December
16th 2012
Gender, family life, and gun-fueled mass murder

Posted under: American history, childhood, class, Gender, students, unhappy endings, women's history

Over the past few days, I’ve been gratified to see and hear some in the news media start talking specifically about how all of these killers are men–most of them young, overwhelmingly white and also overwhelmingly socially isolated.  Inspired by this comment from Susan, I wondered this morning how many mothers and fathers of hypothetical 20-year old daughters who 1) had problems with school, 2) live at home, 3) don’t go to college and don’t have a job, and 4) are as completely isolated as this murderer appears to have been would not have sought some kind of counseling or mental health evaluation for their child?

I do not mean to engage in victim-blaming here (of the murderer’s mother).  My question is an honest one, and it jibes with a concern I’ve had for a long time about the different standards to which boys and girls are held by their parents.  Recently, it has struck me that daughters are held to much higher standards than sons are–higher behavioral and academic standards–and that this in the end has benefited girls.  This is one reason why I think we see women in the majority among college students and M.A. students in the U.S.  There are many high-achieving boys, but (anecdata, not a scientific sample) it seems to me that their parents (mothers, especially) are much more involved in managing their academic lives compared to their female peers.  Some women I know appear to serve as their sons’ academic and social concierges or personal assistants, whereas the mothers of daughters I know expect their daughters to take care of their own business and shift for themselves.  Again–I do not believe that this kind of draft on parental labor and concern in the end benefits the boys in the long run.

In sum, what I’m proposing is that a large part of the toxic culture of white/privileged masculinity is fed by parental permissiveness, so that what privileged boys learn as they grow up is that there are no limits or boundaries which they must respect.  Little boys are permitted to be more destructive in their play and in their relationships with others than little girls are.  Drug and alcohol abuse is more tolerated among bigger boys than among adolescent girls, not to mention the ownership and use of dangerous tools and weapons from pocket knives to semi-automatic rifles and handguns.  Poor academic performance is more tolerated among boys than girls–we’re told that the boys are just “different learners,” not meant to sit in academic classrooms quietly and obediently all day long.  (Never mind the hundreds of years of history in which only boys and young men were permitted to sit quietly and learn–and most of them did pretty well, and a damn sight better than their female peers who were excluded from classrooms entirely.)  Again–I don’t think this works to the advantage of these boys or the men they become. What I’m suggesting is that this permissiveness is bad for them, yes, but it’s also bad (and potentially dangerous) for everyone else.

I think that it is highly unlikely that parents would permit a daughter to become as entirely isolated and angry and anti-social as the murderer in Newton, Conn. was permitted to become.  Would schoolteachers and neighbors feel more empowered to speak up with their concerns (or their fears) about an isolated, strange teenaged girl or young adult woman?  Would social services have been more eager to intervene when faced with a teenaged girl so isolated?  Would parents have felt that it was more imperative that their daughter get help so as to overcome this isolation, because while isolation isn’t really valued in our culture, there are masculine social scripts and male roles of which isolation is a part (the computer nerd, the lone scientific or musical genius, etc.)?  It strikes me that to the contrary, women’s social isolation is read as pathological.

50 Comments »

50 Responses to “Gender, family life, and gun-fueled mass murder”

  1. academictacos on 16 Dec 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    This is what I’ve been waiting for someone to say. These mass murders are almost without fail perpetrated by young men. Some of my colleagues want to talk about anomie and “what are these poor guys missing in their lives that makes them so _angry_”, without pointing out that its _guys_. Maybe the thing they are missing is success without effort, which they feel largely guaranteed is owed to them because of the way they have been raised. In my own family, my father told my younger brother that being shiftless, doing poorly in school, being more concerned with other things was “how young men are at that age”; while at the same expecting, without assistance, academic success on my own female-y part.

    The result: my brother has struggled with “why can’t he get jobs”, “why can’t he make friends”, “why is still living at home”. He’s not alone either. Lots of young men today seem to have additional trouble taking off, and they haven’t been trained by parents to see that as something that they need to fix about themselves.

  2. Historiann on 16 Dec 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    Every time we have a mass murder in the U.S. (on a university campus, in a mall, in a church, in a school etc.) *I* anyway have written about the gendered component. Lots of people are suicidally depressed, but it’s only young and usually white men who feel entitled to kill a bunch of people before they shoot themselves.

    This is the first time I’ve tried to connect gender & masculinity to mental health treatment as well as what you identify as “success without effort,” or at least non-intervention in lives that clearly need some kind of direction and assistance. I’m glad it resonates with you, although I’m sorry that you have an example in your own family of what I’m taking about. Clearly, you are much better off than your brother, but I wonder if your parents saw it that way when they were busy NOT working him over as a child and teenager?

  3. Sisyphus on 16 Dec 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    While I don’t disagree with your argument per se, I think this is actually an issue of severe mental illness — something that is way too hard to understand or “fix” even today. I know how hard it is for families of people with psychosis or schizophrenia to change or control them and I don’t want them to be blamed for somehow being too permissive or just “spoiling” their kids who then go on to act out in horrible violent ways.

    This woman has a good description of how difficult it is, and how unhelpful our mental health care system can be:

    http://thebluereview.org/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother/

  4. Historiann on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    I can’t get your link to load up, Sisyphus–it looks very interesting & I wonder if she’s getting a lot of traffic today.

    This post is all about the mental illness issue. I wonder about why it is that young men are allowed not to get counseling or treatment. I understand that there is probably a supply issue of this kind of treatment as well as a demand problem. But it seems that the mental health system needs to consider ways to get more men into counseling and treatment, and more of the community needs to see this as an urgent problem as they would (I believe) if it were young women who were living such isolated and disconnected lives.

  5. Weekly Feminist Reader: Newtown Shooting Edition on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    [...] We don’t really have any idea if this applies in Lanza’s case but certainly true in general: Men’s social isolation is more accepted than women’s. [...]

  6. Lindsay on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    Hi, Historiann.

    I definitely think you have a point about masculine social scripts and different standards to which young men and young women are held, I also think you’re missing something important about Adam Lanza, something that would explain his mother’s acceptance of his isolation and not having a job or going to college.

    At first, it was just speculation, but now the newspaper articles I’m reading say the police *know* he had a diagnosis of Asperger’s.

    While I don’t carry that diagnosis myself — I was evaluated before it was added to the DSM, so instead I got the less descriptive catchall diagnosis of “Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified” — I have a lot in common with Lanza, circumstance-wise. I went to college, did well there, but stalled out afterwards. I applied for jobs I was qualified for, that were near enough (I cannot drive), and even interviewed for some, but none would take me. So I’ve been living at home, isolated, as he is, and I’m a little bothered by some of the comments here saying, “his mom should’ve been leaning on him more to get a job.” No. For all we know, she hounded him every single day; the unemployment rate of people on the autism spectrum is not known exactly, but it is really high. Even compared with other people with disabilities (who are, I’m sure you know, less likely to be employed than people without disabilities), autistic people do worse.

    People like him and me, who are of normal or greater intelligence, and high academic achievers, are paradoxically even worse off, because there are no services geared towards providing sheltered employment for us.

    We are not thought to need it.

  7. Liz on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    There’s another piece to the prevailing argument that boys/young men aren’t cut out to sit in the classroom. It’s that women have taken over the teaching profession, and as a result, schools are overly feminized, making them places where boys/young men aren’t cut out to learn. In this framing, girls make betters students because we’ve re-tooled the curriculum to teach girls. In other words, we as a society don’t demand that our sons recognized and submit to the authority of a feminized profession — not to female teachers, and certainly not to the(perceived as feminine) men who choose to teach.

    My brother and I also faced very different expectations from our parents, but I wouldn’t say the their overall expectations of him were lower. Academically, yes, he got by with much lower grades than they would tolerate from me. But at home (we farmed) he worked much harder, and carried much more responsibility far sooner than I did. Now I’m a grad student, and he didn’t go to college, but he is an entrepreneur, and a successful one at that. I don’t know what that means in the broad scheme of things, but I think my dad’s lower scholastic expectations for my brother were in large part because of the gender stuff I mention above.

  8. Leslie M-B on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    The essay Sisyphus describes was originally published here: http://anarchistsoccermom.blogspot.com/2012/12/thinking-unthinkable.html

  9. Historiann on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Sisyphus–I finally got that link to load up by following the link above to Feministing. They linked to this post obvs., but also to the “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” and to another link called “You are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother,” which argues with the premise and the conclusions of the first piece.

    I would say that it surely is terrifying to live with a mentally ill teenager, and I’m also sure that people in that situation feel like the author does, left on her own to cope with an exacerbating problem, but also knowing that prison is not the right place for her son. But here’s where she is different from the narratives of the mass-murder scenarios that we’ve seen over the past several years: she’s actively seeking treatment for her son! I don’t think the parents of Jared Loughner, or Sung Hui Cho, or Adam Lanza, were doing what this woman describes. And that’s what I’m talking about here: the motivation to seek treatment for a troubled child, and the ways in which parents of boys may rationalize behavior that they’d find totally alarming in girls/daughters.

  10. Perpetua on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    @Sisyphus, I hear what you’re saying, but I disagree with you here. I don’t think we have any evidence yet to suggest that the shooter in this case meets the criteria of psychosis or schizophrenia. I belabor this point because I think it’s an important one. When we default to the “severe mental illness”, we obscure other elements (especially in cases where there is no evidence of severe mental illness. The Columbine killers did not meet this criteria; many mass shooters do not, in fact, let alone the thousands of men who beat and murder their wives. exes, and children. That Canadian dude might have convinced his jury that his brutal stabbing of his children was an episode of psychosis, but it reads to me like people being unable to believe that a sane person could stab his children to death). Other elements include all the things that Historiann is trying to highlight here – we can’t talk about this issue solely within the mental health vacuum. We have to talk about entitlement, male privilege, masculinity, cultural paranoia, and violence. Normal sane people commit unspeakable acts of violence all the time. I mentioned the example of Nazi Germany to someone the other day and they said, well Germans were rewarded for their participation. And I was like, that’s exactly my point. Don’t we reward young men for their aggression, their violence, their lack of empathy? Isn’t that how we raise them? Don’t we turn vigilante scenarios into heroic triumphs? That’s sort of the cultural staple of our society at the moment.

    The reason there are bullies is because culturally we tolerate bullies; some parents even encourage bullying. There is eye rolling indifference to outright support of bullying behaviors, that this is “normal” and good for boys because it makes them “tough” and if you’re picked on you’re a wimp, a sissy, a crybaby, etc. Think too about Dr. Tiller’s murder and the cultural of violence in Kansas that precipitated his death.

    All of these strands are connected. We have to start putting pieces together. There are a lot of them (pieces), but the masculinity and entitlement is an important one.

  11. Historiann on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    Liz: yes, you’re exactly right about how gender is at work in the classroom w/r/t success, obedience, and authority. I like your very succinct analysis.

    Lindsay: thanks for your comment. I avoided the Asperger’s allegations, in part because I’m not sure if that’s true, but more because I think they’re irrelevant compared to the ways in which Lanza is so much more LIKE the other mass murderers of late rather than the way he was different.

    Also, I didn’t want to contribute to the freak factor of Asberger’s/Autism Spectrum disorders. I know several children and parents of children who are on the spectrum, and I don’t want to see Asberger’s/ASD demonized or feared because one person who may have had this condition committed a mass-murder. I think the male, white, mentally-ill guy with access to serious weaponry angle makes sense in terms of analyzing the common elements of these mass murders.

    I take your point about how Lanza’s unemployment may not have been a major warning sign, but it seems like there were so very many others that I have to wonder about why no one insisted that this guy get help. Instead, from everything I’ve heard about the family, the course of his last several years has been withdrawl from school followed by more and more withdrawl from everything.

  12. Lindsay on 16 Dec 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    @Historiann – I thought maybe that’s why you had avoided the issue, and I appreciate your sensitivity. I just thought I’d point out that the school-to-work transition is particularly fraught for us, and it’s one that most of us do not successfully make.

    That makes his isolation more understandable than the others’, and less reducible to his own choices.

  13. Susan on 16 Dec 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    I think there is also a piece about the ways boys perhaps especially are protected from consequences of failure. (Although in some families all children are so protected.) And this is about class, as is pointed out here: http://www.rolereboot.org/culture-and-politics/details/2012-07-why-most-mass-murderers-are-privileged-white-men

    I also think we have a very narrow range of models for successful masculinity — the athlete, the rich entrepreneur, and??? It’s in some ways narrower than that for women. And since most men are neither successful athletes or wealthy entrepreneurs, they are almost set up for failure. We also do a bad job of teaching children (in general) how to respond to frustration, conflict, etc: popular culture’s answer is to shoot ‘em up.

    In other words, there is a lot going on here — mental illness, social awkwardness, privilege. On top of the access to guns.

    I spoke this morning with a guy who teaches in a completion high school, with lots of problem kids, and he said, well, I have lots of kids who don’t know how to respond properly. How can I help determine which one might at some point snap? Because most won’t.

  14. Tenured Radical on 16 Dec 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    Of course, the toxic mix is guns AND mental illness AND masculinity. Can we add super-violent-downloadable-for-free-from-USmilitaryrecruitingwebsites? Because how somebody makes the leap from “I hate you” to “Let’s kill ‘em all” is important. These events are not only explainable through mental illness — the vast number of kids I know, or have known, who struggle with mental illness want to kill themselves, not other people. Self-harm, whether it’s a full-blown suicide attempt or cutting/anorexia, is often a way of deflecting personal rage and violence against loved ones.

    I just hate the political cowardice about gun control in this country. Just got home from a country weekend where part of the conversation was about a neighbor a few fields over who has posted his arsenal on Facebook and spends hours each weekend noisily emptying one automatic weapon after another. Everyone is afraid to speak to him about it because — well, he’s very heavily armed.

    And thanks for the Anarchist Soccer Mom link, Leslie M-B.

  15. Comradde PhysioProffe on 16 Dec 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    While mental illness and the poor way we deal with it in this country is definitely a serious problem, in the context of mass murder with military weapons it is a red herring. Some dude in China viciously attacked 22 people the other day, and *none* of them died, because all he had was a knife. If you want to stop mass murder, get weapons designed for mass murder out of the hands of civilians.

  16. Historiann on 16 Dec 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    I agree that guns are the big issue. But I also think it’s important to consider why so many of these young men are not steered into treatment by their families and communities. The toleration of this kind of social isolation strikes me as a very gendered issue.

  17. squadratomagico on 16 Dec 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    A friend on facebook steered me to a frontline documentary from a few years back about Kip Kinkle, a 15-year-old who murdered both his parents and then killed several schoolmates, in Oregon in the late 90s. HE did not kill himself, but is still alive and incarcerated.

    Unfortunately the video (which I would have liked to see) is not longer on frontline’s site, but a lot of the background research is still available to read. What is striking about this case is that the parents apparently were quite worried about their son, and did take him to see a psychologist. Likewise, he was on prozac for a while. But eventually, he was pronounced “improved,” went of the drugs… I think it’s just very hard to clearly perceive the kinds of mental illnesses that may be involved here. Indeed, I suspect that many young men who suffer from these kinds of rage disorders (if we could call it that) are also quite adept at hiding it, when they feel motivated to do so. If they don’t want to be hassled by their parents, teachers, and other authority figures, they learn how to act more considerate and calm, if perhaps withdrawn, in daily life; but when alone, they compose violent fantasies in journals or in online fora; play extremely violent video games; or (in the case of Kip Kinkle, at least) blow stuff up with homemade bombs.

  18. quixote on 16 Dec 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    perpetua hits the target: the culture at large rewards boys’n'men for violence. Until it doesn’t. And Historiann’s point is the other side of the coin: girls and women are not rewarded for being anti-social. (Forget rewards for violence. People freak out when women are actually violent.)

    Whether or not individual parents accept or don’t accept behaviors is almost beside the point. The overwhelming pressure of the social consensus is the biggest force at work here, I think, even though it’s hard to see because it’s everywhere and in everything. Fish, water, and all that.

  19. koshembos on 16 Dec 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    I couldn’t disagree more. My three sons told me to butt out of their education (and life). This includes choices, exams, school choices, etc. I paid for the expensive education. Many of my friends and colleagues are or were in the same position.

    The assumption that “[s]ome women … appear to serve as their sons’ academic and social concierges or personal assistants” will be rejected vehemently by many sons I know.

    A “large part of the toxic culture of white/privileged masculinity is fed by parental permissiveness, so that what privileged boys learn as they grow up is that there are no limits or boundaries which they must respect. Little boys are permitted to be more destructive in their play and in their relationships with others than little girls are. Drug and alcohol abuse is more tolerated among bigger boys than among adolescent girls, not to mention the ownership and use of dangerous tools and weapons from pocket knives to semi-automatic rifles and handguns.” Such a strong proposition requires support data. Stated intuitively, the proposition unfairness towards males borders on discrimination or worse.

    Two of my sons never even smoked. The youngest does drink and used drugs. We discussed the drugs openly and clearly. The kid is now married to an amazing lady who we think the world of. Dad is endlessly proud of him.

  20. Historiann on 16 Dec 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    I’m talking about a comparatively recent phenomenon, koshembos, not something that was happening when you were raising your sons. It’s a different world among the privileged, anyway. IIRC, your sons are close to my age.

  21. cgeye on 16 Dec 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    The single reason parents, especially mothers, worry more about their socially-isolated daughters: Sex.

    For young men not dating or socializing, they can still go online and get some of what they need; for their culture, it’s now celebrated to have one’s favorite pornstar, FPS game, favorite technique of hypothetical mass death. (Call of Duty: EVERYONE IS NOT A SOLDIER, so bite my shiny metal….)

    For young women, idleness means one more night out where a boy could impregnate her, and the family would then be liable for taking care of her *and* the child — and the child is a far bigger threat, since most parents know sets of grandparents who’ll take care of grandchildren until they die.

    Women not ‘taking off’ — including taking mental and physical responsibility for contraception until the ‘proper time’ — is far more dangerous in our culture than before the sexual revolution. Back in the days y’all study, there was a constrained, yet honored place for a spinster aunt (poor Lady Edith….), or at least a way where a woman of talent could either apprentice in a trade or become a childcare worker. Such women could still live with their families, contribute rent, spend some small portion of their lives with their own pursuits.

    But now, with men able to seduce (and rape, and shack up, and divorce….) with fewer social consequences to their reputations, family anxieties about daughters and their children allow for more protectiveness and control, even if no one calls it that, anymore. “Having all possible options on the table”, “making good life choices”, still the same worried song….

  22. Knitting Clio on 17 Dec 2012 at 6:42 am #

    Historiann, you many not mean to victim-blame to me you are: I think we need to learn more about Nancy Lanza before we assume she did nothing for her son.

  23. Knitting Clio on 17 Dec 2012 at 6:57 am #

    Here’s another gendered perspective:

    http://feministsforchoice.com/masculinity-and-violence-school-shootings-and-mass-shootings.htm

  24. Janice on 17 Dec 2012 at 7:04 am #

    As a parent to a teenage girl on the spectrum who has outbursts and anxiety issues, you can bet that I count my lucky stars she’s a she. Smaller than a boy would be, easier to contain and although she gets the eye in public, it’s nothing like her male peers enjoy.

    As a society, we stigmatize the scary boy much more than the scary girl. And teens or young adults on the spectrum read as “scary” in a lot of ways. They walk funny, talk funny (or not), and just don’t seem ‘right’ to many.

  25. Historiann on 17 Dec 2012 at 8:18 am #

    KC: fair enough. I suppose I do blame the mother for assembling a home arsenal. Maybe she had the guns in a safe, but maybe not. The murderer may have known how to get into the safe, in any case–she may have tried her best to keep her guns locked away. I suppose I also think that the people who live with mass murderers bear some responsibility for the crimes their sons commit, even as I recognize that it’s probably unfair. I do try to keep in mind that she was in fact his first victim, perhaps because he knew she’d be horrified by what he planned and didn’t want her to live to see it.

    I don’t know whether to credit this or not, but there is one report that Nancy Lanza was a doomsday “prepper.” This may explain the home arsenal and perhaps some of the hopelessness of her son’s apparent state of mind. (But please keep in mind: it’s in Salon, via the Telegraph–who knows how reliable this is.)

    Janice, ever since the murderer in Newtown was identified as possibly on the spectrum, I’ve been thinking about you & your family, and how scary this must all seem to you, not knowing where the Asperger’s/ASD blaming might go.

  26. Knitting Clio on 17 Dec 2012 at 8:18 am #

    Great point, Janice. And not seeming “right” makes children on the autism spectrum prime targets for bullying. I won’t be surprised if this turns out to be a factor in the Newtown shootings as it was in others. We do know that Nancy Lanza got fed up with school authorities for not helping her son, and quit her job so she could educate him at home. Does this make her “permissive”?

  27. Historiann on 17 Dec 2012 at 8:32 am #

    It might make her irresponsible. I haven’t seen any allegations of bullying, although classmates have said that he was very quiet, very different, and kept to himself.

    The fact remains: there are no teenaged girls or young adult women who go on killing sprees in public spaces wearing body armor and brandishing semi-automatic weapons that fire 5- and 6 bullets at a time, however marginalized or bullied by their peers they might have been. Why not? What is it about raising white and privileged boys that makes them the overwhelming demographic that commits these crimes?

  28. Historiann on 17 Dec 2012 at 8:37 am #

    From the Washington Post this morning:

    It remains unclear why Lanza targeted the school. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy said Sunday that Lanza had attended the Sandy Hook Elementary School years ago. But one classmate at a middle school told The Washington Post that Lanza had been home-schooled until seventh grade.

    . . . .

    Former classmates from high school recall Lanza as a quiet, geeky kid who carried a briefcase instead of wearing a backpack. There is no evidence that Lanza was bullied at school. His parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother. There is no evidence that Lanza suffered from any abuse in the home.

    Some news reports have suggested that he had a mild form of autism. But that has not been officially confirmed, and moreover, the link between autism and violent behavior is weak or nonexistent, according to numerous studies.

    It seems from these reports that his experience with traditional schools was pretty limited.

  29. Anonymous on 17 Dec 2012 at 8:46 am #

    Poor academic performance is more tolerated in boys than girls? Not in elementary school. Boys are significantly more likely to be diagnosed AND medicated for ADHD than girls. SIGNIFICANTLY.

  30. Verbatim on 17 Dec 2012 at 9:14 am #

    As if seeking treatment for mental health problems is so easy (for males or females), especially if you’re not in the position to afford an extra $1000/month, since health plans don’t cover it, and if you have a child who doesn’t want to get help, that just adds complication. Gender has nothing to do with it. I think in the case of this tragedy, we will never find a compelling reason it happened, and we will never find a way to keep it from happening again. Sometimes shit just happens. That is maybe the hardest thing of all to deal with.

  31. Perpetua on 17 Dec 2012 at 9:22 am #

    I’m not making assumptions in this case, but it’s worth pointing out as a response to the Washington Post article, I imagine that bullying is not always on record, and I know for a fact that in-home abuse is not, especially emotional and sexual abuse, especially in middle class homes. “No record” of something does not mean it did not happen. I have my own experiences with angry young white men + guns, but in my case ( not “my” case, because it wasn’t me, but you know what I mean), the young man shot only himself and no one else, and in that case there was horrific abuse in the home that was completely undetected. He was very troubled, and fascinated with violence, and had no help of any kind. But access to firearms, yes he had that.

  32. Sweet Sue on 17 Dec 2012 at 9:40 am #

    Isn’t it probable that parents-especially, mothers-are less likely to insist on treatment for their mentally disturbed sons because they’re frightened of them?
    They are frightend of suffering violence at the hands of their sons in ways that don’t play out with daughters.

  33. Other links, other views on the Newtown, Conn. mass murder, plus a reconsideration of parenting. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 17 Dec 2012 at 9:47 am #

    [...] Some readers have taken issue with my previous post, and I welcome your frank evaluations.  As a feminist blogger, I was reluctant to write about the questions I have about parenting, gender, and in particular the strangely enabling relationship I have seen among some mothers and their teenaged sons in the past 15 years or so (the course of my professional career) which seem to reflect some of the issues that may have been at work in the home of the Newtown, Conn. mass murder.  Of course, one major story line we’ll see is that the mother was to blame, just as mothers everywhere are blamed with pretty much everything.  But, of course, this may be true sometimes.  (It seems to be literally true in that the murderer’s mother was the legal owner of an enormous home arsenal, so it is true in that we know that her guns were used to kill her, 6 other women, 12 girls, and 8 boys.) [...]

  34. X on 17 Dec 2012 at 9:51 am #

    I appreciate the emphasis on white, middle-class male privilege in this entry, as I do for so many of your posts. But your analysis strikes me as limited by a too-narrow discussion of the relationships among family structure, gender and US culture’s tolerance for patriarchal violence.

    This is particularly apparent in your discussion of hypothetical “socially isolated” teenage girls. You seem to assert that such girls are not permitted to be dysfunctional or destructive to the same degree as teenage boys. But you have no way of knowing that angry, violent, isolated, or mentally ill teenage girls are more likely to receive care or correction, because the forms of violence they experience and perpetrate are (a) invisible, (b) often directed at themselves, and (c) clearly, directly supportive of patriarchal oppression.

    I am speaking only from personal experience here, but I hypothesize that women and girls who have few ties to the world, as the CT shooter did, are simply subject to intenser forms of gendered discipline. As a teenager, I was often depressed to the point of being unable to speak (not unwilling, unable), and no one noticed, either in my family or in school. No one thought I should be treated for an illness or encouraged to contribute to the world. So far as I know, they thought I should pass standardized tests, cook dinner and watch my younger sibling. In other words, my extreme introversion was read as a positive value, as obedience, and seized on as a convenience for others. [cgeye's point about controlling teenage girls' sexuality also applies here.]

    “Isolation” is thus MOST DEFINITELY a social script for girls and women, where we define isolation more broadly, as confinement to a patriarchal household economy. TO be clear, my family is white and middle-class, very mainstream in all its values. MIne was not really an unusual situation, but–like the regular irruption of spree shooters–a logical outcome of a gendered and inequitable social ideology.

    Conducting the discussion from the flawed premise that (white and middle-class, I assume?) women and girls are more dependably socialized, in my judgment, makes it more, not less, difficult to discuss gender, violence, and the relationships between domesticity and white, middle-class men’s privileges.

    Thanks for the discussion and the opportunity to contribute.

  35. Historiann on 17 Dec 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Anonymous: that’s a good point. Why is it that boys are sent for ADD/ADHD evaluations so much more frequently than girls? Is it that the classroom has become “feminized” (as a commenter suggested above), is it that boys are more prone to these conditions, or is it in part at least because many boys are not introduced to boundaries and rules in baby and toddlerhood and they’re not taught to accept women as authority figures? As a feminist and a historian, familiar with the long history of masculine success and dominance in academia, I would be more skeptical of the first two explanations than the last one. That said, I know of several boys who genuinely needed and responded to treatment for ADD/ADHD.

    Sweet Sue: I have wondered too about the role of physical fear w/r/t getting emotionally volatile boys into some kind of treatment.

  36. Historiann on 17 Dec 2012 at 9:56 am #

    And X: Of course, my comments yesterday were based on my non-scientific observations & not on real psychological or sociological expertise (see today’s post.) I find your analysis interesting and very persuasive, esp. the “intenser forms of gendered discipline.” I would suggest that that’s not entirely incompatible with what I wrote. On the whole, I think discipline is better than no-discpline for children of all sexes, but I also recognize that give your experience, you might vehemently disagree!

    I am sorry to hear about your adolescence, and I hope that you found a way out.

  37. Janice on 17 Dec 2012 at 10:50 am #

    Thanks, Historiann. While it’s heartening to see so many people speak against the stereotypes and affirm their support, in the end, it’s still the families who work on alone while the outward support system offers little real and concrete assistance.

    The one part about the blog post earlier linked that resonated was the way in which the mother was told how the only way she could get help for her kid was to press charges. THEN it becomes a matter that the authorities will tackle but not until then and never in a way that helps avert the problems before they’re a crisis.

  38. wini on 17 Dec 2012 at 10:57 am #

    or is it in part at least because many boys are not introduced to boundaries and rules in baby and toddlerhood and they’re not taught to accept women as authority figures

    90% of my son’s caregivers are women, and he definitely respects them and accepts them as authority figures. He is in pre-K, not elementary like Anonymous mentions. (and, full disclosure, at my University’s center)

    I am left to wonder why this comment still rings true to me. Is there really a large population of people out there who are trained so early to be disrespectful to female authority figures in an educational setting? When and where does this happen? Maybe it happens right around the time they enter into the public school system, maybe their parents speak badly of their childrens’ (all female) educators?

    Just thinking out loud.

  39. Historiann on 17 Dec 2012 at 11:06 am #

    I think the trashing of public school education might play a role too, wini, as you suggest. (Or, at least as I *think* you suggest.)

    I just got off the phone with a former grad student and former TA who is a new mother of an 8-month old. She reminded me of the disrespect she saw as a TA from many of our students, esp. some of the male students.

    And Janice: yes, jail seems to be worse than the alternative. Parents should not be put in that position (having to choose jail or risk their own & their family’s safety).

  40. Mulberry Field on 17 Dec 2012 at 11:06 am #

    I consider myself an arm chair criminologist. I don’t like hearing people say that you can’t try to understand why this happens. These things do not happen in a vacuum. I think this is one of the many good theories about this crime. I believe these types of crimes happen BECAUSE no one wants to talk about these problem boys. People thought he was odd, and people who knew him said they were not surprised that he was the killer. There is this boys will be boys attitude that I see all the time in our culture. The study out today by the Washington Post points out that most Americans think this crime illustrates the fact that our society as a whole has major problems.
    I grew up in a family with two girls and two boys. My brothers got away with murder while my sister and I were held to a higher standard. My mother had two sisters and two brothers. Her father wouldn’t pay for college for the girls-who wanted to go, but he offered to pay for the boys, who didn’t want to go. My father’s father died when he was young and he and his two brothers were wild.

  41. Valhalla on 17 Dec 2012 at 11:15 am #

    Something I don’t think I saw mentioned: it is much more culturally and socially acceptable to violate individual autonomy (or our ideas of individual autonomy) with females than males. It is probably more true with teenage & younger adults, but even for adult women, there is a general license to make decisions for women’s own good (thus scads of legislation regulating my reproductive life) that does not really have a male counterpart.

    So part of it may be that parents are more relucant to ‘force’ their male child to get treatment, to associate with others, to accept that they have repsonsibilities to others (other family members, other classmates etc) than with girl children. Girls’ lives are in general, much more freely acted on than boys, regardless of their preferences. If boys’ isolation is viewed as by choice, or even partially by choice, then parents may be reluctant to override them.

  42. Historiann on 17 Dec 2012 at 11:22 am #

    I agree, Valhalla. I think X makes this point too above, although she would argue that this interference was not helpful. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good point.

  43. Anonymous on 17 Dec 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    Historiann, elementary schools absolutely are feminized. Are you kidding me? Have you been in an elementary school lately? Female teachers and administrators absolutely outnumber males, and moms sure outnumber dads. I have spent a lot of time in three very different schools, and men were underrepresented in all.

    “Good behavior” in elementary school is stereotypically feminine behavior, constantly reinforced for girls by all society: Sit quietly in your seat and do what you are told. And for sure, more boys have a problem with this (in my opinion, unreasonable) expectation of behavior than girls, but the underlying causes are an open question. Intrinsic, learned, some combination of the two. The teachers are also probably contributing to the whole dynamic. Who goes into elementary education these days? I would be willing to bet that that group has some pretty interesting ideas on how boys and girls should behave (and by interesting I mean I don’t really want to know until my kids are out of school).

    I am not a cultural historian, but I have a hard time believing boys’ bad behavior in elementary school is due to a learned lack of respect for female authority figures. For the older kids, maybe, but then there are other things going on: hormones, the kids are physically bigger than the teachers, and there are more male teachers….

    As one of your other commenters pointed out, “good behavior” can conceal a lot of emotional problems. Teachers only care when the kid is disruptive.

  44. Mulberry Field on 17 Dec 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    This article about school shootings knocked my socks off. http://logicalliving.blog.com/files/2011/04/Suicide-Ten.pdf

  45. Historiann on 17 Dec 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    I’m sorry, Anonymous: I disagree that sitting quietly is “feminine behavior.” You note that it is “constantly reinforced for girls by all society,” which indicates that it is not natural but rather a learned skill. This seems to be an argument for my point above. I do not think it’s reasonable to ask teachers to do their jobs in environments in which children behave “naturally.” That would be the very definition of chaos.

    I would identify sitting quietly, listening, and learning as necessary to success in any mass education environment, and good skills to learn early on. (These are skills that even progressive schools like Montessori attempt to instill.) Traditional classroom instruction won’t work for every child, but it strikes me that learning how to sit quietly, listen, and learn (or to work independently and quietly) are really good skills to learn long before H.S., college, or beyond.

    Yes, elementary school teachers are mostly women, but you seem to equate that with a malign “feminization” of the elementary school environment. Given the pressures they’re under (attacks on their unions & their professionalism, pressures to teach to The Test, being evaluated on the basis how well their students learn, being held responsible for solving most of the problems of poverty for all of society, etc.) we’re fortunate that anyone is willing to take that job.

  46. Penny Kipling on 18 Dec 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    Social Isolation is a pretty current issue and the following article provides some pretty good insight regarding the causes of isolation and loneliness. It is called “Isolation and Loneliness”. http://www.psychalive.org/2009/06/isolation-and-loneliness/

  47. cgeye on 19 Dec 2012 at 10:11 am #

    Dr. H., the link on the comment at 12/18/12 8:13pm seems kinda spammy — the advice is generalist, and could have been ganked from any number of self-help sites. It is by no means academic, unlike the PDF link.

  48. Historiann on 19 Dec 2012 at 10:50 am #

    I checked it out–I think it may have been genuine (as in left by a real person & not a machine.) Most SPAM has a hotlink embedded in the commenter’s name, not just in the comment itself.

  49. cgeye on 19 Dec 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    got it — my bad.

  50. Troubled son or abusive partner? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 29 Nov 2013 at 3:13 pm #

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