In November 2012, I happened to hear author Andrew Solomon on NPR, talking about Far from the Tree, his book on children who are different from their parents in profound and life-changing ways. “Must get this book now!” I texted to my fiancé, who sent me a nearly identical message.
We were both thinking about my son, whom I call Michael. In the later months of 2012, Michael’s behavior was increasingly erratic and violent. Because he was so disruptive, he was asked to leave a prestigious math and science academy and was transferred to a restrictive program for students with behavior problems. One morning, a simple request that he return overdue library books quickly escalated into my son making death threats against me. In December 2012, when Adam Lanza killed his mother, my then 13-year-old son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital. I was physically bruised from restraining him as he tried to run into traffic and emotionally exhausted as I realized I had few options to help my son. After more than eight years of searching for answers, we still didn’t know what was wrong with Michael.
As I read Peter Lanza’s honest and heartbreaking assessment of his lost son Adam, I was again struck by the similarities between the Lanzas’ painful story and my own. In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, when I wrote the blog post that was republished as “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” most of us knew very little about Adam or Nancy. But I knew, because in many respects, I was living a parallel life.
I wrote the words, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” not to the world, but to myself. Before I could get help for my son, I had to admit how desperately I needed it. That first step—acknowledging to myself the gravity of my family’s situation, our tenuous and faltering grip on the external trappings of normalcy that I so desperately craved—is what ultimately allowed my son to get the help he needs.
More than a year later, Michael finally has a diagnosis, bipolar disorder, and he is finally on a medication that works. In the eight months since that diagnosis, Michael has not threatened himself or others; he will return to a mainstream school next fall. I wish that Adam Lanza could have followed my son’s path. The child Peter Lanza loved was bright, funny, a “normal weird kid.” What happened? Not even Peter Lanza knows.
Philosopher Claire Creffield, in analyzing the luck factor that separates an Adam Lanza from a similarly challenged child who does not commit mass murder, notes that “a host of chance events come together to make one imperfectly-parented child a killer and another imperfectly-parented child a well-adjusted adult.” Peter Lanza has come to the same conclusion: He told Andrew Solomon, “I want people to be afraid of the fact that this could happen to them.”
I want the same thing. While none of us are perfect parents, I personally do not blame either Peter or Nancy Lanza for what happened to their son. Both parents loved Adam. Neither parent imagined or wanted their child’s horrific end.
This is why what Peter Lanza did by sharing his story with Andrew Solomon is so important. Lanza’s story fills important gaps in our understanding of how a beloved child became a killer—and reminds us as a society that we have an obligation to help families and children before they find themselves on irreversible paths of violence. People have blamed Peter for being a distant father. I received the same type of criticism because I have raised my son for the past several years as a single mother. Yet I do not blame Michael’s father for his illness any more than I blame Peter Lanza for his son. Compassion, not judgment, is what we deserve.
In Lanza’s description of his son’s journey into isolation, I see too many similarities, not only to my own experiences, but to the experiences of millions of children and families. I am a mother, not a medical professional, and yet as I scroll down a list of symptoms that mirror my son’s, I can’t help but wonder why Adam Lanza was never diagnosed with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Still, I view my son’s very real mental illness as an explanation, but never as an excuse.
As we look at the changes we need to make in our mental healthcare delivery system, our goal should not be reactive—to prevent another Sandy Hook or Tucson or Aurora. Instead, our goal should be proactive—to provide early interventions, appropriate diagnoses, and medical treatment to children and families well before a crisis like Sandy Hook occurs. I am grateful to Peter Lanza for adding his important voice to the chorus of parents who are seeking solutions and change. Peter Lanza’s story is also a tragedy, a little boy lost, a society that turned away, at terrible cost.
Liza Long is a writer, educator, and mother of four children, one of whom has mental illness.