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In Small-Town Conn., a History of Youth Suicides

Posted: Dec 17, 2012

Although there is no way to understand what was going on in Adam Lanza’s head, I felt a sense of recognition for the troubled face seen in the news clips. No, I did not identify or sympathize with him, but I recognized his “type” lost in that bucolic town.

I grew up in Bethel, just a few miles from Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were gunned down in a school shooting last week. Newtown and Bethel are small New England towns with rolling green hills, winding country roads and white church steeples. The large and comfortable homes here have abundant yards with none of the California penchant for creating walled compounds. It was an ideal place to grow up, but there can be a sense of alienation with the affluence.

As I tried to make sense of the horror happening near my hometown, among my people, I remembered how my high school had the grim reputation for a spate of suicides in the early 1980’s. There were four suicides in 30 months when I was in high school. Three of the victims used guns.

In a New York Times article by Andree Brooks from 1982, the writer tried to explain the string of suicides at my high school with this telling quote:

“But again and again, a sense of fragmentation and alienation are cited as the most likely causes, sometimes leading first to alcoholism or drug abuse and sometimes straight to suicide.”

My town was a socially conservative community that had a rigid social caste system, where many teens felt trapped in the bottom rungs. Many looked to nearby New York City, seeing few relevant options and no future in the small town.

In retrospect, I was one of those youths—alienated and stoned. I was fortunate to have a small close-knit group of friends that shared my sense of not belonging. We spent untold hours in those picturesque woods, smoking, drinking, planning our escapes. I got out of town as soon as I graduated high school, moving to the big City—just an hour and half—but a world away.

In the last few days, I’ve talked to many friends who left town as well, looking to see if they shared some of my remembrance of that time in Connecticut. Indeed, they had. One of my friends said that there was a kind of toughness to the teens that came from “backwoods secrets and unrecognized depression and abuse.”

Bethel is not a bad place, although I have felt a sense of having survived being a teenager there. I have family in the area and visit often and several friends who also survived the teenage years have settled in for comfortable lives. Their lives have been turned upside down with everyone knowing someone that knows someone who has a direct connection to the abomination.

Perhaps, in my time, Lanza would have shot just himself, and not committed that unspeakable horror at Sandy Hook Elementary. Death was no stranger to my young adult years, but mass murder was something that happened elsewhere.

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