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When I heard the news about Adam Lanza and the murder of the school children in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, it triggered flashbacks to an event that touched me many years ago – a mentally ill woman who had attempted to murder her children.

Norristown State Mental Hospital

Norristown State Mental Hospital

Why would a mother club her young children and leave them for dead? Severe depression? Paranoid schizophrenia? Hallucinations? This mother was admitted to the Norristown State Mental Hospital sometime in the early 1940s. She was convinced her children were dead and that she had killed them. In reality her children had survived.

By the 1950s when the hospital’s population totaled 4,700 patients this mom was still locked up in a ward. (By 2008 this hospital remained in operation but had only 204 beds.) By that year there would probably not be a room for this mother. She would have been placed indefinitely in a locked up floor of a regular hospital, put in prison, treated with drugs, and eventually released on mind controlling drugs for the rest of her life. She would probably stop taking them. She might even have tried again to murder her children or someone else’s.

My mom had started working as an occupational therapist at the Norristown State Mental Hospital in the fall of 1960. She met this other mother in her art class. Mom took a special interest in her, perhaps because Mom had three kids of her own, and wondered at a woman who would try to murder her own children.

This woman’s living children were brought to see their mother in the mental hospital every weekend for years. The mother regularly denied they were her children stating, “My children are dead. I murdered them.”

One Sunday that fall as the squirrels were packing away their nut stores for winter we picked up this mother from the mental hospital and took her to church. I still remember watching her from the safety of the back seat. I was nervous, but she was a zombie, probably on heavy duty drugs. I guessed I had nothing to fear.
Suddenly Mom and I noticed a cute, fluffy-tailed squirrel hustling across the road. Mom exclaimed, “What a darling little squirrel!”

In that same heartbeat the squirrel made its fatal mistake, turning around and running directly under our car’s front wheel. There was a sickening thud. Mom and I were horrified and gazed furtively at the woman riding with us, afraid of what she might do. The mother sat frozen in a semi-catatonic state. She could not feel any more pain. Her cup of pain and self-loathing was already full. There was no way she could care about that squirrel squashed in an instant on the asphalt. Her children were dead, after all. What was the life of one squirrel?

In the spring of 1961 my mom was fired from her job as occupational therapist. (Yes, this is the same mom who had been kicked out of a church for talking about hell.) Turns out, she had committed the unpardonable sin of talking about God to an inmate of a state mental hospital. She told that poor mother that Jesus, God’s only Son, had died in her place, had carried the awful burden of her murder in his own murderous death.

The mother prayed for God to forgive her and accepted his free gift of forgiveness. The unbearable guilt that she could never let go, for which she could never forgive herself, was washed away.

The next weekend her grown children, the ones she had tried to murder and believed were dead for twenty years, came to visit as usual. It was then a most unusual thing took place. The mother held them, calling them her children for the first time since she had beaten them unconscious many years earlier.

When the psychiatrists found out that the mother now knew her children, and that she now believed Jesus had forgiven her, they called in my mother and fired her. I don’t know if the mother relapsed. I doubt she was ever allowed to leave the mental hospital. My mother went back to teaching school. Her job was finished at the Norristown State Mental Hospital, and it ended in victory.

For fifty years since that decade, the state of Pennsylvania has been failing to meet the needs of the criminally insane. Hundreds of mental asylums have been closed. Where does this leave these desperately needy people? It leaves them to live on the streets, discontinue their needed drugs, commit suicide and, worst of all, innocently commit horrific crimes on parents, little children and neighbors. This Church Lady wonders, but in her wandering she finds a star of hope.

“I Wonder As I Wander” Gretchen Peters

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18 thoughts on “Adam Lanza Triggers “Church Lady” Flashback

  1. Hi Paula,

    I’ve never heard of depression alone as causing someone to commit violent acts against others. I think there would have to be some other factor involved. Here’s an excerpt of a summary of a recent study:

    In a recent study by Silverstein et al, 2008, researchers assessed 12,764 mother-child pairs to determine the combined impact of maternal depression and violence exposure on physical punishment practices. Over the course of a two-year study, each mother-child pair was assigned to 1 of 4 categories: absence of maternal depressive symptoms and violence, presence of depressive symptoms only, violence only, or both depressive symptoms and violence. Teachers assessed children’s self-control and externalizing behaviors: attention problems, aggressive behavior, and rule-breaking actions.

    The study revealed that maternal depressive symptoms and violence between adult partners were associated with an increased likelihood of physical punishment. If co-existent, these two exposures were associated with greater likelihood of physical punishment. Among mothers reporting physical punishment, there was no statistically significant association between maternal depression or violence exposure alone with frequency of spanking, after controlling for child behaviors; however, when maternal depression and violence exposure were present together, mothers tended to report a higher frequency of physical punishment regardless of child behavior. http://www.womensmentalhealth.org/posts/maternal-depression-in-home-violence-and-use-of-physical-punishment/

    Silverstein M, Augustyn M, Young R, Zuckerman R. The relationship between maternal depression, in-home violence and use of physical punishment: What is the role of child behaviour? Arch. Dis. Child. published online 11 Sep 2008. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1446555?ordinalpos=6&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

    Anthony

    • p.s. I’m not implying that you think depression alone was the sole cause. My comment is directed to people who believe mental illness generally predisposes people to commit violent acts.

      Hi Paula,

      I’ve never heard of depression alone as causing someone to commit violent acts against others. I think there would have to be some other factor involved. Here’s an excerpt of a summary of a recent study:

      In a recent study by Silverstein et al, 2008, researchers assessed 12,764 mother-child pairs to determine the combined impact of maternal depression and violence exposure on physical punishment practices. Over the course of a two-year study, each mother-child pair was assigned to 1 of 4 categories: absence of maternal depressive symptoms and violence, presence of depressive symptoms only, violence only, or both depressive symptoms and violence. Teachers assessed children’s self-control and externalizing behaviors: attention problems, aggressive behavior, and rule-breaking actions.

      The study revealed that maternal depressive symptoms and violence between adult partners were associated with an increased likelihood of physical punishment. If co-existent, these two exposures were associated with greater likelihood of physical punishment. Among mothers reporting physical punishment, there was no statistically significant association between maternal depression or violence exposure alone with frequency of spanking, after controlling for child behaviors; however, when maternal depression and violence exposure were present together, mothers tended to report a higher frequency of physical punishment regardless of child behavior. http://www.womensmentalhealth.org/posts/maternal-depression-in-home-violence-and-use-of-physical-punishment/

      Silverstein M, Augustyn M, Young R, Zuckerman R. The relationship between maternal depression, in-home violence and use of physical punishment: What is the role of child behaviour? Arch. Dis. Child. published online 11 Sep 2008. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1446555?ordinalpos=6&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

      Anthony

  2. This morning I read the best overview of the key issues in this latest, horrific case of random mass shootings. Here is the link:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323723104578185271857424036.html
    It is an article by David Kopel in the WSJ called “Gun, Mental Illness and Newtown.” Kopel clearly identifies several issues including the one I attempted to make, namely that we need mental hospitals.

    I think it is obvious I was dealing with this catastrophe at a gut level based on a bizarre experience from my teen years. There are no miracle fixes, but I think I described some things that help.

  3. It’s so early at this point in time, but can anyone deny it will be a magnificent reunion when the parents of the slain children of Newtown embrace their children again in Paradise? What a wonderful place to be raised!

    • I guess that’s begging the question. Since I don’t believe such a reunion will take place, I can’t say it will be magnificent. But I don’t wish to start a theological debate — don’t have the time/energy, or desire…

      • Anthony, my “church lady” stories aren’t theological. They are real life and some are very hard to deal with emotionally. What astounded me was that my mom was able to reach out and love this damaged woman who so desperately needed that acceptance and a sense that she could be forgiven for trying to kill her own children. I actually first wrote about the memory when I was in a place in my own life a few years back where I needed to sense the amazing grace of God expressed toward all of us.

      • Hi Paula,

        I wasn’t responding to your story. I was responding to the follow-up comment, “It’s so early at this point in time, but can anyone deny it will be a magnificent reunion when the parents of the slain children of Newtown embrace their children again in Paradise? What a wonderful place to be raised!” Since the comment raised a question implying everyone shares the same beliefs (“can anyone deny?”), I was responding merely to that theological assumption. Your story was quite moving.

        Anthony

  4. “When the psychiatrists found out that the mother now knew her children, and that she now believed Jesus had forgiven her, they called in my mother and fired her.”
    That is our life, but never gives up.
    This is a probe for us to become acceptable the greatest gift the eternal LIFE to us. For that reasons we are on the way to and with Him helping by Holy Spirit and Our Queen.
    Have Blessed Peaceful Christmas.
    The Star is bearing for us and of course for them in the story.
    Bela

    • We never knew how the rest of that woman’s life turned out. But we reach out where we are planted to share love with others. My mom did this over and over in her lifetime. She had a stroke at age 75 and lived 5 more years at my home and my brother’s far from her last place where she lived. But we had a memorial service for her back where she came from. About 150 people showed up to remember her. So many stood and shared how she had changed their lives through her sharing Jesus Christ.

  5. Repeatedly I thank God that He alone is Eternal Judge of sin and confession. He alone knows the truth in a person’s heart and I am eternally grateful that the Holy Spirit wooed me to accept the gift of Salvation through Jesus Christ. Your mom lived her faith and shared it unconditionally; what a blessing she was (and continues to be) through her ministry. Lauran

  6. Paula,

    Thank you for your insightful blog. You choose keystone topics and bring a compassionate and practical Christianity to them. Good job!
    When I was a chaplain intern in the forensic mental hospital of last resort in Wisconsin my ‘duty station” was the assessment and treatment unit. This was the place the court would sent people who had attempted suicide but failed, because it was against the law to commit suicide in Wisconsin. After an attempt it was normal to be committed for 72 hours to determine if one were at risk of harming him-herself or others.

    My job was to be “present” the patients, asses their spiritual needs, make a care plan with an experienced chaplain (a Jesuit guistalt- trained chaplain &/or the floor psychologist or sociologist) , execute the plan, then assess the effectiveness.

    I had just lost my job as a gazer, so I spent 2-4 days on this internship with a one day requirement. I noticed a recurring theme in some of the suicide attempt patients. They had broken one or more of the capitol crime laws described in the Old Testament.

    I then suggested to my psychiatric supervisor a study to see if there were a correlation to the data in the Hebrew bible and suicide attempts. She was so angry with me! It took 2 weeks for her forget I had suggested the poor people may have been guilty of anything!
    One repeat offender had an itiology of eating silverware and slitting her wrist. The ER of the hospital had to remove spoons, etc from her digestive tract! Her parents were members of the church I went to, so I talked to them on the basis of our common faith.

    I gave them a list of the 18 capitol crimes and suggested they weave them into conversations to get insights into their daughter’s (adopted) motivations. Then I outlined the role of confession to Christ of the offenses and the Father’s forgiveness.

    The parents reported they had found some activities indicated in my list, proceeded according to the Biblical New Testament mandate, and we waited. The young lady did not come back to my unit, and her parents reported she seemed to be over her dark times.
    Studies such as I requested to do are often funded by a grant system. In past eras the church encouraged and funded such inquiry. I don’t know how they can be funded today.

    Much more could be said.

    The Druid

  7. I guess it depended on the society/government at the time. Some cultures, not Christian, still execute women for not dressing appropriately. I think we sometimes walk right by the amazing, world changing teachings of Jesus. His focus was on forgiveness, not punishment. Remember the woman about to be stoned to death? He said, “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.” No one threw a stone that day, and Jesus forgave the woman, telling her to change her lifestyle – no more adultery.

    • He actually did not say that. It is established beyond any doubt that the saying about casting the first stone was added to the gospels hundreds of years after they were written.

      –Anthony

  8. Anthony, you are amazing and brilliant. If I ever need a lawyer I will certainly hire you! I will take some time to look at the record. I think you may be correct, but going back to the concept, namely that followers of Christ were taught to be nonjudgemental and forgiving the point of the story must have fit Jesus’ teaching. More in a bit. I am taking Sunday off like a good church lady should!!!!

  9. I did a bit of reading as to why that story about the woman caught in adultery was not in the early manuscripts. Seems it was in a manuscript dated to the 2nd century, but mostly it was not in the earliest manuscripts. We know that all the gospel accounts were at first handed down orally and then written. If you think about the story, it is not something a disciple would make up. So I think it really happened. In fact I think the followers of Jesus didn’t want it in writing because it was so embarrassing and contradictory to Jewish law. I’ve always thought the most fascinating detail is the detail not there – who was this woman caught with? Some have speculated it was one of the religious leaders ready to stone her to death. Hum…the plot thickens. I would hate to see this story taken out of the book of John.

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