After James Holmes gunned down moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, a friend of mine asked me if I ever woke up to the news of a mass shooting and expected to know the shooter from our past lives as homeschooled conservative Christians. Given the isolation and the violence we sometimes saw, part of her was always waiting to recognize a gunman’s name.
Maybe that’s why I had a bad feeling when I heard that a 15-year-old boy in New Mexico, my home state, had murdered his mother, father, and siblings. And why the feeling got worse when I heard he was the son of an ex-pastor of the very church that hosted our statewide homeschool conventions. By the time I found out Nehemiah Griego was homeschooled, I was somehow not surprised.
The evangelical homeschool community was built to shelter its children from the darkness of the outside world. My own family was well-adjusted, happy and peaceful, but there was an undercurrent of violence, isolation and darkness running through the family lives of others we knew. My experience is only my experience, and one I hope is atypical of other homeschooled communities. But what we saw was unsettling.
New Mexico itself is a violent place. I now live in New York, the city where middle American moms and dads still fear to send their kids. But New Mexico is one of the most dangerous states in the nation, and Albuquerque’s per-capita rate of violent crime is nearly twice the national average. The violence there can sometimes be an especially crazy and senseless violence fueled by a despair that seems to be driven by poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse. I remember a recent example that I still haven’t been able to forget, of a paraplegic man who started partying with two strangers who dumped him out of their pickup truck when he wouldn’t share his liquor. They left him to crawl on his belly through the New Mexico desert near my hometown for three days—starving, dehydrated, and cold. The gun culture is just as deep in New Mexico as it is the Southern states, a state where good Christians own guns and use them. Greg Griego, a born-again, former gang member, owned the assault rifle his son reportedly used to kill him.
During my time growing up in a tiny church of 10 or so homeschooled families, I saw emotional, sexual, and physical violence again and again. A stepfather went to prison for raping his stepdaughter, a landlord was arrested for child pornography, and more than one wife fled her husband in terror. I’ve seen the homeschool community draw a type of family that craves isolation and doesn’t want the authorities intruding into their lives. They would prefer not to have a watchful school official notice a bruise and would rather deal with a troubled child in secret instead of under the scrutiny of the state. This type of community can especially draw violent and abusive men who quote scriptures about wives obeying their husbands and take those scriptures as a license to abuse.
The homeschooled community can exert a pressure to pretend that everything is fine, so I saw violence explode from the families who looked the happiest on the outside. In a community that emphasizes tight-knit families and idealizes loving and harmonious homes, a violent father or a troubled child can hide in plain sight.
The isolation of that community can be amplified by New Mexico’s own empty spaces—miles of desert swept with sand, dotted with pinon trees and scattered with houses that might be hundreds of miles apart. Life as a homeschooled Christian kid—at least when I was a child—could be lonely sometimes. Some of the friends I considered close lived three and a half hours away.
I didn’t know the Griego family, although there is a good chance that my family and theirs had mutual friends. It would be wrong to assume that anyone else in the Griego family was also troubled, like Nehemiah was, or that anyone but the shooter himself was responsible for a tragic and senseless act. The family’s father, Greg Griego, was a well-loved man who had put his own violent past behind him to help others. He was coming home from his work at a homeless shelter the night his life ended, and there are no allegations he abused his son.
According to those who knew him, Nehemiah Griego was a quiet kid who wore camo, played drums in the youth group and seemed to spend a lot of time by himself. I can picture Nehemiah Griego’s daily life because it seems a lot like mine: church, classes taught by mom, a bevy of younger siblings, few friends, and even quiet walks down rural roads. I knew kids like him, and most of them were great kids, which is what the church security guard called Nehemiah Griego. But I can also echo what the guard said: “No idea what demons are in the closet.”
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