I knew something was amiss when I was on a Skype call with my longtime television production partner Kate Tobin as I was thrashing through the final stages of editing of “Mind of a Rampage Killer.” She seemed rather grumpy, and so I naturally assumed I had done something to offend. But when I asked her about it, she confessed she found the subject matter “very disturbing.”
“It has worked my nerves,” said she.
It was a good reminder. In my line of work, there are times when you need to put your feelings aside in order to get enough perspective and objectivity to tell a tough story. And I have been so deeply enmeshed in this unhappy subject for so long, with no break, that I have grown some emotional calluses.
"Mind of a Rampage Killer" airs on PBS's NOVA 9 p.m. ET Wednesday.
And Kate is right. This has been tough sledding. During a long, strange trip that began five weeks ago, I have met psychologists, a sociologist and a criminologist who have offered their often insightful take on why the rampages happen again and again.
But as smart and learned as the experts may be, there is nothing like hearing from people who have a strong personal and emotional stake in a story.
And there were two parents who I met during production of this film who will haunt me. One is the father of a rampage shooter. The other is a mother who worries that her son might one day become one.
A good reporter will have a knack for creating an instant intimacy with his or her subject. If you cannot strike a quick chord, you will never get a chance to see what lies beneath the surface.
Sometimes this can be hard to accomplish; the chemistry is just not right, and you have to muddle through as best you can. But every now and then, you meet someone where the connection is instant, genuine and meaningful beyond the requisites for a compelling story.
Such was the case for me when I met Jeff Williams. His son Andy is a rampage killer. Imagine for a moment what it must be like for him to read that last sentence. For Jeff, it is a life sentence in more ways than one. The sins of the son have affected Jeff profoundly and changed every aspect of his life.
Andy Williams was convicted of fatally shooting two people and wounding 13 after opening fire on high school classmates in 2001, at age 15. He spoke to Miles O'Brien via phone from the Ironwood Prison in the California desert.
It was hard to square Andy’s crimes – the shooting death of two fellow high school students and the wounding of 13 others – with the young boy in the home movies, the photo albums and on the wall at Jeff’s home.
But the framed and bound photos and the seemingly happy scenes in the movies end abruptly. There was one small, loose photo of Jeff, his wife Dona and Andy taken recently inside the Ironwood Prison in California, where Andy is serving a sentence of 50 years to life.
I was thinking they could have been pictures of my son. And then the moment came when I was reading an autobiography Andy wrote as a class assignment the in the fourth grade. He expressed a desire to go to the U.S. Naval Academy. That happens to be where my son is – now in his second (youngster) year.
Suddenly I saw myself in Jeff’s shoes. And they hurt.
I was reminded of how fortunate I am: my son has given me nothing but pride and joy. But Jeff must bear guilt for the sins of his son. Tears welled up in my eyes as I pondered at the cruel twists of fate that put us on the opposite side of a coin toss.
I told him I was sorry Andy was not in Annapolis. And I meant it.
My visit with Liza Long was equally emotional. Liza is the mother of a 13-year-old boy who struggles with mental illness. You may recall she wrote a blog headlined “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”
Liza Long is the author of the blog post "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," which she wrote shortly after hearing of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Liza worries about what might happen to (or because of) her son, who is prone to wild, violent, blind rages. She struggles with him and a system that does not provide easily affordable or available mental health care.
I did not know what to expect when I first met her son, “Michael,” and I was immediately bowled over by his intelligence, engagement and his quirky, dark sense of humor. On a good day (which it was) he is fun to be around.
Liza is struggling mightily to get a handle on the beast that lies within “Michael.” (He describes it as a werewolf.) Her only wish is that she can get him on a path toward college. He wants to study history and be a writer. But right now, he is not attending a school that would allow him to even apply to college.
Long's son "Michael" suffers from mental illness. Long wrote of her son's high IQ and also his terrifying violent outbursts.
And again, I was struck by my good fortune. My daughter at Davidson College is a gifted writer who wants to major in psychology. There is nothing stopping her from realizing her dreams for the future.
Liza loves her son and is a great, attentive parent. She did nothing wrong, and yet she is living out her own life sentence of worry.
After Newtown, we find ourselves asking how and why it keeps happening. And we all want simple answers. And let’s face it; we are tempted to lay a healthy heaping of blame on the parents. But it is not that simple.
Good parents can raise rampage killers. That doesn’t mean they deserve to be sentenced.