On Liza Long’s “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” Hanna Rosin’s critique, child privacy, and the one-sided nature of “going viral”

On one hand, I appreciated the testimony of Liza Long’s “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” as it was great to see people strongly consider the ways our society addresses mental illness. I occasionally “liked” the link when I saw it posted, but I waited to post it myself because something about the piece irked me. Long was sharing a series of experiences that were deeply personal, upsetting, and terrifying, and this seemed like a brave act, but what would be the implications for her son?

In her Slate piece “Don’t Compare Your Son to Adam Lanza,” Hanna Rosin, author of the much talked about The End of Men, puts into question Long’s decision to offer this description of her son when he is, by association with her, so easily identifiable. Rosin also looks at Long’s essay in the context of the blogger’s other writing. I shared it on Facebook, and I found that there were certainly others who felt similarly irked by Long’s blog post, but also many who felt as though Rosin had gone too far, and that it was “easy and entertaining” to be critical of a single mother who appeared to be at the end of her rope. Confession is an important and cathartic act, some pointed out, and that this story is helping to spread the word about a serious issue that must be addressed.

I agreed with much of what Rosin offered and I found sharing it essential, especially considering the implications of the one-dimensional manner in which viral posts are digested. Because of how information is delivered on the Internet, most popular writing is shared by way of its “virality” and so there is increasingly little room for visibility of critique or interpretations. Either an Internet consumer has read something, or they haven’t. There is very little by way of, “I read that, but I appreciated so-and-so’s take on this particular element,” and very lithe room for a point-counterpoint. For an aggressively participatory medium, the Internet still remains relatively broadcast oriented with regard to content.

Due to this, I had not seen much by way of negative or critical interpretations of Long’s essay. All that I had seen was gushingly receptive praise and very little in the way of suggesting otherwise. While I agree that confession is cathartic and important, there are incredibly important issues about child privacy that had been overlooked in the initial offering, particularly with regard to stories that have the potential, as this one did, of going viral. And these are important issues to consider for folks who are considering offering up their own intimate life details.

One person suggested that we should “embrace [Long's] fearlessness and work to help mothers and fathers of these deeply challenged kids find and secure proper, dependable care so in the future, every life can be protected from the threat so many of them present to themselves, their family, and in the worst cases, society at large.” For the most part I agree, though this doesn’t mean we should not question the methods of how we convey this information, and who we potentially put in harm’s way by doing it, or that we should not put the message being circulated into the context of the author’s overall body of work, all of which Rosin has done in this particular critique. And for these reasons, I appreciate her offering, as well as the offering of someone who left a comment in her piece, validating Rosin’s concerns:

“I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life, and was very troubled in my late teens and early twenties. If my mother had written a blog post about how I was a future sociopathic con man (she wouldn’t have said I was a future murderer, as I wasn’t violent, but I was a manipulative liar and a user of people) and included a picture of me, I would have considered it to be the ultimate betrayal and I never would have talked to her again. But she always acted in my best interest, not those of her readers, and now I’m for the most part a well-adjusted person, though not one without difficulties in his life due to illness.”

Enabling a dialogue that needs to be had is important, of course, but when there are potential repercussions to the characters in that dialogue, that is also worth careful consideration. Is this the price we pay in order to have this conversation that we all very much agree needs to happen? Perhaps it is, I still don’t know. In order to find out, we must constantly be critical of our methods.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.