~ My Facebook status tonight
There is a TED talk that has been making its way around the Internet like wild-fire. Or perhaps just around my little neighborhood in Internet Town. But it seems to be everywhere I turn. A friend sent it to me via Twitter, another by e-mail. A third posted it on my Facebook wall. The third time was the charm. I finally felt compelled to watch it.
The talk is advertised as follows:
What is it like to raise a child who’s different from you in some fundamental way (like a prodigy, or a differently abled kid, or a criminal)? In this quietly moving talk, writer Andrew Solomon shares what he learned from talking to dozens of parents — asking them: What’s the line between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance?
After I watched it, a friend asked me what I thought. My answer was that I wasn’t ready to answer. I’m still not. I will need to watch it again (this time without a kid over my shoulder telling me something absolutely, positively vital every forty-five seconds) and then process it all long before I can comment on it intelligently.
So I’m not really here to talk about Andrew Solomon. But in light of the events of the past few days, I’m not sure how not to.
You see, he started his talk with this quote:
“Even in purely non-religious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty. It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such, it deserves no compassion; it deserves no treatment as minority martyrdom; and it deserves not to be deemed anything but a pernicious sickness.”
“That,” he said,”was from Time Magazine in 1966, when I was three years old. And last year the President of United States came out in favor of gay marriage. And my question is, “How did we get from there to here? How did an illness become an identity?”
He had my attention.
I would argue, however, that we are not “there” yet. Suicide rates among homosexual youth are still desperately and tragically high. Marriage equality is still an issue for political theater. The simplest, most unobtrusive displays of affection are still acts of courage and defiance. And sadly, loving openly can still be dangerous.
And yet, we are “here.” In a place where the President of the United States says that he supports gay marriage. In a place where we, as a society, are at least beginning to see the beauty and strength of diverse families. In a place where the doors to my daughter’s middle school classrooms are decorated with rainbow flags and sport stickers that advertise “This is a LBGT Safe Space.”
So while Mr Solomon’s question is a good one — “How did we get from there to here?” I’d add to it …”and how do we get from here to where we really want to be?”
Later in his talk, Mr. Solomon said, “I’m going to quote from another magazine of the ’60s. This one is from 1968. The Atlantic Monthly, Voice of Liberal America, written by an important bioethicist. He said, “There is no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down’s syndrome baby away, whether it’s ‘put away’ in the sense of hidden in a sanatorium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad, yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down’s is not a person.”
“There has been a lot of ink,” he went on to say, “given to the enormous progress that we’ve made in the treatment of gay people. The fact that our attitude has changed; it’s in the headlines every day. But we forget how we used to see people who had other differences, how we used to see people who were disabled, how inhuman we held people to be. And the change that has happened there which is equally radical is one that we pay not very much attention to.”
Again, while we have indeed made great strides in the way that view our disabled brothers and sisters since 1968, I hesitate to join Mr Solomon in congratulating us too heartily. Abuse and neglect run rampant through the world of the disabled and differently abled. Decisions are made without consult nor consideration for the ones who they will affect the most. And despite what we’d like to think about ourselves and our society, we prove every day that personhood is still not assumed, but instead earned by virtue of one’s ability to make himself understood to others.
This past weekend, 14 year-old Alex Spourdalakis was stabbed to death in River Grove, Illinois.
The story, as reported by ABC News, reads as follows (warning, it is extremely difficult to read):
First degree murder charges have been filed against Dorothy Spourdalakis, the mother of a teen with severe autism found stabbed to death in west suburban River Grove.
River Grove Police say they are both on suicide watch Tuesday night at the police station.
Police now say Dorothy Spourdalakis and another 24/7 caregiver and close family friend, Jolanta Agatha Skrodzka, have told investigators it was all too much: they tried to end the pain for Alex and themselves. The weapon, which had been missing, was found, wiped clean, inside the home.
“They cleaned the knife, they put the knife back in the butcher block and took the pills and laid down in bed next to him,” said River Grove Police chief Rodger Loni.
Alex was murdered by his mother and his caregiver. They killed him in what, to my mind, is one of the most violent ways imaginable. They stabbed him in the chest with a knife. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. Until he was dead.
Then they cleaned the knife and put it back into the butcher block in the kitchen.
The horror of this act is beyond comprehension. I am nauseous as I type these words. The murdered of a child is horrific under any circumstances, but when the child is killed at the hands of his own mother, the human being charged by God or nature or the universe or whatever or whomever you choose to believe charges us with the sacred duty to care for our young, I have no words.
We all know that the media loves a villain, so as I read the story, I could only imagine how they would treat the two monsters who murdered their own child. My mouth hung open as I read the next line.
Kathleen and Tony Falco know the feelings of hopelessness and isolation.
Their 21-year-old son Frankie was also diagnosed with severe autism as a 2-year-old. He’s now 21, six foot two and more than 200 pounds. Frankie now lives in a group home.
“One of the biggest difficulties we have is having him hurt not only himself but hurt people, other people,” said Kathleen Falco. Those who know the family say it is tragic end to a long and desperate search for help.
A video from the Autism Media Channel on YouTube shows Alex Spourdalakis in February during one of many hospitalizations. His mother can be seen tenderly washing Alex’s feet.
“Dorothy, the mother, had absolutely nowhere to go, nowhere to live. With this boy, she would go from motel to motel,” said Polly Tommey, Autism Media Channel.
Polly Tommey and her Autism Media Channel worked with Dorothy Spourdalakis – recording these public pleas for help.
“He needs something simple, in the country, where he can run around, get the treatment that he needs so he can get better,” said Dorothy Spourdalakis, Alex’s mother, in the YouTube video.
“She was crying and so was the godmother. They were both in a terrible state – that’s why we did that plea in the hospital for help,” said Tommey.
The help never came. Over the weekend, police went to an apartment above a River Grove plumbing company and Alex was found stabbed several times. His mom and godmother at his side, alive but unconcious. There was a three page letter describing the ordeal of caring for a severely autistic- and sometimes violent- teenager.
Polly Tommey feared the breaking point was near when she last spoke with Alex’s mom.
“She didn’t know what was going to happen, how it was going to end. She just kept saying this was the end of Alex,” said Tommey.
According to River Grove police, it was about 3:00 p.m. on Sunday that they came to the second floor apartment to conduct a well-being check. Police said they were called to the scene after the boy’s father and uncle failed to get in touch with him or his mother. Police found Alex Spourdalakis, 14, stabbed to death in bed.
Families of children with severe autism say help from the state is frequently hard to come by. Services are often simply not available, they say.
A DCFS spokesperson says that Dorothy Spourdalakis was offered services, but she refused.
The very next line after, “They cleaned the knife, they put the knife back in the butcher block and took the pills and laid down in bed next to him,” said River Grove Police chief Rodger Loni.” is “Kathleen and Tony Falco know the feelings of hopelessness and isolation.”
This is not a blog. This is not an opinion piece. This is not an editorial written by fringe conspiracy theorists. This ABC news. This is us.
When a child is stabbed to death by his mother and caretaker, who have the presence of mind to wipe the weapon clean and put it away, and the FIRST tack we as a society take is to talk about how hopeless and isolated the murderers must have felt, I have to ask, how far have we really come from this …
“There is no reason to feel guilty about putting [a severely autistic person] away, whether it’s ‘put away’ in the sense of hidden in a sanatorium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad, yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and [a really severely autistic person] is not a person.”
The answer is clearly, not far enough.
Parenting is hard. Parenting children with significant needs can be unbelievably difficult. If you need help, get it. I know that can be easier said than done, but for the love of God, get it. Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe it’s not the KIND of help you’d hope to have, but no matter what, it’s better than this.
A DCFS spokesperson says that Dorothy Spourdalakis was offered services, but she refused.
If the thought of hurting your child crosses your mind, get in the car and take him or her to the nearest hospital or police station and say, “I am thinking of murdering my child. I am no longer capable of caring for him.” Because the moment you entertain the thought of murder, you are not capable of caring for your child.
Parenting is hard. We need to help each other. We need to prioritize resources for families BEFORE they reach crisis levels and we need to make them easier to find. Above all, we need to figure out how to get from “here” to we really need to be. Because this isn’t it. And I don’t want to write another one of these ever again.
I told her that the disjointedness is indicative of my feelings about all of it. Because the thing is, I told her, it’s not black and white. To be clear, the fact that murdering a child, no matter what the circumstances, is unthinkable IS black and white. Period.
But talking about how to prevent it from happening again? Not as simple. Because, while changing societal thinking is the end goal and the one that will have the most impact, sadly, it will not stop the very next one of these tragedies from happening. The one that’s brewing somewhere right now, as I type.
What will change in the immediate sense will be the way that we will talk / feel / write about the next one. And that’s not enough. We need to STOP the ‘next one’ BEFORE it happens. Because the ‘next one’ is a human being. The ‘next one’ is a child like Alex — a beautiful kid who deserves a life. And love. And safety. And care.
And to ensure that they get it, I think that we have to acknowledge that hopelessness and fear are real and desperation happens. And that there are people out there who, thank God unlike the vast majority of the moral population, have the capacity to allow their desperation to lead to EVIL acts. And while we can never, ever, EVER on any plane of thinking, condone evil, I fear that allowing our righteous indignation to summarily dismiss those people who need help right now does that child who might be the next Alex a terrible and possibly tragic disservice.
These women are not martyrs. They have a child’s blood on their hands. They deserve no sympathy.
But I don’t want to mourn another child. My heart can’t take it.
So I’m saying it out loud. If you need help, find it.
Childhelp® — 800.4.A.CHILD (800.422.4453)
National Parent Helpline® — 855.4APARENT (855.427.2736) (available 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., PST, weekdays)