Column: A mother tragic and infuriating
By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON — “The mother did the shooter’s laundry on a daily basis as the shooter often changed clothing during the day.”
That matter-of-fact recitation, from the just-released official report on the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, encapsulates the enduring contradiction of Nancy Lanza, shot four times in her bed with her .22-caliber Savage Mark II rifle.
The shooter was her son Adam, the disturbed boy she sought desperately to help and ended up enabling. Nancy Lanza, 52 when she died, is a figure at once tragic and infuriating.
To read the state’s attorney’s report on Sandy Hook is to simultaneously admire Lanza’s fierce efforts to help her troubled child and to seethe at the stupidity of her decision to allow him access to — indeed, encourage his interest in — the weapons he used to murder 27 people.
As the one-year anniversary approaches, unanswerable questions remain — questions that the report can resurface but not resolve. Not only about Adam Lanza’s motives — for an act so irrational and heinous no explanation can suffice — but about his mother’s behavior.
I tend more toward mommy-empathizing than mommy-blaming, and there is much to empathize with in the case of Nancy Lanza. She was dealt an extraordinarily hard hand in the case of her younger child, and she stuck with it.
By age 6, he was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder; he had difficulty interacting with others and recoiled at being touched. By middle school, he was identified as suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, part of the autism spectrum. Nancy Lanza tried home-schooling and private school. Nothing worked.
“You never turn your back on your children,” she told a family member, according to “Raising Adam Lanza,” produced by the Hartford Courant and “Frontline.”
The state’s attorney’s report documents this dogged maternal determination: “The mother took care of all of the shooter’s needs. The mother indicated that she did not work because of her son’s condition. She worried about what would happen to the shooter if anything happened to her.”
Nancy Lanza structured her life around her son’s peculiarities. Workers at the house “were instructed never to ring the doorbell and to make prior arrangements before using power equipment as her son had issues with loud noises.”
Adam Lanza “was particular about the food that he ate and its arrangement on a plate in relation to other foods on the plate. Certain types of dishware could not be used for particular foods. The mother would shop for him and cook to the shooter’s specifications.” When Nancy Lanza considered moving to Washington state so that Adam could attend a special school, she planned to buy a recreational vehicle “as he would not sleep in a hotel.”
Birthdays, Christmas and holidays were not to be celebrated. “He would not allow his mother to put up a Christmas tree. The mother explained it by saying that [the] shooter had no emotions or feelings. The mother also got rid of a cat because the shooter did not want it in the house.”
None of this could have been easy. Although they lived in the same house, Adam “would only communicate with her by email.” According to one witness interviewed, “when his mother asked him if he would feel bad if anything happened to her, he replied, ‘No.’”
Poor woman. But also: misguided, reckless woman. In seventh-grade writing assignments, Adam had “obsessed about battles, destruction and war. ... The level of violence in the writing was disturbing.” He spent hours playing video games, many violent (one chillingly called “School Shooting”).
And still Nancy Lanza encouraged his interest in guns. She went target shooting with Adam and his older brother. They took National Rifle Association safety courses. I can understand a parent, desperate to find a way to connect to an alienated child, seizing on a mutual passion. But no person with Adam’s bizarre behaviors ought to be around guns, let alone have them within easy access at home.
Few parents have to deal with the likes of Adam Lanza. Many parents, perhaps most, have to learn to find the balance between devotion and denial, empathy and enabling.
Nancy Lanza failed at that task. Searching her house after the shootings, they found a check she had made out to Adam. It was dated Christmas Day, and designated to buy a CZ 83 pistol.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.