What is it like to be faced with the realization that your son stands accused of killing 12 people and wounding 60?
"They are doing as well as they can under the circumstances" said Lisa Damiani, the attorney speaking for the family of James Holmes, the alleged Aurora, CO gunman.
How well could that possibly be?
There are a few parents who can answer that question. One is Susan Klebold, mother of Dylan, one of the two teens who opened fire on classmates at Columbine. In November of 2009, more than ten years after the massacre, she wrote about her experience in an essay for O Magazine titled "I Will Never Know Why."
Those of us who cared for Dylan felt responsible for his death. We thought, "If I had been a better (mother, father, brother, friend, aunt, uncle, cousin), I would have known this was coming." We perceived his actions to be our failure. I tried to identify a pivotal event in his upbringing that could account for his anger. Had I been too strict? Not strict enough? Had I pushed too hard, or not hard enough? In the days before he died, I had hugged him and told him how much I loved him. I held his scratchy face between my palms and told him that he was a wonderful person and that I was proud of him. Had he felt pressured by this? Did he feel that he could not live up to my expectations?
But while there are (thank God) few parents who have watched their children branded as serial killers, there are (tragically) too many who can identify with another kind of parenting hell -- watching your child spiral toward insanity.
It is not clear whether psychiatrists will determine that Holmes was in the grip of mental illness when he fired into the crowd at the cinema after midnight on Friday, but watching him dazed and apparently strongly medicated at his initial hearing, it certainly seems likely. And it is a descent that is familiar to Randi Davenport, author of "The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes" about her 15-year-old son's state of unremitting psychosis.
In an essay for HuffPost Parents she gives a glimpse of that nightmare through a parent's eyes.
When my son went crazy, he stalked the halls of the hospital and fired lasers from his eyes. He thrashed in the arms of orderlies whenever anyone came on the unit. He believed that the parents who visited their sick children were FBI profilers, executioners, murderers. When he saw me, he screamed that I was an imposter. He stood at the window and scanned the driveways for white vans, convinced they were filled with shooters who were coming to kill him...
If he'd been able to put his hands on a gun, I have no doubt that he would have turned it on someone, if only so he could protect himself.
There will be a lot of talk over the coming months of how James Holmes became who we saw today -- the red haired young man sitting slumped and shackled in a courtroom, looking demonic and pathetic and the same time. There will be those who will wonder, as they did about the Klebolds -- as Susan Klebold did about herself -- if this is his parents' fault. Surely a loved child, from a nurturing home, could not turn out this way.
And there will be those who know otherwise. Who understand first hand that any child can descend into darkness, as surely as they can be gripped by cancer, or felled by a random bullet.
My heart goes out to all the families broken by this tragedy.
There but for the grace of God, genetics, misfiring neurons, and random happenstance, go all of us.