Reflections on Newtown: My Stepbrother and Gun Violence

Thursday, December 27, 2012

In the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I’ve been thinking more and more about my stepbrother, who has been homeless for more than twenty years and now lives under a bridge in a large Western city.

My stepbrother’s diagnosis seems to vary with the doctor and the latest edition of the DSM: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Asperger’s. What I know is that anti-psychotic drugs don’t work well with him, and that he cannot stay indoors.

At times his rage against the world is so huge and pure it frightens me. Under the wrong circumstances, he is fully capable of taking a large chunk of wood and hitting you across the face with it, and he has a long arrest record for assault. But he has never been involved in gun violence--we are not a gun family, and I don't think that he would ever take part in an event as devastating as what happened in Newtown. The question is, “How can you know ahead of time?”

The NRA believes it knows the answer, and is calling for a national list of the mentally ill. I like the idea about as much as I like school principals with pistols. We are a country with a long, inglorious history of list-making. Lists of Communists, labor union organizers, social activists, war dissenters, homosexuals, Muslims and terrorists, and the so-called criminally inclined.

Ironically, the shooter of 26 children and adults in Newtown most likely would not have made the NRA’s list, while my stepbrother would. But Adam Lanza did not need to buy his weapons legally, he found them easily available in his home.

My stepbrother himself hates guns and told me recently he wouldn’t carry one, even though, living as he does, he is much more vulnerable to assault than the average citizen.

If any lesson can be taken from the Newtown catastrophe, besides the need for gun control, I hope it will be an increased national concern about how we treat, diagnose and understand the mentally ill.

As for my stepbrother, I believe that he and others would come in from the cold if a suitable environment could be fashioned for them. But for a country desperately seeking relief from gun violence, making lists of the mentally ill is not the answer.

Peter von Ziegesar is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker. His memoir of dealing with a schizophrenic family member, "The Looking Glass Brother," is due out in June, 2013.

He is one of five writers commissioned by WNYC to write essays on the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.


Gisele Regatao


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Comments [6]

Sharon from Oakland, Caliofornia

Mental illness is not easy to generalize; in California Reagan closed mental hospitals to all but the most "severe." There is still a need to confine out-of-control citizens who appear to have a mental issue, but ER beds for confinement are steadily declining -- too expensive. My experience as a family member tells me that it is possible to hospitalize someone and get them into treatment, even if it is "just" drugs, to achieve a possible connection with a health-care professional who sparks a tiny bit of motivation for treatment. My situation has improved remarkably with a diagnosed person who finally landed on an effective drug and regular visits to Kaiser in California. NAMI helped a lot with getting earned disability payments from social security, and family support helped, too. However, as my family doctor said, "it's going to be expensive."

Jan. 02 2013 02:21 PM
Randy Weinstein from New York city

Mental health profiling is completely impractical. Psychometrics are too crude and lack the predictive power to be effective. Also, how would you go about administering this test? How do you handle the case of someone who just suddenly loses it? This kind of nonsense is clearly just a diversionary tactic to put off a discussion of sensible firearms regulations.

Dec. 29 2012 03:32 PM
CF from Brooklyn, NY

Most people, including those who are mentally ill, have the capacity to be violent. It takes differing circumstances for that violence to be triggered. It would seem that for those that are least prone to violence, that trigger might be extreme violence towards him/her self or a loved one. To the most violent, even the smallest of slights could provoke violence. To the mentally ill, perhaps any real or imagined threat could be the trigger.

Those same people, from the least violent to the most violent to the mentally ill can also be sweet, considate and non-violent.

The problem in the United States is that if and when that violent moment comes, guns are too easily available and gun violence too easily fatal.

Since everyone can be violent, we need a list that includes everyone. And everyone on the list should be prohibited from purchasing a gun.

Dec. 28 2012 09:59 PM
Elizabeth from New Jersey

I have a mentally ill sister (paranoid schizophrenic) who is violent and has damaged the property of strangers she thinks are stalking her. I wish we could get her committed involuntarily to a hospital but we can't because she's only ever damaged property (she likes to bash in car windshields with a baseball bat) but never injured anyone bodily. I feel so sorry for the police force and the community that has to tolerate her destruction.

However, mental illness is not what leads to gun violence. Guns lead to gun violence.

Dec. 28 2012 04:03 PM
James Syme from Southeast, Arizona

Thanks Peter. I know on a personal level your brother hates guns and violence because of his reaction to a movie I took him to back in 1999 in NYC. There were a lot of shootings and car chases in the film. When we came out of the theater he looked shaken. I asked how he liked the movie, he said he didn't like it, too much violence. Another time when I was taking him from Colorado to Idaho we hit a bird while driving, numerous birds were leaping into the road as they took flight, I kept driving and Peter couldn't understand why I didn't stop to place the bird beside the road, his behavior was revealing, a side of him I had never seen. I know he can be violent, I also know there is a human being inside his head we just need to find a way to let it out..

Dec. 28 2012 11:14 AM

Great article. Thank you. I also have a family member who suffers mental illness and I do not want them vilified. I firmly believe the extreme lack of gun regulation is the biggest problem.

Dec. 28 2012 10:28 AM

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