The aftermath of the school shootings at Newtown Connecticut has focused on searching for a motive. Why did 20-year-old Adam Lanza kill 20 children and 6 adults at the school, after shooting his mother in her bed? The report of the State’s Attorney, released in November 2013, concluded the motive will never be known. Searching for a motive is misguided; what we want to know are causes. Whatever went through the head of Adam Lanza in the hours or years leading up to the shooting on December 14, 2012 is less important than what were the conditions that made this happen. Above all, what was the chief cause, or causes, that if it had been different, the shootings could have been avoided?
Clandestine Back-stage Cult of Weapons
In a previous post [Clues to Mass Rampage Killers: Deep Backstage, Hidden Arsenal, Clandestine Excitement; posted Sept. 1, 2012], I argued that the most distinctive clue that someone is planning a rampage killing is that they lead a secret life of amassing weapons and scripting the massacre. The point is not that they acquire a lot of guns; many people do that. But mass killers keep them secret; their life becomes obsessed with plans and fantasies of the attack, and energized with the excitement of being able to dupe other people about their secret life. Foremost among those who are duped is their family.
The Sandy Hook shooting had all these traits, with a few additional twists. The would-be shooter kept the bedroom windows of his room taped over with black trash bags; so were the windows of the nearby computer room where he spent most of his time. No one was allowed into his room, not even to clean, not even his mother. In fact, no one was allowed into the house; all workers and deliveries had to meet the mother outside in the yard or at the end of the driveway.
What did he keep hidden in there? A semi-automatic rifle; two semi-automatic pistols; a semi-automatic shotgun; another rifle; a large amount of ammunition. Also, many weapons such as knives, swords, and spears. He also had books and newspaper photocopies about shootings of school children and university students; a spreadsheet of mass murders; a large amount of information especially about the Columbine shootings; Hollywood movies about mass shootings; a video dramatization of children being shot; and a computer game “School Shooting” in which the player enters a school and shoots students.
He also had in his secret chambers: photos of a dead person covered in blood and wrapped in plastic; images of himself with rifle, shotgun, and pockets stuffed with ammunition magazines; images of himself holding a pistol or rifle to his head; videos of suicide by gun. His fantasy life apparently centered not only on a large number of violent video games which he played at home-- like millions of other boys-- but on famous school shootings of the past, on killing children, on portraying himself armed to the teeth, and on a scenario that we can infer was to end in suicide.
Violent video games are so ubiquitous that he did not have to keep them hidden. But for this young man they had a special meaning, private enough that he played shooting games only at home; at local theatre he played video games 4 to 10 hours a day, but only non-violent ones in the presence of other people. His clandestine excitement would have come from his ultra-private fantasies and preparations, never spoken about to anyone including his game playing compatriots at the arcade. Even things that he innocently could have talked about-- such as different kinds of weapons, or shooting at gun ranges-- were never mentioned, although he was obsessed with them in his closely-guarded rooms at home. He was very guarded about his on-line activities too, frequently reformatting his computer hard drive to minimize his Internet trace. As I argued in the earlier post, it is this kind of secret life centered on weapons that indicates the pathway to mass killing, where more normal gun-owners keep their weapons above-board.
The Killings: Superfluous Arsenal and Emotional Domination
When Adam Lanza shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School by breaking through the locked glass entry doors, he was wearing a black shirt over a black T-shirt, black cargo pocket pants, black socks, black sneakers, black fingerless gloves. This all-black costume-- probably depicting a fantasy-culture image of the outlaw or avenger-- was supplemented by some practical items: a green pocket vest to carry ammo; a combat camouflage holster; and yellow earplugs of the kind used on shooting ranges. As I pointed out in other mass shootings, covering oneself with layers of gear and shutting out sounds of firing has the effect of insulating the shooter from ordinary human contact, letting him descend into the deep emotional tunnel of self-propelled violence.
Like other rampage shooters, he brought far more weapons thanhe actually used. He had four of his five guns-- only lacking was the rifle he used to kill his mother, which he left on the floor by her bed, three bullets still loaded. (Why did he leave it? Was it specific to that particular fantasy scenario, the gun he had planned to kill her with?) Altogether, the shooter carried over 30 pounds of guns and ammunition-- a significant weight for a bean-pole of a young man, six feet tall and weighing 112 pounds. After he committed suicide, police found he still had over 250 live rounds on his body, with more in his car. He had used up about 150 rounds in breaking in and killing 26 people. He could have kept on firing, but he stopped. He could have fought it out with the police, but he did not-- rampage shooters virtually never do, either killing themselves or giving up when real opposition arrives.
Two implications: Much of the weaponry he carried was not for practical purposes. It was his symbolic accoutrement, like his black costume and his earplugs, his fantasy surrounding him in the real material world, his comfort zone hugging his own body-- even the weight of the ammo he didn’t need. It was a continuation of the clandestine playacting that had filled his life for the months leading up to the attack. Ordinary street fighters don't wear this kind of gear, and they don't wear earplugs-- they have other kinds of social support for their violence. Loners need more symbolic support.
And secondly: He fired only when he had emotional domination over the people around him. We are revolted at someone killing small children. He choose them as victims precisely because they are defenseless, because they would be afraid of him, because they were the only people he could emotionally dominate. The adults-- the teachers and aides, the principal who tried to stop him in the hallway-- were shot because they were in the way. His fantasy materials hidden at home were all about shooting children.
He had no fantasies, it appears, about shooting it out with the cops. After his 11-minute rampage, and within one minute of the police arriving, he shot himself. He was dead before the police reached the classroom; he never had to confront them.
Jack Katz, in a conference presentation at University of Giessen (October 2013), pointed out that rampage shooters never have an escape plan. This is very unlike most other criminal plans-- armed robberies, revenge murders, hit-man assassinations, guerrilla attacks-- where getting away is a major part of the prepared scenario. Nor can the rampage killer use anonymous weapons, like bombs or poison; his problem is a spoiled self, and he can only correct his social image by appearing in person, confronting the scene of his humiliation, and make others see him as the powerful figure he has now transformed himself into. And that is the whole aim of the project. Getting away, escaping-- back into ordinary life? As what? As a fugitive, a clandestine shadow-- would be to fall back into the spoiled self he wants to transform. That is why the rampage shooting is a dramatic climax, end of story.
Katz’s analysis is correct, as far as it goes. I would add there is always the interactional problem of all violence: confrontational tension. Straight-on face-to-face confrontations threatening violence are hard for everybody. Professional criminals, hardened tough guys and military combat experts are a minority who learn how to master their adrenaline and keep down their heartbeat to the level where they can actually shoot straight (at least some of the time-- Adam Lanza, who fired about 140 shots at persons in close range, missed with about half of them). It is easier to carry out violence at a distant target, especially one that is never seen personally; but a rampage shooter has to confront, because his aim is to get a social acknowledgement of his new self. The solution is to find a weak target. And the weakness is not just physical: in violence of all kinds, a close micro-analysis of the event in time shows that emotional dominance is what precedes and allows physical violence to happen.
For Adam Lanza, targeting small children was the only way he could gain emotional dominance. He was described, by everyone who knew him, as timid, compliant, never aggressive, never threatening. The only persons he could converse with were other computer nerds and video gamers.
Is there a puzzle about why he chose Sandy Hook Elementary School? He had attended grades 1-5 there; reportedly he wasn’t bullied or teased, and he is said to have liked the school. It was in middle school and high school that he had more trouble, becoming more withdrawn; he developed an aversion to sports-- the popularity-setting and attention-dominating collective ritual of those age groups-- and to noisy crowd activities in general. So if his self-image problem was with the higher schools, why didn’t he take out his revenge there? The answer seems clear enough if we try to imagine Adam Lanza going into a school basketball game-- which presumably he would have hated-- and shooting up the cheerleaders and players. In fact, turn-the-tables shooters never confront their opposition on its territory of greatest emotional strength; they always seek to catch their enemies in a down moment. This is what Adam Lanza did by attacking elementary school children-- and in fact the weakest of them, the first graders. It was the only target he could manage.
Of all the cases of rampage killings, the Sandy Hook case is most clearly characterized by mental illness. Does that settle it? Hardly.
Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder at age 13, with social impairment, lack of empathy, rigid thought processes, literal interpretation of communications, and extreme anxiety about noises and physical contact with others. At age 14, the diagnosis added Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His mother adopted this characterization of her son, and collected books on Asperger’s syndrome. She said he was “unable to make eye contact, was sensitive to light, and couldn’t stand to be touched...” He wouldn’t touch door knobs and had somebody else open doors for him, or else pulled his sleeves over his hands to touch objects. He repeatedly washed his hands and changed his clothes during the day-- although at school and in the video parlor he always wore the same clothes, so it wasn’t style he was concerned about.
But these features of mental illness were not directly connected to the shooting. Asperger’s syndrome is considered a mild form of autism, and is not related to violence. The report mentionsthat in preschool(before the family moved to Connecticut from New Hampshire) “his conduct included repetitive behaviors, temper tantrums, smelling things that were not there, excessive hand washing and eating idiosyncracies.” That is to say, obsessive compulsive behaviors were allegedly seen early, although this is something different from autism; and obsessive compulsives are typically not violent.
His social behavior was not constant over time. Some remembered him in elementary school as participating in play groups and parties, enjoying music and playing saxophone (not yet sensitive to noise, touching, etc.) In middle school (i.e. the years when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s), he became more of a loner, began to dislike sports; although for a while he performed in concerts, he dropped out of the school band and stopped playing soccer. In high school (10th grade) he went to meetings of a “Tech club” and even hosted a party for it at his house. (He wasn’t yet hyper-secretive.) This looks like the typical adolescent status system split between jocks and nerds.
He did not like the noise and confusion of having to walk through school halls to change classes-- exactly the occasions when the sociable kids are greeting each other, jokes and snubs are made, and the non-regulated teen status system is in full display. The noise he disliked was the chatter of the other students; he could sit through a teacher’s lecture. In 9th and 10th grades, he stopped riding his bicycle and climbing trees and mountains, and began to shut himself in his bedroom and play video games all day long. At school he was excused from physical education. He was labeled a Special Education Student (in teen culture, the lowest of the low). His mother began to home school him, and combined with individual tutoring at the high school, and classes at a local college, he was able to graduate at age 17, and escaped from the teen status system.
It was at the time of transition from the relative comfort of elementary school to the competitive world of adolescent status ranking that his school writing became obsessed with the topic of violence.
So what does the mental illness analysis help explain? Nothing about violence. At most, it adds to the difficulty of negotiating passage through the social system of adolescence.
Mental illness, although it is a noun, is not a thing; it is a behavior pattern that is seen when persons interact. Some of these patterns may have a physiological component. But interaction is a two-way, indeed multi-sided process; it isn’t just ruled by something in one person’s physiology.
This comes out most clearly in Adam Lanza’s way of interacting with his mother. She regarded him as mentally ill, and had said she did not work because she needed to care for her son, and worried about what would become of him without her. In his school years, she drove him everywhere. Only after he had been out of school for a year, ostensibly doing nothing but playing video games, that he finally began to drive (did she put her foot down on this, for once?) At home, he ruled her life. Because of his obsessive changing of his clothes, she had to do the laundry for him every day. No help was allowed into their home; she had to meet all deliveries outside. Although he could cook for himself, he demanded his mother make very specific combinations of food, which had to be served in just the right position on the plate, and certain dishes were prohibited for certain foods. One could call this obsessive compulsive; you could also see it as using mental illness as a form of control. He made her get rid of her cat because he did not want it in the house. He vetoed celebrating birthdays and holidays, and would not allow her to buy a Christmas tree. Since these are festive family occasions, he was attacking any effort she might make to celebrate their family.
Freud referred to taking advantage of the effects of neurotic behavior on other people as “secondary gain.” Goffman goes more deeply into the process by which something happens in people’s lives, the particular kind of trouble that can’t be resolved and wrecks everyone’s life until it ends up by labeling someone “mentally ill.”
“Mental symptoms... are neither something in themselves nor whatever is so labeled; mental symptoms are acts by an individual which openly proclaim to others that he must have assumptions about himself which the relevant bit of social organization can neither allow him nor do much about... Havoc will occur even when all the members are convinced that the troublemaker is quite mad, for this definition does not in itself free them from living in a social system in which he plays a disruptive part.” (Erving Goffman, “The Insanity of Place,” in Relations in Public, 1971, p. 356.)
Mental illness in the home, then, is a conflict, a struggle over control; and the strongest weapon on the side of the wrecker of conventional amenities is that the others love him or her, or at least want to keep the peace.
The Mother as Facilitator: Folie à Deux
Adam Lanza not only ordered his mother around in all sorts of trivial but insistent ways. He also got her to buy into his violent fantasy. All five guns that he possessed were bought by her, along with the large supply of ammunition. She also bought him all the weapons in his cult collection of swords and such. She was the perfect buyer, a respectable citizen, no criminal record, possessor of a pistol permit. She kept on buying him guns up to the very end. Even though tension had been building up, in December 2012, just before he shot her, she wrote a check for him to buy a pistol as a Christmas present. Was this her way of trying to get around his prohibition of Christmas? If so, it was clever in a delusional sort of way, since she obviously knew how much he liked guns.
Police investigators in the aftermath of the murders spent much time looking for an accomplice, anyone who hadaided Adam Lanza in his plan. They missed the main accomplice, perhaps out of respect for the dead, the long-suffering devoted mother.
How could she be so blind? Everything her son did, she interpreted as a manifestation of his illness. The windows taped shut with black plastic were to her just a sign of sensitiveness to light-- even though he could go outdoors when he wanted to. The possibility that he was hiding something in the rooms she was forbidden to enter was masked in her own mind by the feeling that she must do everything possible for her son. He had drawn her into his mental illness, building up a family system where he was in complete control. She may have felt something was wrong, wronger even than having an mentally ill son she loved. Though it seems unlikely that they quarreled in an overt way, some signs of tension came through. According to the report, “a person who knew the shooter in 2011 and 2012 said the shooter described his relationship with his mother as strained” and said that “her behavior was not rational.” He told another that he would not care if his mother died. As usual, when one person loves the other much more than is reciprocated, the power is all on the side of the less loving.
The mother entered into and supported his obsession with weapons, while carefully staying out of his clandestine world. In this, as in the rest of their arrangements, they tacitly cooperated. The mother lost her capacity to make independent judgments. This is very close to the classic model of the mental illness shared among intimates, the folie à deux.
Shooting Together: the Only Family Ritual that Worked
One feature of the mother’s background accidentally facilitated her complicity with her son’s violent plot. She had grown up in rural New Hampshire, in a culture where hunting and shooting were popular pastimes. For her, an interest in guns was normal, and the fact that her son began collecting them was a good thing. It appears that his gun collecting developed after age 14, when he had already been diagnosed as mentally ill, and started becoming obsessed with violent fantasies. His mother saw his guns as a healthy sign, since it was something the family could do together.
During the time when his older brother was living at home (i.e. up until 2006 when he went off to college, when the Adam Lanza was 14), the three of them would go to a shooting range, the mother and her two sons. The father, who had been separated and divorced when Adam was around age 9-11, would come and visit him until he was age 18; besides hiking together, they sometimes went shooting.
Altogether, it appears that as family relationships deteriorated and Adam withdrew more into video games and seclusion, guns were the one thing that mother and son positively had in common. It was the one interaction ritual that worked, where they focused on something they both liked. For her, it must have been the last remaining marker of mother-son solidarity.
The Precipitating Process
Why did it all come to a head on December 14, 2012? Most of the surrounding social relationships for Adam were disappearing-- whether to call them supporting relationships may be questionable, but his world was shrinking down to little more than video games and his violent fantasies. His brother, 4 years older than himself, went away to college when Adam was 14. When his brother first left for college, Adam began to think about joining the military, but this never happened. After college (Adam was now 18), the brother moved out of state; though he tried a few times to maintain contact with Adam, they had not spoken for 2 years at the time of the shooting. At the time of their break, Adam was out of high school already for a year, but had no plans to go to college or get a job. The gap between his brother’s status and his own was widening; his brother was no longer a role model for his own future, if he ever was.
Adam’s father had visited regularly since the separation, but he remarried in 2011. Adam apparently reacted negatively, and they never saw each other again after the end of 2010; though the father tried to reach him by email and proposed places they could meet, Adam stopped responding.
His sole remaining link was his mother. Relationships were strained in fall 2012. She worried because he had not left the house for 3 months. He was treating her worse and worse; he would no longer talk to her directly, and communicated with her only by Email. In November she notified him she planned to sell her house and move to another state, where Adam could go to a special school or get a computer job. Adam at least overtly agreed to the move. But there were conditions; he refused to sleep in a hotel during the move, so the mother planned to buy an RV where he could sleep. The issue came up in October 2012, when Connecticut was hit by Hurricane Sandy, but Adam refused to leave the house even when electricity was out. Now his familiar place of refuge, his backstage guarded against all comers, the place where he kept his plots and weapons, was being taken away from him.
On December 10, the mother went on a 3-day trip to New Hampshire. She arrived home late in the evening of December 13, and went to bed without seeing her son, who was still incommunicado. He had had 3 days to finish his plan. Apparently she was part of it. Next morning, before 9 a.m., he went into her bedroom and while she slept killed her with 4 shots to the head. Now he was on a roll, emotionally taking the initiative, starting with the easiest target of all, the one person he could dominate. At 9.30 a.m. he was shooting in the front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Can We Learn Anything That Will Head off Mass Shootings?
The single outstanding cause of the murders that took place in Newtown, Connecticut that day-- the condition without which the murders would not have happened-- was the behavior of Adam Lanza’s mother. He had neither the contacts nor the interactional competence to acquire the guns and ammunition on his own. Without her complicity, he would have been just another alienated nerd, sunk in the world of computer games and violent fantasies. None of the other conditions-- his mental illnesses, the problems of adolescent transition, the ubiquitous entertainment culture of fantasy violence-- in itself is strongly correlated with mass killings; the latter two conditions in particular affect tens of millions of youths, but only a miniscule fraction of them turn it into a program of murder.
As Katherine Newman and colleagues have pointed out, in virtually all rampage killings the plot leaks out somewhere; clues are evident, although missed at the time. Newman et al. are particularly concerned with clues missed by teachers, and hushed up by the teen peer culture. What we have here are clues that are strongly visible in the home. Anyone without this mother’s particular way of relating to her son could have seen that something was being concealed, and that it had something to do with stockpiling firepower.
Given that most school shootings are perpetrated by students or recent ex-students, the home is where most clandestine preparations are made. And this is no sudden episode; in every case we know, there was a long period of build-up. The deep tunnel of self-enhancing motivation is dug for months at least. And that means that parents and other members of the household are in the best position to read the cues for what is going on.
The lesson should be taken to heart above all by parents who own guns. Almost all school shootings happen in communities where gun ownership is widespread, where guns are part of the local culture. The vast majority of gun owners in such communities are respectable and non-criminal (for the statistics, see my Sept. 2012 post). Nevertheless, teens on the path of alienation, with the underground culture of prior mass killings to guide them, find it easiest to get guns when their parents and neighbors have them.
To avoid misunderstanding, let me repeat my previous conclusion. It is not the possession of guns that is the warning sign; it is hiding an arsenal, and clandestine obsession with scenarios of violence. When clues like this appear in one’s own home, the gun-owning parent should be in the best position to recognize it.
It is not simply a matter of teaching one’s children proper gun safety. One can be well trained in an official gun-safety course-- as Adam Lanza was, along with his mother-- and still use the gun to deliberately shoot other people.
What is needed, above all, is a commitment by gun-owners to keep their own guns completely secure, and not to let them fall into the hands of alienated young people, including one’s own children or their friends.
My recommendation is to gun-owners themselves. The issue of gun control in the United States has been mainly treated as a matter of government legislation. That pathway has led to political gridlock. That does not mean that we can do nothing about heading off school shootings. Simply put: keep alienated youths from building a clandestine arsenal where they nurture fantasies of revenge on the school status system, or whatever problems they have with their personal world. Gun-owning parents are closest to where this is most likely to happen. We need a movement of gun-owning parents who will encourage each other to make sure it doesn’t start in our home.
“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City
Report of the State’s Attorney on the Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown Connecticut, December 14, 2012
Katherine S. Newman, Cybelle Fox, David Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth. 2004. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. Basic Books.
Jack Katz. 1988. Seductions of Crime. Basic Books.
Jason Manning. 2013. "Suicide and Social Time." [unpublished, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, West Virginia University]