Andrew Solomon: There's no meaning to be found in Sandy Hook

Andrew Solomon, whose new book covers autism, Columbine and more, says looking for meaning in Newtown is hopeless

Published December 19, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

Andrew Solomon
Andrew Solomon

"It’s weird to feel as though you're very much wanted because of something so ghastly and unspeakable," Andrew Solomon says when he answers the phone on Monday evening.

But Solomon's brilliant "Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity" -- a staple on year-end best book lists -- has been about the only book on my mind since Friday's horrific massacre in Newtown, Conn.

The great genius of Solomon's book comes in its empathy for the parents and children who find themselves in situations they never imagined. There's a chapter on children with autism and Asperger's. And in another, he writes about getting to know the parents of one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold, as he sought to understand how two loving parents could end up, unknowingly, raising a killer.

It's the unknowability that you end up respecting -- after all, think of the secrets you keep that might shock someone close to you. And there's lots of unknowability in Newtown. We still don't have a motive for why Adam Lanza did what he did. We don't really understand his medical condition, his relationship with his mother, what help he might or might not have received. We don't know why he targeted that school.

But if anyone seemed to have the wisdom to help us get our heads around this, it's Solomon. We talked about what Columbine can -- and cannot -- teach us about Sandy Hook, about Adam and Nancy Lanza, about how we all find forgiveness and the strength to move on. Solomon had a big caution, however: We just might never know. And we just might have to live with that horror.

In "Far From the Tree," you spent years with families of autistic kids, with kids who grew up to do unspeakable things. And it's a book you come away from with such deep empathy for how hard these very different conditions can be. That understanding, that empathy -- did the time you spent working on the book teach you anything that might help us get our heads around how to think about Newtown?

There's an optimistic belief in circulation that somehow you can derive, from a knowledge of how other massacres have taken place, some kind of real wisdom about this one. I just don’t think you can. People are longing for transparency that I think isn’t there.

We're desperate to figure out why.

Everybody would like to find the answer to the question why. "Why" is incredibly urgent because people always think that if you find out the answer, then you can ensure it won't happen again. If the reason the plane crashed is because there was a flaw in the second rear propeller, then they can check all the second rear propellers. These episodes are not subject to that variety of pinpointing. Oh, I see, the problem is X. If we only fix X, we'll never have this problem again.

The other problem, I think, is in the reporting -- and the thing where I really do feel informed on my experiences, especially with the Klebolds -- is this was a murder/suicide. The murder is what gets most of the media attention. If this guy had just killed himself, it would be a shame, and none of us would be any the wiser of it.

So a different way to understand this would be to think first about the suicide, and then about the way in which it happened?

Yes, I think the initial impulse is one of self-hatred, and it's characteristic of adolescents to express their own self-hatred by doing damage to others. By being mean to their parents. By being disagreeable with their friends. By driving snowmobiles drunk even though they know they could kill someone else or themselves. Careless, arrogant, ungenerous -- that is characteristic in inappropriate adolescents.

This, obviously, takes this phenomenon to an entirely different level, to an insane level, and to a level that is hopefully not to recur. But the basic thing is that this level is really not so alien as people seem to think. It begins in self-hatred and despair, I think, rather than beginning in aggression. The aggression toward others, it seems to me, is secondary to the aggression to himself. I'm doing a lot of leaps and hypothesizing on the basis of the incredibly thin evidence we have so far.

The other thing I kept thinking is there are two narratives in these kinds of crimes. For want of a better shorthand, I'll say there's the Loughner [the Tucson shooter in the Gabrielle Giffords attack] narrative and the Klebold narrative. The Loughner narrative is: Here was someone who absolutely everyone who came into contact with him knew there was something wrong, and everyone said he's a total creep. Someone in his class in college said he's the kind of person who one day could come in and blow up the school. Everyone could see that, but no one knew what to do about it, so nobody did anything about it.

The Klebold narrative is: Here's someone who keeps his inner life incredibly secret and it's really not visible to people with whom he interacts. And because it's not visible, it's not treated. It's not resolved. It's not dealt with. From what's being reported, this guy was somewhere in between -- but closer to Jared Loughner. But I know from my experience with Columbine, in the first month, and even after that, after the thing took place, there were people who had barely known Dylan and Eric who were saying stuff that wasn't really true because they were in love with the media or it satisfied some anxiety within them. I don't know what their motivations were. An awful lot of misinformation was in circulation. It sounds like this was someone who was quite evidently disturbed and no one was doing much about it. I think how disturbed he really was, and how much was really being done, will take us a long time to find out.

The quote that has stayed with me came from the advisor of his school tech club. He said something to the reporter like, "You haven't found a friend of his yet, have you? And you won't." There are some people who remember Lanza carrying a briefcase to class. But there have also been a lot of classmates who report barely remembering him. He was too shy for a yearbook photo. In some ways, it's like no one saw him at all.

What's hard to know is what his emotional relationship to that situation was. Many of the people I've written about who have autism or Asperger's, some of them really find it miserable that no one wants to play with them and be their friend. There are many others who are actually not really interested in forming friendships in the way we mostly think of as the normal thing to want to do. He clearly was an angry, unhappy person -- this is not the behavior of a sweet, fun-loving fellow. But did he want to have friends? I don't know if he wanted to have the things you or I might want to have. I don't know that he didn't want them either. I've just dealt with enough Aspies to know that there are plenty who would really rather spend their time with machines.

There has been a rush to blame autism or Asperger's for what happened ...

I think it's incredibly damaging. People with Asperger's are already dealing with a lot of social prejudice out there; the last thing they need is more of it being foisted on them in this way. But I think it is very difficult to get around it – there's a world of people who are very ready to blame. It's always comforting to people to have a diagnosis. His problem is that he had this thing. It's called Asperger's, and if you don't have it then you're OK.  He had this issue and this is what the issue was. Most people with Asperger's are not going to do anything like this, and I think it's very dangerous to have a public perception that they are or that they might. I worry about that a lot. It's a troubling direction for this to go.

You spent so much time with parents for your book. How are you thinking about Nancy Lanza? She's been demonized and in some ways forgotten as well -- someone donated 26 Christmas trees to the town for the victims, but not one for her, victim 27. She's certainly responsible for keeping those guns in the house. But how should she be judged?

I think "demonized" is a very well-chosen word. She's dead, so she can't come out with her own defense. She quite possibly was a troubled person; I don't know what her issues and problems were. But I think the idea -- which is implied in all this -- that she did things to cause her son to become someone who would do this, well, there's no basis in reality for that so far. Perhaps further information will come to the surface. Perhaps she made him memorize "Mein Kampf" as a child and trained him with assault weapons for this very purpose.

But my suspicion, given that she was actually a victim, is that she didn't expect him to do anything like this. To do this blaming, insinuating it's all her fault thing, is very troubling and very groundless.

The only thing from what I know so far – if you have a child who has a condition, one of the characteristics of which is impulsivity, you remove the tools with which that impulsivity can be exercised in such a damaging way. There's a clear lack of judgment on her part in having a child whom others have seen as troubled and having all that ammunition lying around the house. But the idea that she caused it – I think it's one of those things people like to say because it makes them feel as though they are safe from it. They wouldn't do whatever she did wrong. But I think it's an artificial comfort.

Where do we find real comfort, in the midst of all this anger and sadness and rage?

I think in general it takes time. I thought that statement by Robbie Parker, the father of one of the people who was killed, which he made within 24 hours, and said his heart goes out to the family of the shooter, was quite remarkable.

My take on being forgiving in a situation like this is not that people should be forgiving because it's morally right -- though I think there are moral arguments to be made for forgiveness. But I saw at Columbine that the people who said -- not that they could forgive the actual murders -- but the people who weren’t busy trying to blame everyone else and bring lawsuits were the ones who managed a degree of healing. It's not as though the wounds go away. But they were able to function even in the wake of their terrible and devastating losses better than the people who are in it for the fight. It's not a question of whether it's right or wrong to fight, or whether there should be a fight or shouldn't be a fight. It's that the people who are in it for the fight tend to get eaten alive by the fight.

Are there other big lessons you learned at Columbine that might be applicable here?

For me, the big lesson is just that I thought the more I got to know, the more I would understand. And I now know really quite a lot about Columbine and I know the immediate family of one of the perpetrators extremely well. The result of all of that knowledge is I have less understanding of what happened than I did before.

There's a tendency when faced with something of this drama and horror to try to discover a meaning of some kind in it -- to try and parse it in some productive way. My experience is that there's nothing to be achieved for that. I feel like all of the TV cameras are there saying, Here's someone else saying why this is happening. Someone gets up and says it's really all to do with video games. Then someone else gets up and does "if we had better mental health services." I happen to agree with all these problems.  I think violent video games have a negative impact on the people who play them; there seem to be many studies which reveal that. I think if we had mental health screening of an adequate nature in the school system, we could probably catch people before they escalate to levels of psychosis and dysfunction.

But I don't think that you can just make up a laundry list and say, "If we only took care of these 10 things, it would go away." I think the capacity for this horror is out there. What one eventually has to come terms with is the fact that it's unknowable.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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