Gun Violence and My Autistic Brother

The author and her brother

In light of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Rachel Peck reflects upon the words she has used in the past to describe her brother Daniel, who has Autism.

In August, I wrote a short piece about my autistic brother Daniel.

It was shared by a small circle of friends. It led me to politely remind my mom to stop tagging me in Facebook posts.  It made my grandma cry.  And then it quickly faded into the hum of the internet, as most things written by anyone other than Lena Dunham do.

The piece was called “Some Good Men Bite.”

Only recently—as I sit, both connected and alone, in the cold space that a community, a country, indefinitely occupies in the wake of tragedy—have I begun to question the implications of the title of my essay, its significance beyond its arbitrary function as a rhetorical hook.

Why did the frame through which I invited the world to celebrate Daniel inevitably materialize through violence?

Some good men bite.

Even as I worked to unyoke my brother from the tethers that bind his identity to otherness, exclusion, and hate, I was only able to introduce my relationship to Autism, to my brother, through acts of violence. Daniel is kind. Daniel is warm. Daniel loves animals and unabashedly holds our dad’s hand at the mall. I love Daniel. But I was woefully unable to articulate my pride in his struggle without reducing him to that struggle’s basest form.

Some good men bite.

Articles, blogs, and social media conversations have exploded in the days following the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Guns. Autism. Asperger’s. Adam Lanza has become a veritable dartboard upon which well-intentioned critics pin social criticism in a perverse, national game of pin the tail on the donkey.

Guns. Autism. Asperger’s.

Some good men bite.

In this web of association, we are captive to a fundamental confusion that demands our thoughtfulness and attention: Why do we remain unable to disentangle autism spectrum disorder and violence? Why, in our collective subconscious, are the concepts symbiotic, mutually reinforcing? Why couldn’t I talk about Daniel’s struggles and success—and my own relationship with his Asperger’s Syndrome—without couching the conversation in a vocabulary of physical aggression?

Though it’s no excuse: Because navigating the intersection of violence and mental health is hard.

Think about your own reaction to this most recent mass killing. You hated Adam Lanza. You hated his parents for raising him. You hated his schools and counselors and doctors for abandoning him. You hated every person who ever met him. And then you pitied him. You pitied him with a painful tenderness that made you question your own ability to commit violence. You felt sure that your kind words could have lifted him from whatever pit of unrest he occupied in tortured solitude. You loved him. You were Adam Lanza’s mother. And then, undoubtedly, you hated him again.

When a person lashes out, we don’t know if we should blame guns or prescription medications or school systems or parents or video games or or or…. We don’t know if excusing violence on the grounds of “insanity” (a vocabulary that is, itself, problematic) is reasonable, fair, dangerous, wrong. We don’t want to minimize the evil of a cold-blooded killer; we don’t want to project rationality onto madness.

The series of tragic events that culminated in an unthinkable killing spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School is complicated and bewildering and hard. But I learned something through the cultural cacophony that erupted as a result of this most recent national heartbreak.

We must stop searching for answers at the expense of countless kind and loving men and women; we must stop searching for violence in autism, and autism in violence.

Daniel is a man who has bitten, but he is not, and will not be defined as, a man who bites.


  1. John Weeast says:

    When someone lashes out, there’s always a trigger that caused the lash out. My mother contracted Lymes disease that went misdiagnosed for years that led to thryoid issues. Over the years I’ve seen her reactions to different types of medications and at times she was severely depressed or severely moody and lashed out irrationally at times. We all have bad days where we can get cranky, but you’re seeing more and more medically induced behavior issues. My grandfather has alzheimer’s and his most recent meds made him not want to eat, not have any will to do anything but lay in bed and die. And the strangest thing is it’s listed as a known side effect. Along with him lashing out and being mad at everyone, simply reducing his dosage at the doctor’s suggestion completely changed his moods for the better.

    When you have medications that plainly list suicidal and violent behavior or thoughts as a known side effect, you have to take blame when they do what you know they’re capable of doing. When 90% of school shootings are all linked to the shooter being on, or abruptly stop taking the meds with these side effects, you can’t pass the blame on what you gave them the medication for. Every single one of these shooters wanted to die. They also didn’t want to go alone.

    I think it’s disgusting that this is being blamed on autism or any particular mental illness. There needs to be more treatment options and better mental health initiatives, but not because they are all violent, but because it’s gone unchecked for far too long. Our medical field is pushing the act of medicating the symptoms instead of treating the illness and it’s led to suicide being the #1 cause of death in the country. And it’s not just those with autism or those that are bipolar, but it’s also a problem with our troops coming home with PTSD as well. We need to tell those that represent us that we aren’t ok with side effects as dangerous as potential suicide.

    When I was a child, a suicide was attempted every 6 seconds. In the military, they remove your shoelaces and keep you on 24-hour watch if you even mention suicide. Today, they give you a pill and tell you to contact them if you have suicidal thoughts. And they wonder why these things happen. Unless they’re prepared to keep the people they hand these medications too under close watch, they should be held liable when they’re linked to these violent crimes. But the media would rather demonize those like your brother because those Pharma companies run commercials 24/7 on their networks. Even if someone on these pills doesn’t murder anyone else other than themselves, it’s a crime that they’re getting away with on a daily basis.

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