What Nancy Lanza Knew
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.