The Boston marathon attack, according to the news, claimed three lives and injured 264 people. There is another man dead: Tamerlan Tsarnaev. And there is yet another who may be dead once the legal process has unfurled: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. We do not mourn the deaths of the perpetrators much; their actions obliterate our sympathy. But a death affects a penumbra of others around the person who dies. Media attention has turned this week to Zubeidat Tsaranaeva, mother of the two young men, and the spectacle of her anguish has become a popular item on the web. “What happened is a terrible thing but I know my kids have nothing to do with this,” she says in one wrenching video. “I know it: I am [a] mother.”
Tsaranaeva appears to have loved her sons, but it seems unlikely that she knew them. The conflation of love and knowledge is among parenthood’s most frequent errors. Because we are unconditionally devoted to our children, we ineptly suppose we can see what goes on inside their minds. Parental love is as blind as romantic love, and often obscures children’s most serious flaws. Two issues are tightly intertwined here. One is the question of knowledge; the other is the question of culpability. Whether a mother knew her aberrant child or not, did she somehow make that child into the person he became?
We used to believe homosexuality was caused by ineffectual fathers and overbearing mothers; that autism was caused by refrigerator mothers; that schizophrenia arose from the parents’ unconscious wish that their child not exist. A few centuries ago, we believed that dwarfism and deformity revealed the mothers’ unexpressed lascivious longings. We have dropped the narrative of blame in all these instances. But in seeking to understand people who commit crimes, we continue to blame the parents. None of us wants to contemplate the likelihood that the children we love have a secret life we did not form and cannot know. Tsaranaeva will now have to defend not only her sons, but also her own motherhood.
In my most recent book, Far From the Tree, I wrote about the experience of parents of criminals, and I interviewed Tom and Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre. I set out with the expectation that meeting them would illuminate their son’s actions. The better I came to know the Klebolds, the more deeply mystified I became. Sue said: “I think the other parents believed they had experienced loss, and I had not, because their children were of value, and mine was not. My child died, too. He died after making a terrible decision and doing a terrible thing, but he was still my child, and he still died.”
She added: “He started being more withdrawn and secretive in the last two years of high school, but that’s not so unusual. He had friends, and they liked him. I can never decide whether it’s worse to think your child was hardwired to be like this and that you couldn’t have done anything, or to think he was a good person and something set this off in him. He made a conscious choice and did this horrible thing, but what had happened to his consciousness that he would make such a choice? Something in him got broken. The same pathology that killed and hurt all the others also killed my son.”
I asked the Klebolds what they would ask Dylan were he in the room with us. Tom said: “I’d ask him what the hell he was thinking and what the hell he thought he was doing!” Sue looked at the floor before saying quietly: “I would ask him to forgive me, for being his mother and never knowing what was going on inside his head, for not being able to help him, for not being the person that he could confide in.”
The mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, said: “How could he be involved in such a thing? I cannot eat. I cannot sleep. I keep saying to myself, could this be? All my children, they each had their own rooms. They had pocket money. They went on vacations. I could understand if he had grown up unhappy or poor. But they had everything.” Like Tsaranaeva, she found the spectre of her son’s violence incomprehensible. Her mind was in a different place (pocket money) from her son’s (destroy the West).
Since publication, I’ve had a flood of correspondence from the parents of criminals. One mother whose son committed homicide wrote to me, “I always feel like the black sheep of a group like this, because my son is in such a different place than the others, and I feel it’s easier for most people to feel empathy and compassion for them, than for my son and for me.”
After the Newtown shootings in December, Liza Long, a mother in the American Midwest, wrote a blog post that went viral entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” in which she described feeling out of control of her son, who had threatened both her and himself in terrifying ways. She compared herself to the mothers of numerous psychopaths, concluding, “These boys –and their mothers – need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.” Liza Long wrote to me about waiting to see her son in juvenile detention – and the helplessness she had as she witnessed his degeneration.
Another mother wrote: “My older son got into some trouble in high school (nothing of the magnitude of Dylan Klebold but devastating for me) and I couldn’t understand how I didn’t see it coming. My experience led me to immense shame of all the times I had said, ‘How could the parents not know?’ ‘If their parents were more involved… caring… loving… in-tune…present…’ I thought that if I wasn’t a great parent, I at least ‘knew’ my child. Turns out I didn’t.”
The spectacle of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar is in many ways odious, but the spectacle of their mother is heartbreaking. Sue Klebold once observed that while the other parents had lost their children, she had lost both her child and all her cherished beliefs about her child. People seem to want to excoriate Tsaranaeva for her supposed joint crimes of the abuse that caused this crime and the neglect that let her remain ignorant of it. But she is, in fact, struggling with the eternal frustration of parenthood, which is the frequent inexplicability of one’s own children.