Mental Health
6:40 pm
Wed August 1, 2012

When Your Family Member Does The Unthinkable

Originally published on Thu August 2, 2012 6:36 pm

At 5:45 a.m. on Friday, July 20, Arlene Holmes woke to the sound of the telephone. On the line was a man from ABC News. There had been a shooting in Aurora, Colo., the man explained. Her 24-year-old son, James, was the suspect. Did she have a comment?

In the wake of a tragedy like the Colorado shooting, the families of victims must navigate a complicated emotional landscape. But so, too, must the families of those charged with the crimes, as they suddenly face all kinds of deeply disturbing questions.

"Is there something wrong with us that this could emerge from us? That someone capable of murder could emerge from our family?"

That, says David Kaczynski, was the question that hung over his family after his brother, Ted, was arrested as the Unabomber.

David had actually played a role in his brother's arrest. In 1996, he went to the FBI with his suspicion that his brother and the Unabomber might be the same man.

For months he and his wife, Linda, worked with them in secret; no other family member knew. And then came the moment that David Kaczynski dreaded, the moment he had to introduce to his mother the incredible idea that her oldest son could be a killer.

Kaczynski remembers driving to his mother's apartment in Schenectady, N.Y., and knocking on the apartment door. He remembers the way the look of happiness on her face slowly gave way to a look of concern, and then, several minutes into his rambling, elliptical explanation, a look of horror.

When he had finally finished, Kaczynski says, his mother got up from her chair, put her arms around his neck and lightly kissed him on the cheek. Then, he says, she told him three things: That she knew this must be hard for him. That she knew he was a good man who loved his brother. That she knew David was wrong. She knew her oldest son, Ted, knew how fragile he was, and she knew Ted wasn't capable of murder. When the FBI really looks into all this, she explained to Kaczynski, they would see the same thing.

"They're going to investigate this, and they're going to find out that Ted is completely innocent," Kaczynski remembers her saying. "This is all going to go away like a bad dream."

But it didn't.

'Beyond Words'

About a week after Kaczynski's mother sweetly kissed his cheek and explained that he was wrong, he and his mother found themselves sitting in a house surrounded by television camers, watching Ted's arrest on the news.

"My wife, Linda, my mother, Wanda, and I are in our house," Kaczynski says. "Paradoxically, we're kind of the focus of the world's attention, but you couldn't have felt more isolated than we felt at that moment."

To protect themselves from the media, the family had disconnected the phone and covered the windows with blankets. They were totally alone, had no idea if they would lose their jobs, if their friends would abandon them, if they would have to move and change their identities. Their most basic sense of themselves as a good and decent family had been shaken.

And so inside the house, Kaczynski says, instead of conversation there was mostly silence. "To some extent, what had happened was beyond words," he says.

For the eight days that his family was essentially under this media siege, and for many years after, Kaczynski says his family was plagued by a question — the same question that many of us find ourselves asking every time a mass murder occurs. Is it possible for such a terrible act to emerge from a normal family? Or does evil come from evil? That's the issue quietly being raised every time a family like this opens their mouths. Are you responsible, in some way, for unspeakable horror?

'We ... The Parents Of A Mass Murderer'

In 1982, Larry Robison brutally killed five people. The crime was incredibly ugly. One victim was an 11-year-old boy; another was maimed and decapitated.

At the time, his mother, Lois Robison, was a school teacher; so was her husband, Ken. She remembers talking to her husband the night of her son's arrest — how clear it was to him that the life they'd built toegether was now gone.

"He said, 'We will no longer be Lois and Ken Robison, the school teachers,' " Lois Robison says her husband told her. " 'We will be Lois and Ken Robison, the parents of a mass murderer.' "

But this was not a title that Lois Robison felt her family deserved. If the question these families face is — Are you responsible for evil? — from the perspective of Lois Robison, the answer was clearly no.

"If there was anything you could do to keep it from happening, we did it," she says. "We were in church every time the doors were open. We took our kids to Sunday school from the time they were born. Larry was in Scouts, the girls were in Scouts. Ken was a Scout leader."

And when, as a young man, her son Larry started having mental health problems, Robison says, she did everything she could to help him.

She had him hospitalized several times for his problems, but the institutions, she says, would never hold him longer than 30 days.

"I fought the state of Texas, I fought the county, I fought everybody to get him help," Lois Robison says.

At trial the state of Texas rejected the insanity defense, and Larry Robison was eventually put to death. But from Lois Robison's perspective, it was the mental illness, and not her son, that was responsible for those crimes. And this belief both neutralized her guilt and shaped her feelings about what it was that she should do next.

"We can crawl into a cave and pull a rock in after us," she says, "and just, you know, hibernate and stay away from the world. ... Or we can be up front and tell the truth and hope that it helps somebody in the future."

And so after her son was arrested, Robison started advocating for mental health issues. She went all over the country talking about access to care. "If I hadn't done that," she says, "I would have laid down and died."

For Most Families, A Silent Struggle

David Kaczynski made a similar choice. He didn't turn away; he stepped forward. His professional life is now defined by what happened with his brother. And while he says he's heartbroken about the pain his brother Ted caused, like Robison, he views the murderer in his family as mentally ill — schizophrenic — not evil.

A former social worker, Kaczynski speaks frequently about mental health issues and is executive director of a group that fights against the death penalty.

But most families who've found themselves in a similar position don't seem to settle the question that way. For whatever reason they turn in, not out, to struggle with the issue of whether they bear any responsibility for the crimes of their kin.

Kaczynski understands this struggle in a unique way; over the years he's made a habit of reaching out to other families in similar circumstances. Last year, after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, he contacted the lawyer for the family of Jared Lee Loughner. He says he also contacted the Cho family after their son, Seung-Hui, went on a rampage at Virginia Tech.

"I left a phone message for the sister, I think, some years ago," he says. "And Linda and I have talked about writing to the Holmes family as well, so we'll probably send them a letter, just to let them know that if they need someone to talk to, we're open to that."

Just days after the shooting, a lawyer for the Holmes family stood in front of a gaggle of reporters and, after reminding everyone that James Holmes had not yet been convicted of a crime, asked that the media respect the family's privacy.

Sixteen years ago, a lawyer for the Kaczynski family stood in front of a bank of microphones and essentially said the same thing. A little while later, David Kaczynski emerged from his house for the first time. The media was finally gone.

But the problem of guilt? Of what to think of yourself? Of what to do? It was only beginning.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

On Monday, James Holmes was formally charged in connection with the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. We have heard, and will continue to hear, the stories of those who were there - the living and the dead - and of their families, as the healing begins. But today, we have the story of what life must now be like for the family of the alleged killer. How, for example, does a parent respond to the idea that a son is accused of mass murder?

NPR's Alix Spiegel talked to other families who have found themselves in a similar position. And she starts with the family of the Unabomber.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: David Kaczynski, brother of Ted Kaczynski, went to the FBI in 1996 with his suspicion that his brother, and the Unabomber, might be the same man. For months, he and his wife, Linda, worked with them in secret. No other family member knew. And then came the moment that David Kaczynski dreaded - the moment he had to tell his mother.

DAVID KACZYNSKI: I remember going up to her apartment - she lived about three miles from us, in Schenectady, New York - and knocking on her door. And you know, at first, her look - you know, she had a look of happiness on her face, as you might expect a mother to feel - like, here's a visit from her son. But then she took one look at me and said, David, David, what's wrong?

SPIEGEL: Kaczynski didn't know what to say, so he led her inside and just started rambling - about how Ted had lived in Montana, and wasn't it strange that the Unabomber had lived in Montana, too?

KACZYNSKI: And you know, the Unabomber was very concerned about modern technology - and Mom, you know, Ted has this obsession with technology.

SPIEGEL: And somewhere during this rambling, Kaczynski noticed that his mother had gone silent.

KACZYNSKI: Just got very quiet, and she's looking at my face with just a look of horror, like she can't believe what she's hearing.

SPIEGEL: So Kaczynski stops talking, and his mother comes up to him, lightly kisses him on the cheek; and then very, very kindly, tells him three things: one, that she knows this must be very hard for him; two, that she knows he's a good man who loves his brother; but three, that Kaczynski is wrong, that even though Ted has struggled with mental illness - severe mental illness - for years, she knows her son. She knows how fragile he is, and she knows that he is not capable of murder. When law enforcement looks into all this, she tells him, they will see the same thing.

KACZYNSKI: You know, they're going to investigate this. And they're going to find out that Ted is completely innocent, David. And this is all going to go away like a bad dream.

SPIEGEL: But it didn't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Federal agents have taken into custody a man they suspect as the Unabomber...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Unabomber has managed to elude law enforcement agencies for nearly 18 years...

SPIEGEL: About a week after Kaczynski's mother sweetly kissed him on the cheek and told him not to worry, he and his mother found themselves in a house surrounded by television cameras, watching Ted Kaczynski get arrested, on the news.

KACZYNSKI: My wife, Linda; my mother, Wanda; and I are in our house, surrounded by the media. Paradoxically, we're kind of the focus of the world's attention, but you couldn't have felt more isolated than we felt at that moment. You know, we disconnected our phone, so we didn't know if we'd lose our jobs, if friends would disown us.

SPIEGEL: What kind of conversations did you have in the house, at that moment?

KACZYNSKI: You know, I think there was a lot more eye contact than conversations. To some extent, what had happened was beyond words. It was kind of beyond language.

SPIEGEL: And so they sat, mostly silent, with blankets over the windows to keep out the media - for eight days. But even though there wasn't conversation, Kaczynski says, there was a clear and urgent question hanging in the air.

KACZYNSKI: Is there something wrong with us, that this could emerge from us; that someone capable of murder could emerge from our family?

SPIEGEL: This is the question - the question - that in part, draws us to these stories. We want to know if it's possible for a monstrous act, like a mass killing, to emerge from people like us - or, does evil come from evil? That's the thing quietly being evaluated every time a family like this opens their mouths. Are you responsible, in some way, for unspeakable horror?

LOIS ROBISON: Hi, my name is Lois Robison. I live in Burleson, Texas, out in the country.

SPIEGEL: In 1982, Larry Robison - the son of the woman you just heard - brutally killed five people. The crime was incredibly ugly. One of the victims was a 6-year-old boy. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The boy was 11 years old.] Another was maimed and decapitated.

At the time, Lois Robison was a schoolteacher and so was her husband, Ken. And she remembers talking to her husband the night of her son's arrest; how clear it was to him that the life that they had built was now gone.

ROBISON: He said, we will no longer be Lois and Ken Robison, the schoolteachers. We will be Lois and Ken Robison, the parents of a mass murderer.

SPIEGEL: But this was not a title that Lois Robison felt that her family deserved. If the question that these families face is, are you responsible for evil? from the perspective of Lois Robison, the answer to that question was no.

ROBISON: If there was anything you could do to keep it from happening, we did it. We were in church every time the doors were open. We took our kids to Sunday school from the time they were born. Larry was in Scouts. The girls were in Scouts. Ken was a Scout leader.

SPIEGEL: And when, as a young man, her son, Larry, started having mental health problems, Lois Robison says she did everything she could to help. She got him institutionalized two or three times, but she says none of the hospitals would keep him.

ROBISON: I fought the state of Texas. I fought the county. I fought everybody, to get him help. I begged, and I pleaded. I went to a judge and asked him to please, you know, put him in a mental institution.

SPIEGEL: At trial, Robison's insanity defense was rejected by the state of Texas, and he was put to death. But from Lois Robison's perspective, it was the mental illness - and not her son - which was responsible for these crimes. And that belief both neutralized her guilt, and gave her a sense of what she should do next.

ROBISON: We can crawl into a cave and pull a rock in after us and just, you know, hibernate and stay away from the world, and don't talk to anybody; or we can be up front and tell the truth, and hope that it will help somebody in the future.

SPIEGEL: And so after her son was arrested, she started advocating for mental health issues.

ROBISON: If I hadn't done that, I would have laid down and died.

SPIEGEL: David Kaczynski made a similar choice. He didn't turn away. He stepped forward. His professional life is now defined by what happened to his brother. And while he's heartbroken about the pain that his brother caused, like Robison, he sees Ted as schizophrenic, not evil. And so he speaks frequently about mental health issues and is executive director of a group that fights against the death penalty.

But most of the families in this position don't settle the question that way. For whatever reason they turn in, not out, to rightly or wrongly struggle with the issue of whether or not they're responsible.

Since David Kaczynski understands this struggle in a unique way, over the years he's made a habit of reaching out to them. Last year, after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, he contacted the lawyer of the Loughners. He also, he says, contacted the Chos after their son went on a rampage at Virginia Tech.

KACZYNSKI: I left a phone message for the sister, I think, some years ago. And Linda and I have talked about writing to the Holmes family as well. So we'll probably send them a letter just to let them know that if they need somebody to talk to, you know, we're open to that.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that what happened to your family could happen to any family?

KACZYNSKI: Yes, I would absolutely say this could happen to any good, decent family.

SPIEGEL: Just days after the shooting, a lawyer for the Holmes family stood in front of a gaggle of reporters. And after reminding everyone that James Holmes had not yet been convicted of a crime, she made the following statement.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The Holmes family would like to maintain their privacy. So at this time, we will not be discussing James, or his relationship to the family. So thank you very much for your time.

SPIEGEL: Sixteen years ago, a lawyer for the Kaczynski family stood in front of a bank of microphones, and essentially said the same thing. A little while later, David Kaczynski emerged from his house for the first time. The media was finally gone. But the problem of guilt, of what to think of yourself, it was only beginning.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.