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My Friend, the Murderer

The Kevin who took a steak knife to his ex's throat is not the Kevin I know.

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I can’t make sense of what you did, I wrote . I will try to understand, but I obviously wish this hadn’t happened.

This was all I could say — the only things I knew with absolute certainty I would never regret. I knew even then that details might emerge even before Kevin received my letter, and so to say that I’d be there for him, or that I trusted it’d been a mistake — there seemed a risk in each admission.

It took 18 months for defense and prosecuting attorneys to finalize their case, and all the while, I wrote him monthly: a careful letter detailing my life. When finally the lawyers were ready to present their arguments, they chose to settle for a plea bargain, instead. Kevin was sentenced to 27 to 50 years in a maximum-security prison, but this in lieu of an arduous trial, one that would be undoubtedly difficult for everyone involved. He was not obligated to receive mental health treatment, not required to ever talk about what happened. and because there was never a trial, the only information I’ll ever have is what I first heard on the evening news.

* * *

I still write Kevin once a month. I tell him about everything: how I visited the Iowa State Fair, for example, or how I saw an astronaut carved from butter. How I’d eaten the state’s largest pork tenderloin and half of the 50 food items served on sticks. And I think — every time — about asking: What happened that night and how in the world could it?

But instead I say nothing, because I fear I am not equipped. I have no idea how to handle his mental illness, which I know is still ongoing, because every few months — along with his letter — he includes a new graphic story: a woman stabs a man in the neck, or blood oozes into a loaf of bread. He is trying — the best he can — to work through whatever happened, but there are no professionals assisting him along the way, no trained specialists to help him get better. He’ll spend nearly his whole life in prison, safe from society but never himself.

It is tempting — considering recent events — to jump to a grandiose conclusion, to assert what I have learned, to say that my friendship with Kevin Schaeffer has taught me everything, including this world. That in knowing him, I know myself. But the truth is, I’ve learned nothing, and I’m not certain I ever will, except that our society is one of indifference and apathy for the mentally ill. Through Kevin, I’ve learned the facts: that the rate of mental illness in inmates is five times that of the general population, that it’s rising with every year, that we put the sick in prisons because we don’t know what else to do. And in the past three years alone, $2.2 billion has been cut from state mental-health budgets.

“Wishing that mental illness would not exist has led our policymakers to shape a healthcare system as if it did not exist,” announced Paul Appelbaum, president of the American Psychiatric Association, in his inaugural address.

I think even about the media coverage, how the footage is always sensational: the body, the blood, the mother, how she grieves deep into her husband in some suburban, fenced-in yard.

Meanwhile, they keep appearing: I mean here, of course, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, the Tsarnaev brothers. We hate these men because it’s easy, but we never consider what remains difficult: that mental illness is real and pressing, that if left untreated, it results in violence. That rather than fear or ignore the ill, we should work for treatment and a resolution.

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