A couple of days after Christmas, the state police gave the people of Connecticut a belated gift: the final report on the massacre that took place more than a year earlier in Newtown. The thousands of pages of evidence include writings, interviews and drawings, as well as photos taken at Sandy Hook Elementary School and at the home of Adam Lanza, who killed 20 young children that day, along with six educators, his mother and, finally, himself.
The report is also an account of Lanza’s gradual mental and social deterioration, over quite a few years.
Since hindsight is always 20/20, it’s easy for us to read this tragic tale of untreated mental illness and say, “Why didn’t somebody do something?”
But who should have done something? And what should they have done? And when?
Undeniably, there were signs in Lanza’s childhood that something was terribly wrong — long before he taped black garbage bags over his bedroom windows; long before he withdrew into a world of video games; long before he became obsessed with guns and mass-murder statistics; long before he cut off all contact with his mother except for email, even though they lived in the same house.
As far back as preschool, he had demonstrated unusual behaviors, including “smelling things that were not there” and “excessive hand washing.” In fifth grade — at Sandy Hook Elementary — he wrote a story in which “Granny” and her son terrorize a group of children, who are told they’re going to play a game called “Hide and go die.” Granny kills people with her “rifle cane.” There’s also “Dora the Beserker,” who tells Granny, “I like hurting people ... Especially children.” Then Dora enters a day care center and says, “Let’s hurt children.”
Shouldn’t someone have said something then? Actually, they did: a teacher went to the principal, and there were consultations with psychiatrists and other professionals. Medication was prescribed. A doctor at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center diagnosed Lanza with “profound Autism Spectrum Disorder, with rigidity, isolation, and a lack of comprehension of ordinary social interaction and communications.” A nurse found him to be “emotionally paralyzed.”
But he wasn’t acting aggressively toward others. And Nancy Lanza, his mother, objected to the medication and never made follow-up appointments for her son. She must have believed she could handle him — even in the home she had made for him, loaded as it was with guns, ammo and knives.
According to the report, at the time of his death Adam Lanza was six feet tall, but he weighed only 112 pounds — not slim, not even gaunt, but skeletal: another red flag — one of so very many that someone, first and foremost his mother and housemate, should have seen.
Why didn’t Nancy Lanza do more? Perhaps because, as a parent, her heart refused to believe what her head must have told her was true: that her son was profoundly disturbed and might be dangerous. Instead, she was “more concerned with keeping him as comfortable as possible and just getting through each day.”
Looking back, we want to say, “There — that’s when somebody should have done something!” But if that something was to take a child away from his parents — and/or to lock him up in some kind of institution, and/or to make him undergo some kind of treatment against his parents’ wishes, and/or to confiscate any and all firearms in the home — then by what right would the state do that? And what is the proper way to nullify a parent’s authority?
These are a few of the tough questions raised by the Sandy Hook report. There are no easy answers.