An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear President Trump:

I write this letter to you as a daughter of a Cuban immigrant and a daughter of a naval officer who served in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. I am also an American Jew. The growing anti-Semitism in this country and around the world, and your recent comments about Jewish “disloyalty” if we vote for Democrats deeply trouble me. In our country alone, hate crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions have risen by almost 60 percent in the last year.

In this centennial year of my late and very patriotic father’s birth, I believe that this statistic, and your assertion would have devastated him. My father was not a religious man; he was what is typically described as a cultural Jew. Born in Connecticut in 1919, and a 1940 Yale graduate, as a Jew he kept his head down much of the time. He experienced anti-Semitism in this country while also taking part in the best of what it has to offer in education, culture and the freedoms that they afforded him. He was also very much a man of the 20th century. The Holocaust deeply affected him. Although I was born a number of years after the Second World War, I saw glimpses of his five-year tenure in the navy. He was a disciplined man who did pushups every morning. He had tears in his eyes whenever he heard our national anthem.

My father was a very private man who believed in the power and the right of the secret ballot as integral to our democracy. He never told a soul for whom he voted. He was old enough to vote for Roosevelt but would neither confirm nor deny if he cast his ballot for our 32nd president. He simply answered me with a wry smile when I asked. He followed his heart and married my immigrant mother at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, actively assisting her family to come to his beloved United States. That might resonate with you.

My mother, on the other hand, was a Kennedy Democrat. After she arrived from Cuba, Fidel Castro descended on Havana. She left her home to attend university and partake in American democracy. This was the beginning of the 1960s and for my mother the Kennedys represented vibrancy, youth, freedom and the dream of Camelot. In the early 1970s she and my father were involved in Latinx social justice issues in Hartford, Connecticut.

All this to say Mr. President, is that people and their politics are complicated. This especially applies to people with whom we disagree. I am firmly opposed to the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Movement (BDS) that has been orchestrated against Israel. I love Israel, warts and all, and I believe in her right to exist. But I also affirm Representatives Omar and Tlaib’s right to free speech. I wish you had not obstructed their trip to Israel. Among the ways for them to understand and appreciate the country is to see it in person. During a visit they might have encountered some of the 500 organizations on the ground there actively working for peace in Israel and Palestine. Perhaps the congresswomen would have been moved when they observed how thin the Green Line is.

Which brings me back to your latest observation that “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” As I understand it, at the time you made that statement you were talking to the press in the Oval Office about Israel, and how you persuaded the Jewish State to bar Representatives Omar and Tlaib’s entry to the country. What you might have thought was defending Israel and the Jewish people actually called up the dangerous and horrendous anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.”

Mr. President, we live in a democracy that protects all points of view. Some of those views are upsetting, some are even heinous. One of the pillars of our great country is everyone’s right to free speech. However, please bear in mind that free speech that is hateful and inciting does not fall under this rubric. Think of the rhetoric of men—and they have all been white American men—responsible for mass shootings in these last years. Any one who has taken an eighth grade civics class understands the distinction.

You are the president of all Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and anyone who checks off the “other” box. One of the privileges of being an American is the right to disagree openly with our government, and directly with you, without fear of being maligned or persecuted. Again, please note that these are bedrock American rights.

I am a proud American, Latinx, and Jew,. As the great American poet Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” We all do. To that end, I hope and pray you will come to welcome and respect all of our citizens, residents and immigrants.

Respectfully,

Judy Bolton-Fasman

Yousef Bashir’s Journey To Peace

 

Yousef Bashir was 11 years old when the Second Intifada began in 2000 and the Israel Defense Forces took over his family home and farm in Gaza. The land had been in the family for over 300 years. Bashir’s father, Khalil, refused to move. For the next five years, up to a hundred soldiers occupied the second and third floors of the house at any given moment. “They smashed holes through the upstairs walls to set up gun positions,” Bashir writes in “The Words of My Father.” “They covered all the windows with camouflage netting and installed automatic machine guns at each corner of the roof.”

The Bashir family, which included his parents, seven siblings and grandmother, were confined to the living room at night. They needed to receive permission to enter their kitchen to cook or to use the bathroom at night. They were only allowed to leave the house during the day for school or work.

Throughout their ordeal, Khalil remained cordial to the military and steadfast in his belief for peace. Despite the daily humiliations, he called the soldiers his guests and invited them to have coffee with him. The invitation was rebuffed over and over, but Khalil never stopped asking. He was grace under pressure when the soldiers made him undress to ensure that he wasn’t bringing weapons into his home. All of this duress attracted international media attention. The BBC and CNN regularly reported from the family’s home, highlighting Khalil’s unwavering commitment to peace.

Yousef was alternately terrified and angry throughout those years. The culmination of that fear and anger happened in 2004, when he came home from school and found three United Nations officials visiting his father. From their guard tower next to the house, the Israelis ordered the U.N. officials to leave. As Yousef and Khalil accompanied them to their car, a single shot rang out. An Israeli soldier had shot Yousef in the back with an M-16 automatic rifle.

Through his father’s connections, Yousef was admitted to Tel HaShomer Hospital in Tel Aviv. It was the first time the boy had positive interactions with Israelis. Despite his rage toward Israeli soldiers—military officials visited him in the hospital to apologize but Yousef refused to acknowledge them at the time—he grew close to the other Israeli and Palestinian patients. The Israeli nurses were kind; the doctors were caring. Yousef found himself appreciating his father’s hopes and dreams for peace. In subsequent months, Yousef endured many surgeries and painful therapies.

In the second half of the book, Yousef rallies and goes to Seeds of Peace camp with Israeli kids in Maine. It’s his first time in America and his first time speaking publicly about his experiences in Gaza. Yousef eventually wins a scholarship from a boarding school in Utah and begins his rocky journey toward peace. He ultimately graduates with a master’s degree from Brandeis University.

Bashir recently spoke to me about his late father, Khalil, his new memoir and his hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

How can a Zionist like me reconcile the behavior of Israel’s soldiers, who held you and your family as virtual prisoners in your house, with the Israel I know and love?

I’ve never been asked that question before, and I appreciate you asking me. Is Zionism about taking over a house and shooting a 15-year-old? The obvious answer to you is no. I want to find a way to reconcile what Zionism stands for and how it became a movement where we all work and come together. Zionism was never about someone taking over a house. That’s the best advice or answer I can give you. Having said that, no one brainwashed me against the army. I saw it in my own living room, and yet my dad kept reminding me that Jews are good. He said I had to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. The Jewish faith seeks peace, and to live in harmony. Jews feel they are God’s chosen people and have an even higher form of responsibility to do the right thing. The Jewish people have been suffering for all of their history. I hope you never change your views of Zionism, but I hope you also take the initiative to see what Zionism is about and should be about in today’s world.

After an Israeli soldier shot you in the back, you were eventually transported to a hospital in Tel Aviv. You write extensively about the relationships you formed there. How do those relationships continue to nurture your desire for peace?

First of all, my dad explained what the soldiers were doing in my house. Then all of a sudden I’m in Israel surrounded by different Israelis. Until then, I thought Israelis were only capable of pointing a gun at my dad. Suddenly they are lifting me up and teaching me how to walk and swim again. That was very transformative for me. To this day, with every step I take, I am reminded of the Tel HaShomer Hospital. Yet nothing has changed. I could argue that things are worse for my people. For example, Israel never stopped building more settlements. But I look at this from the standpoint of faith. If I didn’t, I couldn’t write this book and share it with Jewish audiences across the United States.

How do your father’s wisdom and commitment to peace continue to inspire you?

I would need to write 10 more books to explain my dad. In the end, I only spent five memorable years with my father. Starting in 2005, I truly came to see my dad through many lenses in a short period of time before he died in 2010. Those five years are all I have of him. But I saw him as a husband, a father and a headmaster. I saw him dealing with the soldiers in our house. Despite my questioning him about his strategy, he got our house back. It was the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed. He never used the rhetoric of revenge. He stood his ground and was true to his message. In the end, after the last soldiers had left, my father went upstairs and said, “I told you we’d get the house back.” That was when I was fully convinced my father’s ideas weren’t just romantic; they truly worked.

At the end of the book, you write a letter to the soldier who shot you. How were you able to forgive him?

I forgave him for my father. When I was paralyzed in a wheelchair, my father told me to think of my situation as an opportunity. My mother said a new door had opened for me. At the time, the things my parents told me didn’t register with the kid stuck in a wheelchair. Fifteen years later, I walked, I wrote a book and I went to college in the United States. I got everything I dreamed of because of what my parents said to me on that day.

The letter makes two important points: That I stay committed to my dad’s message and that I stay true to what could be possible for me in the future. I didn’t want to use my pain. To my dad, doing that would be the ultimate defeat. The painful actions of others should not define what kind of human beings we’ll be in life. We are peaceful people, and the soldiers were wrong. They didn’t need to do 90 percent of what they did in the house. I was not going to let their actions determine my future. Plus, my dad didn’t want me to add another layer to the cycle of rhetoric and violence that has been happening in Israel for years.

I still have nerve damage in my back, and I get frustrated and mentally tired at times because of that experience. The pain is still there no matter what I do, but I’m always thinking of my father. I would let him down, especially after everything he did for my family, my people and me.

Building on your work with Seeds of Peace, what is your vision for the future?

The first time I spoke about my experiences publicly was at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine. And I’ve been speaking out ever since. I am currently a Seeds of Peace Fellow. Like the camp, the fellowship brings together people including Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Pakistanis. Some of these people have become authors. Some have opened a school in Bosnia that brings together Israelis and Palestinians. Some work on hunger issues. All of them have a vision of promoting human connection.

What are you doing now?

I’ve been on a book tour since February and presented at the Jewish Book Council. The PLO office where I worked as a congressional affairs advisor shut down in December. My work had consisted of promoting Palestinian interests and engaging congressional staffers. I think we Palestinians deserve better and more representation in Congress and across the country. I have been in the United States long enough to see that many Jewish Americans are not against Palestinians. It’s time for Palestinians and Congress to have more conversations that lead to policies based on an understanding of what’s happening on the ground. Although it’s not the right time now with the current administration, when we are upset with each other is when we need representation. The PLO office in Washington, D.C., should be reopened.

I also like to think I am spreading my dad’s message. The world has been generous to me despite some of the unjustified things that happened to me. I want to make this time count not only for my fellow Palestinians but for my fellow Israelis, some of whom are convinced they don’t need to live in peace with me. I want them to understand that a life of war doesn’t have to be our destiny.

A version of this interview was published on JewishBoston.com

Living in Translation

My grandparents, who were among the wave of Cuban refugees that came to the United States in the mid-1960s, never felt malleable enough to learn English. “No eshpeake Engleesh” was their standard retort. This set of circumstances not only made me bilingual, but also designated me as their official translator. With no English, my grandparents were essentially isolated in America.

A person’s native language is love and memory. It is comfort and familiarity. It is bedrock identity. I thought about that when I read a recent article in The Washington Post with the headline: “Nearly Half of White Republicans Say It Bothers Them to Hear People Speaking Foreign Languages.” Though not a surprise, it still saddened me.

I often accompanied my grandfather, my Abuelo, on walks around his neighborhood where we ended up at the corner grocery store to buy packs of M&Ms. “Que dice?” What is this person saying? He always asked me that question when we were out in the world. He tried to pronounce some of the English words he overheard, but the consonants crumbled in his mouth. He proudly told anyone he encountered, pointing to me, “Mi nieta es Americana. Eshpeake Engleesh good.”

My grandmother, Abuela, was a homebody who loved American soap operas. In the pre-cable, pre-Univision years when there was no Spanish programming on American television. My grandmother stayed glued to “As the World Turns” and “The Guiding Light,” soap operas that reminded her of the novelitas she had listened to on the radio in Havana. I translated a bit for her, but somehow she understood the intricacies of those shows without me. One character was “malo.” Another one was “desafortunado,” unlucky. These imaginary friends of hers kept my Abuela company on long and dreary winter afternoons in Connecticut.

The Post article further reported that according to the Pew Research Center, “Forty-seven percent of such Republicans say it would bother them ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ to ‘hear people speak a language other than English in a public place.’ Eighteen percent of white Democrats said they would be similarly bothered.”

The article described two incidents that were part of a pattern of racism towards others. In the first, a United States Border Patrol agent detained two women for speaking Spanish at a gas station in Montana. It turned out the women were U.S. citizens. The second incident happened at a New York deli where a man was enraged when he heard the workers speaking Spanish. He threatened to call immigration officials.

The United States as a country does not have an official language. I wish I had known that in the days when Abuelo would pick me up from school. “Ándale!” Hurry up. The kids made fun of us. They called me Spic and Span, and one said, “Your grandpa can’t speak English because he’s so stupid.”

When my children were young, I encouraged them to learn Spanish. My son is now as bilingual as I once was. That bodes well in the United States, which has 41 million native Spanish speakers and 12 million bilinguals. If the trend continues, the United States could very well surpass the number of Spanish speakers in any country by the year 2050.

Another important piece of advice I gave to my kids was to engage in deep, meaningful translation to understand people. The example I gave them was that God happily listens to prayers in more than 70 languages. It’s a metaphor that I plucked from a Jewish commentary on the Bible: God has always been an equal opportunity linguist.

When I think of my Latina heritage, I always paraphrase Winston Churchill, who said he was half-American but wholly English. I too was half-American, yet my childhood was completely Cubana. These days my Spanish is more Spanglish, reflecting how rusty I’ve become. But plunk me down in a Spanish country, and it comes back to me much the way a photograph develops in a darkroom. The language is imprinted in me. And while my Cuban Abuelos were not able to communicate with the American side of my family directly, they always had me to translate for them.

This essay was originality published on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/05/13/spanish-language-republicans-judy-bolton-fasman

A Letter to President Obama from the Daughter of a Cuban Exile

Dear Mr. President:

Your trip to Cuba is a dream, a miracle, a revolution to me. Never did I dare to fantasize that in my lifetime a sitting U.S. president would be shaking hands with Cuban officials at José Martí Airport — the airport my family used to escape Fidel Castro. Yes, Mr. President, I am a child of refugees. Although my Cuban mother came here just before Cuba’s iron curtain clanked shut, the same desperate, fierce homesickness that claimed my refugee relatives overtook her as well.

As a teenager, my uncle left Cuba two months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Although on the older side, he was part of the Pedro Pan rescue operation — a CIA undertaking that arranged to airlift children out of Cuba. Many of them were placed with American families. My uncle was lucky. He had an older sister, my mother, waiting for him.

But he almost didn’t make it to America. He was on a Pan Am flight that was suddenly grounded by the Cuban military who claimed there was a draft dodger on the airplane. We’ll never know if it was my 19-year-old uncle they were after, because the pilot declared the aircraft sovereign American territory and took off without permission from the tower. My uncle shakes each time he tells the story.

I was born in my American father’s hometown in Connecticut in December of 1960 as diplomatic relations with Cuba were deteriorating. My grandmother, my Abuela, arrived from Havana to care for my mother and me. She adjusted to the Connecticut winter mostly by rocking me and singing me lullabies in Spanish and her native Greek. (Yes, Mr. President we are a family who hopscotched its way to the United States, but Cuba is where we left our hearts). After three months, she decided it was time to go back to Cuba. My mother pleaded with her to stay and family lore has it that she took the last Cubana Airlines flight out of Idlewild Airport.

I can’t begin to tell you how often I heard my mother softly cry, Hay Cuba, como te estrañò — Oh Cuba, how I miss you, how I long for you. That longing for Havana, for its sea wall along the Malecón — it colored my childhood. I finally walked the Malecón four years ago.

I was overwhelmed with emotion when I arrived at José Martí Airport. The ghosts of my grandparents, who finally left Cuba for good two years after I was born with one small suitcase between them, haunted me. I thought about how they shut the door of their home on almost three decades of life and set out for yet another migration. I went to their house in old Havana. I finally saw the marble stairs I had heard so much about. I saw the heavy wooden door my grandfather still had the keys to in his last exile. He carried those keys until the day he died, believing he was going back to Cuba. The current occupants were kind enough to let me in for a look. They wouldn’t take the money I offered them for their hospitality. They told me this was my home too, and I broke down and cried in front of them. Hay Cuba como te estrañe — Oh Cuba, how I missed you.

Mr. President, you will undoubtedly notice that Havana is like an aging beauty queen. So is my mother who is now marooned in a nursing home wheelchair. When she calls me to tell me that you are in her city, she can barely contain her excitement. Wistfully, she asks me if she will again see a Havana without a Castro in power before she dies. All I can tell her is that you made a return to her country feasible. No matter how remote the possibility that her health will allow her to go back, you have given her hope. Se lo agradezco, and I thank you with all my heart and soul that you have opened up prospects for peace with Cuba for my children.

Felicitaciones,
Judy Bolton-Fasman

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station — http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2016/03/22/obama-in-cuba-judy-bolton-fasman

First They Came for the Muslims by Judy Bolton-Fasman

If things become absurd enough, out of control enough, and quite frankly tragic enough, then my friend N and I have a date to register as Muslims together. It will be my only acknowledgement of Donald Trump’s racist mandate to humiliate our Muslim sisters and brothers, our fellow Americans by asking them to wear a metaphoric armband.

The Holocaust continues to teach us lessons about inhumanity. It was not so long ago—in fact in many of our parents’ lifetimes—that Jews were required to come forward in Germany and then throughout Europe. What followed in just a few short years was one of the most horrific ruptures in history.

N and I met at the all-boys private school our sons first attended in seventh grade. Beyond the classroom, our sons gravitated to each other in the debate club, on the soccer field and in chorus. That was the year that my son, one of the few Jewish boys in the class, soloed ‘Deck the Halls’ in the annual Christmas Concert. N and I laughed at the irony. On the soccer field we talked about peace in the Middle East. N, originally from Pakistan, said how much she wanted to see all of the religious holy sites in Israel. Although I understand the rationale behind it, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that if we traveled together to Israel she would be searched and I would not. Perhaps she, in turn, didn’t want to think about the reception my Israel-stamped passport would receive in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. We were simply friends, confidantes and mothers. On Christmas, our boys were among the minority of the minority, not celebrating the holiday. They went to the movies and played video games at N’s house on Christmas Eve.Our boys are now freshman at large universities. But during those early soccer games, N and I wondered out loud if their friendship was a tiny step towards peace.

I tell you this not to demonstrate my liberalism, but to share my humanity. I panic when I think of the kind of world Trump and others want to impose on my children, on N’s children. I think of the plight of Danish Jews during the Holocaust. Contrary to popular legend King Christian X and his subjects did not wear a yellow Jewish star, but neither did the country’s Jewish citizens. No one was labeled.

I just came back from Israel. My time there was in the midst of a terror spree. N texted me to make sure I was safe. That is what our friendship is about—we put aside stereotypes and engage with each other as sisters, as mothers, as women. We’ll often bring up customs in our respective traditions that challenge us. N only covers her head in the mosque. I try and figure out the world through my egalitarian Judaism. N and her family spend Rosh Hashana and Passover with us—it’s a holiday that brings back to her special memories of her beloved elderly neighbor who taught her how to make gefillte fish. We’ve both tasted the bitter herbs of our traditions as well as the sweetness of hope that we find in them.

A writer once described herself as “complicated with Judaism.” I am also complicated with my Judaism as well as with N’s Islam. I repurpose Rev. Martin Niemölle’s famous, poetic speech about the cowardice of Germans who failed to speak against the Nazi persecution of the Jews to my own time. If I do not speak up for my Muslim friend, who will be left to “speak up when they come for me.”

This op-ed originally appeared in the December 11, 2015 issue of The Jewish Advocate

Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Kids by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid (left) and Kristin Russo

Dannielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo love to tell the story of how they founded their website, everyoneisgay.com. “The short answer is that it began as a joke,” says Owens-Reid, 29. In 2010, Owens-Reid, an actor and comedian, had started a comic website called Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. “I was getting a lot of flak about stereotyping lesbians, and I felt that was unfair.” She mentioned her dilemma to an acquaintance, Russo, 33, who also has a theater background but at the time was studying for a master’s in gender studies. In response, the two women decided to launch a website that addressed Owens-Reid’s negative feedback while also fielding advice questions from the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning community. That idea evolved into everyoneisgay.com, their website and organization aimed at helping LGBTQ youth. To support their cause the women tour schools, give advice weekly from their Tumblr account, and offer support to families through a companion site, theparentsproject.com. They estimate that over the past four years they have answered more than 50,000 questions, ranging from what happens when “I fall in love with my best friend” to coming out to religious family members. Owens-Reid and Russo’s most recent project is “This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question & Answer Guide to Everyday Life.’’

Q. What are your coming out stories and how have they influenced your work?

RUSSO: I was home on Thanksgiving break from college in 1998 and was working through feelings I had for a woman from high school. Yet I was unsure about identifying as gay or homosexual. My parents had been asking me since I was 13 if I was gay. When they asked me again at the Thanksgiving table that year, I unexpectedly came out. My parents shaped the moment for me. They told me that they loved me. But my dad worried about discrimination, and I struggled with my mom who was raised a very religious Roman Catholic. She was taught that being gay was a sin, and anyone who acted on those feelings would go to hell. Because she loves me with every bone in her body, she couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t join her in heaven. Luckily, my mother never stopped challenging herself and revisiting those feelings.

OWENS-REID: I’m from South Carolina and was raised in a very proper Southern way. But when a girl kissed me in college, I came out almost immediately after that. My dad has always put my happiness before anything. Nothing fazed him about my sexuality. All he wanted to do was help and that was very comforting. My mother has had a few struggles. It wasn’t an easy road for the two of us. She would say things like, “You’re so pretty. Don’t you want to get married?’’

Q. Can you talk a little about how the coming-out process works its way through families?

RUSSO: “There’s so much benefit in allowing parents to go through their own [coming-out] process. A woman came up to us the other day on our book tour and told us that “you saved my relationship with my daughter. She reads your work and you told her that I need to come out as well.’’ It’s giving permission to everyone involved to assess the moment.

OWENS-REID: One of the most meaningful things that we write in the book is for kids to think about the process of the person they come out to. Your mother or father has to tell family members, the people they work with. It’s also important for parents and kids to understand that the first reaction to a kid coming out will not always be perfect. People have to work through the news and not talking about it is one of the worst things you can do.

Q. Should parents refrain from directly asking their child if he or she is gay?

RUSSO: My mother asked me about my sexuality when I was 13, and the question confused me. I wasn’t aware of my identity yet, and I thought that she was asking me because people perceived me as gay. Also, if a kid is not ready to tell a parent he can panic and say he’s not gay. In addition to tackling the coming-out moment, he feels as if he’s lied to his parents. Even in a particular situation where your child is leaving hints, it’s not the best idea to ask. Instead, make a welcoming environment in which you love and accept all people regardless of their identity.

OWENS-REID: A cool thing you can do as a parent to make it easier for your kid to come out is to ask if she is interested in someone at school. Give your child gender-free triggers.

Q. In the book you condemn the words “choice’’ and “fault’’ when discussing sexual identity. Why do those particular words concern you?

RUSSO: I find conversations troubling when parents say that “homosexuality wasn’t my kid’s choice.’’ It implies that if you could choose you wouldn’t be the person that you are. Sexual identity is not a choice, and I don’t feel that I was born with a particular sexual identity.

OWENS-REID: Fault and choice are terrible words. Nothing in particular makes your kids gay. A television show or a piece of clothing does not influence sexuality. It doesn’t make any sense. When people assign fault or blame they imply that there is something wrong, that there is a negative air about gayness.

Q. Do you think parents of LGBTQ children feel they have more to worry about than those whose children are not?

RUSSO: Parents of gay children may struggle a little more because they don’t have a clear picture of what LGBTQ lives look like. The best thing that parents can do is gather information and figure out what throws their picture of the future into disarray.

OWENS-REID: Parents worry. It’s in the job description, and they would also worry about their heterosexual child finding a good partner. Talk to your children. We have learned so much from the LGBTQ young people we meet. They know things and want to talk about them.

Interview originally published in the November 18, 2014 edition of the Boston Globe

A Father’s Pain: Andrew Solomon’s Interview with Peter Lanza by Judy Bolton-Fasman

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-yearold Adam Lanza entered an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and gunned down 20 children and six school workers. He had also committed matricide before he turned the gun on himself.

Although 28 people died that day in Connecticut, 26 is the symbolic number etched on every memorial commemorating the tragedy. It’s the number of times church bells tolled in its aftermath. It’s the number of stars affixed to the roof of the local firehouse. And it’s the number that President Barack Obama invoked on the first anniversary of the shootings.

After reading Andrew Solomon’s powerful interview with Peter Lanza – Adam’s father – in a recent issue of The New Yorker, there is no question in my mind that Lanza commemorates the number of victims at 26. “You can’t mourn for the little boy [Adam] once was. You can’t fool yourself,” he told Solomon.

It’s fitting that Lanza broke his media silence with Solomon who, among his many journalistic and literary accomplishments, has championed the joys and difficulties of parenthood. Last year I wrote about Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree” for this column. The book was an 11-year undertaking in which Solomon vividly portrayed children who were born or grew up in ways that their parents never expected. It included a chapter about parents whose children became criminals, focusing on the parents of Dylan Klebold. Klebold, along with his friend Eric Harris, killed 13 fellow students at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.

Solomon’s portrayal of the Klebolds impressed Peter Lanza as fair and just, and when he was ready to talk, he reached out to Solomon. Lanza’s confidence in Solomon is well placed. Although the latter’s carefully reported piece directs a reader’s attention to the fact that things were amiss with Adam Lanza from an early age, he resists the temptation to regard Adam’s deterioration as foreshadowing the horror to come. Solomon further notes that the state’s attorney report found that the mental health professionals who treated Adam throughout his teen years did not predict his future criminal behavior. What strikes me in reading Solomon’s article is how hard Peter and Nancy Lanza tried to save their son, and how dangerous parenthood becomes when a child is as far gone as Adam was.

Adam’s anti-social behavior escalated in middle school and he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when he was 13. To be clear, Peter Lanza vehemently objects to any speculation that Asperger’s factored into Adam committing mass murder. “Asperger’s,” he told Solomon, “makes people unusual, but it doesn’t make them like this.”

Solomon similarly goes to great lengths to document that Asperger’s was not connected to Adam’s murderous rampage. “Violence by autistic people,” he explains, “is more commonly reactive than planned – triggered, for example, by an invasion of personal space. Studies of people with autism who have committed crimes suggest that at least half also suffer from an additional condition – from psychosis, in about 25 percent of cases.”

Among the other rumors swirling around the Lanzas was that Peter was an absent father. Nancy and Peter Lanza separated in 2003, when Adam was 9, and divorced in 2009. According to Solomon, the Lanzas were amicable when it came to Adam and his older brother. Peter saw his sons every weekend and, as four binders of printouts of emails from 2007 and 2008 suggest, was in constant contact with Nancy about Adam’s worsening condition.

Media reports noted that Nancy and Adam regularly went to the shooting range. Peter Lanza doesn’t overtly comment on the role that Nancy’s guns played in Adam’s psyche. Nor does he blame her, the custodial parent on the front lines, for Adam’s crimes. In that same forgiving spirit, Solomon observes that Adam overwhelmed Nancy and that her instinct was to indulge him.

“All parenting,” Solomon writes, “involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s errors seem to have been that she always focused on the day in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son.”

In the wake of the shootings, Peter Lanza has met with two of the victims’ families. But as Solomon reports, “The only reason that Peter was talking to anyone, including me, was to share information that might help other families or prevent another such event.” For his part, Peter says, “I want people to be afraid that this could happen to them.’”

No matter how vigorously Peter Lanza has looked for answers, there is only one chilling conclusion that he comes to: he wishes that his son had never been born. For the rest of us, we’re left wondering what we as parents would do if we were confronted with a child like Adam Lanza. There is no definitive explanation for what Adam did even as scientists analyze his DNA – just a haunting feeling that a parent’s responsibility can be both awe-inspiring and terrifying.