It’s been one year since Sandy Hook and we are as ignorant about why it happened today as we were in the immediate aftermath.
In recent weeks the Connecticut Attorney General’s final Sandy Hook Report has been released, and the New Yorker magazine just published an interview with Peter Lanza, Adam Lanza’s father. This interview filled in the last missing piece of this puzzle for me. I’ll explain in a few.
I read every word of both the AG’s report and the father’s interview.
The report and the press claim “no motive” was found for this tragedy.
Unless I missed something, I understand that no comprehensive psychological autopsy was conducted to help explain Adam Lanza’s suicidal-homicidal state of mind and his possible motive. However, that does not mean that we have learned all we need to know about this horrific mass murder-suicide, or that understanding what happened became impossible with the death of of the last victim – and in the wreckage of his hard drive.
Nothing more to be learned? No motive? No way to predict this kind of behavior so we can prevent it in the future?
Puzzle with me awhile.
Imagine for few minutes that you are a college sophomore psychology major. You’ve had a few courses, including abnormal psychology. While you are not trained to conduct a forensic psychological autopsy, you are nobody’s fool. You understand the word “motive,” and you read somewhere that a combined Secret Service and FBI report found that 75% of all school shooters are unequivocally suicidal before the shooting begins. Which means most mass murderers are suicidal first, homicidal second.
With no escape attempt planned or made, Adam Lanza arrived on the Sandy Hook campus a dead man walking. Was he suicidal before he started shooting or after?
Begin your investigation by reviewing some AG’s conclusions.
Do any of items selected from the AG’s report below suggest to you that, in fact, something like a “motive” might be discernible? As a thinking frame, consider that the investigators reported the exact weight of munitions, but not what weighed on the mind of this young man.
From the report itself: “The obvious question that remains is: ‘Why did the shooter murder twenty-seven people, including twenty children?’”
The investigators did ask not why Lanza killed himself.
More from the report: “Unfortunately, that question may never be answered conclusively, despite the collection of extensive background information on the shooter through a multitude of interviews and other sources. The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so, or why he targeted Sandy Hook Elementary School.'”
I don’t mean to be stupid here, but really? There was no “indication why he did so?”
Consider that there is no murder without motive, and there are no meaningless suicides. The focus of the report fails to address the prime cause for this entire tragedy: suicide.
But like the drunk searching for his keys under a street lamp, not because that was where he dropped them, but because that’s where the light was better, by failing to explore Adam Lanza’s state of mind the investigators never considered the probable chain of events that fueled Lanza’s suicidal-homicidal plan.
Consider their focus: “The purpose of this report is to identify the person or persons criminally responsible for the twenty-seven homicides that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, on the morning of December 14, 2012, to determine what crimes were committed, and to indicate if there will be any state prosecutions as a result of the incident.”
If you are a prosecutor, the light is excellent around crime scenes but dim when trying to explore the state of mind of the perpetrator. The lost keys for this event were dropped back in the shadows of Adam Lanza’s history, remote and recent.
As a college sophomore sleuth, you may have learned something about what motivates suicidal behavior, e.g., untreated depression, mental anguish and unbearable psychic pain, and the growing belief that relief from suffering can only come through death. Couple this state of mind with a perceived inability to escape your unbearable circumstances, or a conviction that death by suicide is the only way to avoid some pending unendurable change or requirement. With these conditions in place, you now have the mental crucible in which the sparks of suicide begin smolder and smoke.
Imagine, also, that you have learned how to recognize a few warning signs of a pending suicide attempt. In a word, the subject’s behavior telegraphs what is about to happen, which gives you time to act – provided you know what to do.
Now, do you see any warning signs in the “facts” that might help you see what is coming? Is there anything here to help you understand the motive for this mass murder-suicide?
Quotes from the report of items found in Adam Lanza’s room:
“A Christmas check from the mother to the shooter to purchase a CZ 83 firearm”
“A New York Times article from February 18, 2008, regarding the school shooting at Northern Illinois University.”
“Three photographs of what appear to be a dead human, covered in blood and wrapped in plastic.”
“Photocopied newspaper articles from 1891 pertaining to the shooting of school children. While the vast majority of persons interviewed had no explanation for the shooter’s actions, a review of electronic evidence or digital media that appeared to belong to the shooter, revealed that the shooter had a preoccupation with mass shootings, in particular the Columbine shootings.”
“For example, there was a spreadsheet with mass murders over the years listing information about each shooting.”
“Two videos showing suicide by gunshot.”
“Commercial movies depicting mass shootings”
“The computer game titled “School Shooting” where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students”
“Images of the shooter holding a handgun to his head”
“Images of the shooter holding a rifle to his head”
“Five-second video (dramatization) depicting children being shot”
“Images of shooter with a rifle, shotgun and numerous magazines in his pockets”
“A document written showing the prerequisites for a mass murder spreadsheet”
“A spreadsheet listing mass murders by name and information about the incident”
“Large amount of materials relating to Columbine shootings and documents on mass murders”
Any thoughts yet? See any possible clues? Any suicide warning signs here or should we just move along?
Does it bother you that all the school shooters listed by Adam Lanza died by suicide at the scene of the shootings?
Don’t strain for an answer here…, just let it come to you.
Is there a final spark that ignites the crisis and sets in motion this chain of events?
From the report:
“As of December 14, 2012, the shooter and his mother lived at 36 Yogananda Street. This had been the family home for years, although only the shooter and his mother had resided in the house for an extended time. Both the shooter’s and his mother’s bedrooms were on the second floor; the mother occupied the master bedroom. In November 2012, the mother sought to buy the shooter another computer or parts for a computer for the shooter to build one himself. She was concerned about him and said that he hadn’t gone anywhere in three months and would only communicate with her by e-mail, though they were living in the same house. The mother never expressed fear of the shooter, for her own safety or that of anyone else.
“The mother said that she had plans to sell her home in Newtown and move to either Washington state or North Carolina. She reportedly had told the shooter of this plan and he apparently stated that he wanted to move to Washington. The intention was for the shooter to go to a special school in Washington or get a computer job in North Carolina. In order to effectuate the move, the mother planned to purchase a recreational vehicle (RV) to facilitate the showing and sale of the house and the eventual move to another state. The RV would provide the shooter with a place to sleep as he would not sleep in a hotel. In fact, during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, with no power in the house, the shooter refused to leave the home and go to a hotel.”
A few more facts from the report…
1. “At the time of death he was six feet tall and weighed 112 pounds.”
2. “Both the shooter’s mother and father indicated that the shooter was bullied growing up.”
3. “There were a number of people who knew the mother over the years, some fairly well, who had never met the shooter – although were aware of his existence – and had never been inside her residence.”
4. “Over the years from the late 1990s and into the 2000s, the shooter had evaluations of various types, some of which were available to the investigators. In the late 1990s he was described as having speech and language needs. At that time he was also being followed medically for seizure activities. In preschool his conduct included repetitive behaviors, temper tantrums, smelling things that were not there, excessive hand washing and eating idiosyncrasies.”
Now pull on your Sherlock Homes deerstalker…
As a young investigator, it is common to put yourself in the shoes of the criminal to try to see the world from the perpetrator’s perspective. Why, you ask, would someone do something as horrible as this? What would drive them to such extreme action?
If you were this young man, and given your history, current symptoms, almost complete isolation from family and a few acquaintances – and whatever else burdened your mind – what would be your reaction to being forced out of the only sanctuary you ever had? Remember that during a dangerous storm – perhaps fearing unbearable anxiety and psychic suffering – you refused to leave your room to go to a hotel for your own safety.
With the house on the market, would strange people enter your sanctuary?
Would potential buyers want to see your room?
What would they find there?
Would your refusal to show your room ruin a sale for your mother?
If the house sold, what would be required to do?
Who is forcing you to move?
Consider also – as the missing puzzle piece I mentioned at the outset – that his father reported in the New Yorker interview that when Adam began middle school he was required to change classrooms each period rather than sit in the same room all day. Moving from classroom to classroom so upset and overwhelmed him that he stopped most normal activities, experienced panic attacks, and developed a host of acute symptoms that led to a psychiatric evaluation and eventual diagnosis that he was suffering from a serious mental illness.
In sum, the requirement to move from one room to another during the school day exacerbated his developing mental illness and required his mother to begin home schooling him, thus leading to even more isolation.
Now, with your only safe hiding place in the entire world up for sale your mother announces that she is about to move you not only out of your room, but out of your house, and even out of your state.
Confronted with this unavoidable consequence put into motion by your mother – and already believing women are selfish and insensitive – how on earth do you avoid being forced out into a world you not only dread, but cannot imagine existing in?
Is it at possible a “no-escape-but-death” option could have entered your mind?
Take your time.
Now note that a Danish study of 4,000 children ages 11 to 17 published in the June 2009 Archives of General Psychiatry (Vol. 66, No.6) found that those children whose families moved three to five times during their young lives were twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to children who had never been moved. Teens required to move more than 10 times were four times as likely to attempt suicide.
So what do we know? We know that we have an untreated serious mental illness or two (Adam refused medications), possible weight loss from depression (a 32 fold risk factor for suicide), almost complete isolation, inescapable suffering on the immediate horizon if the house sold with no way to escape, access to firearms, and a long-standing fascination with mass murderers who all die by suicide at the scene of the crime….. We also know that, given his diagnosis, he lacks basic empathy for others… just one of the serious symptoms of his illness.
Compared to all other known risk factors for suicide, I’ve conjectured that the one we most frequently underestimate in our assessment of unfolding risk is that looming, unbearable circumstance we know is coming and that we also know we cannot possibly endure or avoid. Or, to borrow from Winston Churchill, suicide becomes the only escape from a pending unavoidable adverse event up with which we will not put.
My colleague, Dr. Thomas Joiner, recently published a book on murder-suicide, and I just finished it. Kudos, Thomas! Titled, The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide, it deserves a wide audience. Just Google it and read a sample. Among its valuable lessons, one point is this: Murder and violence toward others can be prevented by helping suicidal people. For our own safety and that of others – including the children to die in the next Sandy Hook – we ignore suicidal people not only at their peril, but at our own.
Even as a college sophomore I think you can provide a superior explanation of motive for this mass murder-suicide than the experts.
From the AG’s report: “The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so”
No clear indication why he did so?
For an earlier piece on this tragedy, you can read my first response at: http://www.qprinstitute.com/pdfs/Newtown.pdf.
5 thoughts on “Newtown One Year Later”
Good analysis, Dr. Paul. The failure of the few adults in Adam’s life to act on what must have been, even to them, obvious mental illness and signs of suicidal depression resulted in tragedy. (Actually it is worse than non-action, as the mom enabled some behaviors and provided easy access to firearms.) There was an interesting story in yesterday’s NY Times about adding suicide nets to the Golden Gate Bridge – where a suicide is currently being attempted or carried out every other day. Like that hasn’t been an obvious need for, what, a couple generations? It is incredible how slow society is acting on this issue. Here’s a link to that story: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/27/us/suicides-mounting-golden-gate-looks-to-add-a-safety-net.html?ref=us&_r=0
I saw the NYT story yesterday. This new action on the Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier is one more marker for real progress being made in the suicide prevention movement. People are starting to “get it.” Paul
Paul–this is an excellent synopsis. Thank you for presenting your perspective on this tragedy.
I’ve spent the last 2 years getting certified by the AAS and doing psych autopsies and your right, our psych 101 class could have developed this motive….unbelievable.
Congratulations, Adam. Your work is important. Paul