The secrets inside the Lanza family [Commentary]

Children are ultimately unknowable, even to those who love them most

March 19, 2014|Susan Reimer

Adam Lanza's father has broken his silence and, as we did in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown school shootings, we misunderstand.

Peter Lanza reached out to author Andrew Solomon of The New Yorker at the first anniversary of the day when his 20-year-old son shot his mother, six teachers, 20 little kids and himself. They spent the next six months talking as the exacting Mr. Lanza clicked through the timeline of Adam's life, trying to understand what had happened.

In the end, the father was no more successful than any of the experts who tried to explain the inexplicable. But two of his comments made headlines nevertheless.

"With hindsight, I know Adam would have killed me in a heartbeat, if he had had the chance."

And he said that he wished that Adam had never been born.

Mr. Lanza chose Mr. Solomon because he was the author of a book about parents of children who grow up to be profoundly unlike them: gay, transgender or criminal. Or, as was the case with Sue and Tom Klebold, parents of Columbine High School's Dylan Klebold, mass murderers.

Mr. Solomon has said he believes Mr. Lanza chose him because of the portraits he had painted of the Klebolds — decent people who had endured horrific experiences because of what their son had done, but who were not to blame.

For Mr. Lanza, the hours of interviews were an painful, introspective journey, not a parade of excuses or a plea for expiation. "You could feel the effort," Mr. Solomon said in a New Yorker podcastS.

In his description of his relationship with Adam, supported by four volumes of printed emails between him and his ex-wife, Nancy, Mr. Lanza comes off not as he had previously been imagined by many, as a rich and selfish man who abandoned a fading marriage and a troubled son for a new life and a new wife, a father who had not bothered to contact his son for two years.

Instead, he conveys the impression of a workaholic breadwinner during the week and a fully engaged weekend dad. The lapse in contact with Adam came as the boy's troubles deepened and as his mother, struggling to keep the peace at any price, declined to insist on contact between father and son.

Mr. Lanza did not disengage. In fact, he was so determined to connect with the increasingly isolated and unhappy child that he thought of hiring a private detective in order to arrange an accidental meeting.

As Mr. Solomon so aptly points out in this essay, we, the observers, are eager to demonize the parents. Bad things happened, we want to believe, because they were bad parents. I am not a bad parent. That means my family is safe.

Mr. Lanza chose to speak out in part, he said, to demonstrate that this kind of calamity can happen to anyone.

Sue Klebold, in Mr. Solomon's book "Far from the Tree," says that the world might be a better place if Dylan had not been born, but it wouldn't have been a better place for her. She would not want to give up the years of love that preceded the apocalypse.

In contrast, Mr. Lanza pointed to a happy picture of him with his sons on a beach and told Mr. Solomon that he sees in that picture the truth: Adam was profoundly loved.

But he said he would give all of that up in order to spare the world the pain Adam would eventually cause. That's what he means by wishing he had never been born. He is not wishing Adam away. He is willing to sacrifice every happy memory he has of him.

Likewise, when he says that Adam would certainly have killed him if he had the opportunity, he is not describing a near miss. He said it understanding that Adam was in so much psychic pain that the only way he could dissipate it was to cause the maximum amount of pain for others. The murders of the children made him as hateful to the world as he was to himself.

The lesson of Peter Lanza isn't simply that we never know what calamity awaits our families, so we dare not tempt fate with complacency. Although that's a pretty good lesson.

The lesson might be that life inside a family is a mystery, unknowable perhaps even to its members. And when we seek to judge from the outside looking in, there is a very good chance we don't know what we are talking about.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


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