12/17/2012 05:45 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

We Are All Hiding Something

Whenever there's an episode of public violence, the question that naturally arises is: Why? What would make a person do such a horrible thing? The easiest fallback is to say the person must be mentally ill. In the case of Adam Lanza, we know almost nothing at all about his mental health history -- whether he saw a psychiatrist, was diagnosed, had taken medication, was pursuing psychotherapy. Yet I almost immediately saw Tweets saying that gun laws for people with mental illnesses have to change.

Personally, I'd be happy to throw out all the guns and be done with it. I hate guns. But I also hate imprecision, and this idea of lumping people together -- particularly when we're talking about disenfranchising them -- doesn't sit right.

Let's define our terms. Right now, the American Psychiatric Association is putting its finishing touches on what's known (rather fatuously) as "the bible" of mental health care: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Grey's Anatomy of the addled mind. When we say Adam Lanza had a mental illness, are we simply saying he's in there somewhere -- along with depressives and compulsive gamblers and The United States of Tara -- and that all the diagnosed and diagnosable are the same? Or are we saying he had a particular type of mental illness? If so, which is the one that causes mass murder?

Learning a person's diagnosis -- or learning that he doesn't have one -- won't help explain anything at all. I'll tell you this -- since I started seeing psychiatrists in 1991, I have been given the following diagnoses: bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, schizoaffective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, seasonal affective disorder, major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysmorphic disorder. Not one of those labels told my doctors anything about my capacity to commit violence (which is nil, unless it's to my iPhone, apparently).

If it turns out Adam Lanza is bipolar and I'm bipolar, does the bipolar explain his violence? Or does it explain my passivity? The labels are useful up to a point -- but they're hopeless in moments like these when the scope of the behavior is so far beyond the norm. What use is a normal framework in such aberrant circumstances?

What interests me is not Lanza's diagnosis but the way in which he -- as well as the mall shooter in Oregon -- hid his true self so completely. We are all so shocked when someone is able to hide himself so carefully, tuck himself away -- "I would never have guessed," we say. But aren't we all hiding things? Don't we all have secrets that we don't tell each day? I have hidden some enormous things from people I loved, from people I saw every day.

I hid an affair from my husband -- for months.
I hid a pregnancy and then hid my abortion.
I hid an addiction -- or two.
I hid the fact that I had a major illness.
I hid a hearing problem.

How many times do you hear a friend or family member say, "I didn't want to tell him that..." Or: "I just acted like I..." Or: "It was just a white lie..." Yet we're always so shocked by other people's secrets. As if we're the only ones built for shame.

For more by Liz Spikol, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.