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Our Violent Children

“The Kabbalah of Bling,”
Yona Verwer,

When Adam Lanza murdered 20 schoolchildren and 6 adults in Newtown, Connecticut — including himself and his own mother — parents everywhere hearing the news tried to imagine how they could keep their own children safe if there were a “next time.” But some parents had another, deeper fear as well: the fear that a child of theirs might be the potential perpetrator of such a violent act.

“I love my son. But he terrifies me,” wrote Liza Long, in “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” her haunting account of parenting a violence-prone child. Her piece went viral on the Internet. It turns out there are many parents able to imagine a child who, like Long’s son, phones from an inpatient psychiatric unit saying, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.” And many of the same parents could also imagine getting the call she received from her hospitalized son three days later, when “he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better.”

The parents of violent children have much anguish and few resources. Liza Long practically sobs it out: “No one wants to send a 13-year-old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health.” In the Jewish community this conversation has been stalled in part by parental shame, guilt and a sense of alienation from others who all appear to have “perfect” children. But some parents have found Jewish resources as they frantically try to understand and protect their loved but frightening boys.

Interestingly, no aggressive daughters surfaced in this admittedly limited sample of parents willing to speak — most anonymously — about their families. Perhaps, as research shows, females tend to turn their rage inward, with self-harming behaviors like cutting. Here, five brave Jewish mothers of violent sons speak out, not selflessly but as part of a bargain — their stories for your open ears.

Ilana Kramer is a writer and clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma. She lives in Brooklyn.

“He’d ask us to lock him in his room so he wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

Lucy Pritzker

My son always needed a lot of attention as a baby. He had separation anxiety earlier than most kids, and it never went away. He couldn’t sleep by himself. He couldn’t take no for an answer. He would perseverate; if there was something he wanted, he couldn’t move on. He didn’t make friends. If he saw a group of kids playing with a toy, he’d run over and steal it or kick them, instead of asking to join in. He hated transitions, and any change in routine. He held it together in school but would save it for us at home. The minute I’d pick him up, he’d be screaming, biting, cursing, pulling my hair. There would be physical tantrums for the whole rest of the afternoon. When my son was in first grade, we went to Jewish Family Services. They told us it was family dynamics, behavioral issues, and parenting issues, but no one could explain why he had this moodiness.

The summer after my son finished third grade in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, things got really, really bad. He was fascinated by the knives in our home and threatened to use them. We locked them up. He would beg us to hold him so he wouldn’t hurt himself. He would poke himself with sharp objects or ask us to lock him in his room so he wouldn’t hurt anyone else. There were a number of weeks we were restraining him for so long that we just couldn’t keep up with it. We were held hostage by his behaviors. He’s a good, good boy, and he didn’t want to live like that either.

That summer I made the hardest decision I ever had to make. Our family couldn’t maintain itself, our other kids had to stay with our parents. So that’s when we hospitalized him. Which did nothing. It took him out of our home, so we were safer, but he was in a psychiatric hospital, and his issues were seen as behavioral. One doctor said to him, “Where did you get the idea that acting this way gets you what want?” And he said, “I’m not doing it to get what I want.” After 10 days in the hospital, he came out with the same symptoms, so he himself asked to go back in. I started to focus on finding alternatives to hospitals, because the hospitalizations were more traumatic than the behaviors. We ended up in a residential treatment center in Texas, the first place that saw this as a neurobehavioral issue, rather than a parenting issue. When he began unraveling again at home, we started thinking that he’s is a kid who’s able to maintain himself in a structured environment that even the best parent can’t provide. We took him off his medication the summer he was 10. People disagreed. Psychiatrists disagreed. But even though he was still irritable, moody, and oppositional, he didn’t rage anymore.

We enrolled him in a private school, the Hampshire Country School, in New Hampshire, for gifted boys who can’t maintain themselves in a traditional school setting. He gets a lot of adult attention and structure — small dorms, four or five boys with a dorm parent. It’s not a therapeutic boarding school, but it is a boarding school that’s therapeutic. My son is 13 now, and six of the 20 kids in his school are Jewish. Jewishness is always part of who he is; he loves tradition because he loves the laws and what he can and cannot eat. (He sometimes keeps kosher at school, and other times is too hungry, he says.) One of the staff members helps him study for 10 minutes a day for his parsha. There’s a tutor who comes to the school to teach him for his bar mitzvah in 2 months, on the campus. It’s going to be me, my husband, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and staff.

We were Conservative, but belong to a Reform synagogue now. Our Temple Sholom of Fanwood, New Jersey, was very open about what they could do to help us. When the rabbi and his son came to our home with a freshly baked challah, it was so nice. I remember my son holding the warm challah. We would get phone calls from Jewish families, people calling, saying “I have a brother like this.” People did offer help and came forward. I made a point of speaking out in my temple community and beyond. That’s what kept us going. My first instinct was to feel shame, but I couldn’t let that happen, because I knew it wasn’t a shameful thing. There are kids whose needs can’t be met by local services. One thing we had to come to grips with was that we couldn’t provide it within our family. I think our mental health system is about family preservation, keeping kids at home and delivering services there. But for us, family preservation was about having his needs met outside the home to preserve our family. I was so afraid he wouldn’t be close to his siblings, but the opposite is true. We’re closer. We’ve preserved the relationship.

“He got the message that if you exhibit violence, you’re in trouble.”

Marjory Newman*

If anyone can benefit from our suffering, I am willing to share our experience.

My father was mentally ill, and when my mother wanted to leave him, her family’s response was, “It would be a shanda — a shame — in front of the goyim.” I understood as a little girl that if I went forward and spoke about being sexually abused by my father I would be judged badly as the daughter of such a man. I understood this hierarchy of the Jewish community. As a child, I was very involved. I belonged to a Conservative shul, and derived a lot of strength from this, but not because I brought my problems there. There’s a difference between deriving benefit and seeking help.

My own son became a lightning rod for a dysfunctional family. He was highly irritable and cried for the first nine months, and I was an overwhelmed mother, so that’s how my relationship first formed. I had periods of bonding, and loving times, but his temper tantrums began at age four. I never adequately dealt with the abuse by my father, so it was difficult when rage was directed at me by my own child. My interior experience was that of a frightened little girl, not a mother who knew how to handle him.

My son had learning disabilities, and as he got older, the violence got worse. By 15, he was out of control with a mood disorder, attentional disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. Part of it was we didn’t set proper boundaries; he refused medication, and we did not take steps where he would have been required to take it. It was also the mental health system, his biochemistry, and us not knowing how to handle the stresses of a mood disorder and a learning disability. He has no doubt that I loved him, but I was a flawed mother.

* Names with an asterisk are pseudonyms.


The very worst thing he ever did was pull a knife on me. I would never have had a gun in the house. I called the cops and he ended up going to the E.R. and having a psychiatric evaluation. I didn’t bring criminal charges, but he got the message that if you exhibit violence, you’re in trouble. Another time, the cops put him in straight jacket. That traumatized him. Another time he punched in the wall. I recognized that his behavior was extremely dangerous. I agonized over the idea of involuntary commitment, and I didn’t do it. With hindsight, I should’ve done it.

He managed to make friends in elementary school that he’s still very close with. Thank God he was able to have a peer group. I think his ability to form a close circle of friends saved him from acting out beyond the confines of our home. If he’d had only the taunting from others for his special needs, then we might have, God forbid, a kid who went beyond. While we were lucky that no one was injured from my son’s rages, I felt that we just weren’t getting adequate help. Our story is not simply about a mother or parents who didn’t make the right decisions. I was well aware of the limitations of the mental health system. I often received conflicting advice. There were many occasions when the school did not implement his IEP because they lacked the resources or did not have people capable of doing what needed to be done.

And I never would have gone to the Jewish community — because of my sense of being judged. In the worst of it, I did go to the rabbi at our temple, and he was very responsive; he even came to the house, and did not make me feel ashamed. On an individual basis, the rabbi was appropriate and caring. But the Jewish community was different. I was very involved in local Jewish organizations and in a professional community as an attorney, and I wanted to hide, hide, hide. All the things that the Jewish community values… I couldn’t rest on my children’s laurels. I was very aware of that. The values and standards held by the Jewish community isolated me, because my children couldn’t meet them.

In Judaism, there is this notion of tikkun olam that each of us has an obligation to repair the world, individually and systemically in the community. Practically, I rolled up my sleeves, consulted with experts, researched the problem, wrote about my own experiences, and that Jewish value of problem solving and learning offset some of the feelings of powerlessness, despair, and shame.

“He’s an adult now, and I decided to walk away from him”

Ellie Shapiro*

I like to think I was a good mother, but my son told the psychologist that I didn’t love him. Growing up in Israel, he didn’t want me kissing or hugging him. It was hard to get around him — if I put him in his room, he said he liked it in there. When he was a teenager we credited the behavior to puberty — you know, “difficult teenage years,” but two incidents stood out as extremely severe, and then everything backfired.

When our son was 16, he failed his driving test, and was so upset that he stopped going to school. He stopped eating — at least with us. He would go through the food in the fridge with his fingers in the middle of the night, and we’d see the signs in the morning. He would barricade himself in his room whenever he was home. It was the most unusual thing I’d ever seen. We had the school principal and the psychiatrist come to our home. Nothing worked. Then after two and a half months of this, he walks into the living room and asks to borrow the car. Well, he had passed his test, unbeknownst to us. It was the first time we saw danger. He asked for my car as if nothing had happened. That was a red light.

The second warning sign came when I left the country to be with my dying father. After one month, I sold my part of the family business. When my son found out, there was a lot of verbal abuse. He said, “How could you? That was my money.” The week of shiva, I was devastated, and my son shoved me across the room. I’ll never forget that. It was the illness manifesting itself.

At age 25, while visiting relatives in another city, he assaulted a policeman and was taken to jail. It’s heartbreaking to see your soft-spoken boy in such a marginal society. We flew to him to jail with a letter testifying that he had a personality disorder. We told him he could come back to us, but only on condition he went to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist called it “schizophrenia simplex,” not full-blown schizophrenia. But my son refused to go consistently. My son was unable to act in the society as you and I can act. 

Soon after he moved home, he attacked my husband, and I remember being so scared I wet my pants. We bought him his own apartment, and he met his wife, who was a godsend to us, but he wasn’t going to the psychiatrist anymore, and the situation just deteriorated. He had delusions and was violent. Last year, he attempted to murder his wife, and when I helped her go to the police and he learned the full story during court proceedings, he left threatening phone calls, blaming me for contacting the police.

Last summer, I had a heart attack, and because of that I decided to walk away from my son and his schizophrenia. I cannot help him. Only he can help himself. He is capable of making decisions. For 18 years my husband and I tried everything, and he always came back to square one because he refuses to take medication. As long as he refuses to go for help or take medication, I realize there is nothing I am able to do.

The way I got help for myself was to talk — a support group is vitally important. I used good friends when I needed to cry. There is no shame — I have a sick son, and that’s the bottom line. It’s very sad for us. But there is no blame, only wonder: Did I cause it? It doesn’t matter, it’s what we have today.

“We drove to the yeshiva, and I told him, ‘You hit me once, and it’s once too many.’”

Rivkah Miller*

I read that “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” piece and thought, I could’ve written that. I left my son’s father when the boy was four years old, and his father was back in his life at seven. That’s when my son became suicidal. Even before that, he didn’t know what to do with his emotions, and I could see he was struggling with them, so I started him in therapy at five and half. When he became suicidal, he used to go to the roof and threaten to jump. I told him it was my job as his mom to keep him safe, and if he kept doing this, I’d have to take him to the hospital.

When he was eight, we went to a friend’s house for Shabbos. This family lived on the 15th floor and he threatened to jump, and I realized I couldn’t control him. It was on Yom Tov, a religious holiday, but I looked at my friend and said, “You take my other two kids.” I picked him up, took my car keys and wallet, and I said, “We’re going, I’m taking you to the hospital.” I pressed the elevator button, and he watched me break every law — holding money, using the elevator, driving the car — just to keep him safe. That was the last time he threatened suicide.

But by age nine, my son’s rage turned outward toward me and sometimes toward his siblings. The only reason he could turn his anger outward, and not hurt himself, was because of his therapist. That summer I found him a Jewish sleepaway Boy Scout camp that I thought he would really enjoy. They called me after a week and said, ‘You have to come pick him up.” The next day on the phone, he was calm as anything and very loving. He told me, “Nothing happened, Mommy. All I did was swore.” But he goes into insanity. At camp, he had threatened, “I’m going to hurt you guys, I’m going to run away.”

Eleven was the breaking point. the year he became more violent. He hit me, and my first reaction was to hit him back, but I stopped myself. My own therapist said to get him out of the house. I asked my neighbor, “Can my son sleep over tonight?” I told him, “Right now I’m too angry at you and I’m going to hurt you, so you need to leave.” He went to the neighbors, and the next day to school. That’s when I called the police. The police said they could write it up, and that was the hardest thing I had to do, to open a police file on my son. We drove to the yeshiva, and I called him out of class. I told him, “You hit me once, and it’s once too many.”

When he was 13, he went into one of his fits. We never knew what would trigger him. He’s an outdoorsy boy, and had an outdoor knife. He started walking around the house with the knife. I told him, “You have to put your knife away,” and he took the plate of food one of my other children had prepared for Mother’s Day and threw it across the floor. I told my two other kids to leave the house, and I called the cops. My neighbors went crazy that I called the cops. But the cops have people trained in domestic violence. One said to me, “We usually come in when blood is gushing, and that could’ve happened here.” He asked me what made me call early, before the bloodshed. I knew it would only get worse. He could never use that knife again. I threw it out. The police told my son the potential consequences. My son thought I was crazy, but it was the last time he was ever, ever violent. I took him out of his Jewish day school in sixth grade and I ended up finding a Jewish program with a lot of exercise for 7th and 8th grade kids at risk for being at risk.

* Names with an asterisk are pseudonyms.


I think the frum community believes that our Jewish children are not violent, and that we have a better understanding and we have better control over our children than in mainstream culture. When I found a Jewish school for at-risk boys, the teachers at my son’s former school said, “What are you doing to your son? You’re stigmatizing him.” Meanwhile, the rabbis were saying my son wasn’t that bad, and why would I do that? I raised $50,000 to get him to stay in this alternative school. I asked the community for money, the shul, friends of friends. I was that desperate. I wish the frum community would open their eyes around this. There’s so much silence. Instead of stigmatizing our children, we should be creating schools for children at risk. We forget that emotional health comes first, and everything else is secondary. The day my son pulled a knife and I called the police, my neighbors were furious, they went to the rabbi of our shul and complained that “The single mom is crazy.” Their issue was that I called the police in my Jewish community and showed others that our children are whatever they are. But these neighbors didn’t show up at my home and say, “Maybe we can help?” The only thing they did was run to the rabbi and say how insane I was.

Now when he’s angry, my son gets on his bike and rides it. I tell him, there’s nothing wrong in feeling violent, it’s how you control it. I don’t know why I’m so lucky that my son turned around, but I know the times he saw me breaking the norms — driving on Shabbos, calling the cops — that’s when the shift happened.

“He got paranoid. He threatened to stop being Jewish. Then he fell in love with Nazis.”

Anita Berg*

My son was born with a range of developmental disabilities, and needed therapy to help him walk, eat, speak, and understand what people were saying. By the time he was 11, he’d had 10 different diagnoses. Aspergers? HFA (High Functioning Autism)? ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)? From 18 months, he would scream inexplicably from something later diagnosed as sensory integration disorder. By the time he was five, social situations also seemed to trigger rages that were like storms. He would burst out angry, sobbing, “Mommy I want to kill myself. There is this monster inside of me.”

By the time he was nine, his anger was getting physical. Once he tried to choke a seven-year-old girl who was teasing him. When he wasn’t like that he was so sweet, it was very complex for us to understand the violent outbursts.

We felt we had a terrific network of friends, but as the issues became worse, we withdrew. What happens is that you are just not invited anywhere. Extended family members would say, “Why can’t you control your son? I remember the deadening, heartbreaking moment when my sister told me we could no longer come to her seder. She actually said: “I could never have a Seder with your kids.” Imagine!

At home when I tried to calm him, he started pushing me, getting violent. At school, kids got a kick out of making him explode, but his reactions were becoming a serious danger to everyone, including himself. By seventh grade, our son was labeled with Aspergers.

We fought the school board to fund a placement into a residential program, which his current school recommended. On his first night, he witnessed a kid taken to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Our son’s roommate was low-functioning autistic, and had been abandoned. In our boy’s mind, he would be next. No one at the school was trained in Aspergers treatment. After all the evaluations, no one was closer to helping solve our son’s illness, or helping him move safely into society.

We took him out of boarding school, moved to Ohio, and decided to put him into mainstream school. He had a high average IQ and would be repeating ninth grade. With support from a therapist, he seemed to grow socially just by being around neurotypical people. But on another level, he began experiencing anti-Semitism coming from other kids that made him feel ashamed of being Jewish. Kids threw coins at his feet at Rosh Hashanah, and at Pesach. Some kids called him a Christ killer. My son wanted very badly to have friends, yet he was frightened because he knew about the Holocaust. He had always loved building the sukkah, but at Sukkot that year, he ran out into the backyard and screamed, “Take that down! Someone will see it, and they might hurt us!” His paranoia worsened, and in December he said, “If you put up Hanukkah lights, I will stop being Jewish.” We didn’t know how serious he was. After we were finished, he came downstairs very quietly, and said, “I don’t give a fuck what you Jews want to do.” After that, he refused to come to Shabbas dinner until the lighting of the candles was over. And then, he fell in love with Nazis. This was astonishing and terrifying and I had nobody to talk to. I had nobody to get help from. The Jewish community here said, “I don’t believe it.”

Now we know he has a very severe anxiety disorder. At the time, it was just really terrifying to suddenly have a son who was not only verbally threatening, prone to rages, but now spewing anti-Semitic remarks, working hard to make friends with classmates by sharing racial slurs towards other groups.

Even with all this posturing, he was still socially “off.” In tenth grade, this is when the hitting started. He felt he had a girlfriend, and saw her kissing someone else. When he hit me the first time, he hit my arm and this escalated to the point that I was afraid of him. He was like a roaring lion, he got right up in my face, he pushed me to make me do what he wanted to do. My husband was afraid to leave me when he had to go away for trips. One day, my son broke down my door, and I was terrified. At that point, my extended family knew, and they were very afraid for my life.

At school, there was sympathy for him as a special needs student, but when we sought help for his more violent behavior, I didn’t want to tell the school because my instinct was that if they knew, he’d lose that sympathy.

Soon after, we called the hospital because he was threatening suicide. I told the ER about the abuse, and our son was put into a psych ward for 30 days. I had to fight to keep him at hospital. I told them, it is still not safe for him to come home, but they said he’s fine. After 30 days, they sent him home, so I moved out for a month for my safety. They told me, “The only way to get him more help is if he hits you again.” There’s really no protection for the battered parent. Zero. Nada.

The response of authorities drives parents underground, and leaves families in worse shape. Four months later, he hit me in the head and I called it in. The social workers described him as a batterer. No one considered whether our son had initiated violence, or only reacted to the behavior of others. I’ll never forget one social worker who said, “He’ll be behind bars in a couple years.” I was certain he wasn’t a monster, but something in the environment was overwhelming him.

He was kicked out of high school because he was seen as a threat. Finally, we found a contained classroom within a larger school where he had an option to move into mainstream, and someone came in to give him speech and language services. He’s 20 now, and the happy news is, he’s graduating from high school this year. I know he is not a batterer, but he is reactive and very insecure.

There is one thing that was and still is shockingly absent, which is Jewish — based treatment facilities. We had been very connected to our different temple communities. Over time I discovered that many Jewish families in my shul had these “dirty little secrets” of kids who had struggled with drugs or out of control behavior or developmental disabilities, and people just didn’t tell anyone, because there was no public acknowledgement that these behavioral illnesses exist in the Jewish community and help is available.

And God help you if you are an adoptive Jewish family, as are several of the friends I met in my Asperger parents support group. Then the Jewish community really questioned whether your child was “the bad seed” — the implication was that behavior like that could never come out of a Jewish womb.

The Conservative and Reform movements must step forward and create therapeutic residential programs, outpatient and parent support programs, online forums, and training for shuls so families can figure out how to be involved in Shabbat and even get respite care to attend. Yes — respite care! Is there respite care from the Jewish community? Zilch, nada, zero. And there needs to be a lot of education for everyone that parents of out of control kids are not the cause of the kids behavior. 

* Names with an asterisk are pseudonyms. 

© 2011 Lilith Magazine