Because neurotic is the new black....

Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
East Lansing, Michigan,
December 31
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.


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MAY 22, 2012 9:51AM


Rate: 23 Flag

It’s a familiar story: young men barely out of high school are horsing around with a car/loaded gun/case of grain alcohol/unsafe balcony or some combination thereof, and one of them ends up dead. In the local story it was two 20-year-old “men” fooling around with a loaded pellet gun and smoking synthetic marijuana four days before Christmas. One shot the other, who died of internal injuries. They were roommates, they were close friends, and I suspect that neither of them had any idea that you could actually kill someone with a pellet gun.

As the mother of a fifteen-year-old boy I read the original reports of this tragedy thinking that, given the inherent stupidity of most young men, I could easily be the mother of the shooter or the victim. My son is not of the “no thank you, Ned; if I have a drink my mum will be cross” variety. He is a full-tilt, incautious, heedless, energetic, juvenile embracer of dumb ideas, and also a person who has difficulty saying “no” if it disappoints a friend. When the death occurred, I read the news stories and imagined myself first as the mother of the shooter and then as the mother of the victim. It was not a stretch in either case. It made me weep, then, sitting on the couch in my pajamas. I wept for the family whose son was so foolishly lost, I wept for the boy sitting in jail having shot his best friend, and I wept because it is such a terrifying, uncertain thing to love a child growing up and away from the perceived shelter of home.

This morning there was a story about the sentencing in the case. The shooter was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to at least three years in prison plus thousands of dollars in restitution. This seemed fair, if somewhat sad; manslaughter encompasses causing the death of another without intention but while acting recklessly. A crime was committed, and the law of this jurisdiction requires that the guilty party be punished.

As it turns out, the shooter had a very difficult early life. He was placed in foster care at the age of 8, returned by the fostering family and then placed with a foster parent who was convicted of photographing minors and selling their pictures on the internet. This was a kid who never had much of a chance, and whose bond with the victim was probably the most sustaining and important relationship in his life. The judge, a wise woman with children of her own, gave the lightest possible sentence because in her opinion it was “what the victim would have wanted.” They were friends, they were both smoking the same stuff and playing with the same gun, and it could have gone either way.

Then there was the part of the story that stopped me cold. The victim’s mother was quoted as saying that the shooter should have received the maximum sentence, and that she had not wanted her son to move in with him because of his background. “He told me ‘he’s not that bad, mom’” she said. I got that part. I imagined my own son moving in with the kind of “sad case” friend he has been making since second grade. Would I try to stop him? I might, if I thought that there was something in the other young man’s baggage that was dangerous. If he had a record of violence, if I knew there was a substance abuse issue, or even if there was a high likelihood of appearances by sketchy family members I would try to dissuade him.

Then there’s that other thing. If something terrible, unimaginable happened and I lost my own boy in a similar accident would I want maximum retribution? Would it make me feel better for even a single second to know that some other boy was spending years in prison? I can’t know, but I’m pretty sure that retribution would not bring me a moment’s peace. I have never felt that impulse for revenge, even when I have been grievously wronged and had every right to wish for my pain to be felt by the wrongdoer. It’s not religious doctrine, or ethics that shapes my feelings; it’s a matter of hard wiring. I am a forgiver, always conscious of my own failings and transgressions. Often, in my experience, the person who harms me is driven by demons so insidious and cruel that refusing forgiveness would be both pointless and immoral. It would not hurt that person, and it would not help me to heal.

And so I can still look at this tragedy and say to myself “there but for the grace of God goes my family.” I have wept again, for the boy sitting in prison with nothing but time to think about the fact that he killed his best friend, and I have wept for the family that lost a son. I have faced again the reality that we cannot wrap our beloved children in bubble wrap and protect them from the dangers of this world. I have felt wrenching pity for a woman who genuinely believes that her sorrow would be assuaged by an eye for an eye, the lost life of another boy to compensate her for the hole in her own grieving heart. I have, I admit, judged her for failing to see that the shooter is also a victim in need of love and compassion.

It is impossible to imagine the savage pain that woman feels, or how blindly she grasps for anything that might give even a moment of relief. Perhaps, in time, she will see that there is still a boy, a living boy who has no family and whose life might be immeasurably improved by forgiveness. Maybe her heart will remain hard, and the scab of bitterness and anger will make her feel safe and righteous in a world she no longer recognizes.

I don’t understand her, but I forgive her.


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I don't want to know what I would do in this situation - I hope I would forgive but I don't know - the loss of a child I think would be so profoundly painful I'm not sure how I would be - R
Very sad story. It is scary being the mother of a boy. (And, I am sure a girl - a mother, period!) I think I would initially want to kill the other kid myself, then I would forgive. That's my usual MO...Maybe if enough people forgive him, the young man who remains will use this as a wake-up call and not as a life-destroying event.
This reminds me of a story someone once told me. In the army, he was horsing around. He stuck the cleaning rod of his rifle in the barrel and aimed it at his friend. He was sure if he shot it, the rod wouldn't go far. After all, it was nothing like a bullet. At the last minute, he chose to aim at the wall, next to his friend. The rod imbedded itself in the cement wall. The friend laughed. The shooter commented that he'd never had the guts to admit how close he'd been to aiming at the friend.

Stupid? Yep. And very nearly fatally stupid. The shooter, now a middle-aged adult, is (now) smart, sensible, and all-around a good guy.
So incredibly sad. Forgiveness is a quality I work towards on a daily basis. ~r
Because my son would want forgiveness, I would not call for "the maximum." I would hold out that the shooter's life would be forever changed by forgiveness.
Such a sad case, and such a wonderful piece, Ann! Forgiveness — so powerful, so life-changing — seems to be in such short supply these days.
I understand how you think about this. I know everyday is a gift and I remind my kids of that. They are finally at the point where I think they understand this better than I did at their age. We have no control over what happens to anyone, forgiveness is a worthy gift and sorrow not absolved by revenge. In time we see things that we cannot see in the moment and if we are believers we have something to find comfort in besides an eye for an eye.
As whatever the latest study concluded, our brains are not fully developed until we're 24, when full capacity for risk assessment is realized. Or something close to that.
As the mother of a son, I really related to this article. I have also been watching the sentencing of the boy who videotaped his roommate kissing a man, and his roommate jumped off the George Washington Bridge. The boy never apologized, yet his mother made an impassioned pleas for her boy in front of the judge. I have NO idea what I would do on either side of this terrible situation.
If the boy in prison has a change of luck, he might emerge as a better person. Odds are against him but all we can do is hope for him and maybe help him find a job and a chance for some education when he gets out.
I do not believe all should be forgiven, but in this case, a clear accident I can forgive this boy. But the victim's mother, that is her choice and I'm not sure how I would feel if this has been my child that died. I cannot say I would be so forgiving on that side. A true tragedy for all in this case. And you said he grew up without much of a chance, imagine his chances now as he beats himself up over this accident along with the others who will join him. So sad.
Such a sad story. Any of can say "there but for the grace of God go I". "we cannot wrap our beloved children in bubble wrap " But we never give up trying!!
Ann, I agree...things can happen so quickly, and go either way. What that young man went through growing up is heartbreaking. I hope his life will turn around, and that he will find a good path.

There but for the grace of God, so true. My kids have been in situations that still make me wake up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding. I just keep trying to set healthy limits, keep communicating, try to set a good example...and just hope and pray, lots. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful post.
This is a tragedy. I hope her son's words echo in her heart until she can forgive this young man. It sounds like his fate is sealed now. Going to prison, what will happen to him?
Forgiveness is the only way to become free of the terrible event, to release it. The incident in the news now about the boy who jumped from the bridge is made worse by the total lack of remorse of the young man who stood trial for invading his privacy. How do you forgive that? I don't know - I just know you try.
We all live seconds away from accidents. At any minute, anywhere we could find ourselves guilty of second degree murder. Texting while driving is one of those "things". This is a sad story. Hopefully the mother of the slain son, will embrace the other. It is probably the only way he will ever be able to live with himself.
Forgiveness (which implies judgment) is not up to us mortals but I believe making peace is, and reconciling comes with trying to understand even if you don't agree at all, at all. I hope she will see your way too when her wounds are a little less raw. r
I lean toward the side of forgiveness, but that is easy for us to say, since it is not our son who has been killed. The grief that mother who lost her son must feel is enough to make anybody lose their perspective for a while. I have a feeling she will come around eventually and will forgive the poor kid who now sits in prison. What a tragedy.

Ann,such a sad,heartbreaking story..Forgiveness...I do not know...I do not know if I can first forgive myself..which I choose not to...If only our only choice was good...and bad was a ρeriod of illness like the flue...Rated~!!Thank you for making me think!!
I've watched my children make dozens of incredibly stupid choices. I don't want to think about the ones I didn't watch or know about.

I can't place myself in this mother's head, and of course she's entitled to grieve in her own way...and she may come around to forgiveness. I think she will. It's too hard otherwise. But if it were me, I would wonder what my son would want and try to honor his wishes.
i'm not big on forgiveness, but i am trying to deal with that lack by not being too judgy on the front end. the longer i live, the more i see more than right/wrong, that people and situations have lots of angles and sides and complications. i'm with you on not having much of a revenge impulse - mostly because i'm unsure that punishment (like jail time; i'm not talking about punishing kids' bad behavior) changes much. the folks who should be in jail are the ones who are dangerous, imo. great writing here, annie.
This cuts close to home...My son was sent away on a bicycle, drunk, by his friend's mom and wound up in the hospital. I wanted retribution until I realized she was me and I was her. We all make mistakes, some more horrific than others. But punishment seldom heals.
Everyone likes the concept of forgiveness, but it seems that before there can be the reality of forgiveness, there must be acceptance. Hypothetical forgiveness is just an idea. Unless an experience belongs to you, it isn't yours to accept, and imagining the experience is a pathway to judgment.

I share this firsthand, as there are a couple of things pending acceptance on my own table, not quite ready to advance to the forgiveness shelf. If you'd described them a few years ago in a hypothetical futuristic way, I'd have liked to believe in my ability to accept them, no sweat. We may think we'd react this way or that, but the truth is, it isn't possible to know. The year I was being treated for cancer, I was the angriest most reactive person, a real b*tch, and no one was more shocked than I was. Where did that woman come from? Where did she go? Not far, I'd guess. I'm pretty sure if someone murdered my child, she'd return.