What Nancy Lanza Knew


What Nancy Lanza Knew


Sonya Huber

I was in the grocery checkout line when I learned that Adam Lanza killed his mother. Over the following days, the facts wavered in the Internet deluge: she did work at the school or she didn’t; she was nice or high-strung; she worked or she didn’t. In that moment, though, I wasn’t judging her. I started to cry as I paid for my groceries, and the cashier cried along with me. That’s what women were doing in the grocery store that day, piecing together information, opening up the same conversation with strangers, hurting each other with facts so we could all bear the eventual load together.

I admit that I am quite rattled by this, partially because I live about 40 miles from Newtown–close enough to have friends whose kids attend that school district, and close enough to know people who know families in which children and grown children have been murdered.

I’m rattled—as is the country and beyond—about the invasion of guns into a school for young children, an institution which is not exactly a home but is more domestic than most public spaces. It is, in a way, an extension of the home, a place we trust as special and separate. Its invasion is a public form of domestic violence, a targeting of our most vulnerable, an attack on many families. The blog Legal Justice School Info clarifies the connection: “Although Lanza allegedly killing his mother could be considered an act of domestic violence (and the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence calls murder-suicide ‘the ultimate act of domestic violence’), the murder spree that extended to the school far exceeds the typical domestic violence scenario.”

I was devastated by the death of the children and school personnel, but I—like most people—kept coming back to the issue of the family in a fruitless attempt to seek out causes. Driving home, I began to think about Nancy Lanza as a victim of domestic violence—an analysis also pointed out briefly in an excellent Ms. Magazine blog piece by Soraya Chemaly entitled “Why Won’t We Talk About Violence and Masculinity in America?” I want to explore why this might matter, but I don’t have any wedge-shaped thesis to drive into this problem; I can’t split it open or solve it. I am just bringing this to my fellow adults as we encounter each other in the grocery store of despair.

First, we think often of domestic violence as that committed by an intimate partner or spouse, but many definitions cover violence committed by one family member toward another. Within that category is a specific subset of Child-to-Parent Violence (CPV). I’m interested in the specific risk factors for CPV, but first I want to think about Nancy’s life and what little we knew of it.

What we have begun to see is that the hell of Nancy Lanza’s life had probably been unfolding for years, even since her son Adam was five. I imagine she knew what her son was capable of and had no idea how to stop it. Or, worse: that part of her knew while another part of her mind shrouded that fact in denial in order to function and to have hope for the future.

I have lived with a person beset and stricken with mental illness, and that day-to-day life can be excruciating. I never mothered that someone with mental illness, and that life I cannot imagine. All I know or can imagine is that one’s hope and desire for recovery for one’s child must be boundless, and anxiety must grow even as you fear to tell friends and neighbors the truth. She had horrible trouble brewing at home. Maybe she saw it coming. But if she saw it, what could she have done? Her co-workers might have thought she was crazy for “putting up with” her sons, or maybe they just had sympathy. They might have spouted out impractical advice—“kick him out”—that she knew was impossible. She might have worried that she was complaining too much.

I can imagine her daily pretending mingled with hope: “I’m fine” and “He’s doing better,” the fear when he wasn’t taking his medication, the not knowing whether he was having a good day or a bad day. Trying to get mental healthcare for a family member who is almost an adult or fully adult presents a host of daunting complications; you can’t push too hard or you will offend dignity and autonomy, and everything will blow up in your face and you’ll be seen as “controlling,” triggering the paranoia and aggression. She must have worried herself sick and let it take up so much space in her head. Then occasionally I imagine there were good days and bursts of clarity, apologies, and moments that connect to good memories. I imagine it was not all hell, but such a wide range of unpredictability that it became its own special kind of hell, the kind that erases hope for the future with the amazing demands of the present.

Maybe she even made a step for the positive, decided she couldn’t take a certain behavior any more. I imagined this: that she had told her son “No.” She had worked up the courage to do something different. Maybe she’d just refused to give him money. Maybe she’d insisted he see a doctor. Maybe she’d just told him not to do something that was insulting, or maybe she’d insisted he do something besides play video games.

Nancy and her husband split “about a decade ago,” when Adam was ten. He was described as “really depressed” by a neighbor after the divorce. The divorce was finalized in 2009, which meant it was most likely long and contentious, a six-year process. What is it like for a single mother to go through a six or seven year divorce while also trying to control a child with multiple behavioral challenges? Before an official divorce, a husband is often not obligated to pay child support. For that six or seven year gap between the separation and the legal divorce, also the time of Adam’s adolescence, we have no idea about the couple’s finances or the stresses Nancy was under.

In those situations, for a woman alone with her children, the world seems and is a frightening place. We live in a culture where single mothers can be blamed for everything while ex-husbands seem to disappear into a kind of invisibility and are praised if they make any effort at all. Being a single mother is often incredible isolating, and I cannot imagine the experience of having to quit work, leave one’s connection to the outside world, in order to care for a mentally ill child during that same experience. That was a decision Nancy Lanza made.

Like most victims of domestic violence, Nancy Lanza does not have public sympathy. The commentary surrounding her death have been almost unanimous in judgment. Even progressives and liberals by and large have implicitly branded her a “gun nut” who was apparently asking for what happened to her because of her predilection for weapons.

More than one of my friends has been threatened with a gun during their marriages; divorce in such instances is a terrifying prospect. I know that in the aftermath of a scary divorce, I seriously contemplated buying a gun. (I didn’t because I knew I was the last person on earth who should handle a gun, and I believe in calling 911). I didn’t want to shoot someone, but I had moments of incredible vulnerability in which I worried about my safety and in which I knew that ultimately I was the only person around to defend myself and my child.

That is the reason why I turn to the cipher in this debate: the ex-husband, Peter Lanza, and I am intrigued by the utter lack of attention paid so far to the father of Adam Lanza. The only attention paid to him has been to list his regular alimony payments, his “academic background,” his new marriage, his new red-brick household in Stamford, CT, and his good suit-wearing job as a Vice President of Taxes for GE Energy Financial Services. He looks like a nice guy and he’s painted like a nice guy. He might be a nice guy, but all our stereotypes of class and race point us in the direction of assuming he’s a nice guy. An article in the New York Daily News ends with a huge nod of sympathy toward the pain Peter Lanza must be going through. The comments on below that article focus on excoriating Nancy Lanza for causing this entire catastrophe.

The stress of caring for a child with difficulties can strain any marriage. What if Peter Lanza put the entire burden of controlling Adam’s escalating behavior onto Nancy, and she was so disgusted and trapped that the only solution she could think of was to escape the marriage to have one less problem to deal with? That’s not as uncommon as you might think. Some male parents belittle and demean female parents for not being able to “do their job” of controlling or “fixing” a child. I’m not saying it’s true; the only thing that’s true is that we have no idea, and it’s strange that the man’s role in this complex dynamic is invisible.

Peter Lanza’s lawyer describes him as very upset about the divorce. This article claims Nancy “divorced” Peter as if it were a spurious decision. Let’s put it another way: for some reason, she felt like she had to leave that marriage.

We have no idea what kind of guy Peter Lanza is. I am worried that class bias will obscure yet another series of secrets in yet another home. It’s clear, based only on buying power, that there was a huge power imbalance in the home based on economics alone: tax accountant versus substitute kindergarten teacher. Studies indicate that one risk of CPV includes an unequal division of labor in the home, which means that the children see the mother being exploited and her labor being undervalued on a regular basis, they will see her as slightly less than human and not deserving of respect. We don’t know if this was the case—but we don’t know it wasn’t. Another risk of CPV includes whether the child had previously witnessed domestic violence in the home; a study by Murray Straus and Ariana Ulman in The Journal of Comparative Family Studies (34:1, Winter 2003) declared that CPV was “rare” when the child had not previously witnessed violence between parents and more frequent when the child was a target of corporeal punishment. Other risk factors for CPV include all of Adam Lanza’s context: being a white male in a single parent family.

I’m not saying Peter Lanza is to blame because I don’t know anything—and now, none of us may ever know. But if we are going to get into a family’s business in the search for answers, we should know that our search for blame and vengeance should not easily and comfortably rest where sexism and prejudice so often naturally settle: on women because they are women, because they are tasked with caring for our children when no one else will.


Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008), shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize, and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year. She has also written a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration (2011). She teaches at Fairfield University. More at www.sonyahuber.com.

24 thoughts on “What Nancy Lanza Knew

  1. And this is why i hate creative non fiction type writings – like the monumental hideousness of Helen Garner’s “factions”, such as The First Stone etc., this piece takes absolutely diabolical liberties with the names, situations and reputations of real people in horrible trouble. I agree that mothers get a rough go very often in the media, and that FV victims are not treated/viewed with anything like enough compassion and understanding on many occasions… i agree that gender and class and ethnicity play a massive part in who we are led to hate or to pity… BUT don’t do that stuff to make a good point! Don’t wildly speculate about things you have no knowledge of in relation to real people on the basis of probably inaccurate media reports. It is an abusive practice and we should all say no to this just as loudly as to the vilification of the Mrs. Lanza.


      1. Ditto. Except as an attorney who previously handled domestic violence cases and family law cases, I must comment on the error regarding child support during the divorce. I know of NO state that doesn’t require support during the dissolution/divorce process. The overarching standard in family law is “the best interest of the child.”


      2. Thank you Gabe. As Theresa I just couldn’t comprehend your resoning.I am a medical doctor, not a writer, and i make my jugements not on a specilations or fiction but on a facts. Facts are; Nancy Lanza had a extremly comfortable finantial situation.She abused
        alkohol;couples glasses of wine 4 times a week falls into this category ( i would be tempted to call her alkoholic but at this point that would be a speculation ),she took good care of herself ( 3 days spa vacations, all acounts of her being beatifull, elegent women)
        she was lazy; what kind of a women sleeps on a regular working day till 9am ?.She was a lonner as well, never invited anyone to her house, didn’t have one real girlfriend which she could do stupid litle girly stuff like shoping etc, only people who were her drinking buddies, she was stupid or ignorant which is a form of stupidity; Adam was burning himself for a year, I think that everyone knows that trying to hurt himself physiclly is a sign of deep depression, or selfinflictig a physical pain is a manfestetion of deep emotional pain, and Adam was 6 feet tall and 110 lbs. Is this neglect ?. if somone would call social services her huge alimony and child support she was receiving for taking care of Adam could be revised, and maybe she wouldn’t be so eager to offer to pay for her drinking boddies at her favrite bar. Also Adam was a vegan out of love for animals and she was a hunter ?
        And thank you Gabe for correcting author about marital and child support laws, I find that even more strange since she mentioned she went through a divorce herself


    1. Where were you Peter Lanza?

      You divorced his mom, you divorced him

      You ran like a coward- you left him hanging from a string
      Money in the place of a Father is a terrible thing

      You moved an hour away
      The further you moved- the more money it would pay

      The draw of money was so strong for you
      The price you will pay is more than money- so true

      You left your home for a new wife- a new life
      He wasn’t important- there was too much strife

      You left him at a time when he needed you most
      Your absence left him as a ghost

      Where were you while he was slipping away?
      You turned your back on him- we NEED to say

      Mom couldn’t do it alone
      You walked away- so much indeed for the world to pay

      From one Father to another- Sir, you have failed
      The pain for so many will never be curtailed

      He needed you- a Father- who abandoned his son
      You turned your back, he grabbed the gun

      You have failed the ultimate test
      Now 27 innocents have been put to rest

      What a world it could have been
      Had this “Father” not committed the cardinal sin

      Peter Lanza, the media says you wonder how it all came to be
      Look into any mirror Peter and you will come to see



  2. This is a lovely piece. In these past few days my mind, too, has been on Nancy and what her life must have been like. You’re likely very right, her life must have been a very specific hell, reserved for those who love an emotionally unstable individual. It can be maddening and hopeless. One can only imagine how the difficulty compounds when the loved-one is ones own child. My heart aches for her just as it aces for everyone in this tragedy. The issues are so complex and difficult to fathom, but to see this woman as anything other than another victim is dangerous. It is bad enough that women who are victims of domestic violence at the hands of their partners are derided for not leaving, but when the victim (and I’m assuming here) of prolonged abuse and manipulation is the mother of the abuser, we almost always ask what she did to the child to deserve the abuse. Thank you for putting such eloquent words to the thoughts that have been swirling through my head all week as I gaze at my own son. I try not to play the “what if…l” game, but I can’t help but place myself in so many people’s shoes, including Nancy’s.


  3. Dear Ms. Huber,
    I have never responded to a written commentary, or blog, but feel the strong need to respond to your piece about Nancy Lanza.
    I am not at all sure where you got the information that Nancy Lanza was a victim of domestic violence. It is true, there has been an overwhelming focus on her, and not her ex-husband, the father of Adam, but there is no way to know at this point what exactly was going on in that household-to surmise without facts or concrete evidence is just as irresponsible as people who are blaming this on Asperger’s or other wild gossip.
    Please be responsible in what and how you report this story-we are all too sensitive and grieving to be subjected to more sensationalizing of what is an unfathomable story.


  4. There’s not a shred of evidence here, just speculation. Here’s a woman who kept multiple weapons and ammunition in her home, and by all accounts taught her seriously mentally ill kid how to shoot them. It is tough for me to speculate about the circumstances that would lead to such irresponsibility. She does not deserve what happened to her — the fate of being shot dead by her own son, with her own guns — but I cannot begin to put the blame for this on her ex husband, who for all we know was shut out by a woman incapable of recognizing the seriousness of her son’s situation. I think this blog post is just self-aggrandizing nonsense.


    1. Lisamama, I find it odd that you say that there is “there’s not a shred of evidence here, just speculation” when commenting on the author’s words, yet you feel comfortable writing “but I cannot begin to put the blame for this on her ex husband, who for all we know was shut out by a woman incapable of recognizing the seriousness of her son’s situation. ” We are all giving our opinions, and mostly it seems based on fear and not compassion and empathy. I would not begin to put myself in the mother’s shoes, the pain of watching your now “adult” child day in and day out as he struggled with his demons, on the other hand, I also would not want to be in the father’s shoes either. He left the home and he has the rest of his life to think if he did the right thing.

      Shedding light on possible situations is not unkind, but trying to place blame and not trying to be empathetic and or compassionate is. Thanks for the viewpoint, Sonya


  5. Nancy Lanza took complete charge of son Adam at her own insistence. Yet there is no evidence that she ever sought proper psychological care for him. Your sympathy for mothers who HAVE is well-placed, but the public is still waiting to hear what Nancy did for Adam. She left him alone with guns – any reports of a gun safe or locks? – but instructed him not to use the stove: She knew he was not safe. Running up to his school when he had episides, taking him out of school and taking him shooting was obviously not the help Adam needed. This seems like a mother in denial or too proud to admit her son had serious problems – until it was too late. Hoping he grows out of it is not GETTING well. Wishful thinking, pride and denial possibly killed 27 people that day. That’s why sympathy for Nancy is thin.


  6. This doesn’t explain why a mother would expose a mentally disturbed child to a gun. At the least didn’t she fear he may kill himself. I blame Nancy Lanza for this tragedy.


    1. I agree 100′ her son did her a favour by killing her. I suspect if she was still live she would use her guns on herself to escape the horror


  7. I wanted to clairfy two things, I am not the same “Mary” who commented previously and more importantly, regardless of what Nancy Lanza did or didn’t do or if she was a previous victim of domestic violence, being killed in your home by a child I think we all could agree would be considered domestic violence or in legal terms a homicide victim. It is sad that our society still blames victims, “I wonder what she was wearing” remember when we would ask that of sexual assault victims?


  8. Nice article Sonya. I did find the line, “and everything will blow up in your face” a tad bit off color considering the exact manner in which Ms. Lanza died.


  9. Reminds me of what my meditation teacher spoke of the other night: to be mindful is to be intimate in the not-knowing. Thank you for elucidating that concept in your article. Ultimately, mindfulness is about love: to be with the questions, and allow for the mystery, as opposed to jumping to conclusions in an unconscious way, for that is *not* seeing.


  10. Good angle on this ‘opinion’ article, however, I blame both parents, one for training him to use guns, the other for abandon him when both were aware of his mental troubles. Indeed the worst tragedy I ever witness in this country. Damage will never be repair.


  11. Wake up, no shooting happened at all, the whole story is a fabrication.
    There was not hundreds of kids at that school that day… there was no medical response to 27 shooting victims because there was no shooting (no medics entered the school)… autopsies bizarrely done in a school carpark… grinning parents like robbie parker (google his name)… an absolutely moronic ME (watch his interview sometime)… a repeatedly changing story….

    You would have to be a moron to believe this one, unfortunately there is no shortage of them.


  12. I have been working as a therapist (20 years) and an Adult Protective Services Special for nearly 8 years. Reading your article was like a deep long breath of air. Someone who does not do what I do every single day, understands what I deal with every single day. When people ask what I do I give them the “pat” answer about investigating allegations of abuse, neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse and financial exploitation of adults suffering from physical and mental health issues that are considered substantially impaired as well as anyone over the age of 65 years. But, as you have so elegantly stated….it’s much more complicated than that. And it is nearly impossible to predict if or when someone (who has been threatening homicide or suicide for years and years) will finally follow through or if they will EVER follow through. There is no peace of mind….ever. Just small snippets of happiness and even some good memories and times intermingled into a life long song and dance that loving family members (usually mothers and wives) engage in so that they can get through today and hopefully get to tomorrow. I have parents in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s still dealing with a mentally ill child that has never been able to live alone because he needs too much support and acts out too much….is non-compliant with meds. There is not placement for these people anymore unless they are committed to a State Hospital for which there are only a certain number beds and usually only become available when a patient dies. I live in Adam’s and his mother life and try to help but when I can. It’s usually just a band-aid that washes off over time.

    A crime is only a crime once it’s already been committed.


  13. Thank you for writing this article. I often wondered why she spent so many nights away from Adam. Was she afraid of him at night while she slept? Why did the father not know anything about the son he spent 10 years with. There had to be signs leading up to this.


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