From One Mother to Another

I came across this right now and needed to share it. It is an open letter from one mother to another. The author is the mother of a son with schizophrenia, and she is addressing the mother of James Holmes – the man accused of shooting and killing so many in Aurora, Colorado. This letter is moving, and I feel it’s necessary to share. I’m also including the link, in case you would prefer to read it directly from the website.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


First Person / To the parents of James Holmes: Our son has schizophrenia; we know how hard it can be
July 27, 2012 11:59 pm

By Margaret Shaughnessy


An open letter to Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, parents of James Holmes, who stands accused of mass murder in Aurora, Colo.


I, too, have a son who has an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and who had planned on doing an M.D. and PhD. in neuroscience. At his university graduation ceremony, I asked myself who this son was, as he was so unlike the son I had seen as recently as semester break. Distracted, preoccupied, the stare.

I knew there was something wrong but had no idea of the terrifying journey that we would travel for the next 10 years.

After almost two years with an ineffectual psychologist, my son wanted to continue his studies. I found him crumpled, catatonic, on the floor of his apartment having not eaten or moved in a week. Searching for clues and information, I discovered the sections on schizophrenia highlighted in his neuroscience textbooks.

Over the next few years, in and out of psychotic episodes caused by taking and not taking medicine (the disease attacks the frontal lobe where decisions are made), my son thought his money was not worth anything and so starved for a week; he thought he would see a dinosaur if he climbed a specific mountain; I believe that he heard voices, whereas in reality schizophrenia had taken over his life.

After he’d been silent and unreachable for three weeks, his father and I talked, cajoled, begged, ignored and tried to bring him back to reality with love and antipsychotic medicines. I was scared, worried and, as unmotherly as it sounds, embarrassed and frustrated. My son was like a 5-year-old whom I needed to rescue from psychotic unreality.

Schizophrenia is a heart-breaking disease that destroys for a time young men in their late teens or early 20s. It seems that just as these young men begin an independent life, they are frozen in time, some becoming paranoid, some hallucinatory and all psychotic.

Though they seem to have had this disease from birth, something triggers it around this time in their lives. Tragedies continue to happen because of our communal non-comprehension of these diseases and a refusal to take seriously that people die because of our unconcern.

Psychosis is not sociopathy or psychopathy, yet society does not seem to want to parse the difference. As I hear politicians and news anchors demand immediate answers, few seem smart enough to talk to people who actually know. Society wants answers now, and so news stations must respond immediately to keep their audiences.

Why is your son James now accused of this terrible massacre? He must be diabolical; he looks like a devil. Our society tends to generalize, lumping all mental diseases into one evil stigma, destroying children, adults and their families. They all seem to know that the mother, the divorce, the whatever, is at fault. They know so much … and so little.

Your son apparently has acted against a society that may have tried to help, but failed miserably. He was smart, educated and yet his body, the chemical imbalance in his head, went awry.

For all of our sakes, but especially for James’ sake and yours, I want our society to become more aware of mental illness, to not respond without knowledge and to begin with understanding before judgment is carelessly assigned.

This tragedy has correctly begun a national discussion on federal control of rapid-fire weapons, but what is perhaps more imperative is a discussion about, recognition of and understanding of mental illness and the people who suffer from it.

My heart is with the victims and my heart is with you through the upcoming journey of pain.


Margaret Shaughnessy is a professor of English at Community College of Allegheny County and lives in Forest Hills.
First Published July 28, 2012 12:00 am


13 thoughts on “From One Mother to Another

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Summer. The country has been so wounded by tragedy in Aurora that many have reverted (or even more strongly stuck) to the mass stereotyping and vilification of the mentally ill. It raises my shackles every time this happens. But what a wonderful, insightful, compassionate glimpse into the struggles of having a child much like James Holmes, complete with the improperly treated schizophrenia. Puts a human face on a person many in the media are doing everything they can to “other” and distance themselves and their viewers from. Probably gonna repost this. Just perfect. Thank you.

  2. Well done for posting this summer. No question what the guy did was beyond wrong. The whole story around his mental health is dragging things back to the 60’s – & 70’s, were to have a mental health issue was akin to the devil.

    • Yes, it sadly has. The things that I’ve read and heard about his health – and the mental illness talk that has come about from it – have been frustrating to say the least. I agree, that what he did was horrendous and “beyond wrong” like you say. It’s just such a sad story from both sides of it all.

  3. Reblogged this on bipolarandbreastless and commented:
    It still shocks me to my core that people who are considered “normal” STILL do not understand what mental/emotional illness is or what it can do to an individual. It boggles my mind to know that even people in the so-called health profession STILL do not know how to interact with, how to help or how to treat people with mental/emotional illnesses. I have dealt with and still deal with these so-called professionals, these experts who do not know what they are doing. My question for them continues to be, “WHY are in this field?” Too many doctors have quit on me, saying they couldn’t help me. Now to read Mrs. Shaughnessy’s letter and realize her son saw yet another “ineffectual psychologist” for two whole years absolutely breaks my heart!! WHEN will things change? WHEN will people listen? WHEN will they see? More people than ever are being diagnosed daily with various mental and emotional illnesses. These are real illnesses and they shouldn’t be dismissed, treated lightly or joked about!! These illnesses wreak havoc on the individual and everyone who loves him/her!! PLEASE read this open letter and do so with an open mind and an open heart. Thank you!!

  4. Reblogged this on …But She's Crazy and commented:
    I’ve been searching for the right words to address James Holmes and the tragedy in Aurora, CO, but nothing I could come up with would be any more perfect than what this mother of a schizophrenic wrote to Holmes’ mother in an open letter. Insightful, compassionate, and measured — this is a message everyone should here. Thank you, Summer, for sharing this.

  5. I, too, am the mother of a son with schizo-affective disorder. He was diagnosed at twenty. He had joined Mensa at fourteen with an IQ of i59. Yes, there are so many tragic stories, and there will be many more until we find a cure (and prevention) for this awful illness. There is one other issue, I’d like to bring up. At this point we really do not know if Holmes has schizophrenia. While it appears he does, it is too soon to know. Many so-called entertainment psychiatrists have already labelled him with it, without meeting him. They are basing a diagnosis on the headlines in the media. He may have bipolar or be a psychopath. We really don’t know. He may even be your “normal” jerk who wants to get even with those who “done him wrong.” It does seem a little odd that someone with schizophrenia could plan such a detailed attack, but there are always exceptions. As for his nodding out during his first hearing, I thought it may be due to lack of sleep, not a symptom of schizophrenia. We will have to wait for everything to unfold. I know people want instant answers, but that’s not going to happen. The only good thing that has come out of this is that people can see that mental illness (if that’s what it is) can strike anyone, even the intellectually gifted.

    • Hi Waywardweed. I thought I approved your comment already, but for some reason it didn’t register. I’m sorry about that.

      Thank you for your comment and sharing your experience and views. I appreciate it! That is such a good point that you make regarding Holmes. We don’t know just yet. As you say, we do want more instant answers. And, I think too that we want to, deep down inside, believe that someone wouldn’t do something like this out of pure evil or hatred, or just plain no real reason at all. It makes it easier for us, as a society, to think that there was something uncontrollable behind his actions. It tends to make it less frightening to a degree I think. And, yes, he could have just been sleepy, or as some people have thought maybe even faking it. I hope the true answers will come out, not just for society to understand, but for his victims and their families. Not to mention, his own family.

      I’m so sorry that your son is afflicted with this awful illness. He sounds like such a highly intelligent person. I think it’s wonderful that he has a mother who understands his illness. I know some people who would rather turn a blind eye to my bipolar. My parents are wonderful and aren’t those people, but others have done that. I hope this isn’t out of line, but I just want to say thank you for being someone who loves and supports her son.

  6. I totally agree with what others have said so I won’t repeat their words. I actually posted the link on my FB page this afternoon too. This message has just got to get across to the ignorant people (and media).

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