If a wife murdered her husband, we would all be looking for reasons why she murdered him. We would be analyzing his past and present, studying all the signposts in order to understand what he did to her to make her want to murder him. Similarly, if a daughter murdered her father, there would be no hesitation in finding the abusive behavior on his part that caused his daughter to want to murder him.
However, in the case of Adam Lanza, who shot his mother four times and then drove to his former school and shot and killed 20 children and six teachers on the morning of December 14, we seem to be going out of our way to prove that Adam’s behavior had nothing to do with his mother. Indeed, there seems to be an urgent need not only to look for good things about his mother but also to pin the cause of Adam’s difficulties on his alleged autism or a vague mental disorder. “Don’t blame the mother,” is the saying that comes to mind.
Typical of this is an AP article by Adam Geller which begins with the sentence, “Nancy Lanza was the one who, if she heard you were short on cash, regularly offered to pick up the tab at My Place.” My Place is a pizzeria and bar where she hung out two or three times a week to drink chardonnays and talked about the Boston Red Sox, gardening and shooting.
While she talked about these things, the article notes, she seldom talked about her youngest son. This paints her as a mother who suffered having a mentally ill son in brave silence. “But while she occasionally expressed concern about his future during evenings at the bar, she never complained about anything at all.”
The fact that Nancy Lanza had bought a number of guns and talked about going to shooting ranges regularly was seen by friends at the bar as a “hobby” that helped her deal with the “ever-present challenges of raising a son with intractable problems.” She explained to friends that she bought the guns for protection, and everyone seemed to accept that at face value. Marsha Lanza, her aunt, remarked that her niece simply “prepared for the worst.”
A baby-sitter who had taken care of Adam Lanza when he was ten and eleven recalled the instructions Nancy had given him. “His mom Nancy had always instructed me to keep an eye on him at all times, never turn my back or even go to the bathroom or anything like that. Which I found odd but I really didn’t ask; it wasn’t any of my business.” The baby-sitter did not question why his mother had such an attitude toward him, nor wonder what that attitude said about her.
President Obama, among others is pressing for gun control, as if the availability of guns was the reason this happened. To me, that is the same as a golfer blaming his bad golf game on the kind of clubs he is using.
Not much has been said about the divorce of Adam Lanza’s parents. They divorced in 2009 when Adam was 16, but the details of their relationship, like the details of the mother’s relationship with her son, are apparently veiled in secrecy. The split up, according to the aunt, was not acrimonious. But the damaging effect of divorce on children has been well-documented by research.
My 35 years of practicing as a psychoanalyst has taught me that when somebody kills his mother, there is a reason why he has a murderous rage at her. And when somebody chooses to shoot six-year-old children, there is a reason why he has chosen them to be the target of his anger. Only through understanding the deepest layers of meaning that underlie a tragedy such as the one that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut can we make the changes in our culture that are necessary to prevent that tragedy reoccurring.
The mother’s obsession with guns and safety implies that she was angry. When a person’s major hobby is collecting and shooting guns, that hobby says something about the person. According to the article cited above, she used shooting as an outlet. It would seem to be a violent outlet, one that could have been a channeling of pent-up aggression. I have had patients who told me that they imagined the faces of their enemies when they were shooting on the range.
Her instructions to the sitter about not turning his back on her son may point to some kind of paranoia. At the very least it may suggest that her attitude toward her son was that he was untrustworthy, and perhaps devious or even dangerous, and this is a disturbed way for a mother to view her son. Did she never wonder what she might have done to shape his behavior? If a parent treats a child as if the child is a monster while completely denying his or her own anger at the child, she would be, in psychoanalytic terms, projecting. Over the years this can only increase a child’s resentment and rage.
In some cases there is a father-mother-child anger syndrome. The father denies his own anger and attributes it to his wife, making her the angry monster; and the wife in turn denies her anger and attributes it to the son, making him the angry monster. A mother is sometimes like a casting director; she may cast her one son as the Devil and infect him with her rage. This may or may not be what happened in Lanza’s case, but it is a possibility.
The question of why he chose little children as the additional target of his rage may be related to a deep trauma suffered at a young age, to a feeling that he had lost not just his childhood, but also his very soul, and to a jealousy of children who were enjoying theirs. Admittedly, this is not an obvious or pleasant idea to consider.
The police in Newtown have said they are looking for the motive. People everywhere say they are looking for answers. But maybe they don’t want to find the real answers.
A disturbed young man committed an atrocious act, of that there is no doubt. If we want to know why he did it, we need to be willing to accept whatever the answer is. And when we find the answer, we may need to find a different solution.
The solution may not be gun control or more mental health clinics. The solution may be establishing safeguards for better parenting.