The Evil at Sandy Hook

The Evil at Sandy Hook December 15, 2012

Evil visited this community today, so declared Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy. Malloy was one of many who mentioned evil as the root source of Friday’s mass murder at an elementary school in Newtown.

At first glance it would certainly seem to be an accurate statement. Only the most demonic would open fire on a classroom full of children. Gloating and standing in front of those sweet-faced and surely terrified children and pull the trigger on not one but two semiautomatic handguns. Without question this was an intentional massacre of our nation’s most vulnerable population. That the killer took his own life offers little consolation. Can such a soul be dead enough?

There was a time when people like the shooter would appear primarily as characters in a Flannery O’Connor short story. Imagination run amuck, creatively, harmlessly. It is easy to identify the one rather notable difference between Flannery’s odd-ball characters and real-life characters like Adam Lanza, or Kip Kinkel — semiautomatic weapons.

Initially, all the major news media erroneously identified the shooter at Sandy Hook as Ryan Lanza, the eldest son of Peter and Nancy Lanza. That’s because police reportedly found Ryan’s ID on the dead shooter. Perhaps a cruel joke? The 24-year-old Lanza took to Facebook in an effort to quell the rumors: It wasn’t me! I was at work. It wasn’t me! 

It was his younger brother, Adam Lanza. Adam was a known entity in the affluent and bucolic community of Newtown. He was  recognized by classmates and community members alike as being one of the town’s oddball characters. Although extremely bright, Adam reportedly suffered from some sort of mental disorder. A personality disorder reported one paper. Asperger’s Syndrome said another. Autism, declared yet another.  It will probably be days, if not weeks before we can confirm that Adam Lanza suffered some form of mental disorder.

But we already have the evidence of it.

Adam’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was reportedly discovered dead in her home. Adam allegedly killed her before taking her car and driving to the school where she had taught, and opened fire on adults and children alike. He killed 20 children and six staff members, including the school’s principal. The Washington Post quoted a neighbor of Adam’s: “He would have tantrums. They were much more than the average kid.”

Much more than the average kid.

Indeed, ask anyone who knew Adam Lanza and you will likely discover that nothing about Adam was average. He was highly intelligent and socially stunted.

A former neighbor summed Adam up this way: “Overall, I would just call him a socially awkward kid, I don’t know, shy and quiet. Didn’t really look you in the eye. Just kind of a weird kid.”

Adam was remote, reclusive, not at all an attention-seeker. Nice, said some. Wickedly-smart said others. And now, as the whole world has observed, Adam Lanza embodied evil.

Or did he?

I’ve spent a great deal of the past decade reading and learning about mental illness, the subject of my next book. (Mother of Rain, Mercer  Univ. Press, Fall, 2013).

I was working as a reporter in the newsroom when the shootings at Columbine and Oregon’s Thurston High took place. I see a lot of similarities between Kip Kinkel and Adam Lanza: Good family. Professional parents. Parents struggling to do right by their mentally ill children.

It’s a subject that is dear to me because one of my closest childhood friends suffers from mental illness. She has suffered from it for the past thirty some years. While I was raising my kids, she was courageously fighting the voices that threatened to harm hers.

We had no idea at first what was happening. We were all so young and naive. We were good Christian girls who thought that mental illness was something other people got. People who did drugs or drank too much or had witnessed horrific things.

Long before any of us understood the depth of her illness, my girlfriend struggled with guilt. She was convinced that if she prayed hard enough, if she lived a good enough life, and if she loved Jesus with her whole heart, her mind would be restored.

That first year following her firstborn’s birth, my girlfriend spent a great deal of time locked up in a secure setting. She could not be left alone with her infant, not because of the fear that she might harm the child, but simply because she wasn’t well enough to take care of her own self, much less a baby. When her second child was born, years later, she attempted suicide. But by then, of course, we had come to understand that this was more than postpartum blues. She was seriously ill and she needed more help than her loved ones and her prayer pals could provide.

During all of the chaos that ensued, she made me promise her one thing — Whatever happens, don’t let me hurt my babies, she pleaded. I promised her that, although I felt powerless in my ability to do as I promised.

There were consultations with psychiatrists and psychologists and finally with an endocrinologist who helped give me back my childhood pal and the memories we share. But when she was laying up in that hospital bed, recovering from that suicide attempt, my girlfriend’s mama sat at the kitchen table and wept. She blamed herself for her daughter’s illness. Any good parent would, I imagine. I bet Nancy and Peter Lanza wondered at times if their divorce, or their parenting-style caused their son to go off half-kilter.

I was also working the newsroom when this nation made the decision to turn the mentally ill out to the streets. To shut down state-run facilities for all but of the worst of the mentally ill. It was an effort to save more tax dollars and to give the mentally ill their independence, or so claimed the routine political sound bite.

Law Enforcement reluctantly became the caretakers of the mental disturbed, housing them in county and city jails all across this land. Police warned citizens in advance, though, that there would be consequences to our economic choices.

The families of the mentally disabled often suffer in isolation. Parents are left to search the Internet for any form of help they can find. I bet most of us can name a person in our own community who suffers from mental illness. Someone we all suspect ought to be in a secure facility, for their own benefit, if not for ours. These families may belong to our church. We sneak stares at them across the pews and offer a prayer for them but we do not befriend them because, well, their child is such a weird kid, and none of us really know how to deal with weird kids in real-life and not characters in a short story.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if we grownups are the evil ones for creating a society in which the mentally ill are readily given access to semiautomatic weapons and, yet, are so rarely able to access the type of health care that might truly help them, their families and their communities.  When it comes to the mentally ill, we are still operating in the dark ages. It’s easier to blame the demons, than to realize that we good people have a responsibility in all of this.

For another look at this issue, check out this article on the Huffington Post: I am Adam Lanza’s Mother. 


What do you think?









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  • SonofLight

    Excellent Karen, thank you

  • Sharon O

    I agree with you, never could understand why they shut down so many facilities just to save ‘money’. It is a crime on many levels that continues to repeat itself.

    • It was because, as Jane noted, of abuses in the other direction. Too many over-medicated, locked-up, stashed away. I have a family member who was given over to one of these institutions as a young child simply because she was born mentally disabled. Because she was the firstborn, her own siblings didn’t know about her existence until she was dead. To this day, it remains a family shame…

  • Jane

    So much more on point, Karen, than Mike Huckabee’s lament about removing God from our society. How should we care for the mentally ill among us? Yes, there were excesses in the past, of intelligent but eccentric people given shock treatments or lobotomies or being locked away for life in a mental institution, but the pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction and our police & jails are not the answer. All of these have a $ cost for society and we either pay it now or pay it later, while we argue about raising taxes or cutting services. Aaarrgghh!

    • Thanks, Jane. Was that a lament by Huckabee? Because I could have sworn it was nothing more than political posturing. Anybody who thinks there wasn’t a whole lot of praying going on at Sandy Hook while under the rampage of Adam Lanza just doesn’t understand human nature. And yes, this inane decision to put this burden upon our law enforcement is costing us in more ways than one.

  • Huckabee is right. The anti-NRA folks are right. Karen is right about the mentally ill. Lots of people are correct when they identify the cause, and the solution, to this tragedy. And because they are all right, they are all wrong.

  • Bradford Wade

    The author evidently knows very little about “mental illness,” and should refrain from presenting herself as an expert.

    • Jo Hilder

      Did Karen say she was an expert? Must have missed that.

    • Brad: Never claimed to be an expert, just an observer. And you?

  • AFRoger

    Evil is never more quietly powerful than in the assumption that it resides elsewhere.
    Evil and mental illness are two entirely different things. Different still is the posture of having strong opinions in the absence of experience. I’m not referring to you, Karen, but to a phenomenon that has engulfed us in the guise of a bright little screen with all kinds of features, only one of which is the capability to vent and incite and use hyperbole and to create a self-escalating echo chamber of rage.
    I spend hours every week in Bible study and worship and prayer and hospitality with poor, mentally ill, addicts, recovering addicts, nearly every one of which has some kind of record with the criminal justice system–from disturbing the peace and trespassing to assault and more. Mostly, their great crime against society was the misfortune of having been born into a home that was unstable, violent and chemically dependent. And yet, on a daily or hourly basis, many of these folks make more sense than the well-to-do and supposedly “sane” folks whose hands move the levers of power and the dollars of the economy.
    And some days, honestly, I go to “work” fearing the worst. I don’t fear being assaulted or stabbed or shot by my congregation. It’s possible, of course. But it could just as easily happen in my driveway out here in the burbs.
    No, what I fear most is what is mostly invisible. The things that are said and written whenever there is a newspaper story about homeless folks or compassionate Christians who open doors of hospitality and realtionships, myself included. A recent story about a ministry in this community, one that uses the same space where I work but at an earlier time slot, generated 263 online comments in a week’s time, most of them negative, hateful, judgmental.
    And some of them were downright frightening. Where is the trigger point, what other precedent in the news will it take, for one of these righteous people to finally feel justified in loading up the weapons and heading down to the decrepit church where I work to “clean up the city and do God’s work” of finally ridding society of “evil”?
    Scripture verses abound in many of these online comments. The Good Book can be used to justify anything. And by most standards, I think the writers probably would be judged completely sane, free of mental illness.
    But free of evil? Now that’s a different issue entirely. Meanwhile, the trench warfare of lobbing toxic bombs of anonymous words continues unabated. Sackcloth, ashes, prayer, and a whole lot more face-to-face encounters with humanity. That’s all that will save lives, all that ever could. In a word: love.

    • Roger: You have so much more shoe-leather experience. There is no one-step solution to the multitude of problems within our homeless population. No one size fits all solution. Nothing relational ever is. But that, too, is part of the problem. The one constant in all these shooters lives is that they were isolated/isolationist. They don’t fit in. They don’t have close friends. Typically the only people who love them unconditionally are their parents. So, yes, facetime with humanity, and treating the mentally disabled and the mentally ill with respect and choosing to engage them in relationship may very well go a long ways toward healing some of this brokenness. But we have to do something about the fact that in this nation the mentally disabled and the mentally ill have more access to guns than they do to appropriate health care.

  • Jo Hilder

    I worked as a support worker for the schizophrenic here in Australia for a time, work I loved, and I never met one evil person amongst the mentally ill in that time. Diabolically clever and capable of causing harm and destruction? Certainly. The long term mentally ill ( both institutionalised and non-institutionised) are survivors – they do what they can to navigate a society which does not understand them. Little of what they do is intended to truly cause harm, but is done in obedience to impulses which make perfect sense to them, and which, when you see the distress their processing if our society causes them, you can even come to understand.
    What upsets me about what you’ve described Karen is the US system in place for the seriously mentally ill living in the community. Is there really only institutions or nothing? Are families living with their schizophrenic children and adult children with no practical caring support from the government? We have a system where the mentally ill are placed in community housing and supported by agencies, assisted practically and psycho-socially to integrate and navigate the community around them. This is the kind of agency I worked for. The government pays for this. Does the US not have this in place?
    I shudder.

    • Cathy

      Does Australia require the mentally ill to take medication, Jo? Serious question.

      • Jo Hilder

        Of course we do, often under a court order and supervision. Mental health patients can be forcibly hosplitalised if found not to be taking their medication. Part of my role as a support worker was to ensure clients took their meds either by watching them do it, or taking them to appointments to receive it.

        • That is not the case in our country, Jo. We cannot force them to be hospitalized or medicated.

    • The answer to your question, Jo, is no. We have in place very few community housing or agencies to help the mentally ill. To give you an example, I know a woman in this community who suffers from some sort of mania. But she does not have a job — can’t hold one down — so she lives with an elderly grandmother, who is unable to care for her granddaughter. There is no health insurance, and because the woman is so confused of mind, she thinks she can’t get help, so doesn’t. Cathy has addressed the issue of how difficult it is to get help for people who refuse to be helped. We turned the mentally ill out to the streets in the 80s, for a variety of reasons, but we put very little in place to help them. So our homeless community increased and law enforcement has shouldered the bulk of fallout from the release of those who needed assistance to local communities where they don’t get it.

  • Cathy Hickman

    I’m the mother of a fine young man. Kindest & most caring human I know. He has Aspergers…very high functioning. How I accepted this is with what I hope is grace. If God told me my choice was to have this fine young man as he was or not all, what would be my answer. A very quick and resounding “YES”…this way is better than not at all. Yes, I’m sad his world is different than many.., but he did not choose this illness anymore than did we. He is not less than anyone else in this world. He is not a danger to anyone… I hope that he does not have to bear anymore hardship, because of someone with possibly a similar illness did so much evil. But as always…it will be what it will be. I thank all his many friends who stand by him!

    • Cathy: The reports regarding Adam’s mental disabilities are not yet based in fact. Until his father -Peter Lanza, or the family doctor — steps forward and tells the world, then all we have is media speculation, never a very good thing. I had a good friend whose son had Aspergers and he was always the sweetest child. Even though she was married to a surgeon they did not get an official diagnosis of their son’s problems until he was in 6th grade.Up until then, they struggled to understand their son’s quirky tics — he hated being hugged, was sometimes abrasive, preferred to be alone than with others, etc. The child was also bright and endlessly curious. He ran cross-country, went to birthday parties, and participated in life in nearly every way his siblings did. But it was hard on his mama, figuring out how to best guide her boy’s interest and she was fiercely protective of his feelings, as any parent would be. There is nothing to suggest having either Autism or Aspergers would compel a person toward the violence Adam Lanza displayed. Altho there are studies around about the kinds of medications we use to treat people with mental disabilities/illnesses and the suggestion that some of these drugs can compel a person toward violence. I don’t know enough about these studies to comment on them either way but I do believe that it is far easier in this nation for the mentally disabled/ill to obtain firearms than it is for them and their families to get the medical care and support they need. And that, I believe, is what we have to change.

  • Steve T

    Things will change when we learn to love our children more than we love our firearms. Such is the fetishized reality of our day. And so, our children are sacrificed at the altar of the mighty gun … praise be its name.

    • Begs the question of what is meant by “civilized nation”, doesn’t it?

    • ismellarat

      Is it more realistic to believe we can make every gun in the country disappear, or that a stop-gap solution can be found, like cross-training school employees as special deputies on a voluntary basis, and keeping firearms in lockboxes on location? The way it is now, any shooter can do what this guy did before law enforcement has a chance to respond. This would simply expand our definition of law enforcement.

  • /amen

    Karen, apologies if you’ve already seen this, but it ties in your expressed thoughts here:

  • There are plenty of people (like your sister) who never get help because we are more concerned with the fate of sociopaths like Lanza than meaningfully integrating those that have trouble. Since mental healthcare is time-consuming and not as immediately gratifying and profitable as outpatient surgeries, I’m sure it will remain low on the priorities list.

    He needed attention, and he got it. It is a shame that no one could provide him an outlet before this, but we can’t just look to excuse mass murder with hindsight rationalizations, especially when it was planned and thus could’ve been stopped. He is a selfish sociopath who irreparably screwed over 26 families before COWARDLY taking his own life. I have severe depression, adhd, anorexia, insomnia and Glioblastoma (stage IV brain cancer) and I haven’t killed anyone and neither have my friends and family who have mental illnesses and I’m sicking of getting lumped in with murderers!