Andrew Solomon talks to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross about his article, “The Reckoning: The Father of the Sandy Hook Killer Searches for Answers,” and how Adam Lanza’s autism diagnosis may have masked other problems.
Terry Gross: This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. We still don’t know why Adam Lanza shot to death his mother, then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 children and six adults and then killed himself in December 2012. But now we know more about Lanza’s life, what his doctors had to say about him and what his parents did to try to help him.
His father, Peter Lanza, broke his media silence by granting a series of interviews to my guest, Andrew Solomon. They met six times for interviews lasting up to seven hours. Solomon’s new article, “The Reckoning: The Father of the Sandy Hook Killer Searches for Answers,” is in the current edition of The New Yorker. Solomon is also the author of The Noonday Demon, which is about depression, drawing his own experiences, as well as medical research.
His latest book, the bestseller Far From the Tree, is about the parents of children who are profoundly different, including children who became murderers. That book was published one month before Adam Lanza’s rampage.
Andrew Solomon, welcome back to Fresh Air.
Andrew Solomon: What a pleasure to be here.
Gross: Did Peter Lanza choose you to break his media silence because your book “Far From the Tree” included a chapter about parents of children who become criminals, including the parents of Dylan Klebold? You spoke to them, and he, along with Eric Harris, killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999. So did that have something to do with him seeking you out?
Solomon: Yes it did. When he got in touch, he said he had been hounded by the media for his story and hadn’t felt ready to tell it and then decided he was ready to tell it and that he’d read my writing about the Klebolds in particular, but about families of criminals in general and felt that it was fair and just and said I think you’ll give me an honest hearing, and I’d like you to tell my story if you’re interested.
Gross: Were there any conditions to the interviews that he gave you?
Solomon: I offered to him to show him the article before it came out. And I said that I was willing to have his lawyer look it over to make sure that he hadn’t said anything that was actionable and that would cause him to get into a legal quagmire. But those were the only conditions.
Gross: Adam Lanza had broken off connections with his father Peter two years before Adam killed the teachers and students at Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed himself. Do you know why Adam cut off communications with his father?
Solomon: That’s one of the real puzzlements of this piece. I think to some extent his son broke off connection because he was withdrawing from the entire world. Peter said that at the time, he thought his son simply needed to individuate and separate, that he himself had separated from his own parents in adolescence and therefore didn’t find it strange that Adam would do such a thing.
He assumed it was temporary, and he kept thinking they were about to be back in touch. But looking at it in retrospect, he said I wonder whether he thought that I would be able to see that something was going wrong and whether he wanted to hide what was happening in his mind. I didn’t understand that in cutting me off and cutting his brother off he was possibly drifting away, rather than simply developing independently.
Gross: One of the things that’s so upsetting about the story as you tell it is that there were always signs that Adam Lanza was troubled, that he had serious problems. And the parents, they were not lax about it. They sought out all kinds of doctors. They got different diagnoses. And no one, as we’ll discuss later, no one predicted that he was going to become violent.
So let’s go back to early on. What were some of the early signs that Adam Lanza had, you know, cognitive and emotional developmental problems?
Solomon: Well, to use Peter’s word, Adam was always weird, and nobody ever questioned whether he was weird. As a small child, he had a sensory integration disorder, meaning that he found various sensory stimuli overwhelming and impossible to deal with. He showed a physical insensitivity to pain. His mother warned the school that he might not stop doing something because it hurt the way other children would and that they should keep an eye on that.
And he had some obsessive tendencies, I think. And they didn’t, any of them, seem too dire or too serious at the very beginning. But as time went on, he began to seem more and more problematic. He developed a stiff gait and an awkward walk. He became somewhat socially withdrawn. He seemed profoundly disconnected from other people.
There was a sense that he was somehow disconnecting in some ways emotionally. So there were a lot of changes that seemed to take place as he moved toward adolescence.
Gross: You know, something that seems contradictory is on the one hand he was hypersensitive to physical touch and hypersensitive to sounds. On the other hand, he was insensitive to pain. That seems contradictory.
Solomon: It does seem contradictory, but it’s not such an unusual combination. People who have got some level of autism, which Adam was ultimately diagnosed with, often are hypersensitive to external stimuli of various kinds. It’s not unusual for children to require, as Adam did, that all of the tags be cut out of their clothing because the feeling of a tag against the back of their neck or wherever else the tag might be located is too disturbing to them.
So there’s a sensitivity to irritation but then an insensitivity to very acute stimuli. So the sense that he was burning himself or the sense that he was doing something else that was really acutely painful, that oddly enough might not register. It’s a sort of shifted consciousness away from very acute pain and toward having acute discomfort with what we would think of as minor irritants.
Gross: You know, you mentioned that he had, like, sensory overload. And, I mean, an example of that that you give is that he couldn’t deal with color graphics in his school textbooks. So his mother Nancy used to take those pages and Xerox them into black and white versions so that he could read them and look at them.
Solomon: Yes, his mother did do that, and I think he found – I think he found stimuli altogether difficult to deal with. I mean, the point at which he ceased to be able to deal with school was when he had to change classes. Instead of sitting in a homeroom all day in middle school, he had to move from classroom to classroom, and he found the noise of the hallway and the raucousness of the other adolescents and the sort of chaos of having to figure out where it was he was going, he found all of those things so overwhelming that he was nearly defeated by them.
Gross: So Adam Lanza was diagnosed at age 13 with Asperger’s and diagnosed at age 14 with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which often accompanies autism. And Asperger’s – well, you know, Asperger’s, have they given up on that definition now? Isn’t that on the way out?
Solomon: It’s been subsumed into the category of autism spectrum disorder. So it’s considered somewhat higher functioning autism. It was a shift in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.
Gross: So what did Adam Lanza’s father Peter Lanza tell you about how Peter and his wife Nancy responded to the diagnoses of Asperger’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder?
Solomon: Peter and Nancy had been very frustrated by feeling that there was something going wrong with Adam, and they didn’t know what it was. They could see that he had all of these problems. They could see that he had no ability to fit in socially. They could see that he was overwhelmed with things. And they were desperate to find out why and believed that if they found out why and what it was that was wrong with him, they would then be able to address it and help it.
And eventually Adam was diagnosed, as you’ve said, with Asperger’s and later with OCD. And they thought that the diagnosis of Asperger’s in particular was incredibly helpful. They said now we know what we’re dealing with. Now we can find out what the treatments are that are suggested for it. Now we know how to make this situation better.
So they experienced enormous relief, as many parents I think experience enormous relief when they receive a diagnosis.
Gross: And you write that Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, thought that the Asperger’s diagnosis would really be helpful to Adam, that he’d feel like now I understand what makes me different. Now I have an explanation for who I am. Now I’m part of a community of people who have that, too. But it didn’t happen that way at all.
Solomon: As I was working on my book, which dealt with a lot of people with a lot of kinds of disabilities and challenges in their families, I was struck by how often the diagnosis came as an enormous relief not only to the family but also to the individual. The individual felt oh, the way I am is not just bizarre and peculiar, I’m part of a community of people who have the same condition. I have a kind of commonality with all of these other people.
They found a sort of shape for their own lives in the knowledge of what it was that was wrong with them. But Adam Lanza didn’t. Adam Lanza insisted that he didn’t have Asperger’s. He refused to acknowledge it. He refused to acknowledge there was anything wrong with him at all. He said that the problems were with the outside world.
There was a real anger and a real resistance to the idea of that diagnosis.
Gross: And is that reaction in itself a symptom?
Solomon: Well, one of the symptoms of many psychological disorders is the tendency to believe you don’t have a psychological or psychiatric disorder. So we look at people with schizophrenia. Part of the illness of schizophrenia is to believe that you don’t have schizophrenia. Part of the illness in bipolar disorder in its manic faces is to believe that you aren’t manic and that everything you are saying is perfectly reasonable and logical. So we often see that kind of resistance.
But I think it’s more unusual for people with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism. In my research among those people, again in the book, I met a huge number of them. I went to autism conferences. I was out in the autism world. There were a lot of people who were very proud of their autism and had come to find meaning in it. But even the people who weren’t making a big hullabaloo about it felt relieved to know what it was that was happening. They felt exonerated by it.
They thought OK, I’m an aspy, and aspies are like this. And they felt liberated. And I think Adam’s complete refusal to acknowledge that there was anything wrong is, you know, it’s not unique by any means, but it’s certainly not the usual response.
Gross: Peter, Adam Lanza’s father, told you that he was afraid that the autism diagnosis actually allowed Peter and his wife Nancy to not see other problems, to put everything, all the problems that Adam was having under the umbrella of autism. And in fact the autism diagnosis might have been covering up deeper, more disturbing problems.
Solomon: The moment when I knew there was an article here that I wanted to write was when I met Peter for the first time, and he effectively said the autism masked whatever else was going on. Later he said to me: Autism makes people weird, but it doesn’t make people like this. There was something else horribly wrong with Adam that wasn’t the autism.
But once we had an autism diagnosis, we assumed that that explained everything that was strange about Adam, and we stopped looking beyond it. I think we tend to think of diagnosis being incredibly liberating and incredibly helpful to people, and I think it frequently is, but I think it’s possible that when you know one thing about your child, you can mistake that one thing for knowing everything about your child.
And they knew a thing about Adam, and they didn’t look for a lot of other things they might have looked for without that diagnosis.
Gross: And I also want to make it clear to people who are listening and who don’t know much about autism that, as you just said, autism does not lead to becoming a killer. You know, autistic people are not, by nature, violent. So, you know, the autism – I think nobody believes that the autism explains why Adam Lanza committed mass murder.
Solomon: Certainly not.
Gross: And also that nobody believes that, you know, that you should be suspicious of autistic people because Adam Lanza was diagnosed as autistic.
Solomon: Well, nobody who’s well-informed thinks those things, though the Internet is alive with people saying all kinds of crazy things and saying these people with autism are mentally ill, and they should be – their rights should be curtailed and so on. But no, I think anyone with any experience of or insight in the area understands that autism is a condition, which comes with many difficulties.
It can come with certain strengths. But in any case, it’s not correlated with murderous behavior.
Gross: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon, and we’re talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker about Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer. The article is called “The Reckoning,” and it’s based on a series of interviews, long interviews, that Andrew Solomon conducted with Peter Lanza. Let’s take a short break. Then we’ll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.
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Gross: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon, and in the current edition of The New Yorker, he has an article based on a series of interviews that he did with Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer. The article is called “The Reckoning.”
And Peter Lanza offered to tell his story to Andrew Solomon, to break his media silence because Andrew Solomon is the author of the book Far From the Tree, which is about the parents of children who are different, different in one way or another, ranging from different because they have a mental disorder, to different because they’re a child of rape to different because they turn out to be a criminal or a killer.
And in fact, that book even had interviews with the parents of Dylan Klebold, who was one of the Columbine killers. So, you know, in addition to this article being based on interviews with Peter Lanza, it’s also based on doctors’ notes. Let me quote some things that doctors noted. One doctor noted that Adam Lanza refused to touch metal objects like doorknobs and didn’t like his mother to touch them, either, because he feared contamination.
The doctor also wrote: “Adam imposes many strictures, which are increasingly onerous for mother. He disapproves if mother leans on anything in the house because it is, quote, improper. He is also intolerant if mother brushes by his chair and objected to her new high-heeled boots because they were too loud. If mother walks in front of him in the kitchen, he would insist she redo it.” Do you know what this doctor made of those observations?
Solomon: What this doctor concluded, which was similar to what other doctors had concluded, was that Adam was living a very constrained, narrow, unpleasant life and that he was likely to be depressed and troubled and that his lack of ability to function in ordinary social circumstances was very worrying. He talked, as you’ve just read, about Nancy becoming a prisoner in her own house, and he felt as though Adam was perhaps being over-accommodated and needed to be pushed into situations that were less comfortable for him so that he could develop social relationships.
What he did not think, nor did anyone else who met with Adam, was that he was brewing some kind of violence or that he was going to have destructive behaviors.
Gross: So this doctor recommended putting Adam Lanza in social environments so that he could learn to adapt and stop withdrawing. But his mother Nancy didn’t take that advice. In fact, she moved in the opposite direction.
Solomon: Well, there was conflicting advice. There were various doctors. They all saw the same problem, of Adam’s lack of social integration, but the psychiatrist he primarily saw, who was in Connecticut not far from where they lived, said that he thought Adam was so overwhelmed and over-stimulated by the school environment that it would be better to home school him and to pull him out of those contacts that he found so hard to deal with.
Gross: And that’s what Nancy, his mother, did.
Gross: So at some point Adam Lanza started developing an obsession with killing. How is that obsession expressed?
Solomon: The first real evidence that we have of that dawning obsession is that he went on Wikipedia, and he edited the entries for various mass killers, correcting all kinds of tiny details. How he came to know those tiny details, which were unknown to those who’d written the Wikipedia entries, remains very unclear. But he started doing that work.
And later on, under various pseudonyms, he joined notice boards to talk about guns and violence.
Gross: So he starts getting interested in guns. He thinks about joining the military, which he never did, but talks about it seriously. Were his parents concerned about this interest in guns? And how much did they know about it?
Solomon: We need to separate the interest in mass murder, which was revealed in those Wikipedia entries, and the interest in guns. He had grown up in a household in which guns were a normal part of everyday life, as they are in a large number of American households. His mother had grown up in New Hampshire. She was, as one friend of hers put it, a live-free-or-die New Hampshire gal. For her, having guns around was a normal part of everyday life.
And Adam was very interested in guns. And as has been widely reported, he and Nancy spent time together at the shooting range so that he could hone his skills with guns. He was on a lot of notice boards online in which he had endless, very technical conversations about the workings of this sort of pistol and that sort of rifle and that sort of machine gun and why this worked this way and that worked that way. That was an obsession he had, which was visible and which he shared.
The obsession with mass murder, the obsession with the use of guns for adverse purposes, remained completely secret, and nobody saw it.
Gross: In 2010, two years before Sandy Hook, Peter, Adam’s father, wrote to Nancy, Adam’s mother: Adam needs to communicate the source of his sorrow. We have less than three months to help him before he is 18. I am convinced that when he turns 18 he will either try to enlist or just leave the house to become homeless. What was that about, the leave the house to become homeless?
Solomon: In reading the emails between Nancy and Peter during that long period when Adam was not speaking to Peter, it’s very, very striking that Adam, over and over and over again, was breaking down in tears, was unable to function, was so depressed that he was sitting in his room staring into space for five hours at a time.
Nancy’s emails throughout that whole period are absolutely heartbreaking. They describe someone who is in a state of such internal misery as defies almost all description. And at a certain point, Peter said to Nancy OK, I understand how miserable he is, and I understand what’s going on, but when he turns 18, we don’t have any legal control anymore, and we need to figure out and he needs to tell us what the problem is because if we don’t know what the problem really is, we aren’t going to be able to help him.
And that email message that he sent to Nancy represented really an uncharacteristic vehemence about it. I think he felt like they were about to lose control of a situation that was already not a very happy situation. Again, they didn’t think the loss of control would involve the murder of elementary school children, but they thought that Adam was already clearly suffering a great deal and that he was then, because he was suffering so much and because he was given to withdrawing, going to withdraw from the last people he had any contact with.
And they were worried not about his destruction but about his agony.
Gross: What was Nancy’s response to that email?
Solomon: She said I’ve been trying to talk to him. I spend hours and hours and hours trying to get Adam to talk and trying to get him to open up and that he wouldn’t say anything. She described how he would lie on the floor of his room crying or sometimes on the floor of his bathroom and how she would sit just outside and try to draw him out. And she essentially said that it was impossible to find out what the source was of Adam’s sorrow and therefore impossible to do anything about it.
Gross: Andrew Solomon will be back in the second half of the show. His article “The Reckoning: The Father of the Sandy Hook Killer Searches for Answers” is in the current edition of The New Yorker. I’m Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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Gross: This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross, back with Andrew Solomon. We’re talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker, based on a series of interviews with Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, who shot to death his mother, then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 children, six adults and himself in December 2012. Peter Lanza also gave Solomon access to some of his son’s medical records. Peter and Adam’s mother, Nancy, separated in 2001, when Adam was nine. Adam cut off communication with his father two years before committing the murders.
So, Adam Lanza not only cut off communication with his father, Peter, he also cut off communication with his brother, Ryan. And according to the state attorney’s report, Adam had stopped talking to his mother, Nancy, too. Why did he stop talking to her?
Solomon: It’s very striking, as one reviews correspondence between Nancy and Peter, that for many years, she described him exactly what was going on, in all of its agonizing detail. And then at some point, things really started to escalate, and I think she didn’t want anyone to understand how badly things were going. Peter feels that she wanted everyone to think she was in control and things were OK. So she stopped communicating clearly, which is why nobody knew that Adam had stopped speaking to her until the state attorney’s report came out.
Gross: How did the state attorney’s office find that out? They couldn’t interview Nancy. She was dead. They couldn’t interview Adam. He’d committed suicide.
Solomon: I believe they had all of the records of the emails between the two of them that had been sent in that period from Nancy’s computer, but I’m not 100 percent sure.
Gross: Between Adam and Nancy?
Solomon: Between Adam and Nancy. Yes.
Gross: Did you read those emails between Adam and his mother?
Solomon: No. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to those. I read all of the email between Peter and Nancy, in which he described what was going on, but I didn’t read any of the emails between Nancy and Adam.
Gross: Something I think that’s disturbing that his mother didn’t say something about was, according to the state attorney’s report, people who worked on the property where they lived couldn’t enter the house, and were warned never to ring the doorbell. Why were they warned about that?
Solomon: Adam had grown increasingly sclerotic, and any interruption to…
Gross: What does that mean?
Solomon: Increasingly rigid, increasingly requiring everything to remain in what he saw as its fixed and correct order. And he felt, as time went on, more and more distressed by anything that interrupted his routine or that unsettled what his day-to-day life was like. He, at some point, disavowed birth dates and Christmas, because he didn’t like for any days to be different from any other days. He wanted every day to be as much the same as possible. And so the relatively random acts of people ringing the doorbell, or people coming into the house were things that he really couldn’t deal with, and Nancy chose to accommodate that.
Gross: When I think of what life must’ve been like for Nancy, Adam’s mother, it’s just – it just sounds so horrible. I mean, her son is becoming increasingly withdrawn and ridged. He stops communicating with her. She has to withdraw from the world in order to accommodate his withdrawal from the world.
Solomon: Yes. I think all of that is true. And I think – I mean, I think it was a tyranny, really, that he imposed, that he became increasingly hostile, increasingly non-communicative, increasingly withdrawn, and in some ways, increasingly demanding. And she felt that it was her role as a loving mother to accommodate all of those behaviors. And I think when you read the emails that she wrote, you have the sense of what an incredibly difficult life she had. She had that difficult life because she genuinely believed that what she was doing was best for her son, but it was no easy path.
Gross: Can you share some more of what you read in her emails?
Solomon: Well, many of them just describe Adam breaking down, Adam crying. We got Adam all dressed to go out to see the tutor, and then he said he couldn’t go. His life was pointless. He doesn’t know why he’s such a loser. Adam spent the afternoon sitting at the table and staring off into space. I sat with him, but he wouldn’t say anything to me. You have this sense of her desperately trying to reach him, of her trying to communicate with him, and never being able to get through.
Gross: And is she taking him to the shooting range during this period of time?
Solomon: I don’t know the exact timing of the shooting range, but she took in there on a fairly regular basis – on and off, I think, through this whole period. Yes.
Gross: Did Adam’s father, Peter, ever tried to talk her out of taking him to the shooting range?
Solomon: I mean, as I said, I think that taking anyone to a shooting range all the time is peculiar, and that having guns in the house is odd. But I think if one accepts that a large part of the American population chooses to keep guns at home, that there’s nothing odder about Nancy doing that than about anyone else doing that. So I don’t think Peter would’ve had a moral position on it. But that’s really speculation.
Gross: So the state attorney’s report said that when Nancy, Adam Lanza’s mother, asked Adam whether he’d feel sad if anything happened to her, he replied no. How did they – how did whoever wrote the state attorney’s report know that? Was that as a result of an email that Nancy – an email correspondence between Nancy and Adam?
Solomon: I would assume that it was in email, but I don’t know. I don’t think the source is given in the state’s attorney’s report. But Adam had increasingly distanced himself from and behaved in an alienated fashion with his mother. And on his computer, after he died, a document was found called “Selfish,” which was a description of why women are inherently selfish – which seems extraordinary, given that he lived with a woman who had essentially given up her entire life to accommodate and help and support him.
Gross: Adam Lanza killed his mother, as well as killing the children and teachers that he killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. And Peter told you, with hindsight, I know Adam would’ve killed me in a heartbeat if he’d had the chance. I don’t question that for a minute. The reason he shot Nancy four times was one for each of us: one for Nancy, one for him, one for Ryan, his brother, and one for me. Do you know what leads Adam Lanza’s father to believe that Adam would’ve killed him too?
Solomon: I think he just is aware of how much incredible hatred there was in Adam. Adam had, after all, cut him off, so Adam’s antipathy toward him had been fairly manifest from the beginning. He said it was really just an intuition. But if you look at Adam’s behavior, if you look at the night that he killed his mother, who was being so attentive to him, it seems as though what he wanted – as his father said – was to take down the world, and taking down the world, for him, would’ve meant obliterating the whole family, if he’d been able to do so.
Gross: Peter told you something that I think made a lot of people just kind of gasp, which is that he said he wishes Adam had never been born. How did he look when he told you that?
Solomon: He was very pained. I said to him: What do you really wish? I said, do you wish that Adam were here now and you could talk to him? Do you wish that you’d fathered him differently? Do you wish that he’d never been born? And there was a long pause, and he said – and his voice was quite emotional, which didn’t often happen. He said, in the end, I wish that he had never been born. He said, it took me a long time to get there. That’s not a natural thing when you’re talking about your own kid, but that’s completely where I am. Now, what made that statement particularly poignant and powerful is that I believe Peter Lanza still loves Adam Lanza, and loved him all along. I think in some great scale of justice, he’s weighed that love against what happened, and feels that what happened vastly outweighs his feelings of love, that when he says he wishes Adam was never born, it’s not because he has no emotional relationship to him. It’s only because he would’ve liked to save the world and himself from the horror of what happened.
Gross: Does Peter Lanza have any regrets about not doing things he might’ve done to intervene? Does he think there’s anything he could have done that would’ve prevented his son from becoming a mass murderer?
Solomon: I said to him: Do you wish you’d pushed harder to see Adam during those two years, when he was out of touch? And he said, well, of course, I do. I wish I’d done anything differently, because if I’d done anything differently, perhaps the outcome would have been different. And there could be no outcome that was worse or more evil than what happened. But he said even looking back with 2020 hindsight, he doesn’t see the signposts for what was going to happen, and he doesn’t see the solutions that would’ve prevented it from happening.
Gross: Did you ask him what he’d most like to know about what was really going on with his son, or what an accurate diagnosis might’ve been, if there is a diagnosis that could explain or describe his behavior?
Solomon: I didn’t ask him that question. But I think there’s always a fantasy that there’s a diagnosis that makes this bizarre behavior understandable or explicable, this bizarre and horrifying behavior. And I don’t think there is. I don’t think there’s any real evidence that Adam had psychosis or schizophrenia, though there have been people who’ve hypothesized that he might have. I don’t think there is any real evidence of the other things that have been sort of speciously suggested in the press, that he was the victim of child abuse, that he was himself a pederast, so on and so forth.
But I think even if all of those things turned out to be true and he were a schizophrenic pederast who’d been abused as a child, that it still wouldn’t explain why someone would go and murder 20 elementary school students he’d never laid eyes on before. There is no explanation for that behavior. It’s the worst crime that there can be. I mean, there’s the description in “Herodotus,” I believe it is, of the murder of children, and how that was done at this sort of ultimate way to traumatize a community. There’s just nothing that would make this make sense. We can understand more of its context. We can understand a little bit more of what Adam Lanza’s life was like, but even actually understand all of the pathos that was there, we won’t understand why anyone would do something as horrific as this.
Gross: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon. He has a piece in the current edition of The New Yorker that’s based on a series of interviews with Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, who was the Newtown shooter, and also killed himself.
Let’s take a short break, then we’ll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.
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Gross: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon, and we’re talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker. And it’s based on a series of interviews he did with Peter Lanza. Peter Lanza is the father of Adam Lanza, the shooter at the Newtown massacre. And Peter Lanza broke his media silence in these interviews. Andrew Solomon is also the author of the best-selling book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” and it’s based on a series of interviews with parents of children who are different and who are stigmatized, including children with Down’s system, deafness, autism, children who become criminals, or children who are conceived in rape. And in that book is a chapter based on interviews he did with Dylan Klebold’s mother, and Dylan Klebold was one of the shooters at Columbine High School.
One of the things Adam suffered from was depression, a very extreme form of depression. It was on Lexapro for a while. He went off it. He never wanted to take another antidepressant. One of your books is called “The Noonday Demon,” and it’s all about a history of depression, as well as the story of the depression that you’ve experienced in your life. Did you have any insights from all that research into depression, into the kind of depression that Adam Lanza might have experienced?
Solomon: Adam Lanza had depression. He even had what I would characterize as despair. You feel, when you are reading Nancy’s emails, or when you’re looking at the information about Adam, that this was someone who had a terribly bad image of himself. And in some ways, it seems as though the reason he undertook that murder was to make himself as hateful in the eyes of the world as he believed himself to be internally. And that self-hatred seems to me to be a depressive response. So I recognized a lot of depression in Adam. I don’t think the fact that he was depressed exonerates him or excuses what he did. But I think he was deeply depressed, and he seems to have been deeply depressed for most of his life.
Gross: You write that Adam’s father, Peter, who was an accountant for a GE subsidiary, you write that he maintains a nearly fanatical insistence on facts, and is not, by nature, given to self-examination. So, I assume that when you were interviewing Peter Lanza for your article in The New Yorker, he was very factual in his descriptions of his relationship with Adam and the story of Adam’s life. Were expecting something more emotional?
Solomon: You know, I went in really not knowing what to expect. And then when I first met him, I thought, OK. This man has an extraordinary story, but he’s very reserved, and I don’t know how much I’m going to be able to write about him. And then, as we worked together over the course of nearly six months, I felt as though he was trying to get at his own inner truths. He was trying to get at the reality of what he had gone through and what Adam had gone through, and he was giving it his absolute best effort. And, in the end, I think he succeeded. I think he explained a great deal. But he wouldn’t answer any kind of question that he saw as speculative. So he wouldn’t answer the question: Why do you think Adam did it? Or: Do you think that there was a way for Nancy to know? These sort of abstract questions were not of interest to him. He was trying concretely to explain as much as he could, because he hoped and believed that doing so could be helpful to the families who had lost children, and to the agencies that attempt to prevent other such occurrences.
Gross: There’s probably a lot of people who blame Adam Lanza’s parents, Peter and Nancy, for Adam Lanza’s having become a mass murderer. And there’s probably a lot of people who think if the parents did something different, this never would have happened. Does he feel victimized by that?
Solomon: I mean of course it’s very, very painful to be at the receiving end of that. But he said that in a way, he’s at this point completely desensitized to it. He said, you know, I can tell that there are people out there. I know that people are going to say these things. I just have to grow a thick skin to deal with them.
I think there’s been a real tendency to blame the parents consistently, as there has been for other crimes, both major and minor ones. There’s no question that there are instances in which parents who are extremely abusive or neglectful help their children to develop toward criminal behavior.
But there are also many, many people who have got something in them that compels them to commit crime that is not affected, in any way, by the parenting that they received. I think that Peter and Nancy tried incredibly hard to be good parents. I think the parents of Dylan Klebold tried incredibly hard to be good parents. And I think it’s reassuring to most of us to think the problem was that they were bad parents because as soon as you think that, you think and I am not a bad parent, and therefore this can’t happen to me.
And the conclusion I came to after spending all of this time with the Klebolds and with Peter Lanza is that it could happen to any of us. And I look at my own children, who seem to me like the sweetest people in the entire world, and I know somewhere in the back of my mind now, in a way that I never knew before, that this could happen to me, too, and that they could go off in some terrible direction, and I might be helpless to prevent it.
Gross: Your book “Far from the Tree” is about parents, and this is a book you wrote a few years ago, it’s about parents of children who are different, different from other children and inherently different from the parents. So you interviewed, you know, parents of children with Asperger’s and schizophrenia, parents of children who were the results of rape, parents of children who became criminals.
So now that you’ve interviewed Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook murderer, do your conclusions change at all? If you were writing Far from the Tree now, would you say anything different at the end of the book?
Solomon: I’d certainly say something different in the chapter on crime because I would include this story, and I think this story illuminates this complex idea that diagnosis, which we think of as so useful, may actually be an impediment to insight, that the Asperger’s diagnosis for Adam was part of what kept his parents from recognizing how seriously wrong things were going.
And part, in fact, of what kept the doctors who made that diagnosis from seeing how terribly wrong things were going, I think that would really be the shift that there would be in my book, would be to say OK, for many people diagnosis is a huge relief. With diagnosis comes prognosis. People who have children with a variety of disabilities that can be diagnosed said once I had a diagnosis, I found a community of other people who had the condition. I knew how long my child was likely to live and under what circumstances.
I knew what the correct interventions were to undertake. And in the chapter in which I wrote about extreme disability in the book, I described how many of these parents who don’t get a diagnosis are terribly frustrated by it and feel as though they don’t know these things, they don’t know what expect, they don’t know what their child could do, they don’t know what they should be doing for their child because nobody can characterize their child’s condition.
So I essentially said in the book, a diagnosis is something you want. And this experience teaches me a diagnosis can be incredibly helpful, and it can be incredibly dangerous. And that was a real shift in my consciousness.
Gross: You know, as we talked about, the parents really tried to get treatment for their son. They took him to doctors. They took him to some top doctors. And none of them knew that he could become violent, that he could become a murderer. So that’s kind of scary, you know, for parents who are trying to diagnose a child.
But also there was one teacher who noted disturbing violence in Adam Lanza’s writing and described him as intelligent, but not normal, with antisocial issues.
Solomon: Yes, that’s the case, and I think there were people who thought that he was unsocial and some people who thought he was antisocial. I mean, there was a story that he wrote when he was in fifth grade that was all about – it was called “The Big Book of Granny,” and it was all about a woman who has a gun in her cane, and she goes around shooting people. And it’s got some very disturbing material in it.
One of the characters in the story says I like killing people, especially children. At one point one of the characters discusses shooting a boy so that they can taxonomize him and keep him on the mantelpiece. I mean, it’s a weird document. And the difficulty is that there are lots and lots of people who, when they’re that age, have violent fantasies, who like to play videogames in which people get blown up, who are a little unsocial and withdrawn, and very few of those people go on to be psychopathic killers.
So the difficulty is not that Adam didn’t show any disturbing signs. It’s that the disturbing signs he showed are disturbing signs that have been shown by untold hundreds of thousands of other young men who went on to have perfectly reasonable lives afterwards.
So it’s hard to sort through that and find where is the alert in which you absolutely must think this child is trouble.
Gross: So after writing this article, you have a lot more insight. We all have a lot more insight into what happened. But we’re all still left with a lot of mystery.
Solomon: I think it’s an essentially mysterious event, and I think it will always be a mysterious event. I wish that I could have uncovered a logic in it, but the logic eluded me, as it’s eluded everyone who’s looked on it.
Gross: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon. We’re talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker that’s based on a series of interviews with Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, who was the shooter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Let’s take a short break; then we’ll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.
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Gross: This is Fresh Air, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is Andrew Solomon. In the current edition of The New Yorker, he has an article based on a series of interviews with Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, who committed mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School a little over two years ago. Peter Lanza broke his media silence for these interviews.
Andrew Solomon is also the author of the bestselling book “Far From the Tree,” about the parents of children who are different in profound ways, whether that difference is Down’s syndrome or autism, or that the child has become a criminal or a murderer.
What kind of reaction have you had so far to your article?
Solomon: I’ve had the most overwhelming reaction that I’ve ever had to anything I’ve ever done. On Monday, I was on, I don’t know, CBS and NBC and ABC, all of them, talking about it, CNN. I think I’ve been on all of the networks. I’ve ended up turning down most of the interview requests because there are just so many of them, and they could take over my life.
But I’ve also had, I would say by this time, about 2,000 letters that have come in, which is totally dizzying to get. I would say 80 percent of them are from people saying the story was so moving, it humanized this event, it made sense of it. And I thank you. About 10 percent of them were from people saying you’re crazy, and Peter Lanza deserves to die, and it’s all his fault – incredibly sort of overwrought, angry letters.
And then about 10 percent have come from people who’ve said don’t you know that this whole thing never happened, that it’s a government hoax that was put together to champion left-wing liberal ideals and so on and so forth, those children are still alive.
Solomon: People sent me links to pictures of the supposedly dead children supposedly singing alive in some sort of choral performance. I mean, there are a lot of crazy people out there, and I’ve now been put (technical difficulties).
Gross: If you don’t mind my asking, one of the books you’re famous for is the award-winning book “The Noonday Demon,” about the history of depression, the history of the treatment of depression, and it was also about your personal experiences with depression. Do you still struggle with depression?
Solomon: You know, my depression does require constant management. It’s largely under control, but it crops every now and then. As I worked on this story, I felt that Adam experienced such terrible, acute depression. I believe that depression is, in most instances, a treatable complaint. And I felt a deep empathy for the terrible despair he was in and a deep sadness that he had not been able to find and avail himself of treatment that might at least have muted some of the pain he was in.
Gross: Do you suspect that depression had something to do with him becoming a murderer?
Solomon: You know, we have to look at the fact that this was a murder-suicide. And I think that one of the engines of the murder-suicide is the suicidality. I think he wanted to kill himself. I think his wanting to kill himself was a depressive response, and I think he wanted to kill a lot of other people, which was a psychopathic response.
But it’s hard to sort of tease out oh, this was the psychopathic, and this was the depressive. I think his depression and his psychopathy were completely twisted around each other. But I must say that working on this material was quite generative of depressive feelings.
Gross: Why? I mean, I know the obvious answer would be you’re dealing with a very depressing subject. On the other hand, it’s such an important story, as a journalist that must have been exhilarating.
Solomon: It was exhilarating as a journalist, but it was not only the pain that I imagined of the families of the victims of Adam’s shooting, it was also the pain that I read in Peter Lanza every single time we met. He has a fairly polished veneer, and he talks in a very calm way, but his heart has been destroyed by this event, and he’s in a state of sustained agony about it.
And while I grew extremely fond of him and was very glad of the time I spent with him, I was also constantly seeing that despair, and it made me feel vulnerable, and it communicated itself, as despair will do.
Gross: Well Andrew Solomon, it’s a terrific article. Thank you very much for talking with us about it.
Solomon: Terry, it’s always such a pleasure to be here. Thank you very much.
Gross: Andrew Solomon’s article “The Reckoning” is in the current edition of The New Yorker. Solomon’s latest book, Far from the Tree, is about the parents of children who are profoundly different.