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The Psychology of Attraction

Sandy Hook: When Flags Are Red in Retrospect

Remembering the Sandy Hook Victims

On the first anniversary of the tragic Sandy Hook massacre of December 2013, we reflect upon both what happened and what might have been prevented. As with other senseless school shootings, we want to know about any red flags that might have been missed.

In this case, shooter Adam Lanza killed twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, before killing himself. His first victim, however, was his mother Nancy. Did Nancy know her son was capable of such violence? Or, was she too close to the situation to read her son clearly?

Unfortunately, the people in our lives who are the most difficult to read are those closest to us. I have had polygraphers—experts in lie detection, admit that as good as they are at their day job interviewing suspects accused of crimes, they come home and find themselves completely stumped by the behavior of their spouse. They are unable to accurately read their own partners because their emotions cloud their powers of perception.

Nancy Lanza may have suffered from some loss of objectivity, although she certainly made efforts to get help for her son.   

What did the outside world see? The images we all saw on the news after the killings portray a socially awkward-looking young man, sporting a bowl haircut, looking . . . uncomfortable. But were there any warning signs that he was capable of such violence? Let’s have a look at how Adam spent his time.

Reading the Recluse

Suffice it to say, knowledge of what a person does in their spare time may be enormously revealing of their interests and intentions. So how did young Adam spend his spare time? Outside in the fresh air skateboarding or playing football? Going to the movies? Nope. Most of his time was spent inside his mother’s house.

The New York Times reported that one witness who described Adam as a “shut in” told the FBI that Adam rarely left the house. What did he do inside? He wasn’t playing cards or helping his mother around the house. The story reports that according to two law-enforcement officials, he spent most of his time playing the warfare video game “Call of Duty” in the basement of his home.

Did he have other interests? Yes he did. The Daily Mail reported that Adam Lanza reportedly had a devil worshipping website. Another piece of bad news.

Fascination With Guns

But he did have one hobby, that he and his mother shared—and it wasn’t baking cookies. Guns. Was this a red flag? Not necessarily, because often, we fail to recognize the dangers presented by activities we enjoy ourselves. Both Nancy and her son Adam were gun enthusiasts. Nancy’s own enjoyment of shooting guns may have desensitized her to the potential danger of the sport —a danger that ironically and tragically ended her life.

And we aren’t just talking about one or two guns here. After the killings, The Sacramento Bee reported that a search of Adam’s car and home revealed an arsenal of weapons, and that a search of the Lanza house also revealed other firearms paraphernalia, a guide to pistol shooting put out by the NRA, as well as a variety of articles about other shootings.

But unlike Nancy’s interest in shooting for sport, there were more sinister findings tied in with Adam’s interest in guns. The New York Times reported that after the massacre, investigators found in the Lanza home a 2008 New York Times article describing a school shooting in Illinois where a suspect killed five people and injured 21 before killing himself.

A Mother’s Love

Unfortunately, while she was certainly not able to predict the horrific massacre, Adam’s mother Nancy was reportedly concerned that her son was dangerous. A CBS news report shares that a babysitter remembers Nancy warning him “never to turn his back on the boy - not even to go to the bathroom.”

This fear may have been magnified during the days leading up to the massacre, because according to a story in USA Today, Nancy observed that in the weeks leading up to Adam’s murderous rampage, that her son was “falling deeper into a bizarre mindset.”  She tried to get him help, seriously concerned for his well being.  

Drawing Conclusions—Literally

Like Aurora, Colorado theatre shooter James Holmes earlier in 2012, who according to news coverage, drew pictures of his resulting carnage beforehand and sent them to his psychiatrist, Adam Lanza drew pictures of his carnage as well.

Weeks before her son’s homicidal rampage, Radar Online reports that his mother Nancy found gruesome images Adam drew, including one of a woman holding a child “getting all shot up in the back with blood flying everywhere,” according to a friend. What did Nancy do when she found these horrifying drawings? The story states that Nancy chose not to confront her son about the pictures, deciding instead to “think it over.”

The bottom line is that when it comes to accurately reading close family members, emotion clouds perspective. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, and also with the surviving members of the Lanza family, as the healing process continues.


Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D. is a career trial attorney and an expert in criminal law. She is co-author of the New York Times bestseller, "Reading People."


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