The man says resolutely that Adam Lanza “would have killed me in a heartbeat, if he’d had the chance.” They’d be chilling words coming from anyone who’d ever encountered Lanza, the young man who on Dec. 14, 2012, shot and killed his mother, then killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before turning the gun on himself. Lanza’s act was one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. But the man who knows that Adam Lanza would have effortlessly added his name to his list of victims is Lanza’s own father. In a riveting interview in the new issue of the New Yorker, Peter Lanza opens up about the son he lost and the pain he lives with.
To be the father of a man who committed an atrocious act – a man who killed small children – is to live with a burden few of us can even imagine. The elder Lanza no longer knows what to do with family photographs. He can’t display photos of Adam, but he feels it’s wrong to leave up pictures of his surviving son, Ryan. He hadn’t seen Adam in two years before the shooting at Sandy Hook, and he asks himself what he could have done differently, because “No outcome could be worse.”
As Andrew Solomon poignantly writes in his profile, there is ongoing dispute over how to calculate the losses of that December day in Newtown, Conn. Twenty-eight people died, but the tally often stops at 26. Adam Lanza’s mother, whom he shot in the head four times, owned the rifle that fueled his rampage, so her victimhood is often mingled with blame in the accounts of what transpired. Peter Lanza says that “The reason Adam shot Nancy four times was one for each of us: one for Nancy; one for him; one for Ryan; one for me.” And though Lanza’s life ended that day, he’s rarely counted in the same breath as the children he murdered. That’s what Peter Lanza lives with every day. The death of his 20-year-old son. The knowledge of the harrowing grief he caused. When Solomon asks Lanza what, if anything, the family did as a funeral for Adam, he replies, “No one knows that. And no one ever will.”
It’s no coincidence that Lanza chose to tell his story to Andrew Solomon, whose exquisite 2012 book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” explored what it’s like to raise children far outside the ordinary experience, including children who kill. And Solomon’s handling of Lanza’s story is almost as powerful as Lanza’s own testimony. He sensitively reveals a man who now lives in a state of “sustained incomprehension” — a seemingly decent man who had a son he says it’s “clear” was loved. A man who bred a monster and who now warns, “I want people to be afraid of the fact that this could happen to them.”
In his interview, Peter Lanza recalls a child who was different from birth but who he long believed was “just a normal little weird kid.” Just a few years later, a teacher would describe him as “intelligent but not normal, with anti-social issues.” By middle school, Lanza says, “It was crystal clear something was wrong” with his son. And though he acknowledges Adam’s Asperger’s and “the arrogance that Aspies can have,” he also firmly dismisses the ignorance and fear that the Sandy Hook tragedy has inspired about people with the condition. “Asperger’s makes people unusual,” he says, “but it doesn’t make people like this.”
Lanza says he’s offered to meet with the families of his son’s victims, and that two of them have done it. “It’s gut-wrenching,” he says. But though he admits he gets “very defensive with my name” and the infamy it now carries, he’s also received support from his friends and an outpouring of compassion from strangers around the world, who’ve deluged him with letters and keepsakes.
How do you grieve for a child who took away so many other people’s children? How does a father live the rest of his life with the sins of his son? How do you fight off the nightmares you have? Lanza confesses, “You can’t mourn for the little boy he once was. You can’t fool yourself.” When your child turns out to be a monster, all you’re left with is a box of photos you feel wrong about opening. All you have are memories of the son whose arrival you once celebrated, and who you now say you wish had never been born.