slider top

Anatomy of a Murder-Suicide

Memorial to the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Photo: B.B. Jeter. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Memorial to the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Photo: B.B. Jeter. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Suicide is not as newsworthy as homicide. A person’s disaffection with his own life is less threatening than his rage to destroy others. So it makes sense that since the carnage in Newtown, Conn., the press has focused on the victims — the heartbreaking, senseless deaths of children, and the terrible pain that their parents and all the rest of us have to bear. Appropriately, we mourn Adam Lanza’s annihilation of others more than his self-annihilation.

But to understand a murder-suicide, one has to start with the suicide, because that is the engine of such acts. Adam Lanza committed an act of hatred, but it seems that the person he hated the most was himself. If we want to stem violence, we need to begin by stemming despair.

Many adolescents experience self-hatred; some express their insecurity destructively toward others. They are needlessly sharp with their parents; they drink and drive, regardless of the peril they may pose to others; they treat peers with gratuitous disdain. The more profound their self-hatred, the more likely it is to be manifest as externally focused aggression. Adam Lanza’s acts reflect a grotesquely magnified version of normal adolescent rage.

In his classic work on suicide, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger said that it required the coincidence of the wish to kill, the wish to be killed and the wish to die. Adam Lanza clearly had all three of these impulses, and while the gravest crime is that his wish to kill was so much broader than that of most suicidal people, his first tragedy was against himself.

Blame is a great comfort, because a situation for which someone or something can be blamed is a situation that could have been avoided — and so could be prevented next time. Since the shootings at Newtown, we’ve heard blame heaped on Adam Lanza’s parents and their divorce; on Adam’s supposed Asperger’s syndrome and possible undiagnosed schizophrenia; on the school system; on gun control policies; on violence in video games, movies and rock music; on the copycat effect spawned by earlier school shootings; on a possible brain disorder that better imaging will someday allow us to map.

Advocates for the mentally ill argue that those who are treated for various mental disorders are no more violent than the general population; meanwhile an outraged public insists that no sane person would be capable of such actions. This is an essentially semantic argument. A Harvard study gave doctors edited case histories of suicides and asked them for diagnoses; it found that while doctors diagnosed mental illness in only 22 percent of the group if they were not told that the patients had committed suicide, the figure was 90 percent when the suicide was included in the patient profile.

The persistent implication is that, as with 9/11 or the attack in Benghazi, Libya, greater competence from trained professionals could have ensured tranquillity. But retrospective analysis is of limited utility, and the supposition that we can purge our lives of such horror is an optimistic fiction.

In researching my book Far From the Tree, I interviewed the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. Over a period of eight years, I spent hundreds of hours with the Klebolds. I began convinced that if I dug deeply enough into their character, I would understand why Columbine happened — that I would recognize damage in their household that spilled over into catastrophe. Instead, I came to view the Klebolds not only as inculpable, but as admirable, moral, intelligent and kind people whom I would gladly have had as parents myself. Knowing Tom and Sue Klebold did not make it easier to understand what had happened. It made Columbine far more bewildering and forced me to acknowledge that people are unknowable.

When people ask me why the Klebolds didn’t search Dylan’s room and find his writings, didn’t track him to where he’d hidden his guns, I remind them that intrusive behavior like this sometimes prompts rather than prevents tragedy and that all parents must sail between what the British psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker called “the Scylla of intrusiveness and the Charybdis of neglect.” Whether one steered this course well is knowable only after the fact. We’d have wished for intrusiveness from the Klebolds and from Nancy Lanza, but we can find other families in which such intrusiveness has been deeply destructive.


The perpetrators of these horrific killings fall along what one might call the Loughner-Klebold spectrum. Everyone seems to have known that Jared Loughner, who wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others at a meet-and-greet in Tucson in 2011, had something seriously wrong with him.

In an e-mail months before the shootout, a fellow student said: “We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon.” The problem was obvious, and no one did anything about it.

No one saw anything wrong with Dylan Klebold. After he was arrested for theft, Mr. Klebold was assigned to a diversion program that administered standardized psychological tests that his mother said found no indication that he was suicidal, homicidal or depressed. Some people who are obviously troubled receive no treatment, and others keep their inner lives completely secret; most murder-suicides are committed by people who fall someplace in the middle of that spectrum, as Adam Lanza appears to.

So what are we to do? I was in Newtown last week, one of the slew of commentators called in by the broadcast media. Driving into town, I felt as though the air were full of gelatin; you could hardly wade through the pain. As I hung out in the CNN and NBC trailers, eating doughnuts and exchanging sadnesses with other guests as we waited for our five minutes on camera, I was struck by a troubling dichotomy. People who are dealing with a loss of this scale require the dignity of knowing that the world cares. Public attention serves, like Victorian mourning dress, to acknowledge that nothing is normal, and that those who are not lost in grief should defer to those who are. When I stopped in a diner on Newtown’s main drag, I did not sense hostility between the locals and the rest of us but I did sense a palpable gulf between us. We need to but cannot know Adam Lanza; we wish to but cannot know his victims, either.

In a metaphoric blog post called “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” a woman in Boise, Idaho, who clearly loves her son but is afraid of him worries that he will turn murderous. Many American families are in denial about who their children are; others see problems they don’t know how to stanch. Some argue that increasing mental health services for children would further burden an already bloated government budget. But it would cost us far less, in dollars and in anguish, than a system in which such events as Newtown take place.

Robbie Parker, the father of one of the victims, spoke out within 24 hours of the shooting and said to Adam Lanza’s family, “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you, and I want you to know that our family and our love and our support goes out to you as well.” His spirit of building community instead of reciprocating hatred presents humbling evidence of a bright heart. It also serves a pragmatic purpose.

My experiences in Littleton suggest that those who saw the tragedy as embracing everyone, including the families of the killers, were able to move toward healing, while those who fought grief with anger tended to be more haunted by the events in the years that followed. Anger is a natural response, but trying to wreak vengeance by apportioning blame to others, including the killer’s family, is ultimately counterproductive. Those who make comprehension the precondition of acceptance destine themselves to unremitting misery.

Nothing we could have learned from Columbine would have allowed us to prevent Newtown. We have to acknowledge that the human brain is capable of producing horror, and that knowing everything about the perpetrator, his family, his social experience and the world he inhabits does not answer the question “why” in any way that will resolve the problem. At best, these events help generate good policy.

The United States is the only country in the world where the primary means of suicide is guns. In 2010, 19,392 Americans killed themselves with guns. That’s twice the number of people murdered by guns that year. Historically, the states with the weakest gun-control laws have had substantially higher suicide rates than those with the strongest laws. Someone who has to look for a gun often has time to think better of using it, while someone who can grab one in a moment of passion does not.

We need to offer children better mental health screenings and to understand that mental health service works best not on a vaccine model, in which a single dramatic intervention eliminates a problem forever, but on a dental model, in which constant care is required to prevent decay. Only by understanding why Adam Lanza wished to die can we understand why he killed. We would be well advised to look past the evil against others that most horrifies us and focus on the pathos that engendered it.