I am angry.
Lately the news has been filled with awful stories of child abuse, neglect, abduction, a videotape of a mother beating her child. There was the story of a Pennsylvania teenager allegedly sent away by his family and starved, and another about an 11-year-old boy who said his parents forced him to sell drugs.
It was on this last one that I received a telephone call from a local news station asking whether I would consent to an interview for their story. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked. They wanted me to explain the psychological impact of selling drugs on this 11-year-old. I told them they did not need a psychologist to tell them that – anyone could explain that, and I declined.
That’s when I got angry.
I know how these stories go: Understanding mental health professional talks about horrible things these parents may have done to this child… he explains that the boy could be scarred for life because those he trusted put him in harm’s way… in the background, pictures of this child alternate with footage of his parents being booked… invoking viewers’ feelings of kindness for the boy and hatred for his evil parents, perhaps wishing for them a quick and long imprisonment, or worse.
Watching this story, we first feel outraged and indignant. Eventually, we see that justice will be served. We feel relief.
Don’t get me wrong; if accurate, this is a horrible story. Yes, this poor child may well be scarred (although most kids, in the proper environment, show remarkable resilience). What his parents allegedly did was horrible and such behavior probably would deserve a swift and severe punishment.
But that’s the TV story – not the whole story. The whole story did not begin with this supposed episode of child abuse and would not end with a prison term.
The whole story – my story – begins with the question: “Who are these people?” I have never met a person who said that when they grow up they want to have children so they can have someone to beat, neglect or force to sell drugs. Nobody I have treated enjoys being a drug addict or having no control over violent impulses. Dare we look at these people? Whether they are in prison or not, dare we look in their eyes, open ours and listen to their story? We have all seen their dark sides, but dare we see their humanity as well?
So here is the whole of my story. It is not based on the specific people in the news. It is based on hundreds of people I have met and interviewed, worked with and listened to, all of whom have done terrible things to someone.
Most were once children who grew up in homes that were unstable – even dangerous. Children who usually were raised by one parent who was deprived, depleted, confused and often addicted to drugs. Many of these children are left to raise themselves, pretending to be strong and competent. Usually they are neither.
These are children who feel scared, lonely, and two steps behind everyone else. They are children who feel scared, lonely and alienated, feelings that fester and eventually give birth to desperation or hopelessness. To compound matters, frequently these are children who inherit some unhealthy genes that put them at risk for impulse disorders, depression, violence or substance abuse. Many of these children are born addicted, which has them beginning life with two strikes.
Poet Franklin Abbott once wrote: “As sure as a flower is drawn to the sun, it is the entropy of the human spirit to seek wholeness.” And that’s what the vast majority of these children are doing – pursuing life. Some are so desperate for love or security that they do terrible things to find it. Those children who feel out of control may do anything to find a semblance of control in their lives – including using drugs or acting out violently.
And because of the world in which we live, most of these children grow up without getting the help they need. Still feeling alone, desperate, out of control or just empty.
And what do they do? They do what the rest of us do. They look for a partner to make them feel whole. It fails. And inevitably, things get worse. These children simply turn into disturbed people making disturbed decisions with disturbing consequences.
People who feel alienated, desperate and hopeless give birth to children who eventually feel the same. In the wake of this cycle, people get addicted, wounded, arrested and sometimes murdered.
My story continues beyond the prison sentence. In my story, they do get punished. But our involvement in their lives does not end with their release. In this community, we look beyond horrible behavior with horrible consequences, and we look in the eyes of both parents and children. And we keep looking until we see their hearts, their alienation and suffering.
And then? Once we realize that this is a story of human suffering, not good and evil, then we realize that this story is repeated in thousands of homes in Philadelphia alone. (And quite a few in the suburbs as well.)
In my story, we go beyond pointing fingers at parents and social-service agencies, and we begin to volunteer. In my story, the Department of Human Services is flooded with people who want to do whatever they can to help these thousands of children and their parents before someone else gets hurt.
Anyway, that’s my story. It’s not as clear as the news story. Nor does it conclude with a sense of justice. It leaves us feeling a little overwhelmed, frustrated and helpless. Don’t worry, though, the next time this happens, you will again see the same story. And when you do, think about the other story – the one you would find if you could look in their eyes and see what’s in their hearts.