Today at 9:30 AM the church bells tolled 26 times: once for each of the victims in last week’s horrific tragedy in Sandy Hook Elementary. It was a fitting remembrance of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the Governor did well to request it. However, there was one victim intentionally not remembered, for whom no bell tolled, and that was Adam Lanza’s mother. She was shot in the head four times as she lay sleeping, and was all but unrecognizable afterward.
By all accounts she was a mother who doted on her son, who sought the best for him given his Asperger’s disorder. Why did we not remember a loving mother shot to death by her mentally ill son?
Are we angry at her for having taught him how to shoot, and in our anger assigning to her some degree of culpability for this tragedy? If so, she’s not alive and well to receive our opprobrium. She became the first of her son’s victims, paying with her own life for whatever lack of prudence or discretion she exhibited in bonding over shooting at the rifle range.
I don’t defend Nancy Lanza’s judgement. But ten years of involvement with other parents of children on the autism spectrum has taught me a few lessons.
Nancy Lanza sought ways to reach her son, to connect with a very emotionally flat, difficult to reach young man. In very many ways, connecting with a child on the spectrum means encountering them wherever they are responsive. For us, Joseph found the Game Show channel on Cable TV and was into 70’s and 80’s reruns of game shows when he was 5 years old. That’s where we needed to begin connecting with Joseph.
Sound bizarre? You do that when you’re the parent of a child on the autism spectrum. You have little choice. The trick is to capitalize on the social connection and use that connection to build deeper ties and then slowly and gently redirect the child to more normal activities. It’s been a ten year journey with Joseph, and at age 13 1/2, he’s doing remarkable well. That said, I’m acutely aware that he’s just begun adolescence and I pray mightily that he emerges from adolescence and college in good shape.
It sounds as though Nancy Lanza found a common ground with her son and then it took a terrible turn before she could build on that connection with him. The point wasn’t shooting rifles together at a range, it was the common interest that facilitated communication.
As for the news reports of the “basement lair” or “windowless bunker” with his video games, such as Call of Duty, these sensationalized reports don’t reflect the fact that Call of Duty, Black Ops 2 sales reached $1 BILLION in just 15 days. That’s quite a few people playing these games, and shootings like this being comparatively rare.
I don’t know what was in the shooter’s mind, or whether his mother permitted these games because it might give him common ground for conversation with others. I wouldn’t have taken that road, and will not with my son. However, I also know the desperation of parents with non-communicative children. What is clear is this:
What we do with our shock, horror, and grief will either build us or twist and distort us. It is a defining moment, a watershed in American history. The bells did not toll for a desperate mother of a handicapped son who was butchered in her sleep with the same gun that she used as common ground to try and reach him in his neurologically impaired and stunted development.
So tonight in our Novena for Healing, we lifted up Nancy Lanza and her son in prayer, as well as their surviving family who are left with a burden of shame, guilt, and social stigma that they do not deserve. They’ll never live it down.
If one week into this watershed experience we don’t recognize the humanity or victim status of Nancy Lanza, it does not bode well for us as a people or as individuals. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. It is an immunization from fear, anger, and retribution. The parsimoniousness surrounding the single peel of a bell for Nancy Lanza does not bode well for us at all.
We may never have an answer this side of eternity as to why he did it. The rifle range alone doesn’t explain it.
The video games alone don’t explain why he did it.
The autism alone doesn’t explain why he did it.
There are plenty of individuals with autism who play those games and who shoot rifles who remain meek and socially withdrawn. In truth, they are far more likely to become victims of crime than perpetrators of it.
We are right to be filled with revulsion and rage at what happened. That’s normal and healthy. But St. Paul teaches that if we are to be angry that it must be without sin. Toward that end, Jesus teaches that we are to love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, and do good to those who hate us. Those prayers are the only thing that will give us the grace to accept that there will never be a rational explanation for the magnitude of evil that has shaken us all to our foundations.
So on this one week anniversary of that terrible, terrible day, we peel the bell once for the first of Adam’s 27 victims: the woman who gave him life and died by the vehicle she tragically employed to help salvage that life. We beg God’s mercy on Nancy and her son.
We do so because He commands us to do so.