When the bloodbath smothered my awareness as I worked at home on December 14, 2012, I felt the icy rain and despairing grey skies freeze my heart. My own children were grown. What matter. Life still feels a dangerous mine-field when you love so much. In an incomprehensible fraction of an instant, the very essence of your life can be obliterated.
I joined a nation grieving, a world, in fact. I grasped again my personal perplexity at gun ownership, shooting for sport. I suppose I entered with the grieving searching for a reason in those early hours, before understanding that reason and madness can never co-exist.
Soon, I was also saddened, however, as the media, the official statements and ultimately the president made a body count: “twenty six victims. “Twenty children” and “six adults” shot dead in Newtown.
His mother was a victim. Surely. He killed her. (And he, too, must be counted somewhere? A human life, he lived, he died. He died with great obscenity).
On March 17, 2014, Andrew Solomon published an article in The New Yorker, The Reckoning. In this article, and in his discussions of it on other media, Solomon, partially based on his previous writings and interviews relating to the Columbine massacre and on his interviews and research into the Newtown shootings, paints a portrait of Adam and Nancy Lanza. He also describes Peter Lanza from these sources, mediated by Mr. Lanza and his wife’s lengthy interviews with Solomon. What emerges is another portrait of an American horror which places at its center a mentally ill young man, infantalized in many ways, raised with deficient, provocative mothering . Mr. Solomon has extended the narrative which has alternately blamed, then erased, Nancy Lanza.
It is probably true that had Ms.Lanza and I encountered each other on a PTA committee we would have struggled to become friends. The chronicle of her history is as a well-heeled girl from New Hampshire, popular and successful, from an established family. She married her high school sweetheart to become a stock broker and then stay at home mom in a posh Manhattan suburb. Suffice it to say, my history has few points of intersection.
She enjoyed guns. I abhor them. She enjoyed shooting for sport. I cannot comprehend such a thing. She met friends at the local bar on occasion. I do not. She loved her children. That is a passion we shared.
There is little else we know of Nancy Lanza. Did she like to read? Did she enjoy the opera? Did she have hobbies other than guns: cooking, gardening, knitting, painting, hiking, running? Was she religious? Why did she not date? Was she in therapy? Did she confide in the sometimes mentioned “best friend?” Did she visit her other son, or he her? Did she like to shop?
I am relieved that there is much we do not know. Researching for this post was repellant for the intimacies of a life on view. The State’s Attorney’s Investigation necessarily examined every inch of her home, her correspondence, her phone calls, her clothing, her possessions, her life. The parts which link her to the horrors of the morning of her death have been memorialized in cyberspace. This is who she is. This is the sum of her remembered life.
That and her absence among the twenty-six stars on the Newtown firehouse. The absence of a bell toll for her on the anniversary of the massacre. The failure of a mention by President Obama when he calls on the nation to remember the slain of that day.
If the mother of the slain child, Ana , Nelba Marquez Green, has the generosity to call for empathy and counts Nancy Lanza as a Newtown victim, I suggest we all need to do so.
I suggest we need to do this because she was a victim of Domestic Violence. This time, and not for the first time, Domestic Violence shattered a community, a nation and reverberated throughout the world.
In the immediate aftermath of her death, when the wise began to question how our society copes with mental illness, a brave and insightful woman posted an article “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” to the relief of many frightened mothers (and fathers). The post is extraordinary especially since information now available from the State’s Attorney’s Investigation Report was mere rumor and innuendo at that time.
Evidence suggests that Adam Lanza suffered from developmental delay mushrooming into neurological/behavioral/medical/psychological and or psychiatric issues as he moved through adolescence and early adulthood. Documents summarized in the State Attorney’s Report and the Solomon article conflate time.
It is difficult to distinguish which of Lanza’s faetures discovered in the middle school years were known to have spiraled out of control into his last years. Lanza’s middle school experiences appear relatively well documented by school and medical sources. Still, these records present contradictory pictures. Some show a severely disordered child while others indicate a quite polite one who was not even bullied at school. In fact some of the school reports are so “normal” one wonders why there would be a reason to pull that child from school or seek professional help at all. The child described, they note, for whatever reason, had “at least one friend.”
The apparently contemporaneous professional reports herald lurking danger. At this juncture, the question most respectfully arises, where is the village? Certainly this is not a victim blaming exercise. It is a genuine inquiry: to what extent do we as a community have a duty of care to our members, our children, to offer support to those so obviously struggling?
People question, “How could she not see?” “Why did she not get help?” People who have never met the family sit in judgement. “Many parents, perhaps most, have to find the balance between devotion and denial… Nancy Lanza failed.” states Ruth Marcus, of the Washington Post definitively. Many condemn the deceased woman for what she failed to see or do which can be pinpointed so precisely in hindsight. But, none of these people were present in Nancy Lanza’s life as she was coping with a disordered, adult son.
Nor does it seem there was a large support system for Ms. Lanza when Adam was still a minor.
I would hope that if I were home schooling my child because he experienced, as Solomon states, “sensory overload” and “panic attacks” at school, or if my child was enrolled in “special classes”, there would be a teacher, social worker, child welfare worker overseeing my tutelage to ensure that I was providing the necessary services. I would hope that homeschooling, an alternative for creative, enriched learning, is not also being used as on “out of sight, out of mind” method to unload the system of its responsibilities to children with special needs. Newtown tragically demonstrates how special needs belong to the community not merely to the child.
I trust that if my neighbor’s child had an “episode” in school, the authorities would call paramedics as well as the parent. I would hope that child would not disappear into the care of a single parent who could be bewildered and overwhelmed.
I expect schools would refer my grandchild to physical or occupational therapy if he exhibited coördination difficulties and extreme fine motor concerns to prevent a teenager from lacing his shoes.
And I wonder if there is not a professional duty lying outside the family.
If a child diagnosed with a disorder or condition which substantially impairs his ability to take part in life fails to receive recommend treatment, ought there not be follow-up to ensure the welfare of the child is protected? Certainly, we can imagine a scenario where an impoverished parent refusing medical recommendations and failing to assist a child to socialize “normally” might risk the actual legal custody of the child. That child could be institutionalized. Is it wealth which buys the privilege of privacy to leave a child inadequately treated?
A panel video discussion on “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother. Sories from the Front Line” on The Huffington Post in 2012 considered this lack of “village cooperation.” The Lanzas shared with other families the problem of having a child difficult to pigeonhole into “diagnoses” in a DSM label-driven mental health care system.
Many families struggle with children who are described by their loved ones as “brilliant, loving and amazing” and also “volatile, disruptive and explosive.” It is not so rare that a parent comes to fear an explosive child, particular a child who grows larger or stronger than the parent. Compassionate people describe these children as “needing to develop past their behavior issues.” Or, as one parent suggested, needing structure which would provide the “scaffolding the brain required to develop. ” Many times this special attention is gained in therapeutic school settings or day schools for special needs students.
The evidence does not suggest that the experts or school systems ever recommended such placement options for Adam Lanza. The Lanzas considered and rejected “private school” except for a brief time in which Adam attended Catholic School. Neither is there a suggestion that either Peter or Nancy Lanza considered a therapeutic home or a special school at critical stages in Adam’s youth.
It appears that Nancy Lanza was the “primary parent” for her sons as they grew. Peter Lanza told Solomon that he considered that his relationship with his sons hardly changed after the separation from them in 2001 since he had always worked “ridiculously long hours.” Adam was 9 years old. Apparently, Ryan and Adam lived with their mother. Peter Lanza lived a commutable distance in Stamford, keeping a cordial relationship with mother and visiting his sons on weekends. He chose to remain involved in schooling and medical concerns. The parents together participated in Adam’s development into a young man with a sense of humor, a fascination with World War II and a nascent wish to join the military.
The family engaged in gun activity. Much has been reported about mother’s taking Adam to NRA shooting classes and to a shooting range. Documents evidence that father took his son shooting as well. An undated birthday card also evidences a promise from father to Adam to do the same when he next saw his son. This was apparently after Adam had stopped visiting his father and suggested as an inducement to resume visits. Many are incredulous that anyone voluntarily keep a gun and ammunition near a person as apparently disturbed as Adam Lanza. In Solomon’s interview, Peter Lanza is critical of his deceased wife for several things, but he absolves her for this, stating she would not have done so had she believed Adam to be violent.
According to Solomon, Peter Lanza is a man in need of precision about facts. One might question why he did not quest for more precision as to the source of the clear suffering of one of his sons. He is described as a “docile parent.” Solomon portrays Peter Lanza as an “affable,” successful, executive accountant not prone to examining emotions. This lack of understanding of or insight into the emotional world could have been something the man passed on to the boy. Even as I write these phrases, bordering on, if not crossing, a line of psychologizing a person I have never met and never will meet, I cringe. Yet such long distance analysis has been the posthumous fate of Nancy Lanza.
What emerges from Solomon’s article and the State’s Attorney’s Investigation Report is a portrait of a woman entrapped in a solitary and isolating relationship with her son. No evidence exits to confirm that this relationship was physically abusive before December 14, 2012.
On that date, the domestic abuse which had controlled her life morphed into murder. Peter Lanza’s weekend contacts with Adam ceased after his son obtained a driver’s licence and a car in 2010. Peter Lanza told Solomon that around that time Adam displayed no violent or aggressive tendencies in any way despite a “fascination with mass shootings and firearms.” Mr. Lanza had concluded after two years of not being in contact with Adam in any direct way that “It was crystal clear something was wrong” before the murders happened. Still, on Adam’s last birthday, father did not force a visit to his adult son because, essentially, he knew it would involve a fight and he chose not to make a public scene. Without judging any of those facts, it is crystal clear that Nancy Lanza had no help caring for Adam’s escalating needs through immediate family.
Whether she had any help at all is not established. Solomon’s research and Peter Lanza’s report confirm the impression given by other documentary evidence that the older Adam grew, the less space Nancy Lanza experienced for her own life. According to these sources, as early as age 14, an obsessive adolescent was directing his compliant mother to join him in refraining from touching metal surfaces. He issued other demands which were reportedly obeyed by his mother: he dictated what shoes she could where and how heavily she could tread; he considered it “inappropriate for her to “lean on” kitchen counters; he directed where she could walk in the kitchen and she agreed to get him computer parts so he could hide his cyber imprint. Prescribed medication caused disabling side effects and was discontinued without substitution. Adam’s other compulsions increasingly affected his mother’s life: he was restrictive in what foods he would eat and how food could be arranged on a plate so that food items could not touch each other; his clothing needed washing several times a day, a demand with which she complied. In addition, Adam was directing which rooms in the home sunlight could enter, who could ring the doorbell and when and other factors which affected his sensory peculiarities. Nancy could offend and enrage Adam or she or some other stimulus could send him into a catatonic depression or uncontrolled weeping at the slightest misstep. Eventually communication between them appears to have been limited to email, with Adam often unresponsive. Nancy Lanza chose to live in such a fashion with her adult son.
Immediately before her death Ms. Lanza confided to someone that she expected to live with Adam for “a long time.”
In domestic violence, the abused often seeks the approval of the abuser. The intimate nature of the relationship between the two magnifies the “power and control” features of the relationship. The fact that the victim is the mother of an abusive son can mean her entire identity – am I an adequate mother, a worthy person – is compromised by the abuse. Feelings of shame can prevent an abused family member from reaching out for help. As can feelings of powerlessness.
Parricide (child murder of a parent) is not a widely studied form of domestic violence. Unfortunately, it happens. Research suggests that this form of domestic violence is associated with a victim surrendering the role of an adult within the family. As she does so, she experiences increasing feelings of isolation. Because of the shame associated with this form of abuse, she may increase her own isolation. Generally, there is lack of information about lethal, non-lethal physical and/or emotional “child on parent” abuse (except perhaps in cases of the elderly which may have different dynamics). This lack of information can explain the lack of community resources for the prevention and treatment for families with this type of dysfunction.
In the case of Newtown, it is also useful to examine our cultural experience of family violence. Especially in recent years, the parentified child is a feature of television and movies but also common in the literature and other media of the times. This social reinforcement of weak parent models is harmful. Certainly children are due respect and participation within families. However, current research suggests that confusion of family roles is unhealthy and a potential breeding ground for violence. In addition, the same media continues to exalt violence especially for and to males. We raise our sons in a world filled with pressure for them to meet social expectations to be “tough.” Studies reinforce instinct that this media messaging can contribute to “accumulating aggression in male children.”
Peter Lanza told Solomon he was troubled Nancy Lanza “lied” to him that Adam was getting better. (A review of the States Attorneys Report does not necessarily support Mr. Lanza’s conclusion on this point.) He also suggested: “Nancy’s pride prevented her from asking for help. She wanted everyone to think it was ok.”
True, pride is the opposite of shame. A glass half full. A glass half empty.
Shame is a major impediment to a victim’s seeking help. Blame reinforces of shame. A community must have available and known resources for a victim before she can seek relief. There is no evidence that Adam Lanza was violent towards his mother before December 14, 2012. In fact, evidence fails to confirm that he was violent towards anyone. But the evidence does suggest that Nancy Lanza was, as one professional stated in Solomon’s article, increasingly “becoming a prisoner in her own home.” She was engaged in a downward cycle of emotional abuse of the most dangerous kind for all concerned.
What puzzles me is the poignant fact that in the hours before her murder, Nancy Lanza gave herself a holiday at a mountain spa. She cooked meals her clearly food-disordered son likely did not eat. He apparently functioned independently while she was gone, although his destruction erupted upon her return. She had purchased an RV and was making plans to move away, start a new life in a new state for her son at a new school. What gave her the strength for these changes? How did she muster the courage to leave behind the person who apparently dominated her every waking moment? How could she free herself from that control…and then return? What gave her the strength, energy and hope to plan a fresh start?
Solomon suggests that this very step – affirmatively planning to move into a different future – may have been the seeds of her destruction. She could have angered Adam with her recognition that she would live with him “for a very long time”; Adam was a young man craving independence. As the collected evidence shows, he was also utterly incapable of such independence. Peter Lanza states he was distanced by the” intensity” of the Nancy and Adam’s relationship, though there was nothing problematic in the “nature of ” the intensity itself.
Solomon suggests that unreferenced reports on matricide indicate it is a crime committed by “overprotective sons” who wish to “free themself from their dependence. ” Matricide is employed in these overly dependent, conflict laden relationships. The perpetrator ‘s mother tends to be smothering, the father, distant, passive.
The literature I studied suggested that matricide, a subclass of parricide, is most often committed by males aged 12-25, less often committed with guns. It is a crime of domestic violence, often correlated with schizophrenia, severe depression and suicide. It is a lashing out of extreme rage, usually pre-planned, a concomitant with suicide. It is the “desperate act of severely ill and inadequately treated mentally ill” people. As I discussed, studies suggest that a disintegrated family structure, unassertive parents and a child experiencing a lack of leadership are risk factors. As with all violence, matricide is a crime of power and control.
Murder victims are not generally blamed for their own slaughter. Certainly not when they are shot in the head four times in the early morning in their bed in their own homes.
Nancy Lanza was blamed, belittled and forgotten.
It gets easier every day to turn away. Our children spend more time “online.” We can skype into town meetings or get the minutes online. We don’t even have to go to town or the mall to shop anymore. It will come to our door. But, the door closed on the house beside us can still shelter people in pain. Hollywood may have us dreaming about perfect operating systems as mates, but the world is still filled with flesh and blood folks with gladsome and mournful hearts. We can choose to divorce ourselves from the reality that our neighbor’s world affects our own. But that will not alter circumstance. Sooner or later we must accept that we live in a village after all.