Why I Get Obama’s Response to Newtown

A writer whose brother was armed and mentally ill reflects on what moved the president to tears.

Newtown, Conn., residents cope with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. (Mario Tama/Getty Images News)
Newtown, Conn., residents cope with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. (Mario Tama/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — As the horrors at Sandy Hooks Elementary School continued to unfold, I could feel Barack Obama’s agony as his eyes watered and his voice quavered during his presidential statement just hours after last Friday’s mass shootings.

I know I saw tears of sorrow. I suspect that I also saw tears of anger and anxiety.

There he stood, the most powerful man on the planet, knowing that he had done nothing that might have prevented the deaths of 20 first-graders and the six adults who tried to protect them; hoping that he might be able to do enough to make sure the horror never happened again.

There are no pat answers as to how, as the president said in his White House statement, “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.”

It will not be easy. There’s the politics of the NRA and gun control. There’s the American culture of violence glorification. There’s the insidious lure of illegal street drugs. And there are the mental-health care issues that we’ve ignored for a generation.

This I know. Personally. Painfully. And witnessing President Obama’s first real steps toward grappling with the nation’s challenges of guns, violence and mental health took me back to review what could have been, what was and what is in my own family.

In the late 1970s Dariek Anderson, my kid brother, lured by the recruiting slogan “Be all that you can be,” dropped out of Indiana University, on a promise that he could become a photographer in the U.S. Army. Halfway through his tour of duty, while he was guarding a Nike missile silo in Germany, our parents began wondering if something was wrong.

The letters they were receiving from my brother were getting harder and harder to decipher. Suddenly the letters stopped. Then, out of the blue, our parents got a call from Washington, D.C. Dariek had been hospitalized for a year. He had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He also suffered from manic depression. He would be getting a medical discharge. Weeks later my 22-year-old brother was back home in Gary, Ind., living with our mother and father.

When my brother took his meds, he was a bit lethargic but basically his old kind and insightful self again. But after a few weeks or months on the drugs, he’d go off of them, and his conversation would become hard to follow.