This piece is adapted from an essay on Randall Collins’ blog, the Sociological Eye.
The aftermath of the school shootings at Newtown, Conn. has focused on searching for a motive. Why did 20-year-old Adam Lanza kill 20 children and six adults at the school, after shooting his mother in her bed? The report of the state’s attorney, released in November 2013, concluded the motive will never be known. Searching for a motive is misguided; what we want to know are causes. Whatever went through the head of Adam Lanza in the hours or years leading up to the shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 is less important than the conditions that allowed this to happen. Above all, what was the chief cause, or causes? How could the shootings have been avoided?
Police investigators in the aftermath of the murders spent much time looking for an accomplice, anyone who had aided Adam Lanza in his plan. They missed the main accomplice, perhaps out of respect for the dead: the long-suffering, devoted mother, Nancy Lanza.
Clandestine Backstage Cult of Weapons
I have argued previously that the most distinctive clue that someone is planning a rampage killing is that they lead a secret life of amassing weapons and scripting the massacre. The point is not that they acquire a lot of guns; many people do that. But mass killers keep them secret. They become obsessed with plans and fantasies of the attack, and energized with the excitement of being able to dupe other people about their secret lives. Foremost among those who are duped is their family.
The Sandy Hook shooting had all these traits, with a few additional twists. The would-be shooter kept the bedroom windows of his room taped over with black trash bags, and so were the windows of the nearby computer room where he spent most of his time. No one was allowed into his room, not even to clean, not even his mother. In fact, no one was allowed into the house; all workers and deliveries had to meet the mother outside in the yard or at the end of the driveway.
What did he keep hidden in there? A semi-automatic rifle; two semi-automatic pistols; a semi-automatic shotgun; another rifle; a large amount of ammunition. Other weapons, such as knives, swords, and spears. He also had books and newspaper photocopies about shootings of school children and university students; a spreadsheet of mass murders; a large amount of information especially about the Columbine shootings; Hollywood movies about mass shootings; a video dramatization of children being shot; videos of suicide by gun; and a computer game called “School Shooting.” His fantasy life apparently centered not only on a large number of violent video games which he played at home—like millions of other boys—but on famous school shootings of the past, on killing children, on portraying himself armed to the teeth, and on a scenario that we can infer was to end in suicide.
The Mother as Facilitator: Folie à deux
Mental illness, although it is a noun, is not a thing: It is a behavior pattern that is seen when persons interact. Some of these patterns may have a physiological component. But interaction is a two-way, indeed multisided process; it isn’t just ruled by something in one person’s physiology.
This comes out most clearly in Adam Lanza’s way of interacting with his mother. She regarded him as mentally ill, and had said she did not work because she needed to care for her son, and worried about what would become of him without her. At home, he ruled her life. Because of his obsessive changing of his clothes, she had to do the laundry for him every day. No help was allowed into their home; she had to meet all deliveries outside. Although he could cook for himself, he demanded his mother make very specific combinations of food, which had to be served in just the right position on the plate, and certain dishes were prohibited for certain foods. One could call this obsessive compulsive; you could also see it as using mental illness as a form of control.
Mental illness in the home, then, is a conflict, a struggle over control, and the strongest weapon on the side of the wrecker of conventional amenities is that the others love him or her, or at least want to keep the peace.
Adam Lanza not only ordered his mother around in all sorts of trivial but insistent ways. He also got her to buy into his violent fantasy. All five guns that he possessed were bought by her, along with the large supply of ammunition. She also bought him all the weapons in his cult collection of swords and such. She was the perfect buyer: a respectable citizen, no criminal record, possessor of a pistol permit. She kept on buying him guns up to the very end. Even though tension had been building up, in December 2012, just before he shot her, she wrote a check for him to buy a pistol as a Christmas present.
How could she be so blind? Everything her son did, she interpreted as a manifestation of his illness. The windows taped shut with black plastic were to her just a sign of sensitiveness to light—even though he could go outdoors when he wanted to. The possibility that he was hiding something in the rooms she was forbidden to enter was masked in her own mind by the feeling that she must do everything possible for her son. He had drawn her into his mental illness, building up a family system where he was in complete control. She may have felt something was wrong, wronger even than having a mentally ill son she loved. Though it seems unlikely that they quarreled in an overt way, some signs of tension came through. According to the report, “a person who knew the shooter in 2011 and 2012 said the shooter described his relationship with his mother as strained” and said that “her behavior was not rational.” He told another that he would not care if his mother died. As usual, when one person loves the other much more than is reciprocated, the power is all on the side of the less loving.