Every year, on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the country remembers. We must. No one wants to accept the normalization of the heinous events that took place on that December morning four years ago, when Adam Lanza walked into his former grade school in Newtown, Connecticut, and opened fire.
And so, we remember. Memorials ― both online and in real life ― emerge, giving the public an opportunity to acknowledge and grieve the lives that were stolen. A bell is rung 26 times. Twenty-six candles are lit. This year, CNN anchor Jake Tapper tweeted 26 names and photos, putting faces to an avalanche of unimaginable loss.
The number 26 accounts for the 20 children who were killed, and the six adults who died trying to save their lives. But in that tally of the tragedy, one life is missing: that of Nancy Lanza.
Adam’s mother was the first victim he shot that day, and she has been all but erased from the story. By doing this, we miss a critical point about the Sandy Hook massacre. It began at home, a fact ignored despite compelling evidence that a large percentage of mass shootings in the United States involve gunmen targeting their families.
On the morning of Dec. 14, right before Lanza drove to the elementary school to commit mass murder, he slaughtered his mother in her bed. He fired four shots into her body; an action that his dad considered to be deeply symbolic.
As Peter Lanza told the New Yorker in 2014, he believed each shot represented a member of their family. “The reason he shot Nancy four times was one for each of us: one for Nancy; one for him; one for Ryan: one for me,” he said.
It’s not hard to surmise why Nancy has been systematically erased from the tally of victims. Many appear to blame her, at least in part, for her son’s horrific actions, so they hate her. There’s no room for nuance.
In contrast to the others killed in the massacre ― the innocent children and brave adults protecting them ― she is an imperfect victim. She purchased the guns her son used to carry out the massacre. She encouraged Adam’s interest in firearms by taking him to shooting ranges. She didn’t acknowledge how sick he was. As his mother, the argument goes, she should have seen his capacity for violence, even when no one else did.
Before Nancy became the first victim of her son’s violence, she was his sole caregiver, and her life revolved around helping him function in a world he could barely tolerate.
Adam was severely developmentally disabled, hypersensitive to sounds and smells, and suffered from debilitating panic attacks. According to a state prosecutor’s report on the shooting, Nancy “did not work because of her son’s condition. She worried about what would happen to the shooter if anything happened to her.”
A psychiatrist at Yale’s Child Study Center who assessed Adam when he was 14 reported that he was deeply controlling of Nancy’s behavior. He didn’t allow her to touch metal objects, such as doorknobs, because they were covered in germs. He complained if she wore high heels because they were too loud. The smell of her cooking dinner could make him highly agitated.
Nancy was “almost becoming a prisoner in her own house,” the doctor concluded.
In 2013, a Connecticut state agency was tasked with investigating Adam’s life to identify red flags and missed opportunities. In the resulting 114-page report, the authors agreed that Adam’s parents may not have fully “understood the depth or implications of his disabilities, including his need for ongoing support.”
Yet, his parents were not alone in under-appreciating the extent of Adam’s problems.
The report notes that “weaknesses and lapses in the educational and healthcare systems’ response” played a significant role in Adam’s deterioration. Their findings “strongly implicate the need to assist parents with understanding and addressing the needs of children with complex developmental and mental health disorders.”
In the end, they concluded that the blame rests with one person only: Adam himself.
“There is no way to adequately explain why [he] was obsessed with mass shootings and how or why he came to act on this obsession,” they write. “In the end, only he, and he alone, bears responsibility for this monstrous act.”
Even if the public understands this intellectually, the lingering animus against Nancy reveals the limits of empathy available to mothers of killers. In times of intense tragedy, the public yearns for someone to scapegoat. (For a fictionalized version of this phenomenon, watch Tilda Swinton’s devastating performance in “We Need To Talk About Kevin.”)
As Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine high school shooters, remarked in an interview earlier this year: “A mother is supposed to know.”
Our lack of empathy for Nancy is not that surprising: Empathy ― the ability to identify with another’s feelings ― is known to play to our biases. We feel more empathy towards people who look like us, enjoy the same sports teams we do, and we feel less empathy towards those we believe are to blame for their own suffering, like Nancy.
As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom argues in his new book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, empathy can pervert our moral reasoning and lead us to act in cruel and tribal ways. When it comes to guiding our decisions, he writes, “empathy is a moral train wreck.”
By excluding Nancy as one of the victims of the massacre, we draw a moral line about who deserves public sympathy. Yet when we erase her from the story, we miss a pertinent part of the narrative, essential to understanding the connection between family violence and mass killings.
Fifty years ago, architecture student Charles Whitman climbed the landmark tower at the University of Texas at Austin and began shooting bystanders indiscriminately ― an act of unthinkable violence that is now considered the first mass shooting of the modern era.
He killed more than a dozen people and injured more than 30 during his rampage. But his murderous spree did not begin on the tower: Before Whitman opened fire on the public, he first killed his mother and his wife.
Louis Klarevas, author of Rampage Nation: Securing America From Mass Shootings, said it’s not unusual for the most deadly perpetrators of gun massacres to kill those closest to them.
In his recent book, Klarevas examined every gun massacre between 1966 and 2015 that claimed six or more lives. Over 40 percent of the shootings involved a perpetrator targeting an intimate partner or family member as one of the victims ― making it the most common type of massacre.
“The thing that we often overlook but that really pops out when you look at the data as a whole is that the number one motive behind most gun massacres in the United States is domestic violence,” he said. “Most gun massacres involve some sort of relationship between the perpetrator and the victims, and that relationship tends to be a family member or a romantic relationship.”
When we erase Nancy from the list of victims, we lose this critical context. And then we lose her again.
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