Parents of killers lose a child too
A mother struggles with guilt and grief: Her teenage son murdered his therapist and got 50 years in prison. She'd taken him to Alcoholics Anonymous and a psychiatrist but still feels responsible.
December 15, 2008
In the memories of parents, their sons never grow old.
They remain forever in the romp of youth, as bright as a summer day, as free as a forest breeze. The poet Dylan Thomas called them "wild boys innocent as strawberries."
Fathers and mothers see them as the unformed future: boys growing up, going off to college, beginning a career, marrying and raising sons of their own.
They are the bright dreams of their progenitors, endowed with the same connections that drove their parents to succeed, to elevate the human spirit, to make their marks in the world as a generation of achievers.
We rarely anticipate that our kids will become killers.
A woman I'll call Caroline knew that her son Billy was troubled. An only child, he had been the sweetest and most cooperative of boys. But it all changed in his teens. He began hanging out with a troublemaking crowd, refused to go to school and eventually began using drugs and alcohol.
Caroline was stunned by the transition. "I knew this happened to others," she said in deep distress, "but not to people like him. Not to people like me."
In her long career as an educator, Caroline had cared deeply about the children in her charge and wonders now if she hadn't cared enough about Billy.
"My life story has become a sad contradiction," she wrote in an e-mail introducing herself, "filled with efforts to positively intervene in the lives of other young children and failing as a parent."
Her response to Billy's conduct proved otherwise. When one day he came to her and said, "Mom, something's wrong with me," she sought counseling, changed schools and began driving him to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.When his father died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, Billy's feelings of alienation intensified. His mother couldn't alter that feeling, nor could a psychiatrist whose specialty was bipolar disorders. While under the psychiatrist's care, Billy attempted to kill himself. He was hearing voices in his head and tried to silence them with an overdose of drugs.
In the paranoia of his eroding mental condition, he began to suspect that a therapist, Gerald, was talking about him behind his back. He retreated almost completely into himself and talked about "being dead." The deadness deepened.
Then, as Caroline wrote to me, "the tragic event took place."
Haunted by the voices and the feeling that Gerald was mocking him, Billy purchased a handgun, drove to the therapist's office and shot him dead. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in state prison.
Caroline never abandoned her son. She endured the nightmare of what he had done and was with him every day of his ordeal in court, "a grieving mother who couldn't save her own child." She visited him, by her own count, 108 times while he was in Los Angeles County Jail.
Her last visit to the facility was after Billy had been sent to state prison to serve his sentence. She had gone to the county jail to pick up personal items that included the clothes he wore when he murdered Gerald. She found herself among families in similar circumstances and saw in their eyes "the same sadness that they saw in mine." She described the scene as "a community of mourners."
Caroline wrote to me as a way of dealing with her intense feelings of guilt. So burdened, she asked that real names not be used and that certain details of the situation be disguised. She feels as though she has somehow betrayed her son. Why else would he grow from a sweet, ordinary kid into a mentally sick man with homicidal tendencies? Why would he kill someone he had once respected? Why would he kill anyone
I sat once for an interview with a group of mothers whose children had been murdered. They asked similar questions: Why would anyone take the life of their baby? Why would a person take anyone's
In Caroline's grief I saw their grief, the mothers of killers and victims joined in a mutuality of sorrow that taunts them with guilt and memory. The sons they knew are gone, either dead or in prison, and the emptiness is pervasive.
Caroline has apologized to Gerald's family and may never stop feeling responsible for Billy's crime. Her guilt reflects a deeper conviction that we somehow fashion our kids to be what they are. No one will ever convince her that the boys of summer, innocent as strawberries, could ever go bad on their own. "