“He would have killed me in a heartbeat”

The father of Sandy Hook Adam Lanza reveals what it's like to raise a murderer

Topics: Adam Lanza, Sandy Hook, Peter Lanza, Andrew Solomon, Far From The Tree, New Yorker, Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting, Asperger Syndrome, Newtown school shooting,

"He would have killed me in a heartbeat"Adam Lanza (Credit: AP)

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.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...