After the Knife

Deborah Thompson

“So tell me about Nate’s childhood,” I ask my mother across a coffee shop table. She’s agreed to answer some questions I’ve been wanting to ask for years, deterred until now partly by distance but even more by our unspoken code of silence. I’ve got my spiral notebook and pen spread out and ready for her answers.

“Nate’s childhood? Why? What do you want to know?” She sounds genuinely surprised by the topic, though there may already be a touch of defensiveness in her tone. She rewraps her white sweater tighter around her bony shoulders and flips the collar up. It blends with her white hair.

What I really want to know, but can’t risk leading with, is what happened after my brother chased me with a knife.

 

I remember the event vividly. I was maybe seven years old when my brother, who would have been ten or eleven, his coppery hair flaming, brandished that kitchen knife before my face. I don’t remember what set him off, just his blue eyes icing over, his mouth an angry grin. When I ran down the hall, his body stumbled in its uncoordinated way as he lunged. I made it to my bedroom and locked myself in. After several minutes, his door-pounding stopped. From my window I watched our babysitter run out of the house to the neighbor’s door.

That’s all I remember. I think she called the police, but I don’t remember them appearing. All I see clearly is my brother with the stainless steel kitchen knife, the image a clear patch of fear amidst a fog of before and after. I have no recollection of my parents returning home, none of emerging from my bedroom when the danger was past.

I have other memories, too, in varying degrees of resolution. The media’s profiles of troubled young men that emerge after each new mass shooting call them up. Like the way he punched and shoved me when I got too close to him. It got to the point that my mom had to sit in the back seat of the car with me while my brother got to sit in the front with my dad. My brother used to kick me so hard under the kitchen table—no amount of spankings deterred him—that my father had to nail wooden planks onto the table legs to block Nate’s feet. Nate refused to speak to me directly or to use my name, and only referred to me as “her.” Looking back, I realize that my parents never left the two of us alone in a room together. I remember a string of traumatized babysitters; the only one who returned was a male high school athlete with a black belt in karate. But none of my memories is so vivid and enduring as the knife. I need to work my mother toward it.

 

“I seem to remember your going around to specialists to diagnose Nathan,” I begin. “Do you remember where you went?”

“Oh, just to his pediatrician,” she says. I’m still getting used to her new lisp. It whistles through the gaps in her broken teeth where her dentures are supposed to go.

“But I remember going to Michael Reese in Chicago, and playing with little wooden puzzles in the waiting room.”

“Oh, yeah, we did go there. The pediatrician must have referred us.” She stops, uncharacteristically cagey. Usually she chatters away, too hard of hearing now to listen.

“What did you go there for?”

“Oh, he just got a scan.”

“Of?”

“His brain, I think.”

“For?”

“Oh, just to take a look around, you know, see what was up with it.”

“And what was up?”

“Nothing much. He was just a little hyperactive. That’s what we called ADD back then. Nowadays everyone has it. But he really did.”

“What about his IQ?”

“What about it? They didn’t test it back then.”

I distinctly remember my mother telling me, years ago, that my brother’s IQ tallied in at seventy-five but that it would be more like eighty-five if he weren’t too hyperactive to sit for the test. He hadn’t started breathing immediately after birth, she’d said, and his brain didn’t get sufficient oxygen. So I’m confused by her denial now. Is this an early sign of dementia? Or what?

“He’s pretty sharp, you know,” she adds. “He’s smarter than you think.”

 

Despite my mother’s glibness, what I remember is that my brother did not have an easy childhood. Everything came hard to him. My mother drilled him in remedial math, reading, and time-telling skills when he was nine and I was five. I learned these skills alongside him, and then quickly surpassed him—which, understandably, made him hate me.

I suspect that if my brother were diagnosed today, he’d be deemed autistic in addition to developmentally disabled. All through childhood and adolescence, he played the same records over and over. For a whole year it was nothing but Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; I heard it so many times that I’ll remember every word to every song until I’m well into dementia. When the record player wasn’t going, he sang the same strand of falsetto notes over and over for what seemed like hours at a time, a sound I’ve only ever heard replicated by the autistic girl who recently lived next door to me. Ashamed of his shrieking, I never brought friends home. Nate got easily agitated, which often looked like hyperactivity. Endless frustration funneled into a rage that he seemed desperate to express but was desperately unable to. Sometimes he’d pound a fist into a hand, or into a thigh, or into a wall. Often, as a child, I worried he would do something more dire, more destructive.

The kids at school were as hard on him as life was. I remember his going to a series of special schools, none of which worked out. Finally we moved to a school district with a special needs program, but their remedial class turned out to be a warehouse for unmanageable students. The pushes and shoves and jabs my brother received from his classmates must have been far harder than the blows of frustration he relayed down to me. Several times he was beaten up. Once, in the locker room, he was robbed at knifepoint by fellow classmates.

I only saw my brother in school one time. Because middle school and high school were three years each and Nate was four years older than me, we were always in different buildings. Once, though, we ninth-graders were bused to the high school for a day to prepare us for the next year’s transition. I was paired with a 10th-grade girl who wore mascara and lipstick. She led me down the hallway, bustling with tall seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. Some of the males even had beards or stubble. Girls and boys were kissing and walking with arms around each other’s waists, or even resting on each other’s butts. Then there was a ripple in the hallway energy, and a kind of hushed jeering was palpable though not audible, and the pretty girls hanging on their boyfriends turned away as my brother lumbered through. He kept his head down, avoiding all eye contact. Nobody spoke a word, but their body language—more subtle than eye rolling or pointing but just as communicative—said he was the school freak, the weirdo, the untouchable pariah. He was close enough for me to call out to him, to say hi, but I didn’t. I couldn’t let the cool tenth grader I was paired with see he was my brother. I turned away, feeling punched, this time not by my brother but by a new, more horrible emotion than mere shame: pity. Slouched in his army jacket and combat boots, an outfit he would wear well into adulthood, my brother trudged on.

It was somewhere in that time period that his fascination with warfare and weaponry seems to have developed. His combat boots and army jacket were merely the outward indicators of the alternate universe he must have created for himself. Although barely literate, he spent hour after hour tracing images from library books about weaponry. He meticulously copied their descriptions and measurements onto loose-leaf paper, filling volumes of thick binders. He knew the names of specialized military knives going back centuries, and of martial traditions around the world. He subscribed to Guns & Ammo magazine, and knew the specs of every type of gun on the market, hunting rifles and handguns alike. He pored over issues of Soldier of Fortune, and I suspect he lived a rich subterranean life exacting revenge in the name of justice.

He also grew interested in martial arts around this time, starting with karate lessons, and then Judo and Tae Kwan Do. Later he would add Krav Maga and Capoeira. Though he was unusually uncoordinated, my brother practiced these moves with such obsessiveness that he developed a degree of precision. Often he chose me as his unwilling practice target, karate-chopping his hand inches from my neck or flinging a booted foot just short of my ribs. I know many little boys do a version of this in jest, but my brother did it well into his teenage years, and did it unsmilingly.

After high school, Nate managed to get into the army, and all problems seemed to be solved until, just a few weeks into Basic Training, he got kicked out, which my parents managed to turn into an honorable discharge. He complained of pains in his stomach, which seemed to be perfectly psychosomatic until he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a progressive and incurable intestinal disorder. His discharge from the army was, I believe, the heartbreak of his life. After that, he moved into my parents’ basement, where he slept most of the day and emerged to prowl in the kitchen only after dark.

As an adult, I’ve joked that I’m afraid of children—and I am. I knew from a very early age that I would never want kids of my own. After seeing all that my parents—and my brother—went through, raising a family was not something I could ever imagine someone voluntarily choosing.

I left home for college at age eighteen, and returned only for visits. Ever since my father died twenty years ago, I’ve been an especially bad daughter and sister. My mother and brother still live together, now in a two-bedroom apartment in Florida. In the past couple of decades I’ve gone years between visits, sometimes months between phone calls. When I do visit, my brother stays in his room the whole time.

Maybe it’s because I now live in Colorado, a state that has experienced more than its share of mass shootings, that I can’t help but notice the uncanny similarity between many of my brother’s childhood behaviors and those of mass shooters. My first year of teaching in Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot thirteen people and themselves in a high school farther south. In 2012, even nearer—in Aurora—James Holmes shot up a crowded movie theater, killing twelve people. In between, among many more mass shootings, Jared Loughner shot up a political gathering in Arizona and Seung-Hui Cho murdered thirty-two people at Virginia Tech. Most recently, Adam Lanza shot twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as his mother Nancy and himself. Though far from Colorado, this last shooting felt the closest to home. While some of the other shooters’ actions seem to be linked to psychotic breaks and schizophrenia, Adam Lanza’s case represents the perfect storm of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive disorders that feel so familiar.

With each new shooting and the media’s profiles of the shooter, my old fears from childhood, to which I never gave a name, resurface. It wasn’t until the Columbine shooting, and the defensiveness I felt when the families of the shooters were demonized, that I realized such an event was what I’d been fearing from Nate all along. Subsequent profiles of school shooters repeated many of the traits of Klebold and Harris: social isolation and alienation, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, fascination with violence and weaponry, and difficulty identifying or expressing feelings, with a mounting sense of anger and frustration. (It’s worth noting, too, that all the shooters have been white, middle- or upper-middle class males, though this may be because less privileged and non-white boys are more likely to be placed into juvenile detention at an early age.)

And Nate had one more thing in common with mass shooters: access to firearms. My father was a hunter and took my brother shooting. They made a ritual of cleaning their rifles after each hunting or target-shooting trip, and then replacing them on the gun rack, the remaining boxes of bullets going in the bottom drawer. (As far as I know, my brother, unlike the more recent shooters, never had access to revolvers, and certainly not to automatic rifles with their high capacity magazines.)

With each mass shooting, most people in my world identify with the victims. Occasionally, one of my students—he tends to be the sweetest and nerdiest of young men, who was picked on in high school but is beginning to come into his own in college—confides to me that he can identify with the shooters. I wonder if my brother identifies with them.

I identify with the family members. I think about Dylan Klebold’s parents, and Adam Lanza’s, and James Holmes’s. How did they allow this to happen? people ask. I wonder if my brother could have been one of them, and if it was just the blind luck of a butterfly’s wing that saved us.

 

“I remember your putting Nate in special schools?” I ask my mother.

“One. It was called Tikva. You know, like Hebrew for Hope? It was started by a woman who was interested in helping people like Nathan.”

So there it is, finally. “What do you mean, people like Nathan?”

“You know, people with his problem.”

“What was his problem?” I’m too close to badgering.

“I don’t know. Why do you want to know?”

“Just trying to figure out my childhood memories.”

“You’re not going to write about this, are you?”

“Not if you don’t want me to.”

“If you do, don’t use his name. And don’t talk to him about this. It would upset him so.”

“I wouldn’t. That’s why I’m asking you here, away from him.”

I reach over with a clean napkin and wipe the spittle now foaming at both corners of my mother’s mouth. In her seventies, she seems to have lost some feeling in her face, and can’t always tell when she’s drooling. Days into this visit—six years since my last—I’m still shocked at my mother’s deterioration since the last one. I can’t blame my mother for being protective of Nate (not his real name); she needs him to take care of her, and I’m not there to help. My brother, too, has degenerated. His most recent intestinal trouble and surgery, a result of living with Crohn’s disease for almost forty years, has reduced him to AIDS-like skinniness. They take turns having medical procedures and driving each other to appointments. Together they live in codependence on my mother’s pension and social security checks. My brother sleeps most of the day, my mother most of the night, so even though they cohabit a small apartment they don’t talk much. This relationship may be unhealthy, but it would seem benign enough if it didn’t remind me of the relationship between Nancy and Adam Lanza in the months before Adam’s rampage. They lived in the same house, but only communicated by email.

“I remember him staying at a school away from home,” I try. “He would have been around eleven? I was seven or eight?”

“Oh, that. That did more harm than good. That woman at Tikva referred him. But it was a bad place. He just stayed two weeks or so.”

I remember it as months, with long drives, weekend after weekend, to visit him. But I was only seven, when a week is an eternity. I remember his begging, at each parting, to be allowed to come home. Once he had to be restrained when we left. On the drive home, I remember my parents offering to stop at the toy store to buy me a toy, and I remember turning them down. I also remember several different boarding schools and group homes, but the images are chalky.

“You know what made me mad, though?” my mother continues, her chattiness returning. “When the Tikva woman referred him out, she said, ‘There’ll always be a place for him back here,’ but when we tried to get him back in, she wouldn’t take him, and I learned from my friend Elaine that the Tikva woman didn’t want him back. I never could figure out why.”

“Was it because of his behavioral and emotional problems?” I suggest. “His anger issues?”

“Nate was a very happy child,” my mother states in a “case-closed” voice, punctuated with, “no problem at all.”

“Didn’t he get picked on?”

“Well, sure.”

“What do you mean, ‘well, sure’?”

“Kids can be very cruel. They tend to pick on people like him.”

“Like what?”

“You know, different.”

“How was he different?”

“Oh, you know, he lacked a certain social intelligence.”

In my memory, Nate wasn’t just “picked on,” he was repeatedly beaten up. I picture the guy I saw on my visit to high school, his self-protective slouch, his slump of defeat.

“But you still remember his childhood as happy?” I’m trying to keep sarcasm out of my voice, but I’m frustrated.

“He was no problem at all.” An insistence is growing in her voice, an edge. “You know who was a problem? You. You had tantrums.”

“Yes, I know.” It’s true, I did. “I still do,” I concede. But I don’t remember my tantrums being any worse than the norm for little girls.

“Bad tantrums. Really bad.” I’ve pushed too far; she’s turning on me.

We talk for a while about what a problem I was, and how I was the “girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.” (“When she was good she was very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.”) I listen as our childhoods get re-written, even switched from the roles that were so clear in my memory: Nathan has become the good one, and I was the problem child with the behavioral issues.

No point in asking about the knife incident now; my mother will surely deny it. Instead I just ask, “When did Nate get interested in martial arts?”

But it’s already too late. My mother has shut down. “He’s not a violent person, you know,” she warns.

I consider reminding her of the stories she used to tell of how, even as a toddler, he crawled up to other toddlers and knocked them over. Or his habit of jabbing punches at the air, perhaps at an imaginary assailant. Or his years subscribing to magazines devoted to firearms and survivalism, and reciting their paranoia-tinged ethos about the coming government takeover and the need to arm ourselves. But I refrain.

Because now I’m beginning to doubt myself. He was strange, but was he really more violent than most little boys? Could I be misremembering? Was there ever even a knife?

 

At this point, I’m quite confident it’s a purely academic question. I no longer worry that my brother is capable of public violence. Ironically, his Crohn’s disease may have saved him. His illness has so weakened him that he doesn’t even punch the air much anymore. He’s too occupied fighting his disease to take on any other battles. All his anger has been displaced by physical pain. Just as significant, my mother and brother sold all my father’s guns after he died—or so they tell me.

But there will be more mass shootings, probably many more, and I’ll continue identifying with the families, who suspected that something was very broken in their family but didn’t, couldn’t, fix it.

After the Sandy Hook massacre, Liza Long wrote “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” an article reprinted and widely read in The Huffington Post. In it she describes being the mother of a son with violent episodes and her many unsuccessful attempts to get a diagnosis and real help. I started this essay, and my interview with my mother, believing that I could be Adam Lanza’s sister. But now I just don’t know. As I write this essay in light of my mother’s denial and look at what scant evidence I’m able to bring to bear to support my very real childhood fears, Nate’s behavioral problems don’t seem all that far from the norm. Maybe he was just a poor kid who got picked on because he was strange, and whom my parents tried to protect from further demonization by psychiatric authorities and by an overly sensitive, tantrum-prone drama queen of a sister. Or perhaps my parents did bring him around to alternative schools and specialists, trying everything they could after the knife incident, the way I remember it, and my mother is in self-protective denial now. Maybe this combination of denial and uncertainty is how we “allow” the Columbines and Sandy Hooks to happen. Or maybe the delusions are all mine.

 

“I do regret one thing, though,” my mother concedes. “I know you think Nate wasn’t very nice to you. And you’re probably right. He wasn’t. I should have put my foot down about that. That was a mistake.”

“That’s OK,” I mumble, the memory of the knife returning. And now it’s real once again.

“Yeah, it turned out OK,” she says. “You were a good sport about it, and you turned out all right, tantrums and all.”

But I’m back in my bedroom with the door locked, wondering if Nathan really is still wielding a kitchen knife on the other side, and wondering if it will ever be safe to come out.

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