The release this week of the official report on Adam Lanza’s attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School has once again turned people’s attention to the enigmas of his personality and motivation.
Based on my research, I believe that Lanza was a psychotic school shooter who suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia. Many of his unusual traits that could be understood as belonging to an autism-spectrum diagnosis and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder could be accounted for by a diagnosis of schizophrenia. These include his extreme social withdrawal and apparent catatonic episodes, his sensitivity to touch and noise, his poverty of speech (lack of verbal interaction), his odd compulsions or rituals, as well as his olfactory hallucinations.
In my forthcoming book I analyze forty-eight school shooters, twenty-five of whom had psychotic features. Like many of these shooters, Lanza was obsessed with the military, violence, and in particular, school shooters and other mass murderers. Most of the shooters who found role models for murder were psychotic. Also, most school shooters who killed members of their families were psychotic.
Perhaps the most significant revelations from the official report are those regarding Lanza’s sexuality. Prior to this, there had been no indication of any sexual interest on his part. He had an interest, however, in pedophilia and “advocating for rights for pedophiles.” He also appears to have engaged in online chats regarding homosexual fantasies. The significance of these revelations is unclear, but they indicate an interest in personal relationships that previously appeared absent.
The burning question that remains unanswered is “why commit murder?” I suspect that whatever rationale he had would strike us as irrational. In fact, there may have been multiple rationales, with multiple different reasons for killing his mother and attacking people at the school. He reportedly had a strained relationship with his mother and referred to her as irrational. He also wrote about the selfishness of women. But does this explain shooting her in the head multiple times?
He may have resented her for what he perceived as some failure on her part. He may have envied the children at Sandy Hook because his mother used to volunteer at the school. If he felt abandoned by her and jealous of the students receiving her attention, it would explain his rage toward her and his rage toward the students. Or perhaps his murder of children was related to being sexually tempted by them. It may also have been related to his time at the school. There are reports that he was picked on by his peers, but also reports that he wasn’t, as well as his mother’s indication that he loved the school and was happy there.
Like other psychotic shooters, he may have attacked the school out of extreme envy, killing the children who were living normal happy lives, the kind of life that was always out of reach to him. Alternatively, he may have been acting out commands by auditory hallucinations or the urgings of paranoid delusions. A computer of his contained “two fictional writings of being attacked by babies and attempts to defend against them.” Perhaps Lanza had paranoid delusions about the children at the school and believed he was acting in self-defense by killing them.
Another possibility is that Lanza felt like such a failure as a man that he sought to experience masculinity through violence. Many school shooters had significant biological issues, including birth defects, sickliness, and/or unusually small statures. Lanza was six feet tall but weighed only 112 pounds—making him remarkably frail. Several dumbbells were found in his home, indicating a desire to build up his muscles.
In addition, like many school shooters, he had a relative who served in the military whom he sought to emulate. Many school shooters had military aspirations that were thwarted. Lanza wanted to join the Marines and follow in the footsteps of his uncle, but his mother dissuaded him from applying. Lanza liked to dress up in military gear starting at a young age, and was so dressed during his attack.
For school shooters with a damaged sense of masculinity, violence has been a way to experience power and manliness. This may have been part of Lanza’s motivation. But why gun down young children? Perhaps he felt so inadequate that even with high-powered weapons the only targets he felt capable of taking on were first-graders.