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Mass murderer Adam Lanza’s father breaks his silence

IMG_0264By David Harris, MD and New Oakland medical director

Some mysteries forever remain unsolved. As of March 21st, when this is being written, the mystery of Malaysia Flight 370 becomes more puzzling by the day. Despite dozens of theories we may never know what caused the plane to disappear. Also, after reading a lengthy article in the New Yorker magazine featuring Peter Lanza, the father of mass murderer Adam Lanza, we are still no closer to understanding what motivated the murder of 26 teachers and students at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

We at New Oakland know the vital importance of making an accurate diagnosis and how problematic that can be. Adam Lanza is a perfect example. lanza 3After a relatively normal elementary school experience both at home and at school, Lanza morphed into becoming a deeply troubled adolescent. He began suffering from sensory overload. His mother even had to Xerox his text books to black and white because the color graphics were unbearable. He quit playing the saxophone and stopped climbing trees. Changing classes each hour caused intense stress. He had panic attacks; had trouble sleeping; stopped making eye contact and withdrew socially.

His brain didn’t necessarily change, but as mass murder psychiatrist Michael Stone told the New Yorker, “Life challenges nudged him in the direction of being sicker.” When he was 13, psychiatrist Paul Fox gave him a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, considered to be a mild form of autism.

Adam was actually quite brilliant and Peter, wife Nancy and older brother Ryan were completely devoted to his well-being. Peter and Nancy divorced but cooperated fully with the children.  At Paul Fox’s recommendation, Nancy began home-schooling Adam in the 8th grade and did so through high school.

The problem was that the Asperger’s diagnosis was incomplete, and served to set the family on a tragic course. Satisfied with the diagnosis, the Lanza’s may have been distracted from the many signals they apparently missed. And Peter notes that despite repeated visits to mental health professionals, no one saw anything that would predict Adam’s future behavior.

Both autism and psychopathy like schizophrenia entail a lack of empathy. With autism, it’s difficulty understanding emotions and an inability to interpret other people’s nonverbal signs. With psychopathy, it’s a lack of concern about hurting other people and an inability to share their feelings.

Sadly, Nancy was naïve. Adam eventually stopped speaking to her and she suffered in isolation with him, hoping that everyone on the outside would think things were OK. As writer Andrew Solomon points out, her bigger problem was “focusing on getting through the day and keeping peace in the home she occupied with her hypersensitive, controlling, hostile stranger of a son, rather than realizing that her willingness to indulge his isolation may well have exacerbated the problems it was intended to ameliorate.”

Adam began his fateful rampage by murdering Nancy, who unfortunately was a gun enthusiast and provided Adam with the tools of destruction. Had the other members of the family been in the house that day, they would have been killed also.

Perhaps some rare mysteries simply defy our abilities to explain them. Regardless, whether it’s a missing plane or a brain tragically wired in ways that defy analysis, we must remain vigilant, observe any and all clues and never stop seeking true understanding.