March 10, 2014

"Even in an age when a child’s every irregularity is attributed to a syndrome, the idea of a 'normal weird kid' seems reasonable enough..."

From a long New Yorker "Annals of Psychiatry" piece about Adam Lanza, based on an interview with his father Peter, who said that his son was "Always thinking differently... Just a normal little weird kid."

A supposedly extreme thing about Adam Lanza that doesn't sound at all extreme to me: "He showed such hypersensitivity to physical touch that tags had to be removed from his clothing."

And what if your child showed talent for writing in a manner that seems like those popular slasher films and Stephen King bestsellers?

[In 5th grade], Adam and another boy wrote a story called “The Big Book of Granny,” in which an old woman with a gun in her cane kills wantonly. In the third chapter, Granny and her son want to taxidermy a boy for their mantelpiece. In another chapter, a character called Dora the Berserker says, “I like hurting people. . . . Especially children.” Adam tried to sell copies of the book at school and got in trouble. A couple of years later, according to the state’s attorney’s report, a teacher noted “disturbing” violence in his writing and described him as “intelligent but not normal, with anti-social issues.”
And what if your child really loved the pop culture things from your youth that you showed to him?
When Peter took him to see Bill Cosby live, Adam laughed for an hour straight. He loved reruns of “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Get Smart,” which he would watch with his dad. One Christmas, Adam told his parents that he wanted to use his savings to buy toys for needy children, and Peter took him shopping for them.
Wouldn't you think your child was rather brilliant if you asked what he would do if he had 3 wishes and he said he'd wish "that whatever was granting the wishes would not exist"?

The parents took Adam to a psychiatrist, and the diagnosis was Asperger's Syndrome, which seemed helpful and specific, something they could work with. It made sense to Peter. But:
“Adam was not open to therapy,” Peter told me. “He did not want to talk about problems and didn’t even admit he had Asperger’s.” Peter and Nancy were confident enough in the Asperger’s diagnosis that they didn’t look for other explanations for Adam’s behavior. In that sense, Asperger’s may have distracted them from whatever else was amiss. “If he had been a totally normal adolescent and he was well adjusted and then all of a sudden went into isolation, alarms would go off,” Peter told me. “But let’s keep in mind that you expect Adam to be weird.”
When he was sixteen, [Adam] found a picture of Karl Marx (huge beard), Lenin (small beard), Stalin (mustache), and Mao (clean-shaven), and sent it around with a caption, “Comrades, we must rectify the faltering facial hair standards.” 
ADDED: It's obvious in retrospect that Adam Lanza needed to be institutionalized. Why didn't his parents do that?! It seems like a cartoon — a horror cartoon — of what happens when a child doesn't have a mother and a father together in his home. The mother seems to have appeased and comforted him constantly. And the fatherly judgment and discipline is exiled. But how much rationality is contained within Peter Lanza? He is responsible for the distance he took from what was a dangerous, hopeless relationship between mother and son. In this New Yorker piece, we get to read the story he's assembled for his semi-peace of mind, after the fact.
Peter was frustrated but felt that he couldn’t show up at the house in Newtown to force an encounter. “It would have been a fight, the last thing I’d want to be doing. Jesus. . . . If I had gone there unannounced and just, ‘I want to see Adam.’ ‘Why are you doing this?’ Adam would be all bent about me.” Later, Peter remarked, “If I said I’m coming, she’d say, ‘No, there’s no reason for that.’ I mean, she controlled the situation.”


pduggie said...

ISTM the whole thing is explained by 1) lanza is a bit weird 2) his parents divorced and this made him bitter and angry.

B said...

""He showed such hypersensitivity to physical touch that tags had to be removed from his clothing."

Hypersensitivity to tags in clothes!? How did they miss that warning sign?

I bet they had to cut all the crust off his bread too.

NotquiteunBuckley said...

In a more brutish environment Lanza probably would have been beaten to death for looking and acting so weird.

My guess is he was isolated which allowed his ostracism to fester into incredible evil. He knew people hated him based on the way he looked and acted, figured he couldn't change it, and embraced it in sickening ways. He decided to kill instead of be killed. His victims were chosen to inflict harm and terror in a maximizing way, which he did.

I am from Wisconsin, and there are a lot of Ed Geins and Dahmers and freaks out there. I grew up with some of them.
Crazy eyes and drinking don't go well together.

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

I don't know much of the circumstances obviously but 2 points.

1) Therapy. 'Not open to therapy.' There is a kind of structured, communication therapy. 'How do you open/ respond in a conversation.
' done in a small group reading circle kind of fashion. Different from 'therapy.'

2) Well, medications are terrible except when they're, on balance, useful and Risperdal has an FDA approved indication for Asperger's.

mccullough said...

In other words, no one has a clue what would set off a kid to do this.

Robert Cook said...

His comment about facial hair standards indicates he was smart and could be funny. said...

To be honest, I'm wary of the arts, psychology, ethics, and mental health issues increasingly used as proxies to sell magazines and/or rally people around a common ideological/political purpose.

Some people have used up their 'Let's have a discussion' good faith points for awhile.

Especially with Adam Lanza and such a horrific tragedy. said...

Comrade Cook, bringing about paradise is serious business. While humor is a sign of intelligence, there is a time and place for it.

We've got people starving in sector 2 again due a wheat shortage.

Wait, no, forget that.

Everything's fine!

traditionalguy said...

He'd have made a super Great Criminal Defense attorney. He would have made his client's world seem normal. said...

Ok, so it is Lanza's dad talking about his son out in the media.

Beats me what you do with such a problem (institutionalization?)but not seeing him for two years, not contacting your wife who's gotten heavy into the gun thing and ignoring the problem doesn't seem the best way to go. I don't know if I would've handled it any better.

Anonymous said...

Is it homophobic to suggest a child needs the influence of both a mother and father in the home? I don't think so, but I feel like that's where we're going as a society.

DrMaturin said...

I always cut the tags off clothing too. I hate the way they rub against my skin. This means nothing.

David said...

It could be that nothing would have made a difference. But the adults could have done much more, if they had been able to put aside their self centered animosity.

I know from experience the difficulties of being a divorced dad with a hostile ex. The kids just want to have nothing to do with it, and are hard to reach. For a long time my limited times with my kids were rote, mechanical and seemingly incredibly stilted and boring for the kids. Still I showed up for everything, at my appointed hours.

Later, when things eased up, it turned out that the kids remembered those timed dinners and clock watching interludes fondly. You could not have seen that at the time. They seemed sullen and distant.

Divorced dads just have to hang in there, showing their love and interest in whatever stupid way its permitted. It sounds like Peter Lanza had a far more difficult situation to deal with than I did, But he handled it poorly.

FullMoon said...

Jesus fkng Christ. The kid was crazy.
He should have been on meds.
The parents could not do anything to help other than try and get him medicated.

People who blame the parents have never known any crazy people.

They are CRAZY. Love and attention ain't gonna help.

betamax3000 said...

Comedy Stage Open Mic Night Comic says:

So I was reading the internet -- really reading the internet, my hands were above the desk at all times (laughter) -- and I saw an article about a kid I went to school with, sad story: he was arrested for masturbating. Of course, there's more to the story than that, otherwise I'd be in prison for life (laughter) -- he was caught jerking off on the doorstep of some woman he was stalking. She had a restraining order, but it sounds like he broke it by a few inches (laughter). Now, he was always a weird kid, but I didn't think he was 'weird-weird' (laughter). You know how it was at school: there were always a few weird kids, pretty harmless, dressed in black, kept to themselves -- I wasn't one of those, I was the 'smelly' kid, for those of you taking notes (laughter) -- anyway, there were those, and then there was the WEIRD kid -- you know the one, crazy eyes, crazy eyes, walked around the halls like he was picturing everyone dead. I pictured the girls naked, much more normal (laughter). And the few times he talked, you so wished he didn't: at the start of one year we had to read essays about what we did over the summer vacation, and his was titled "Why I Had to Eat My Neighbors' Dog." (laughter) And it was a LONG essay, I think there were footnotes (laughter). The gist was that the dog spoke to him, only he could hear it, and he had to eat it to become one with the voices (laughter). Now, the funny thing is -- if you accepted the logic -- it did kind of make sense (laughter), the dog should've kept his mouth shut (laughter). But then, at the end of his story, he started barking, like, for a full minute. Tough act to follow (laughter), my trip to Disneyland seemed kinda trite at that point (laughter). Thank you, you've been great...

pduggie said...

"It's obvious in retrospect that Adam Lanza needed to be institutionalized. Why didn't his parents do that?!"

What? The parents didn't live "in retrospect". The question answers itself?

In retrospect, a lot of criminals should be arrested before the do anything criminal. Why don't we do that?

pduggie said...

Do we have any evidence of anyone who would kill a whole class of kids being helped from doing so by mental health treatment?

Illuninati said...

In retrospect the parents and therapists made two fatal mistakes:
1. Allowing a deeply disturbed person easy access to guns.
2. Not taking his obsession with violent video-games seriously. This is especially ironic since the article states that there were no signs to cause concern about future violence.

Ann Althouse said...

"In retrospect, a lot of criminals should be arrested before the do anything criminal. Why don't we do that?"

Did you read the article? I'm guessing you did not.

When do you think a parent is responsible for what the child does? The mother got killed for her utterly incompetent response to very obvious problems. The father distanced himself, so he lived. But he should have acted. I'm not saying he should be prosecuted as an accessory to murder, but morally, his distancing, his ceding the fatherly role in that horrifically troubled son's life, is wrong. And saying that the mother took over and that the son controlled the mother and thereby excluded the father is this father's accommodation to the reality he is left with, but what might other fathers learn about their proper role and their responsibility to do something more than assume that nothing is nothing?

Ann Althouse said...

"Do we have any evidence of anyone who would kill a whole class of kids being helped from doing so by mental health treatment?"

You don't know what treated people would have done if they were left untreated, but you could look at what people who ended treatment might go on to do.

Adam Lanza refused treatment, but he could have been institutionalized. If he'd been institutionalized, he wouldn't have killed those kids.

Bruce Hayden said...

My first thoughts when I heard about his sensitivities was Asperger's. Too social for an autistic. Problem is that Aspies are typically more disconnected from society than most, and this maybe caused by a lack of empathy (or, visa versa). So, maybe no surprise than one once in awhile is found to have drifted into sociopathy.

Note, I am not saying that all Aspies are like that - the one I knew best has a strong, maybe almost extreme, Christian morality, and the discussion with them more involves whether killing deer is moral, as opposed to killing humans. Still, the fact that killing deer is on a similar level with killing people seems to me to be some indication that they don't quite understand how death affects the rest of us.

Moose said...

Its not obvious that the kid needed institutionalizing. He didn't really. What he DID'NT need was his mother and father. They clearly didn't do their jobs and his mother in particular was a freakin' idiot. It was suicide by kid.

Jay said...

Lanza's Psychiatric Treatment Revealed In Documents

Essentially, the kid didn't want to be treated and the mom acquiesced.

Jay said...

Two weeks before the shootings, the documents say, Nancy Lanza told a lifelong friend that Adam was growing "increasingly despondent" and had refused to leave his room for three months. Despite sleeping on the same floor, they communicated only via email; one document in the police inventory is a "list of problems and requests from the shooter to Nancy."

MayBee said...

I'm fascinated by the decision made (or not made) by normal people that something truly extraordinary is happening. I think some part of our brains work very hard to tell us the situation we are in is not as bad as we are perceiving it to be.

With someone like Adam, I'm sure it's easy to remember how he was a normal weird kid and you tell yourself the next thing you do is going to get him back on that path. You don't notice the point of no return, when extraordinary measures were indeed called for.

madAsHell said...

She started making plans to move with Adam, possibly to Seattle

I'm not surprised. Everyone thinks there's a new beginning in Seattle. Bonus, you can now self-medicate with marijuana.

The Rain Festival (runs September through May) would have exacerbated his problem.

Pogo is Dead said...

Z"It's obvious in retrospect that Adam Lanza needed to be institutionalized. Why didn't his parents do that?!"

In the US there has been no meaningful institutionalizing' since the late 1970s.

The only 'institution' is homelessness, which is what the parents feared.

At best he might have been hospitalized, but he would have gotten out soon enough.
Then what?

Was he schizophrenic, psychotically depressed? Who knows? The diagnosis would have changed nothing. This is how President Reagan got shot in 1981.

Nothing has improved since then.

Pogo is Dead said...

"Essentially, the kid didn't want to be treated and the mom acquiesced."

He was 17 at the time.

How does one force a 17 year old to take meds when he cannot even touch a doorknob or speak to her except by email?

The right to refuse treatment has been enshrined by the courts.

"The 1983 case of Rennie v Klein4 addressed the issue of an involuntarily committed patient's right to refuse treatment with antipsychotic medication. John Rennie, on his 12th involuntary hospitalization, initiated a class-action suit claiming a right to refuse antipsychotic medication. The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit categorically recognized that "involuntarily committed mentally ill patients have a constitutional right to refuse administration of antipsychotic drugs."

Martha said...

I think Lanza's mother tried to help her son as best she could. Adam was beyond help.

Remember Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds who was stabbed by his bipolar son the day after the son was refused emergency hospitalization. The father lived. The son killed himself.

The system failed. There is no system to adequately protect the mentally ill from themselves or to protect their family from them.

Kirk Parker said...

"There is no system to adequately protect the mentally ill from themselves or to protect their family from them. "

That's sadly correct; and also true that there's no way protect every random individual and small group from an ambush. And I mean "no way" quite literally--long before we had a vigorous-enough police state to keep anyone from every surprising anyone else with lethal force, the misuse of that police state by the bad apples among it would be causing far more harm than the occasional Sandy Hook or Aurora.

Go rage against God if you like, but that's the way it is...

MaxedOutMama said...

Ann, you are a lawyer. You should KNOW that there is no legal way in the US to institutionalize a person who doesn't want to be institutionalized, unless they are ruled to be a danger to themselves or to others.

None of the experts they took him to recommended institutionalization, and after he was 18 there was no legal way to do it.

I can't believe people blaming the parents. From the narrative it appears clear that the father didn't abandon his son, and that Adam reacted toward his father's attempts to get him to function in the "real world" by manipulating his mother by having "meltdowns". Adam created the distance, not the father.

This kid very quietly turned into a psychopath. I'm not even sure that the Asperger's diagnosis was ever correct. He learned how to manipulate his caregivers into the behavior he wanted. That shows an atypical pattern for a true autistic.

My guess is that the trigger for this event was purely that the mother had realized that her strategy hadn't worked, and was trying to work something else out. His fury was murderous, and he clearly realized that he wouldn't get any better living situation, so he killed her out of revenge, killed some kids, and took himself out.

In many ways, they seem to have tried all the things that are commonly used to help these kids. Perhaps you've never known someone with autism.

There's one very tell-tale item in the article - that Adam could tie his shoes with his father but not with his mother. He was manipulating her to get his way.

CStanley said...

The mother erred but she was a victim too.

The father erred and seems to realize this now, but of course it is too late.

Imagine if all of our parenting decisions had life or death consequences. Anyone want to say that their parenting skills are good enough to take that risk?

The system failed the child and family, yet there is little discussion of changes that should be made. Did Lanza's mother have options?

The mental health professionals and teachers failed the child and family too, but Im seeing no sign of circumspection among the many doctors who treated him, or the educators who didn't find a way to reach him before his illness progressed.