All in the Family

Mental Illness and Caregiving Across the Generations

Did Peter Lanza Really Wish Adam Had Never Been Born?

Laws prohibit parents from helping their adult children with mental illness.

Peter Lanza, father of Adam Lanza who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, finally told his story. It was written by Andrew Solomon and was published in The New Yorker.1 The story concludes with Peter saying he wished Adam had never been born.

Why? Because, like President Obama who led a national day of remembrance on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy by lighting 26 candles and leadership of the St. Rose of Lima Church that rang its bell 26 times that day, Peter Lanza blames Adam for killing twenty young schoolchildren and six educators in the Sandy Hook disaster.

To be sure, twenty young schoolchildren and six educators lost their lives, victims of Adam Lanza’s rampage through Sandy Hook Elementary School. But two other human beings also lost their lives in the tragedy that day—Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy. Excluding them from the ranks of the dead belies ignorance of the destructive effects of mental illness and wrongly attributes blame. The reality is that society as a whole shares the blame for this tragedy because our public policy on mental health care ensures that tragedies like this will continue to happen again and again and again.

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The report by Peter Lanza as well as the official report by Stephen Sedensky, the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury, described Adam’s tortured life. As a preschool child, Adam had temper tantrums, smelled odors others didn’t, and washed his hands compulsively. In fifth grade, Adam said he believed others were more deserving than he. By middle school, Adam was highly anxious; change, noise, and being touched upset him. At 13, he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder on the autism spectrum. In high school, he was withdrawn and lacked social skills. This boy was crying for help.

It is also clear from Sedensky’s and Peter Lanza’s reports that Adam’s parents understood that he was ill and tried to get him help. Peter and Nancy explored special schools for Adam, both public and private. Peter went to the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP) to talk to adults with Asperger Syndrome, trying to imagine a life for his son. Nancy considered moving to a town fifty miles away where the school system had strong programs for children with special needs, but concluded that the disruption involved would cancel out any benefits. So they tried homeschooling Adam. Beginning in the eighth grade, Nancy taught him the humanities while Peter taught him the sciences. They tried giving Adam Lexipro, a medication prescribed for his obsessive-compulsive disorder, but after Adam complained of dizziness, disorientation, and disjointed speech, Adam refused to take any psychotropic medications. By all accounts, Peter and Nancy were concerned and involved parents.

Nancy couldn’t hold a job because her life revolved around Adam. As a child, he had “episodes” at school that only she could diffuse. Once Adam graduated high school, Nancy continued to take care of his every need—cooking and shopping according to his specifications and doing his laundry on a daily basis. She even got rid of her cat because Adam didn’t want it in the house.

The adult Adam taped black trash bags over his bedroom windows. He communicated with his mother by e-mail, though they shared a home. He disliked birthdays and Christmas and forbade his mother to put up a Christmas tree. He allowed no one in his room. He continued to refuse to take prescribed medications and would not participate in behavior therapies.

Clearly Adam was troubled. He hadn’t left his house in three months. E-mails from Nancy to Peter described Adam as despondent; he cried incessantly. He secretly collected newspaper articles from 1891 describing the shooting of school children and kept a spreadsheet of mass murders. Despite his fascination with violent crimes, however, Adam displayed no aggressive or threatening tendencies. No one knew how much he hurt—not even his mother. As humans, we have to feel sorry for him.

Mothers, thanks largely to Freud, are blamed for nearly everything. Nancy Lanza has been unfairly blasted by some as a villain for purchasing the firearms and ammunition used by Adam to reap destruction. But objective accounts provide a far different perspective. Nancy collected guns for home security and target practice. The Sedensky report concluded that there was no evidence that Nancy feared that Adam would harm her or anyone else. She took her children target shooting as a family activity. Like other parents who teach their kids to shoot guns, she wanted to teach Adam about discipline, responsibility, situational awareness, camaraderie, and self-confidence. In fact, experts suggest that the best way to build a connection with someone who has Asperger’s is to participate in their fascinations. So teaching Adam to shoot likely was Nancy’s way of connecting with her son.

Nancy also has been chastised for not being more aware of how sick her son had become and not forcing treatment. Nancy had books in her home about Asperger Syndrome and she worried about what would happen to Adam if anything happened to her. Although the Sedensky report concludes that Adam planned his actions, there is no evidence that Nancy or anyone else knew of his plans. However, even if Nancy had known of Adam’s plans, it would have been very difficult for her to force him into treatment. As an adult, regardless of how sick he was, Adam had the right to refuse treatment unless he was an imminent danger to himself or others—and that, in today’s society, translates to wielding a gun or a knife with blood on it, not having an obsession with mass murders or playing violent videogames. Nancy was powerless. She couldn’t do anything to help Adam because of how our mental health care laws work.

Nancy’s was a life I understand. Like Nancy was, I too am the mother of an adult child with severe mental illness. When my daughter, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, turned 18, she decided she didn’t need medications or therapy. Although her doctors insisted she was incapable of making healthcare decisions, legally she could refuse treatment. She left home and became addicted to methamphetamine. Like Nancy, once my daughter turned 18, there was nothing I could do to help her.

Certainly the loss of the twenty children and six educators is tragic. But in our grief we must not forget that on December 14, 2012, Nancy Lanza and her son Adam also died. Candles should have been lit and church bells rung for them as well.

Peter Lanza said he wished that his son Adam had never been born. What I suspect he meant is that he wished he could have been empowered to help Adam so the tragedy would never have happened.

We need to change the system before the next tragedy happens. If we don’t, many will wrongly blame the person with mental illness who commits the bloody act when, in fact, the blood will really be on the hands of all of us.

 

  1. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/03/17/140317fa_fact_solomon

Rachel Pruchno, Ph.D. is Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Her memoir Surrounded by Madness comes out March 2014

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