THE BLOG
11/14/2013 01:31 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

'The Woman Who Raised That Monster'

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I've become accustomed to the reaction when I tell people where I'm from.

Eleven months later, it's as consistent as it was back in January.

Just yesterday, inquiring as to the availability of a rental house this holiday season, the gentleman taking my information paused to ask, "Newtown, CT? Isn't that where that... that thing happened?

A recent encounter in the Massachusetts Berkshires, however, took me by surprise.

It was in a small, charming art gallery. The proprietor, a woman who looked to be in her 60s, asked where we were from. My response usually depends on my present mood and readiness for the inevitable dialogue. Sometimes it's simply, Connecticut. This time, I replied, Newtown, CT.

The woman's demeanor abruptly shifted from one of amiable graciousness to one of visible agitation.

"Oh my god," she said wide eyed and open mouthed. "Did you know her?"

I've also become accustomed to being asked if I knew anyone who lost a loved one in the shooting.

By reflex I began responding before it hit me that she had said "her."

"Her?" I inquired

That woman," she replied with disdain, "that woman that raised that monster."

"That woman's" name was Nancy Lanza. Her son, Adam, killed her with a rifle blast to the head before heading out to kill 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT last December 14th.

When Nelba Marquez Greene, whose beautiful 6-year-old daughter, Ana, was killed by Adam Lanza, was recently asked how she felt about "that woman," this was her reply:

"She's a victim herself. And it's time in America that we start looking at mental illness with compassion, and helping people who need it.

"This was a family that needed help, an individual that needed help and didn't get it. And what better can come of this, of this time in America, than if we can get help to people who really need it?"

Perception is everything.

Years ago, as part of a graduate school "child study," I was assigned the task of closely observing, for three to four hours each day, the temperament and behavior of a child in the classroom in which I worked. I was to do this over a period of four consecutive months.

Rather than the charming, affable child, my professor advised me to choose the child who most got under my skin -- the "difficult," unsociable, irritating child. I was told my understanding of and feelings about the child would be permanently altered. This proved to be true.

Harnessing compassion for a frustrating young child, though, is much simpler than harnessing it for a gravely irresponsible parent, regardless of how much insight we have into that parent's complex journey.

In the absence of an astute professional or empathetic acquaintance, parents who are too ashamed, unconscious or afraid to seek help can easily find themselves judged, lost and isolated.

Shortly after the Newtown shootings, my friend Will received what he refers to as an "OMG" email from a buddy in Texas; a man who Will describes as a hardcore "second amendment guy."

In the midst of pontificating about the massacre, it dawned on this gentleman that he had been living next door to a child whose appearance and demeanor were progressively becoming more dour due to an unstable home environment. At that moment, in making the connection between his neighbor and the Lanzas, this man recognized that the seeds of change can literally exist right in our back yard.

In an emotive email to my friend, he shared how in an instant he spotted an opportunity to stifle his cynicism and to engage a young adult. If or how his efforts would make a difference were secondary to the awareness that we are all part of a much bigger problem and that the solution begins at home.

Janet, a mother from Dorchester, Massachusetts, initially thought of the boys who murdered her son as "monsters."

Later, upon reflection, Janet perceived it differently:

"If I think of them as monsters; I let them off the hook. Monsters are supposed to hurt people; people are not supposed to hurt people. It is when I hold them in their humanity that I hold them accountable."

I didn't know Nancy Lanza, however, I did recently have the opportunity to speak with Terri Roberts, a mother from Pennsylvania who I suspect my art gallery acquaintance would also refer to as a "woman who raised a monster."

In 2006, Terri's son, Charles Carl Roberts, calmly walked into a one-room Amish school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and brutally shot 10 Amish girls between the ages of 6 and 13, killing five of them and seriously wounding the other five before committing suicide.

The Nickel Mines community, including the families of the deceased and wounded, have come to embrace Terri, who is not Amish, and who none of them knew prior to the shootings.

Terri often travels with the impacted Amish families when they go to help other communities who have experienced violence.

I told Terri about my conversation with the woman in the art gallery.

"Wow," she said, "I received such support. I never heard a comment like that..."

"It has been an extraordinary journey," she continued, "the warmth, the building of relationships with the Amish families."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theological writer and Nazi resister who was imprisoned and later executed by the Nazis, wrote:

"We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer."

Viewing the "monsters" in our midst not by what they do but rather by what they suffer, is less a challenge of empathy than it is of imagination. Empathy, particularly selective empathy is simple.

"Imagination," as Einstein said, "is everything. It's the preview of life's coming attractions."