Friday, September 14, 2018

Palace of Cards

Madam Mao Tells a Cautionary Tale about What Happens to Women Who Seek Power

The story could have been taken straight from the U.S. 2016 presidential election headlines. A powerful former first lady seeks to follow in her husband’s political footsteps, but instead of assuming the nation’s highest office, she is destroyed by chants of “Lock her up!” 

While Hillary Clinton’s lofty political aspirations merely ended in retirement after a stunning Electoral College defeat, Jiang Qing faced an actual life behind bars after the death of her husband, Chairman Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader who devastated his country during the historical period known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). 

On September 20, 2018, the story of Mao Zedong’s powerful wife will come to life in the American premiere of Madam Mao on the Boise Contemporary Theater stage. The play explores the final weeks of Jiang Qing’s life in a Beijing prison, 15 years after Mao Zedong’s death, using dance, live music, and improvisation as Janet Lo (“Jiang Qing”) interacts with Samantha Wan (“Sergeant/Trickster”) and Amanda Zhou (“Red Guard”), moving from present to past in a stream of stories about this powerful woman’s rise and fall. 

When I spoke with Lo, the play’s lead actor and co-creator, by telephone in July 2018, it was sometimes hard to tell whether she was speaking as herself or as her character. Her role in creating Jiang Qing has immersed her in the story to such a degree that she sometimes speaks as Madam Mao, switching from third to first person without a thought.

I asked Lo what drew her to this infamous woman. Noting that such complex characters are still a rarity for Asian actors, Lo replied, “When I started reading about Jiang Qing, I was immediately intrigued that she led such a complicated life. She was, at one time, the most powerful and feared woman in the world. The question was how did she become so hated? 

No one is born evil, but towards the end, she was accused of monstrous things. Was she evil or has she been vilified by historical perspective? And if it’s the latter, why?”


Jiang Qing’s transformation from young actress to cultural force is a fascinating tale. More popularly known as “Madam Mao,” she used the state-run theater and her control over the artistic community to prepare China to accept a woman leader. “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake,” Mao famously said, and Jiang Qing, who met fellow Communist Party member Mao Zedong when she was a drama instructor nearly half his age, used the spectacle of theater to create programming that glorified the Cultural Revolution. Her eight “Model Plays” deified Mao and the People’s Liberation Army, incorporating Western theatrical elements such as ballet, orchestral compositions, and opera. The plays relied on simple binary narratives that may also seem relevant to viewers today, with workers portrayed as the “good guys,” pitted in a heroic struggle against evil capitalists.  

Jiang Qing, aka Madam Mao, in 1976.
By Unknown - Dutch National Archives,
The Hague,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=37133170
But instead of assuming political power after her husband died, Madam Mao was almost immediately blamed for the devastating losses China incurred as a result of her husband’s authoritarian regime. Charged as the leader of the infamous “Gang of Four,” she expressed no remorse for her actions during the Cultural Revolution, famously stating at her trial: “I was Chairman Mao's dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite."

When Lo approached renowned Canadian actor and director Paul Thompson about creating a live stage play depicting Jiang Qing’s final days in her prison cell before her 1991 death by suicide, Thompson was already familiar with the story. Someone had pitched it to him in the late 1970s, and though it had all the elements of a gripping drama, Thompson felt that the subject matter would be too unfamiliar to theater goers because despite President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit, China at the time was still viewed in the West as an insignificant, backwater country.

Forty years later, the geopolitical realities are very different. With China emerging as a world power, Thompson decided that Lo was right: Jiang Qing’s story needed to be told. Madam Mao premiered in Toronto at the 2014 SummerWorks festival to rave reviews. The production won NOW Magazine’s “Best in Fest” award, citing its outstanding ensemble cast, director (Severn Thompson), and production design. After seeing a 2016 reprisal of the production, author Margaret Atwood of Handmaid’s Tale fame summed up her experience: 

“Excellent performance, three versatile and expressive actors, fascinating story.” 


I asked Lo why this story matters to audiences now, more than 40 years after Mao Zedong’s death. She gave me two reasons: first, the theme of idealism in politics. “I think that Jiang Qing was very idealistic when this all started,” she said. “She was living for the glory of the dream—the dream of a happier life for Chinese workers. The play explores how this idealism gets corroded in politics, and I think that’s a very relevant message.”

The second reason Lo gave me was that Madam Mao explores the role art plays in shaping society’s views. And in fact, this play was created in a way that may seem unusual to some American audiences. Lo’s mentor Paul Thompson was one of the pioneering forces behind a theatrical form known as collective creation, a collaboration among actors, playwrights, and directors using historical documents and facts with improvisation techniques to produce a play. The economic advantages of such collaboration are clear: A high quality production can be staged with just a few actors and minimal sets, and the production can easily travel from one community to another.

This creation method also has advantages for artists. I asked Lo what she enjoyed most about the collective creation process. “There is an energy and immediacy when a play is created this way,” she said. “And we as actors can take ownership of the work. Also, similar to how musicians jam, we as actors jam to create dialogue and story.”

According to Lo, one of the most important messages of the play is that the best ideological intentions can sometimes end in horrific abuses of power. 


But there’s also a cautionary message about women and politics. “In the whole history of China, there has ever only been one female ruler,” Lo observed. “Even though in this country, we have yet to have had a female President, the United States is merely 242 years old, whereas China, in 5000 years, had only one empress from 624-705 C.E.”

In the play, Lo’s character Jiang Qing is asked, “Did you think you would be the next ruler of China?” Madam Mao’s reply, sadly, rang as true for women in the United States in 2016 as it did in China in the 1970s: "Do you think they would have let me?" 

Let’s hope that with a record number of women running in the 2018 midterm elections, a few things change for the better, without the pain, corruption, and destruction of our own Cultural Revolution.

Madam Mao will play for six performances at the Boise Contemporary Theater from Thursday, September 20-Saturday, September 22. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://azureriver.wixsite.com/madam-mao 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Your Hero's Journey

Star Wars and the Hero's Journey by Rachel Scheller

Telling Stories that Matter

This is the text of a sermon I delivered to the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (BUUF) on Sunday, July 22, 2018.

I teach a popular online course at the College of Western Idaho called “Survey of World Mythology.”[1] Every semester, my students start the course thinking that they are going to learn about Zeus, Hera, and maybe Thor—and in all fairness, Thor is why I initially wanted to teach the course.

About three weeks in, we get to the part where I introduce Jesus as just one of many examples from world religions of the “dying god” archetype, and there’s the delicious sound of young minds being blown. “What? We’re reading Christian scriptures as myths?” Well, yes.

Stories, wherever they come from, have power. Stories can shape our cultures—and our individual stories can shape our values and our sense of meaning in a world that might otherwise feel like pure chaos.

A possibly spurious[2] quote attributed to British novelist John Gardner famously asserts that there are only two basic stories in the entire world: the hero’s journey, and a stranger walks into town.  Today, we’re going to talk about the first kind of story.

In my world mythology class, I spend an entire unit on the hero’s journey. This universal archetype, a story that exists across all world cultures, was described by anthropologist Joseph Campbell in his seminal 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book heavily influenced George Lucas—so I guess we have Campbell to thank for Star Wars (well, at least the good movies, the ones that the young folks call four, five, and six)[3].

What is it about the hero’s journey that makes it such a powerful story for pretty much every human being?

Joseph Campbell outlines 17 stages of his monomyth[4]—but we’ll be here all day if we try to get through all of them, and I know some of you have brunch plans. So I’d like to focus on just three elements of the hero’s journey and consider how these elements apply to the stories we are telling about ourselves in the world, right now:
  •         Answering the Call
  •          The Belly of the Whale
  •          Ultimate Boon/Freedom to Live

Let’s Start with Answering the Call.
Here you are, minding your own business. Maybe you’re working a desk job. Maybe you are surrounded by small children who are continually asking you “why?” and demanding peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Maybe you’re a modern day Jonah, preaching to people who comfortably agree with you, your Facebook friends, your book club group, your progressive liberal friends.

Suddenly, everything changes. The telephone rings. An email hits your inbox. You see a social media message from a long-lost high school friend.

Campbell says that the call to adventure is:
to a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father's city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder... or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man."[5]

When did the call come to you? How did you answer?

If you’re like me, the call has come many times, and I’ve answered in different ways. Sometimes I’ve been like Jonah—Run away! Sometimes I’ve proudly crossed the thresholds and stormed the barricades. But my most important calls have been the last kind Campbell describes—the calling by accident. When an anonymous blog I wrote about parenting a child who had a then undiagnosed mental illness, titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,”[6] went suddenly viral in 2012, I wanted to run away. But I answered the call. I put my name on the story and told our family’s truth about just how hard it is to raise a child who has mental illness, without a village to support us.

Think for a moment about the accidents in your life that in hindsight, changed everything. What truths do you need to tell?

Next, let’s look at the Belly of the Whale.
This idea comes straight from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, and I think it’s important to remember that, like Jonah, whether or not we accept the call, we can and probably will still end up in the fish’s belly at some point in our lives.

But it’s not as bad as you think. In fact, Campbell describes the image as one of rebirth. He says:
The hero… is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again.[7]

The belly of the whale is where we have to do the hard work that accepting the call requires of us. I suspect that it’s where many of us are right now.

According to NBC News:
Across America today, rates of depression and anxiety are rising dramatically. A 2018 Blue Cross study found that depression diagnosis rates had increased by 33% since 2013—and that’s for people who have health insurance. Our teenagers are especially hard hit, with experts blaming everything from social media to video games to the loss of community.[8]

In the belly of the whale, we are alone, and we feel helpless. Do you feel helpless right now? Does the endless and exhausting news cycle—children in cages, women’s reproductive rights under threat, politicians who sold out our country to a foreign power—feel overwhelming to you?

I think that collectively, what we’re really experiencing is a cultural belly of the whale. We wanted something different for America. We believed in our Unitarian values of “The inherent worth and dignity of every person; and Justice, equity and compassion in human relations”[9] but it all feels so helpless, so hopeless.

That’s why we have to learn to write and revise our stories. We’ll be reborn, and we’ll tell the tale. But right now, we may not know what the meaning of this story is, to ourselves, to our communities, or to our nation. Rebirth isn’t easy.

Finally, let’s look at the Ultimate Boon and Freedom to Live.
The ultimate boon is that grand meaning of life that we are searching for—but it may not turn out to be what we think it will be. Remember that great final scene in Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade, where our hero has to choose the cup of Christ from a whole shelf full of glittering golden goblets? The cup he chooses, the Holy Grail, is made of clay, a carpenter’s cup, simple and unrefined.

Sometimes we don’t know what the meaning is until we sit down later, like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, to tell our story of “There and Back Again.” The act of telling may in itself help us to discover what the story’s point is.

Campbell says:
What the hero seeks through his intercourse with [the gods and goddesses] is therefore not finally themselves, but their grace, i.e., the power of their sustaining substance. This is the miraculous energy of the thunderbolts of Zeus, Yahweh, and the Supreme Buddha, the fertility of the rain of Viracocha, the virtue announced by the bell rung in the Mass at the consecration, and the light of the ultimate illumination of the saint and sage.[10]

Grace. I really like that word. I personally define grace, though I don’t completely understand it, as the power of good that pervades the world. Of course, you don’t have to be religious to find your ultimate boon, your grace. This spiritual energy may even exist in the absence of energy, in nothingness.

Ultimately, I think what the story of Jonah and the Whale tells us is that we can run but we can’t hide from our calling, so we may as well find some ultimate boon in it. For me, that boon is the freedom to live without fear

What are we afraid of? Well, first and foremost, the greatest fear of all: fear of death.

Campbell’s hero conquers death by understanding that, as the Latin poet Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses, “Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the greater renewer, ever makes up forms from forms…. Nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.' Thus the next moment is permitted to come to pass.”[11]

In other words, fear not: Death is change, not end. This is the point of most major stories about endings and beginnings, and for the hero, this knowledge is the ultimate freedom.

But now, a warning! We have to be careful how we use our stories.
This impulse to tell stories can be a powerful force for good—but also for evil. As one example, the Nazis were really good at telling stories that gave life meaning—at the expense of 14-year old Anne Frank and six million other innocent people. Stories—especially overly simplified ones--can be dangerous. Don’t think for a minute that it can’t happen here.

In her popular TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,”[12] Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie observes:
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . . The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.[13]

Do we tell ourselves stories that contain stereotypes? I know I do.

The Atlantic Monthly’s psychology editor, Julie Beck, makes the same point in her article, “Life’s Stories.” She writes:
The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.[14]

In other words, we need to understand that our story is not the only story—and that the stories we hear about others, maybe even about Donald Trump supporters, are also not the whole story, or the only story. 

Listening to others’ stories, especially stories from marginalized people, is at least as important as telling our own, maybe more—and Facebook doesn’t make it easy. We have to look for what psychologists refer to as disconfirming information—stories that challenge our assumptions about the way the world works.

This brings me to the last point I want to make:

We Need to Revise and Retell Our Stories
Sometimes we don’t know the meaning of our stories until years later. Sometimes we have to rewrite our old stories to accommodate a new narrative. This task—telling stories that matter—is not accomplished in a single draft. It is, in fact, the work of a lifetime.

Julie Beck notes that how we tell, revise, and retell our stories affects who we are and how we see ourselves. She writes,
In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you're on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are…. Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.[15]

What are the themes of your hero’s journey? What calls have you answered? Would you answer them differently today?

What whale bellies have you endured, or are you enduring now? How will you be renewed, reborn, when you emerge?

Finally, if you’ve found the ultimate boon and the freedom to live, congratulations! Also, I’m sorry. When I was 35, I thought I had everything figured out, too, and I was pretty smug about it. Spoiler alert: I didn’t have it all figured out, and now I know that I probably never will.

Fortunately, as Beck says,
A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed. Whether it’s with the help of therapy, in the midst of an identity crisis, when you’ve been chasing a roadrunner of foreshadowing towards a tunnel that turns out to be painted on a wall, or slowly, methodically, day by day—like with all stories, there’s power in rewriting.[16]

In the end, there’s no right or wrong story, no best path. There’s your story. How will you answer the call? How will you escape the belly of the whale? What will you tell us about freedom to live when you return from your journey? The story may change 1000 times, and the hero may have 1000 faces, but in the end, your hero’s journey is just that: yours. Per aspera ad astra—through hardships to the stars.


[1] I will be teaching ENGL 215: Survey of World Mythology in the spring of 2019 if you’re interested! More information about the course can be found here: https://catalog.cwidaho.cc/course-descriptions/engl/
[2] For a history of this quote and its attribution, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/06/two-plots/
[4] Here’s a link to the Joseph Campbell Foundation, where an overview of his life and work can be found https://www.jcf.org/
[5] Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 48
[6] Link to the viral essay at The Blue Review here: https://thebluereview.org/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother/ and to my blog here: www.anarchistsoccermom.blogspot.com
[7]Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 77
[10] Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 155
[11] Ovid Metamorphoses, quoted in Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 209
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Dear Conservative Friend


Families belong together https://www.familiesbelongtogether.org/ 
Thoughts on Kant, Fox News, the Bible, and the Separation of Children and Families at the Border

Dear Conservative Friend,

I am taking the time to write this to you after unfriending you on Facebook so that you will understand that I share your sorrow at losing a lifetime of close friendship over a single U.S. government policy: the decision by the Trump administration to separate children seeking asylum from their families at the border. However, while I believe that reasonable people can and should disagree about solutions to problems, the fact that you have attempted to justify this policy suggests that we no longer share common values.

Let me explain. In 1993, when I was 21 years old and studying abroad in Rome, I traveled to Dachau, Germany to see what was left of a concentration camp. Though I have rolls of pictures from my time in Europe, I have no pictures from Dachau. No image could capture the palpable sense of evil that pervaded that place. The moment our train entered Germany, I felt something change. There was a weight in the air, which I interpreted as a sense of collective guilt, of national shame, for so many needless deaths, for so much hate brought into the world in the name of god and country.

Dachau changed me. I still remember the sick pit in my stomach when I saw all of the children’s shoes, piled high in columns. So many small, leather laced booties. The guards told their mothers that the children were being separated to take showers. The mothers and children never saw each other again.

I used to think that though Americans had our differences on many things, we could all agree on a few things, like, “Nazis are bad,” and “children deserve safety and security.” But I’ve learned since the 2016 election that I was very, very wrong.

While reasonable people can certainly disagree about the best solutions to illegal immigration and the current influx of asylum seekers, there are some things that are just wrong. Policies that create irreversible trauma for innocent children are immoral.


You wrote to me, 
“Sorry, I think the problem lies in the fact that you want 100% mercy for the children of these illegal immigrants. I do too. However, I believe that you cannot really receive 100% mercy without receiving justice as well. Many changes need to be made to fix this problem. Amnesty, open borders, or turning a blind eye is neither mercy or justice.”
To be clear, I have personally never advocated for open borders, and I’ve never met a “liberal” who felt that way either. I think that the hypothetical person you addressed here is a Fox News strawman. In fact, as you clearly know, there’s lots of bipartisan support for immigration reform, at least on paper and in politicians’ press conferences and Twitter feeds.

According to a 2017 Fox News Poll,  83% of Americans support a path to legalization of status for immigrants who are living and working here, and I am one of them. I especially support the DACA program recipients who have lived here most of their lives and are often already productive members of our society. And like most Americans, I also support a migrant guest worker program that would provide legal status for much-needed workers, especially in heavily agricultural states like mine.  As Eduardo Porter wrote in his 2016 New York Times opinion on managing immigration, 
Rather than building a bigger wall, [the solution] consists of opening a door in the wall we have. The best way to stop illegal immigration may be for Mexico and the United States to create a legal path for low-skill Mexicans seeking work in the United States.
If so many of us agree, why hasn’t Congress acted? Like most seemingly perplexing problems (including our broken mental healthcare system, where I spend most of my time advocating), we should follow the money to find our answers.  It's not a secret that our current immigration system allows for the black market economic exploitation of migrant workers who do not have legal status. In fact, certain sectors of our economy, most notably food production and construction, depend on this “nod and wink” undocumented migrant worker system. 

And let’s not even get into the deplorable human trafficking industry, because that’s just a whole separate conversation right there.

Like human trafficking, it seems that the Trump administration’s new policy also has profit and corporate interests at heart. Who will house and care for these children? That sounds like a pretty lucrative new contract to me. We have already seen how the privatization of prisons has disproportionately harmed people with mental illness. Now the New York Times and others are reporting that military bases have been told to prepare for as many as 20,000 children in coming months. Defense contractors stand to make millions off of these children’s and families' pain.

When I looked at those little shoes of dead children in Dachau so many years ago, I never thought I would live to see an America where Nazis marched openly in the streets chanting “Blood and soil,” or where white supremacists became policy makers. In his stated goal to “make America great again,” President Trump seems to have returned to the noxious idea of Manifest Destiny, which, incidentally, was the only thing I learned about American history in high school. I am now more informed about things like the genocide of native people and the way in which Jim Crow and segregation deprived generations of African Americans of the American Dream white people came to expect.

I now sum up Manifest Destiny like this: God favors capitalist white people of European descent. So we can pretty much take what we want.


Yes, I say “we.” To be clear, I have always been the whitest white girl in any room. Most of my ancestors came here in the 1850s as pioneer immigrants from England and Scandinavia—you know, Norway, not a “shithole” country like Honduras. I’m being sarcastic. I can’t say I don’t see race, because it’s pretty clear that white people like me have enjoyed all kinds of systemic privilege. As Beverly Daniel Tatum, a professor of psychology and expert on race relations, said in an interview with PBS, “For me the relevant issue is not, "Are you racist?" but are you actively working against that system of advantage?”   

I do see race. And when I see race, I see social injustice. This current crisis is no exception. Let’s be honest: We would never let white children be treated like this.


I watched Fox News a few days ago (June 18, 2018) because I wanted to understand why my normally reasonable conservative friends like you were spouting nonsense on Facebook and Twitter about the clearly moral crisis of children being separated from their families at the border.

In the space of just two minutes, I heard the following:
  •  Instead of creating a “media hysteria” about the children separated from their parents, why weren’t journalists focusing on homeless veterans?
  •  The children’s camps, far from being traumatizing, were actually like “summer camp,” and certainly better than what they came from. 
  •  Anyway, what kind of parents would put their children in this situation? Wasn’t it really the parents’ fault?
  •  “The left” just wants open borders and doesn’t respect the rule of law.
  •   Congress should consider changing foster parenting laws so that these “poor children” can be swiftly adopted by loving families who want to care for them (unaccompanied minor refugee children are currently not eligible for adoption—and this is just a whole new and morally appalling level of the White Savior complex  at work, but that is also another conversation).

I don’t know how else to say this: It’s hard to have a reasonable conversation when everything that comes out of the other person’s mouth is a logical fallacy.

On a personal note, you may not know why these border children and their mothers matter so much to me. I feel their pain. As a mother, I have experienced firsthand the trauma of being separated from my children—and I would not wish it on anyone. On December 24, 2012, a family court judge in Idaho determined that my younger two children were not safe in my home. He removed them from my physical custody and placed them with their father. They were seven and eight years old. Before the order, we spent 50% of our time together. After the order, we got to see each other for four hours on Saturdays, with no sense of when, if ever, things would be normal again.

The hearing resulted from a blog post I wrote after the tragic school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, picked up under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” by Boise State University’s The Blue Review. I described my then 13-year old son’s dangerous behavior that resulted from his mental illness. Though I also described our family’s safety plan, developed with the help of Child Protective Services, the Idaho judge decided that my children were in imminent danger.

More than five years later, I still wake up in the night shaking, thinking that my children are gone. I still experience debilitating autonomic symptoms including panic attacks. My children also suffered damaging psychological effects from the separation, even though they always knew where I was and that I loved them and wanted them, a luxury that the children detained in border camps do not always have.

In fact, the lifetime harmful effects of childhood trauma  are well documented. The 1998 Centers for Disease Control/Kaiser ACES study tracked the impact of a variety of childhood traumatic events on lifelong mental and physical health. Childhood trauma is correlated with increased risk of neurodevelopmental disorders, emotional and cognitive impairment, risk-taking behaviors, and early death.  Some children younger than five who are separated from their parents develop Reactive Attachment Disorder, a condition characterized by “irritability, sadness, fearfulness and difficulty interacting with adults or peers.” These children are also at risk for developmental and physical delays.

To the argument that their parents are the ones to blame for the children’s distress, I'm taking a page from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and offering an Old Testament rebuttal in King Solomon’s wisdom. When faced with the choice between her child’s death or losing her child to another woman, the mother gave up her child, because a mother will always choose her child’s life. But no mother should have to make this kind of choice.

The British Somali refugee poet Warsan Shire puts it another way: “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark/you only run for the border/when you see the whole city running as well…you only leave home/when home won’t let you stay.” (“Home”)

One final note: I know that you are a good mother to your children, and that on a personal level, this atrocity truly hurts your mother’s heart. Listen to the call of your heart. Mothers’ hearts know the truth about what children need. The Trump administration cited the Bible to justify their policy. But we both know that Jesus was very clear about the central moral imperative to care for children: “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me” (Matthew 18:5).

Who are we as Americans? Are we welcoming? Are we compassionate? Are we moral? Or do we only extend our welcome and compassion and morality to people who look like us? 

If the choice is making America great for folks who “belong” here or choosing all of us, I choose all of us. We’re America. We can find room to welcome the strangers, as the Bible tells us to, and when we do, we’ll be truly great.


My friend, I understand that you are concerned about illegal immigration and asylum seekers. Like you, I do not believe that open borders are the right solution. But the current administration’s deplorable policy harms children, period. As Americans, we cannot support any policy that harms children. This is a bright line moral test, a Kantian categorical imperative. How we treat the most vulnerable in our midst will define our humanity. In this struggle, I’m siding not with “America First” but with “children first.”

Bye now.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Dear Congress: If Mental illness Causes Mass Shootings, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

x
It’s easy to blame mental illness, but we fail to mention that treatment works and recovery is possible for many.

For mothers of teenagers like me, news about a school shooting never gets any easier. We experience the same dread, the same despair, the same fear that someone will attack our children’s school. In between mass shootings, we drill our children on what they would do. We check on their social media accounts. We try to pretend that there’s some sense of safety in a world that always seems full of random, unpredictable violence.

I’m the mom CNN used to call whenever there was a school shooting. And today, one day after 17 children who are the same age as mine did not come home from school because of another mass shooting, I’m angry. Predictably, politicians have tweeted meaningless “thoughts and prayers.” Also predictably, some Republicans have tried to shift the blame for the latest massacre to the isolated actions of a “mentally disturbed individual.”  

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting five years ago, I shared my story of parenting a child with violent behavioral symptoms of a then-undiagnosed mental illness in a viral essay entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In that essay, I wrote, “It’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.” 

Now, I’m concerned that we are having the same blame and shame conversation without any meaningful action, as this viral Facebook post shows.  

Today, with the correct diagnosis (bipolar disorder) and treatment that works, my son Eric lives in recovery. In 2016, he even gave a TEDx Boise talk about his experiences.  Eric is a normal high school senior who, like many of the Parkland, Florida students, is planning for college next fall.

Today, I feel that blaming mental illness for an epidemic of violence in the wake of so many mass shootings has become a meaningless trope. If politicians and the National Rifle Association really believe that mental illness causes mass shootings, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is. Here are a few suggestions:

1.       Provide funding for research into treatments and cures, perhaps by donating the millions of dollars that the National Rifle Association gives to their campaigns.  

2.       Continue to support parity for mental and physical health, currently required by the ACA but already under threat in my own state.  

3.       Stop blaming children and their parents for the appalling lack of community mental health services and supports.  

4.       Understand that when treated, people who have mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Treatment works and recovery is possible.  

5.       Adopt reasonable and bipartisan gun control measures that focus on suicide prevention, since more than 60% of deaths by gun violence in the U.S. are completed suicides, a tragedy that disproportionately affects the brave men and women who serve in our military.  

Most people can agree that universal background checks and allowing the government to track gun violence statistics (currently prohibited by federal law) are good first steps to better understanding and controlling our nation's clear gun problem.

To be transparent, I live in Idaho, a gun-loving state. I grew up in a family that hunted, and my brothers taught shooting sports at Boy Scout camp. I have enjoyed shooting sports in the past. While I do not personally have guns in my home because of my son’s illness, I know many responsible gun owners, some of whom live in recovery. 

Yes, it’s true: people who have mental illness can be responsible gun owners, which is why mental health advocacy organizations including the National Alliance on Mental Illness believe that “Federal and state gun reporting laws should be based on these identified traits, not mental illness.”   

People who are in treatment for mental illness and are compliant with treatment should not be treated any differently than anyone else. To focus on mental illness as the sole cause of mass shootings is a clear example of the pervasive discrimination and fear in our society. In fact, while it’s true that at least one-third of mass shooters seem to have had an untreated mental illness, a more common predictor of this kind of violence is a history of animal abuse or domestic violence, as is the case with the Florida shooter. Both of these deplorable behaviors are actual crimes, and both of them should require immediate intervention including loss of gun rights.

But mental illness is not—and should not be—a crime.

It’s time to act.  Build the community mental health treatment centers. Fund research into cures. And most importantly, stop blaming by association the millions of good people who live in recovery for the violent actions of a few.