would affect me if it happened on my street more than two miles away, I feel that sense of shock not just that a child was murdered, but that it happened in "our" community. Reading the comments on various blogs around the net, I realize that there is a cultural context to this case that I can't put into words and the commenters clearly don't get. This perpetrator was able to do what he did to this boy precisely because they had a connection and a similar understanding of what their community was like. This didn't just violate the law and human decency, it violated a communal sense of trust. I can't explain it any better than that.

Leiby won't be home for Shabbat tomorrow. In Judaism, we say that the memory of the righteous is for a blessing. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion.

Thanks to frequent Quarterbacker Jim for suggesting that my take on this might be a little different than others and that I should blog about it. I needed the noodge.
Monday, July 11, 2011

PTSD Lower Among UK Vets: What Do They Know That We Don't?

Soldiers from the United States and the United Kingdom are fighting side by side in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are facing the same dangers and experiencing the same amount of death and destruction. You would expect, then, that they would be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at about the same rate. You would be wrong.

Frequent Quarterbacker Brian (better known to some of you as my husband) sends along an article from Miller-McCune that points out that US soldiers experience PTSD at about 7.5 times the rate of UK Soldiers. There are a number of possible explanations for this, not the least of which is that the rate of PTSD in the general US population is much higher than in the UK, which suggests that our soldiers were more traumatized to begin with than theirs. UK troops also serve much shorter tours of duty than do US troops.

The article also alludes to the practice in the British military, which is common outside of the US but unheard of here, called "Third Location Decompression" (TLD). British troops, before they come home, go to Cyprus for 24-36 hours before they come home. They hang out and relax with their unit. It is mandatory.

I did a little digging about TLD, and discovered something important that I think Miller-McCune missed. During TLD, in addition to having barbecue and volleyball and even a limited amount of alcohol, soldiers get 45 minutes of psychoeducation. In other words, for 45 minutes someone explains to them that readjusting to civilian life is going to be difficult, and what they might expect. In addition, soldiers spend their TLD with the same people they served with, giving them some time away from the war zone but still with those with shared experiences to talk about what they went through.

I don't have any way of knowing whether 45 minutes of psychoeducation make all the difference in diminishing the incidence of PTSD among British troops. It seems like it's probably some combination of factors at work. But, as someone who is a big believer in early trauma intervention, introducing the idea that you might have problems and you might need help seems like an obvious positive. I compare this to the stories I've heard from US vets, who were screened for PTSD on the day they returned and told that, if they failed the screening, they couldn't go home (how honest would you be?), I have to imagine the British are getting things right. And besides, who among us couldn't benefit from a day with friends on a tropical island?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Death at a Rangers Game

Thursday night, Shannon Stone, 39, was at the baseball game with his 6 year-old son. The Rangers were playing the A's, and Stone wanted a foul ball. He yelled to Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton that he wanted the next ball. When a foul came Hamilton's way, he turned and tossed it towards Stone in the stands. Stone, a firefighter with the Brownwood Fire Department, reach out to get it and fell out of the stands head first, 14 feet. He was injured but talking and asked rescue workers to check on his son. Then he had a heart attack and died.

If you go to the ABC website, you can see the video of the fall, but not the landing. Stone fell behind a barrier, and was therefore not visible from the field or the stands aside from right near where it happened. The video is horrifying enough if you know how the story ends.

I was pleased to read today that counseling has been offered to the Rangers players and, specifically, to Josh Hamilton. Hamilton asked after Stone after the fall and was told he was awake and talking. He didn't find out that Stone was dead until after the game. Apparently Hamilton is a recovering addict, which will make bouncing back from this event even harder. Unfortunately, when we're under extreme stress we tend to act in our most ingrained and familiar ways. If you're an addict, that addiction is almost as automatic as breathing, and under stress it tends to rear its ugly head.

This is one of those stories that just isn't "supposed" to happen. Taking your kid to the ballgame is about as wholesome as it gets. So immediately, we start looking for someone to blame. If it's someone's fault, then this isn't just a horrible freakish outcome of perfectly reasonable actions on everyone's part. If someone's to blame, somehow the rest of us are safer.

In this case, the Rangers, following a fall by a fan last year, had their railings looked at and pronounced up to code and safe. Hamilton was indulging a fan wanting a ball for his kid, something in other circumstances we would say makes Hamilton a great role model. Stone was doing what fans do, and if you look at the video it doesn't even look like he was reaching unreasonably far to do it. No one did things wrong, and yet this situation is terribly wrong.

Going to the game won't be any more dangerous this weekend than it was last, when I took my own 6 year-old to a game. But boy, it sure feels like it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Policy Change: President to Send Condolences Following Suicides

President Obama announced today that he would change the long-standing practice, in existence at least since the Clinton administration, that the President does not send a letter of condolence to families of servicemen and women who die by suicide, even in a combat zone. Obama will begin to send such letters, just as he does to families of military members who are killed in action. Obama said he was making the change to emphasize that people who need mental health care in the military are not weak and should not be stigmatized.

I first wrote about this issue in November, 2009, when the drive to change the policy was relatively new. Since then, I have begun working with veterans with PTSD directly, and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of what the state of mental health care and stigma is in our armed forces. When I went back to read my thinking from 18 months ago, however, I found that it really hasn't changed much. There were pros and cons then, and there are pros and cons now. So I'm reprinting my original post, below.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I fundamentally believe that deaths by suicide are, without question, service-related and/or combat-related deaths. My ambivalence about this policy comes not out of any desire to stigmatize these families or lessen the importance of the sacrifice, but rather out of my number one priority, which is to prevent as many of these deaths as we can.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Should the President Send Condolences When a Soldier Kills Himself?

If your loved one dies while serving in the United States Military, whether they are killed in action or by accident, you will receive a letter of condolence from the President.  Presidents have been doing this since Abraham Lincoln.  If your loved one serves in the military and kills themselves, however, you will get many of the same things that other families get, but you will not receive a letter from the Commander in Chief.  That has been true at least since the Clinton administration.

There is a push on from some military suicide survivors to change that policy.  They argue that their loved ones died in service of their country, certainly as much as someone who was killed in an accident.  The injuries they suffered were not visible, but they were certainly service related.  Their families deserve the same consideration from the President as anyone else's, and to do so would go a long way towards reducing the shame that has for so long been associated with death by suicide, particularly in the military.

This is one of those issues which, spun the way these families and the press coverage are spinning it, seems pretty clear cut.  Of course being a suicide survivor should not have stigma associated with it.  These families are grieving just as much as any other, and deserve all the support we can give them.

There is a problem, however.  One of the rules of thumb in responding to a suicide and memorializing people who die by suicide is that you in no way want to glorify the act of killing yourself.  When you have grand ceremonies to honor their memory, you run the risk that someone else who is considering suicide will, consciously or unconsciously, view killing themselves as a means to get that kind of attention for themselves and their families.  This is probably more of an issue with teenagers, who aren't fully able to appreciate the consequences of any action because their brains are not yet fully developed, but it remains an issue for others, too.

I don't know that I have a good answer for this.  On the one hand, families who are survivors of military suicides should not be treated with any kind of stigma.  They deserve our honor and support in a very, very difficult and complicated time.  On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that even what is already done for these families --  receiving a folded flag, a 21 gun salute at the funeral -- let alone a letter from the President might look pretty appealing to a soldier considering suicide.  They might think that in death they can bring honor to their family that they feel they could not bring in life. 

Taking away the stigma associated with suicide in the military may well save lives by making soldiers more willing to seek help.  The question is, by honoring grieving families properly, how many lives will we lose?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Murder of Larry King Finally Goes to Trial

Murder Victim Larry King
 We tend to pay attention to news stories that resonate with us in some personal way. You've heard me say that before. We follow them because we want to understand how something happened to someone else and whether it could happen to us, or to convince ourselves that it couldn't happen to us. Someone just like us winning the lottery gives us hope. Someone just like us being the victim of a crime scares us. We are them, and they are us.

Today in California, a trial will begin in a case that resonates with me on many levels.

Here's what everyone agrees on:  Larry King was 15 years old and living in a shelter in Oxnard, California. He was openly gay, and sometimes wore nail polish and what most would call "girls' clothes." In February, 2008, he was sitting in his classroom when an 8th grade classmate, aged 14, walked in, sat down behind him, took out a handgun and shot him twice, killing him, before getting up and walking out of the room. The only question in this trial was whether this was a premeditated anti-gay hate crime or a crime of passion, carried out by a kid who didn't know what to do about his "humiliation" that Larry King had said repeatedly he was attracted to him.

I think this defense, used in hopes of getting the shooter convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, is horrifying. What if the victim in this case was female, and had expressed attraction for a boy. Would we actually even entertain this as a mitigating factor which "caused" the boy to kill her? Would we allow the news coverage to refer to this as the shooter being "provoked?" The fact that a lawyer is even willing to try this defense strategy speaks volumes about the amount of prejudice that exists against people who are anything other than 100% certified heterosexual in our society.

I feel so strongly because I worked in schools for almost 20 years. I know something that the defense and the shooter apparently missed, which is that 15 year-old gay kids with flamboyant clothes and crushes on people of the same sex are, first and foremost, 15 year-old kids. They, like all kids that age, are doing the best they can figuring out what it means to be them in this world. Being 15 is hard enough without throwing being gay, and everyone's reactions to it, in there. For Larry King, throwing that in there got him kicked out of his house -- that's why he was living in a shelter.

I am the mother of a kid going into 8th grade next fall, so a piece of my reaction is also about my hopes and fears for my own children. I have a great deal of confidence that my child would not murder a classmate for any reason, and certainly not for their sexual orientation. I like to imagine that nothing about her would push another child's buttons so hard they felt justified in killing her. But that part's not as clear. I know my child and I know she has generally competent parents. I don't know other families nearly as well.

Apparently there are families out there, like the shooter in this case, who are exposing their children to drugs and violence day after day. There are kids, like this shooter, who are enamoured of white-supremacist teachings, have access to handguns, and find certain groups, or at least their behavior, so awful that they don't believe their members deserve to live. This doesn't make me feel better about the safety of my nice Jewish girl.

Larry King and his killer did not exist in a vacuum. Someone -- an adult or a child -- knew there was trouble. They probably thought it wasn't a big deal. Maybe they thought Larry brought it on himself.

It's been three years since Larry King was murdered. One thing I know for sure is that today, more than one parent is going to hear their kid or one of their kids' friends talk trash about the "f****t" they know, and how they want to "kick his a**." How many of those parents are going to step in and say we don't talk about other human beings that way, and how many are going to decide that kids are kids, and besides that kid they're talking about is a little fruity and probably deserves it? How many more Larry Kings are going to die, by murder or suicide, before we decide that maybe the problem isn't them, their clothes, their nail polish, or who they have a crush on? We have met the problem, and it is us.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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