On a rainy Friday night not so long ago, my son Nick was assaulted by a fellow student in a bar near the college they both attended. They were strangers at the time. It seems that in a drunken state, the young man mistook Nick for someone else, someone who triggered an outburst of violence. The incident lasted about three seconds. No words were exchanged and only one punch was thrown, but it was enough to put my son in the hospital with a concussion and a broken eye socket.
That weekend was awful. Nick looked terrible and felt worse. But just as disturbing as the worry and pain associated with the assault were the events that followed, which sent our family reeling.
We were profoundly disappointed by the school’s disciplinary process, which let the assailant off the hook and left Nick feeling victimized all over again. It also taught us some harsh lessons about justice.
As for me, I went from feeling anxious to being outraged, not only at the University but also at the kid who sucker-punched Nick. I was angry with his parents, too, especially his mother. I wanted to pinch this boy’s ear for being a thug and pinch his mother’s for raising one. I became fixated on the conversation I might have with her if I ever got the chance. I even looked up her address and fantasized about knocking on her door to say my piece. Eventually, I wrote her this letter and in the process, discovered some unsettling things about who I am as a parent and as a citizen of the world. Turns out, she and I may be more alike than I thought.
I never mailed this letter, but I share it here for all mothers to consider.
Dear Mrs. L.,
We’ve never met but we are now forever linked, at least in my mind, by the fact that your son assaulted mine. Nick has recovered. The surgery to fix his lower orbital bone was successful, his eyesight has returned to normal and, save for a small scar on his cheek where his eyeglasses cut into his skin, he’s fine. But I’m not.
I can’t stop thinking had that punch landed at a different angle or had my son hit his head more forcefully as he fell to the floor, he could be dead. I can’t stop thinking your son walked away from this experience with neither a physical nor emotional scratch. And I can’t stop thinking that you helped him do that.
You and your husband hired the lawyer who coached your son to say Nick pushed him first. Though I wasn’t present, I imagine you breathed a sigh of relief when that lie became a successful “my word against yours” defense. And I imagine you hugged your son when the school gave him a slap on the wrist, and allowed him to resume his studies, his social life and his status as an offensive lineman on the football team.
Perhaps worst of all, I can’t stop thinking that I would’ve done the same.
I, too, would have protected my child from the consequences he deserved. And in the process, I would have taught him the same warped lessons that you have imparted to yours: That lying is an acceptable method of saving one’s skin; that money can make trouble disappear; and that personal responsibility is a choice, not an obligation.
Does that make us bad parents? Honestly, I’m not sure. I do know it makes us mothers first and citizens second. Yes, one of our jobs – an important one to be sure – is to teach our children right from wrong and to nurture honesty and kindness. But our first job, our instinctive job, is to protect them. I couldn’t protect my child when your inebriated son slugged him out of the blue, but I understand why you protected your son in that hearing room. This offense wasn’t life changing for anyone involved but the situation makes me think about mothers of children whose crimes are much worse. I imagine most of them feel the same protective urge that you and I do, to shield our children from suffering and shame, even in light of the bad things they’ve done.
Attitudes such as yours and mine contribute to the divide between those with the means to escape punishment and those without. We perpetuate a sense of superiority and entitlement as we foster a sense of detachment from our fellow man. By our acts, we exhibit compassion for our own children but we teach them to avoid feeling it for someone else. I feel terrible about this. But I don’t see how to reconcile my motivation as a mother with my duty as a human being. Do you?
The truth is I’ve got no moral high ground to stand on since I would’ve acted as you did. I can fantasize that one of us (you) is bad and the other (I) is good, but that’s nowhere near true. My sense of morality – and apparently yours – is much more fluid, capable of running like rushing water around an obstacle in its path.
That’s why I understand that you couldn’t pay my son’s medical bills. To do so would have meant acknowledging your son’s culpability and your complicity. But I wonder if you think about what happened, as I so often do, in the middle of the night and feel awful about what you felt you had to do. I imagine you do. And in my dreams, one day you’ll call to tell me so, as one troubled mother to another.