"The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you're accountable."
— Arundhati Roy
Trigger warning: Discussion of murder, other violence,
ableism, various mass shootings, mention of rape, discussion of forced
psychiatric treatment, brief description of the JRC, terrorism, 9/11, probably a lot of other triggers.
I am autistic, and I
am obsessed with violence.
A response to Andrew Solomon's article about his interviews with Peter Lanza in The New Yorker
An old man falls to his death from a cliff, staring in
horror and despair at his loved one standing on the edge.
This is one of my first memories of playing pretend games
with my younger sister.
In other pretend games, I wanted to be a man wrongfully
accused of being a spy and then sentenced to death, or sometimes a robber
caught by the police and then sent to prison. In preschool, I became obsessed
with Disney’s Snow White. One day at school, I gave everyone little
clumps of play dough and told them it was poisoned, just like the poisoned
apple in the movie. The teacher called my parents.
In second grade, I started a pretend game with my friends where
my character drank poisoned water, turned into a demon, and started chasing her
children. My first stories, written between kindergarten and sixth grade,
involved abandoned children, abusive siblings, poisonings, assassinations,
prison escapes, and horrible torture.
In eighth grade, I wrote my first novel. The plotline
follows the tyrannical dictator of one country who decides to murder a
well-loved official in the country next door, frame someone else for the crime,
and then use the distraction as an excuse to invade.
The same year, I read Helter Skelter, the true crime
story of the Charles Manson cult murders written by Vincent Bugliosi, who was
the prosecutor in the case. When I brought the book to school, one of the
teachers took me aside and told me that was inappropriate reading.
When I started high school, I wrote my second novel, which
starts with the assassination of the U.S. President by a terrorist group.
Image description: A very young me, fifth grade, sitting in the classroom with my sleeve against my lips, reading a book in the Animorphs series while other books and binders are piled on my desk. Photo by Rebecca Taplin. I'm wearing a school uniform, long sleeve maroon polo shirt, khaki pants. Behind me are shelves with messily arranged binders and notebooks.
After the Virginia Tech shootings by Seung-Hui Cho, Cho’s
writing assignments became a huge deal in the media. His two short plays were
full of profanity and violence. I read them when one news source uploaded
I didn’t know how to express the feelings I had at the time,
but I think I’m beginning to understand now.
This week, The New Yorker ran an exclusive article by
Andrew Solomon about his interviews with Peter Lanza, the father of the Sandy
Hook shooter. In parts of the article, Solomon lingers on Adam Lanza’s apparent
obsession with violence. According to Peter, his son was obsessed with
genocide, serial killers, and mass murder. He wrote extremely violent fiction
on top of reading extensively about other people’s real violence.
Solomon, who is also the author of the recent nonfiction
book Far From The Tree (problematic for other reasons), wonders whether
these should have been taken as warning signs. Peter is more direct when he
talks about his son and whether his killing spree could have been predicted,
and presumably stopped, before it happened.
I read Solomon’s descriptions of Adam, and I was crying
because most of what he wrote could have been written about me if you changed
the names. When he suggested that Adam’s obsession with reading and writing
about extreme violence could have been a warning sign, I became terrified. Not
because I’m afraid that people in power will start using that as an
excuse for hurting people like me, but because I know they already do and
I’m afraid it will happen even more.
Believe me, I understand what it’s like to be desperate for
answers, for an explanation, when tragedy happens. While I am not the surviving
relative of a high-profile mass murderer, I experience total devastation and
complete obsession with finding an explanation in the aftermath of any outbreak
of horrible violence. Every time. It’s hard to put the feeling into words, but
the phrases that come to mind are ones like these: a thousand punches to the
gut, complete frantic overload in my brain, nameless things dismantle.
Like many other autistics, I am deeply empathetic, and
easily and often overwhelmed by emotional overload. I experience the emotions
of people around me – no matter whether I know them or whether they’re
strangers – as though they are my own emotions, and that’s on top of and
combined with the ones that came from me first.
I was only eight years old when September 11 happened, but
as an American citizen living near Boston, it would have been impossible for
the terrorist attacks not to affect me.
I say I understand the desperate, obsessive search for
answers because I have lived it.
The events of September 11 lit a fire in me and I became
desperate to understand, intellectually and emotionally, just why it
happened and what reasons the attackers had when they did it. For the
next ten years, I became obsessed with the topic of Islamic-inspired terrorism.
If an article, book, or website existed that covered the topic – no matter
whose point of view it was from – I read every word with fascination. That
interest led me to explore the history and reality of other forms of terrorism,
including Christian-inspired terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism,
eco-terrorism, just about any kind of terrorism that’s ever been named.
The same interest also led me to explore Islam itself
as a religion, as the basis for many cultures and civilizations, and as a
social and legal system. At the same time, I also became extremely interested
in learning about national security policy, counterterrorism operations, and
the role of anti-brown racism and Islamophobia as tools of white supremacy and
American imperialism. By the time I was in twelfth grade, I decided that I
wanted to study Islamic Studies in college and later go on to study for a PhD
focusing on Sufi music in Pakistan.
Right now, I’m an Arabic major studying abroad in Amman,
Jordan, and this is a direct result of my long obsession with understanding why
and how September 11 happened.
Image description: Me with serious expression wearing a gray t-shirt against a black background, holding both my arms in front of my body. Text that I wrote in black pen says, "I don't understand how many people can hate" in English on one arm and in Arabic on the other arm. Photo by Robert X. Fogarty for the Dear World Project at Georgetown University in March 2012.
After the Virginia Tech shootings, I read news articles that
described Seung-Hui Cho as a socially awkward loner who had been bullied in the
past. As much as I empathized with his victims and their living loved ones, I
also instinctively empathized with him too.
This doesn’t mean that I’m somehow okay with murder or that
I think he’s less guilty or that his crimes should be excused or ignored. It
just means that my empathy is not selective, and I don’t think that that’s a
Both Peter Lanza and Andrew Solomon said outright that
autism shouldn’t be treated as if it’s related to Adam’s killing spree. But that
doesn’t change the tone of the article at all, which talks about Adam’s
diagnosis and various autistic characteristics in a way that reminds me of a
freak show, or a post-mortem zoo exhibit. If the fact that Adam was autistic
isn’t related to the fact that he killed twenty-six people, then why spend so
much time focusing on his autistic traits in an article that’s mostly about his
father’s attempt to figure out why and how this happened?
Plenty of readers will read the disclaimer that autism
didn’t play a role in the killing spree, and they’ll roll their eyes or shake
their heads or something like that, because they’ll read the same damn article
and they’ll ask the same damn question, only their answer will be different.
Their conclusion will be, of course it was relevant. Of course it was related. Some
people will be aware that they’ve reached that conclusion, and other people
will do it subconsciously. The result will be the same, though.
They’ll read about the report from a professional that said
Adam was more likely to become a victim, and they’ll laugh. They’ll laugh even
though it’s true. Of course, statistics don’t change the fact that he actually
became a victimizer, but statistically, overall, people like him and people
like me are at such high risk of becoming victims of violence and abuse. That’s
true across the board for disabled people, no matter whether we’re talking
about autism or mental illness. You don’t have to read academic studies to know
that (though the studies do exist) because if you live in a society where one
way of existing is normal and everything else is treated as less than, anyone
who falls into that “everything else” category is going to be more vulnerable.
That’s the way systems of power work.
Solomon may have intended to try to humanize both Peter and
Adam in his article. He probably intended to do the same thing with the many
different types of people he wrote about in Far From The Tree. But his
intentions don’t change the reality of his writing, which, for me, is completely
devastating and completely dehumanizing. And not just for autistics but for
people with mental illness too. Autistics got a half-hearted disclaimer that
autism isn’t related to violence. People with mental illness got thrown under
And the best phrase I can think of to describe how he talks
in so much detail about Adam’s sensory aversions to sounds and textures is
“morbid fascination.” In the course of my activism, I’ve met so many people,
most but not all autistic, who could also fit a lot of these descriptions
One of my favorite hobbies is text-based roleplaying, which
is basically like writing stories but with other people. Some people treat it
more like a competitive game, and other people like to treat it more like a big
group writing project better. The roleplays that interest me the most are the
ones that explore the same topics that I’m interested in outside roleplay:
state violence, terrorism, torture, abuse, human rights violations, rape and
other sexual violence, and mass murder.
I’m writing my seventh novel right now. Much of the novel
focuses on war crimes and genocide along ethnic and religious lines.
If you didn’t know me, if you read Andrew Solomon’s article
and the hundreds of others like it, if you didn’t understand that it’s totally
possible to be fascinated and obsessed with individual and systemic violence
and yet not be violent personally, then you might wonder too if I’m
going to be the next Adam Lanza or Anders Behring Breivik or Seung-Hui Cho or James
When I was in tenth grade, I was called into an
administrator’s office and accused of planning a school shooting. When I told
him that of course I wasn’t planning a school shooting, he pointed out that I
seemed to be obsessed with weapons and violence, and then he asked me if I was
sure I’d never thought about actually hurting someone.
When I was in twelfth grade, my mom told me that there were
people in the church who thought I was planning to join Al Qaeda or some other
These things are real, and they prove to me that my fears – both
for myself and other people – aren’t unfounded.
Image description: Me wearing a white t-shirt, standing in a room with windows facing a hallway with elevators and various college flyers. I'm looking down and holding a sign handwritten in purple ink that says, "I'm not afraid to say I'm autistic." Photo by Shain Neumeier in December 2012.
I don’t claim to understand everyone’s motives. If I did,
there wouldn’t be any more obsessive quests for answers after each and every act
of mass violence I’ve ever learned about since September 11.
But I can say with certainty that it’s not mental illness
or autism or an interest in violence or being bullied or
social awkwardness or violent roleplaying or violent video
games or violent creative writing that lead to mass murder. Those
aren’t warning signs. They shouldn’t be treated as warning signs.
There’s so much ableism and ageism wrapped up in the
assumption that these things are somehow predictors of future violence.
Ironically, those same assumptions are used to justify real violence against
people like me, and often by the people who in theory are supposed to protect
Does Peter Lanza have a right to his opinions, thoughts, and
emotions? Of course he does. I’m the last person to say that his experiences
and emotions are not valid.
But that doesn’t make them any less hurtful. It doesn’t make
Andrew Solomon’s article any less painful.
The two most painful things in that article for me to read
were when Solomon asked Peter what the family did about a funeral for Adam, and
Peter said that no one would ever know, and then when Peter said that he wishes
Adam had never been born.
Maybe the family did host a funeral for Adam. Maybe they
didn’t. I wasn’t there during the interview, so I don’t know how Peter said
that comment, but at least in writing, it came across as so cold and so
callous, and I – I couldn’t form words.
And as to the second comment – we have no way of knowing
when someone is born if that person is going to be a wonderful amazing human
being who helps many people or if that person is going to turn into a horrible
person who does horrible things to other people. It’s so easy to say after the
fact that you wish someone hadn’t been born.
But when the parent of a young man who obviously did have
many disabilities says that, even though his son was a mass murderer who killed
twenty children, just how close in time this article was published to the March
1 vigils in memory of hundreds of disabled people (plenty of them autistic)
murdered by their parents only gives this statement a chilling underline.
Image description: Me wearing a dark blue winter coat, a beige suit jacket, and an ochre shirt, with a blue lanyard and beige gloves, facing slightly away from the camera while speaking. I'm standing in front of a large poster that says "Mourn for the Dead ...And Fight Like Hell" for the Living followed by a list of victims' names, ages at death, and manner of murder. Photo by Kory Otto-Jacobs at DC Day of Mourning Vigil in Farragut Square on Friday 1 March 2013 as part of the National Day of Mourning for disabled people murdered by caregivers and family members.
In the interview, Peter Lanza talked quite a bit about how
Adam never came to terms with the Asperger’s/autistic diagnosis.
There’s no way to know, but I can’t help but wonder whether
being able to accept being autistic and be around other affirming autistic
people might have changed the course of events.
For all the constant media pattern of assuming that someone
who kills a lot of people must be autistic or mentally ill, two of Adam Lanza’s
victims, Josephine “Joey” Gay and Dylan Hockley, were autistic too.
In the rush to railroad autistic people, the media often
conveniently forgets that fact.
Both Andrew Solomon and Peter Lanza kept emphasizing that
maybe if Adam had received treatment, this might not have happened. I can’t
underscore enough how damaging this is for so many people.
First of all, Representative Tim Murphy’s bill in Congress
right now, if passed, will severely cut funding for community-based programs
supporting people with mental illnesses as well as the advocacy agencies that
exist to protect people’s rights.
This bill comes after his hearing almost an entire year ago
when witness after witness kept testifying to his committee about how horrible
and dangerous people with mental illnesses are, and only one brave witness
dared say something different.
Secondly, the sad and extremely violent reality is that the
vast majority of therapy and program options for people with mental illness are
coercive, demeaning, and paternalistic.
Thirdly, this article reinforces the social presumption that
the default option for mental illness is and should be psychiatric treatment.
And while I absolutely support the right of anyone who wants psychiatric
treatment of any kind to access that treatment on their own terms, the reality
is that not everyone wants to go that route and that’s okay.
Fourthly, there is the reality that this article, written by
a famous journalist in a well-known publication, will be treated as an
authority, and that the statements in it can and will lead to even more stigma and
less voluntary options for people who do seek out psychiatric treatment.
These are realities and consequences that profoundly disturb
I can tell you why I am obsessed with violence.
It is because I am also completely and absolutely committed
to the ideal of justice.
There was a long time after September 11 when I dreamed
about a career in counterterrorism, with the idea that I could help stop future
The broad theme of my work for the past five years has been
addressing violence against disabled people, especially disabled people made
even more vulnerable because they also happen to be queer, trans, poor,
immigrants, or people of color. Violence against us happens all the time, both
by other people in the community and by government forces.
My work is emotionally exhausting.
Every so often, I receive an email out of nowhere from
someone asking for help because they or their kid are in an abusive situation
at school or work.
Writing and roleplaying about individual and systemic
violence, and how it impacts everyone in the community, helps me process my
emotions. In fact, it’s the only thing that actually works for me. It’s not
that I take sadistic pleasure out of writing about violent things or that I
secretly wish I could do violent things to people I’ve met.
It’s part of the same obsession with understanding why and
how and what next. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that I
understand the desperate search for answers in the wake of violence. That
desperate search has been the narrative for much of my conscious life.
Image description: Shain Neumeier, white person with short blond hair and glasses, and I standing on a traffic island in the middle of a multi-lane highway on an overcast day. We're holding hand-drawn and colored signs to protest the abusive Judge Rotenberg Center, which uses painful electric shock as punishment/behavioral modification for disabled residents. Shain's sign says "Stop the Shocks" with lightning bolts cutting through the o's, and I'm holding two signs, one that says "People not Experiments" and the other that says "Shocked for... hugging staff, swearing, nagging, getting out of seat, taking off coat, screaming, tensing up, closing eyes, raising hand. Ban the GED [electric shock device]." Photo by Taylor C. Hall, January 2013.
In the end, I’ve started asking different questions. It’s
less often, “Why did this mass tragedy happen?” and more often, “Why do people
insist that the only people capable of committing such horrible crimes must be
an Other?” and “Why do we treat specific instances of mass tragedies as both
more important and more horrible than the continuous and brutal violence
against marginalized people?”
I don’t mean to belittle the real victimhood of people
killed by mass murderers or the pain for their living loved ones. I don’t mean
to belittle the internal struggle that must happen for anyone who finds out someone
they loved or knew well was responsible for those killings either.
But the questions are worth asking because they, too, carry
life or death consequences. They carry consequences for my life and my
experiences, and they carry consequences for those of so many of my friends and
I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they
have to worry about whether their teachers or bosses will peg them as the next
mass shooters if they just happen to be loners, socially awkward, interested in
violent games, autistic, or mentally ill. If my children are autistic or
mentally ill or both, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where their
humanity is questioned every single day, or where police brutality based on
their disability status could end their lives.
The fact that much of the response to a horrific act of
violence has been to encourage more violence is not merely astounding, but
The worst part of all of this is knowing that no matter what
I say or do or write here, the people who have power in media and politics will
carry on with their dehumanizing campaign, and I – we – don’t stand a chance
when these things are simply accepted as true and normal and how things are.
If you’re reading this essay, all I can ask is that you
consider an alternative narrative. Instead of trying to play the blame game for
violence – autistics one day, people with mental illness the next, every young
Black man the week after that – can we start to focus on healing within
ourselves and our communities? Can we cope with our trauma in less hurtful