I recently read a biography of Anders Behring Breivik, the mass murderer who killed 77 people, mostly teenagers, before receiving Norway’s maximum punishment for his crimes: 21 years. Between that book and the controversy over the letter the father of convicted sex criminal Brock Turner wrote to the judge successfully arguing for a lenient sentence, I’ve been thinking a lot about parents of people accused of terrible crimes and their responsibilities to their children as opposed to their responsibilities to society.
The father who wrote about his son’s saintly virtues and how being accused of a terrible sex crime had tragically diminished his boy’s appetite for snacks, couldn't imagine that the son he raised committed such a terrible crime. In his letter, Turner’s father saw the sexual assault solely through the prism of his relationship with his son. It was something tragic and unfortunate that happened to his son—and to his son alone.
We’re all inclined to believe our children, but at a certain point reality becomes impossible to deny. It’s hard, if not impossible, to reconcile the saint described in the letter with the man who was found sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.
No parent wants to admit that their child has committed a horrible crime because they don't want to be seen as the kind of people who would raise monsters.
The father was able to rationalize his son’s behavior by conceiving it as bad, drunken sex gone wrong, not as an assault with the ability to scar and traumatize a woman for life. He saw it as the kind of youthful indiscretion that should be punishable by a hangover and an awkward conversation the next day, not a prison sentence.
That’s a theme you see whenever parents are asked about a child’s crimes. They’re unable to separate their intense relationship with their children from the objective reality that sometimes people we love do horrible things.
Part of this unwillingness to accept reality is rooted in narcissism. No parent wants to admit that their child has committed a horrible crime because they don't want to be seen as the kind of people who would raise monsters. Denying that their children are guilty of a terrible crime would also entail acknowledging that they failed on a fundamental level as parents. And no one wants to acknowledge those painful realities about either their children or themselves.
We all have tremendous responsibilities to our families. They're our core tribe, and the people we love most, but terrible things can happen when we parent in isolation—when we assume that our opinions about our loved ones are hard facts about who they are and how they behave.
But this familial responsibility shouldn't overrule our responsibility to society. And part of that responsibility involves empathizing with the other parents and realizing that we don’t exist in a vacuum.