Monday, May 7, 2007

Nineteen Minutes

I started reading Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes last night and although I only meant to read for a few minutes and go to sleep, I didn’t put it down until I was about 150 pages in. I’d never read a Jodi Picoult novel before and figured I’d start with this one. So far, so good. She’s done an excellent job building the main characters, so I feel I know them and she’s gotten me up to and just beyond the shooting.

Jodi Picoult’s website lists a timeline of worldwide school shootings beginning in 1996 and leading up to the Virginia Tech shootings and in that short period, there have been 48 of them. Countless books and articles have been written about the phenomenon, but I feel we are no closer to understanding, predicting or preventing school shootings than we ever have been.

My son was a senior in high school in Colorado Springs in April of 1999 when the Columbine shootings occurred. Josh was a good kid, but long before the shootings I routinely went through his room when he was out, looking for signs of anything that might indicate a problem. We got along well and he didn’t exhibit any behavior that would indicate he was doing anything wrong, but I felt my responsibility to protect him trumped his right to privacy. I had my eyes peeled for anything that might indicate he was into drugs, alcohol or sex. Those were the things I figured were the likeliest to get him into trouble and I was ready to deal with any of them if they’d turned up.

Fortunately, I never found anything worse than a collection of soda cans, candy wrappers and dirty socks under his bed with the occasional print out of some garden variety porn under the mattress. This, I chose to ignore. It was pretty tame and since he hadn’t run the printer cartridge out of ink with repeated use, I figured I’d save us both the embarrassment.

When Columbine happened, we, like the rest of the world were stunned. Like every kid brought up in the era of cable TV and video games, Josh spent most the time when he was at home in his room. He wasn’t brooding. He was usually on the phone, doing homework, watching TV or playing games. Back then, I was still better on a computer than he was, so it was pretty easy to track his activity, and I did. We talked to him about how things were going at school and the answer was always the same. Things were fine. Does any teenage kid really have a different response?

We talked for a long time when he got home from school on April 20, 1999. We asked him if he was picked on at all and he just laughed and swore he wasn’t. He had friends and a social life, was involved in sports and although he was always a little heavy, he didn’t seem to have any problem with girls. We asked him about the other kids. Did he ever pick on anyone? Were there kids that he could imagine might lose it and do something like the kids at Columbine? Josh said he never picked on anyone and in our hearts, we knew it to be true. Josh had always been very compassionate with others. He said there was a group of Goth kids at school that called themselves “the people under the stairs.” People didn’t really pick on them, but they were weird and they tended to isolate themselves. He said he couldn’t imagine even those kids doing anything that crazy. We made him promise to tell a teacher and us if he ever suspected anybody at school was having serious problems and and we made him promise to step in and stop it if he saw anyone picking on another kid. He was a senior and he could do that. Fortunately, there was only another month of school left.

I read everything I could find about the two Columbine shooters. They’d been in trouble for breaking and entering into a van more than a year before, but that didn't seem too alarming by itself. It didn’t make sense that they built the pipe bombs in one of their garages. How did no one notice that? They had a radical website with threats published that would have been a red flag to any adult who saw it. They came from upper middle class, two parent homes and there were a lot of students who fit the outcast role far better than either of these two. One of them had been through anger management therapy and was on anti-depressants. They seemed more motivated to be famous, “bigger than Timothy McVeigh” as opposed to truly seeking revenge on their oppressors. Based on the creation of videotapes before his crime, the Virginia Tech murderer also seemed more intent on notoriety than revenge.

So I keep asking myself, why has this phenomenon become so prevalent over the last decade? Are guns really much more available than they ever were? In this era of reality TV, has the desire to be famous become so overwhelming that it can and does push an unstable kid over the edge and into mass murder and suicide? Are kids with emotional issues going undiagnosed and untreated? Has the overexposure to violent images in movies, television and video games somehow made it unreal? What about books about terrorism, suicide and murder? Music with violent lyrics?

All of these things and combinations of them have been blamed many times. The only thing I keep coming back to in my mind is that with all of these kids, there were signs and there were threats that people knew about.

The Columbine kids had access to guns at home, but the ones they used were obtained illegally, so changes in gun laws wouldn’t have mattered in that case. Violent imagery in music, videos and games? I personally don’t like it and I think it must numb kids to sex and violence to a degree, but I don’t believe it can drive an otherwise well adjusted kid to violence and murder. Books? No, I don’t believe they have the power to alter a kid’s otherwise healthy psyche either.

I’m not a mental health expert, but I understand a little about adolescent isolation, depression and suicidal tendencies. We live in a world that’s full of far more activities than it’s ever been. Between two career households, after school activities, kids rooms outfitted like private apartments and kids (and adults) spending far more time communicating with strangers on the internet than with the real people in their own homes, I can understand how a kid with problems can start down a dangerous path and not come back.

If I had to flash back to pre-Columbine 1999 and my son was back in school here’s what I’d do:

  1. Make time every single day to sit down and talk with him, even if he didn’t want to, even if it meant to dropping the inclination to nag him about grades or cleaning his room. When he lived at home, we always sat down to dinner together and that was always a good time to gauge things. If we were in a phase where we absolutely couldn’t talk without fighting (this happened for a couple of months when he turned 15), I’d connect him with a trusted relative or close friend he could talk with to make sure I was getting a true sense of what was going on in his life.
  2. I’d invade his privacy and especially his computer activities all over again.
  3. I would talk to him about depression and anxiety and all the typical mental illnesses that are so common in our culture so he would understand they are treatable and nothing to be ashamed of.
  4. I would not have any firearms in the house. Even kids raised with gun safety and education are a bundle of emotions and hormones and those kids have friends that will come over whether you’re home or not. Why tempt fate?

There is a final possibility about these kids that I hesitate to mention, but I will. Some people, including kids are sociopaths. Just as a child subject to unspeakable abuse can come through it and grow up to be a well adjusted adult, a child given the best chances in life can sometimes be dangerous and destructive. I don't know that there is anything beyond vigilance and attempting treatment that can be done.

I am clearly no expert and my parenting experience is limited. I would like to hear what you think can be done to try to deal with this terrifying problem. I expect a lot of people will disagree my ideas and opinions and I hope you do. Maybe you believe the media has a much greater impact than I do, maybe you believe a teenager has a right to privacy or that firearms shouldn’t be removed from the house or that they should be banned entirely.

What are your thoughts?


huntd said...

I am pessimistic. Parents and teens are more removed from each other and the vampish TV has been added as a slice in the pie of childrearing. Your approach, digging in and working harder at the issues , reduces the likelihood of aberrant behavoir, but its your slice that is shrinking! Some environmental changes are working to increase the probablility of more catastrophic occurences; 1. the center for acceptable behavior has slid, 2. our increasing population reduces closeness and 3. More adults abdicate their responsibility to authority, (school, church, gov't., TV)
As times change, events like Columbine show America changing with them; from shock and dispair to fascination. 31 people were killed at Virgina Tech. Wow! Only 12 were killed at Columbine.

Lisa said...

I'm momentarily speechless. It's going to sound crazy that I chose to post on this subject when I tell you I didn't know that 31 students were killed at Virginia Tech. Reading Nineteen Minutes brought me back to Columbine, but when the Virginia Tech shooting happened, I didn't want to watch any of the coverage and I didn't want read about it, beyond what I couldn't avoid in the headlines. I just knew that it had happened again. I asked the wrong question, and now I don't even know what the right question is.

Maia said...

Interesting post, Lisa. I'm the parent of a fourteen year old girl, and let me tell you, it takes a village to raise that child. She has all sorts of different women/men talking to her about what life's about. I have looked in her room, but I don't go through her things. That may come back to haunt me, but I think she should have her privacy. If she gave me reason to think she may be in danger, I would. Maybe I'm in denial. I do eavesdrop on phone conversations, though, so I'm obviously a hypocrite.

In Canada we aren't as big on guns as people in the States, so that whole thing isn't as much of an issue here. I'm definitely for not having them in the house. You're right, why tempt fate?

This is a timely subject. I'm going to blog tomorrow on two newspaper articles I came across this morning, on meditation and self-empowerment courses that are soon going to be available in schools. Both Goldie Hawn and David Lynch (the director) are sponsoring the programs.

I think our kids are affected by negative social, parental, educational, dogmatic religious mores which rape their individuality. It's time to nurture what every child is born with, not strip it away.

Patry Francis said...

I agree with you. With my four kids, I always made it my business to know what they were doing, and when something didn't feel right, I confronted it head-on. Maybe too much so, but that's my style.

(You probably knew that anyway, right?)

Lisa said...


I definitely look forward to your post tomorrow and I couldn’t agree with you more that:

“…our kids are affected by negative social, parental, educational, dogmatic religious mores which rape their individuality. It's time to nurture what every child is born with, not strip it away.”

Hey, I don’t think anything you do to try to protect your child is hypocritical. Whether you go through her things or not or I went through my son’s room or not, it’s a judgment call that we do the best we can. I rationalized my decision to look for signs he might be in trouble but I also recognized I was betraying a trust by doing so and could have easily gone the other way. Who knows? There were a whole lot of things I did as a teenager that I definitely didn’t want my kid doing. I hitchhiked for God’s sake!

Maybe we haven’t embraced the concept of “it takes a village” enough. We do it for our own kids, but what about the rest of them? We all encourage our kids to be confident individuals and we tell them they can do anything they set their minds to and we pour all the love and resources and support their way that we can drum up and hope for the best. I’m not sure we spend much time at all teaching them compassion and a sense of responsibility for other people. As parents we discourage friendships either subtly or outwardly with kids who seem reckless, dangerous or inscrutable in some way. I did it with a kid Josh hung around with in junior high. Both of the kid’s parents were cops and they worked nights and left him to his own devices. When trouble started, maybe I should have encouraged my kid to bring that one into my home so he had something more than an empty house and an active imagination to keep him busy at night. Every once in a while I’d ask Josh what happened to “Brian” and he continued to get into more and more trouble throughout high school. Maybe the tendency for kids to treat other kids as outcasts is something we’re actively, but unconsciously fostering, with only good intent for our kids. Denis’s comments prior to yours tie right into this. People who abdicate their responsibility for child rearing to real or perceived authority aren’t commenting on or thinking about these things (I don’t think). Concerned parents are all in violent agreement that we need to be paying attention and provide as many loving support systems as we can to give our kids the best possible shot at being decent people. Are the neglected kids our society’s human sacrifices, and a danger to others? It’s like an aggressive rescue dog about to be euthanized. Everyone agrees that it’s a tragedy the dog was mistreated and became dangerous, but there aren’t too many people (myself included), who want to take something like that on.

I’ve also always been intrigued as to why Canadians and Americans share so much. We have a common geography, language and to some degree culture, but you’re right. You don’t have the kind of big problems we have. Why is that? Maybe my good friend Nicole – Canadian now living here in Denver might have some thoughts too…I take it back…I KNOW she has thoughts on this and I hope she’ll share them.

Patry, so glad to hear from you! You’re right. I our approach to parenting does ultimately come down to a matter of personal style, so you didn’t surprise me 

Greg said...

Whats up Lee-Press-On-Nails! Good lord you're goin' deep with these blogs. Pouring blue paint on collars, traumatic childhood experiences, and school-shootings. Where's all the summer sunshine?

Lisa said...

Greg! You are absolutely right. The next post is nothing but sunshine and moonbeams...for you :-)

The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, I'm with you & Patry. Communication and the willingness to see our children as humans with all the foibles that go with that will -- hopefully -- keep them safe. The teen years are ones fraught with mistakes, doubt, depression, and it's my job as the mother to make sure I do everything within my power to support and, at times, curb my children. Lots to think about here.


Maia said...


This is an interesting discussion. I know I said I would post about this today on my own blog, but after five hours of sleep (I couldn't put down Cormac McCarthy's The Road last night) and planning to spend the entire day today transcribing notes for my new WIP, I won't be able to blog. Stay tuned, though. I'd like to delve into what's really going on with kids these days and welcome your input.

Nic said...

Canada has the same problems the U.S. has - but we have a tenth of the population. It's all a matter of numbers. Canada has disaffected youth, drugs, illegal guns flooding the streets, school shootings, skyrocketing divorce rates, home invasions, elder & child abuse, rampant materialism -- all the fun stuff any other wealthy country has.

Perhaps it seems less so there because the American media doesn't give two hoots about what goes on up there and rarely reports anything to do with Canada. *shrug* I don't know.

The Canadian national character is different than the U.S's - that may account for some intangibles. But really, I think it's just a matter of population numbers.

Larramie said...

Granted I'm not a parent, but my personal and professional background -- counselor/sociologist/researcher -- tells me of the need to return to R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That includes self-respect and respect for others.

Children are being allowed to "grow up" too soon and they're not any further emotionally advanced than we were at that age. So why don't adults take back contol (beginning at birth) and teach children values while letting them enjoy all stages of their youth and adolescence?

Lisa said...

Amy, I'm with you, but it's amazing how often we're afraid to talk to kids. A kid who knows he or she can talk to mom or dad about anything without fear of judgment or reprisal - sex, drugs, drinking, depression - is a lucky kid.

Maia, I know the post will be worth the wait. Cormac McCarthy was also responsible for some of my recent sleep deprivation. Curious what you think. I thought the writing was beautiful, but I was filled with a nagging sense of dread throughout the story, waiting for the inevitable to happen.

Nicole, Thanks for weighing in. I can't say misery loves company, but what you say makes sense...I do think there is something to the difference between the US and Canada regarding national character though.

Lisa said...

Larramie, Yes! It's amazing how much things have changed. I've always suspected a couple of causes for that. My parenting experience is limited to being a custodial parent for my stepson from the time he was 11. I was always inclined to do too much for him and give him too much, in part because I was a latchkey kid and we just never had anything and I think because in two parent working homes, we feel guilty for not being there. I think a lot of people compensate for that by letting kids get away with too much. It's hard to see where anybody can actually think that raising self-centered kids is doing them any favors. Respect and compassion for other people would go a long way toward making the world a much better place.

Therese said...

I have to agree that some humans are just born troubled and even the best of upbringings makes little difference.

This is the position Lionel Shriver takes in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, which I'm reading and contrasting with NINETEEN MINUTES.

Which is not to say intervention isn't is, and I suspect many tragedies have been averted because of it.

My parenting (I have two teen sons and two pre-teen stepsons) takes the approach that everything in my kids' lives is my business. I don't pry, though; rather, I take an interest in their thoughts and encourage them to talk about whatever is going on, good and bad.

I'm firm with discipline, but always strive to be fair. The results have been really good so far. My kids are kind, generous, well-behaved young men who don't do any of the garbage I did as a teen! I'm sure they get away with an occasional lie, and in fact sometimes I let them just because I think they ought to have a few (innocuous) "secrets" from their parents.

I am grateful that none of them are sociopaths, and none of them are out-and-out misfits, because who can say what my parenting would have been like then? How effective would my strategies be?

Leslie said...

Wow - this is a difficult and complex subject. I don't have children of my own, but I certainly have concerns for my niece and nephews, cousins, and other children and young adults in my life - and what they might be doing or facing that they hide from their parents. I can't imagine being a teenager now - or the parent of one. I have enormous respect for parents that are able to raise their children with all the right balance that creates healthy, responsible adults against what seem to be difficult odds in this world.
There are so many (controversial) issues at hand - guns, violence, the media, depression/mental illness, privacy, child-rearing, education, social responsibility and so much more - a lot of questions and no clear 'answers'...

Lisa said...

Therese, you're wrangling a much bigger crowd, but I think our philosophies are similar. The only thing I ever really demanded was respect and courtesy. I confess the epiphany that made the more contentious years easier was consciously deciding to let some things slide. I figured if I nit-picked, we'd be fighting day and night and after all, there was only so much time to enjoy each other. My step-son's father and I divorced several years ago, but he and I maintain a very close relationship and I'm grandmother (gasp) to his children.

Sociopaths...The Mask of Sanity appears to be the authoritative book on this subject and I think the consensus is that sociopaths, much like narcissists have a personality disorder with no known treatment or cure. Fortunately for society, not all become criminals and some of them apparently make great attorneys and venture capitalists. ;-)

Lisa said...

Leslie, you are a very important part of the Village! Kids need every understanding ear and sometimes confidantes. You get to be the "cool aunt"

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