Somehow, before yesterday, it had escaped my notice that the various commemorative events relating to the massacre in Newtown, Conn. have intentionally omitted mention of Adam Lanza’s mother. This week, Gov. Dannel Malloy has asked that churches across the Connecticut toll their bells 26 times, once for each victim of the massacre–each victim other than Nancy Lanza, that is. A vigil with 26 candles was attended by President Obama last December, and moments of silence at sporting events around the country often are timed to 26 seconds. Last April’s Boston Marathon was dedicated to the grieving Newtown families, with one mile of the traditional 26 mile race dedicated to each victim. There were 27 victims that day, of course: Adam Lanza’s long-suffering mother was victim #1, shot dead in her bed by the son she loved. Why doesn’t her death count?
She was a member of the Newtown community, she was a human being, and she didn’t deserve to die. Her fate was as terrible as any of the victims: being murdered by the child who you cared for and gave life has to be one of the greatest betrayals there is in human existence. She deserves to be mourned and remembered.
We know why she has been omitted, but the explanation reflects poorly on everyone. In a spectacular demonstration of hindsight bias, Newtown and the rest of the country blames Nancy Lanza for what her son did, as if she had personally instructed him to do it. After all, he used her guns; she’s the one who taught him to shoot; she’s the one who didn’t divine the right way to turn her troubled son away from the darkness, as if there is any way that is sure to work. Yes, indeed, her choices didn’t pan out, just as my parenting choices may have equally unfortunate bi-products. Luckily, my son, who is a year younger than Adam was when he went on his rampage, hasn’t exhibited that same alarming behavioral problems as Nancy’s child, but there are some similarities. I pulled him out of high school, which he hated. He can be moody and depressed, like most teenagers. He’s played violent video games like “Call of Duty;” I’ve given him a few myself. He’s a junior member of the NRA (he joined on his own), and yes, we have a gun in the house. Am I raising a killer?
Emphatically no, but there was no good reason for anyone to suspect that Nancy Lanza was raising a killer either. Never mind. Once a child has gone fatally, irreversibly bad, everyone knows exactly what the parents should have done. Thus Nancy Lanza, whom I think we can all agree didn’t intentionally set out to raise her son to shoot her dead, is being blamed for what Adam did to the children and teachers at the Sandy Hook School, something she would have been as horrified by as any other survivor–if she had survived.
There are reasons for this, but no excuse. She cannot be fairly blamed for something nobody could have predicted or did predict. She kept guns in the house: so what? They were legally purchased and registered, and millions of parents own guns without seeing their children pointing one of them at their head in their final seconds of life. She taught her son to shoot, thinking it would be therapy for him, helping him channel his anger, unhappiness and rage? Yes, that didn’t work, did it? But this is only moral luck. If it had worked, we never would have heard about Adam Lanza. After a plan fails, it is always easy to say it was a terrible plan.
Essentially, the refusal to mourn the life of Adam Lanza’s mother is based on hate and vengeance, which have fueled far too much of the post-Sandy Hook response this year. The Golden Rule would be a better starting point. Any parent should be able to acknowledge that no matter how hard they have tried to navigate the difficult job of child-rearing, there are no guarantees, and the results are unpredictable. Nancy Lanza did her best, failed, and died violently as a result. To the extent that she deserved punishment, being executed was excessive. Now she deserves as much respect and sympathy as any of the Newtown victims, and more sympathy now, as she is being blamed for not only murders she didn’t commit, but her own as well.
Any parent—if they are honest with themselves, the parents in Newtown as well— should know that Nancy Lanza’s sad status as a pariah and villain in death could be theirs, if a million-to-one catastrophe occurs.
To paraphrase John Donne (and wreck his meter):
Send not to know for whom the bell doesn’t toll.
It doesn’t toll for thee.