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Sandy Hook, “White-on-White Crime,” and How Privilege Kills

A memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings at the intersection of 5th and Cecil B. Moore, a so-called “Murder Corridor” in North Philadelphia. From 2007 to 2013, 299 children were murdered in city; the majority of these victims were black, and shot to death in North Philly. Photo Copyright Jason Francisco (2012).

A memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings at the intersection of 5th and Cecil B. Moore, a so-called “Murder Corridor” in North Philadelphia. From 2007 to 2013, 299 children were murdered in the city; the majority of these victims were black, and shot to death in North Philly. (Photo Copyright Jason Francisco 2012).

It’s been two years now since December 14, 2012. On that morning, twenty year-old Adam Lanza, a young man with an extensive history of mental health problems, shot his mother four times in the head while she slept. He then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, which he had attended as a child. Wielding a Bushmaster XM-15 and carrying a pair of pistols, Lanza entered the school at 9:35; stalking the halls and classrooms, he shot and killed twenty children and six adults before shooting himself in the head at 9:40.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about Adam Lanza since Sandy Hook: a mountain of coverage, including several books, and a slew of government-commissioned reports, among them one produced by the Connecticut State Attorney’s office – a document that, as I wrote at the time, raised more questions than it answered. Yet another report was made public just before this past Thanksgiving, this time from the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA). The OCA report fills in many of the gaps in previous analyses of what led up to events that December day, and merits close attention – I will turn to it shortly. But reading this report, it’s impossible not to think, too, about what else has been happening since Sandy Hook. I’m referring not just to the escalating number of school shootings that have occurred since Newtown, but also to the ongoing protests over the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and the scores of other young black men and women killed by police. It’s impossible not to think about these deaths while reading the OCA report, because, if any one thing leaps from its pages, it’s the fact that what Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook would not have been possible without the enabling forces of white privilege, white wealth, and white impunity. Indeed, with pundits cynically trying to derail discussions of structural racism and police brutality by speciously concern-trolling about so-called “black-on-black crime,” it’s time to talk about Sandy Hook in a different way: not just as an act of “white-on-white” crime, but as an event that is inseparable from the white supremacy that helped produce it.

At just under a hundred and twenty pages in length, the OCA report reveals that what happened at Sandy Hook would have been utterly unthinkable if not for the selective attentiveness, determined along racial lines, of multiple American institutions – from our schools to social services to the prison-industrial complex. Before turning to the report itself, it’s important to stipulate the reality of how these institutions function when it comes to dealing with black youth, whether or not they suffer from psychiatric problems, and particularly when they do.

Our school system is marked by systemic racial discrimination. Black children are disproportionately penalized by teachers and administrators from pre-K on: “While black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, close to half of all preschool children who are suspended more than once are African-American.” As they progress in school, so too does consistent discrimination: rather than being offered special education classes, black children are disproportionately likely to be shunted into woefully-underfunded remedial education courses, and to be punished or even expelled for behavioral “infractions” under “zero tolerance” policies. In Connecticut specifically, which ranks in the lowest quintile of states in terms of providing assistance to black children with special needs, no less than 44% of the youths admitted to its main juvenile detention facilities are black. When young white students act out, their misbehavior is frequently characterized as mischief, or “being a handful” – when black students do, it’s perceived as a sign of budding criminality (see this piece by Lisa Wade for more). The bias of treating black children as deviant troublemakers while excusing or ignoring white children’s misbehavior continues into adolescence. As Jamelle Bouie has powerfully argued, the overall landscape of our schools thus constitutes “a status quo that’s nearly designed to deliver the worst outcomes to African American students.”

To make matters worse, black children are consistently misidentified by whites as being older (and hence more “threatening”) than they actually are. This manifests particularly during their interactions with authority figures like police (recall how, after they shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, police officers standing over his body as he bled out identified him as “maybe twenty”) and also when it comes to appearing before judges, juries, and prosecutors: black teens make up no less than 62% of all youths tried as adults in American courts. Psychology experiments have shown that implicit biases lead whites (not just police) to attribute “imperviousness to pain” to blacks, to regularly misidentify black teens as armed, and to “shoot” them when given the option in simulations. Outside psychology labs, on our nation’s streets, black male teens are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. And although nationwide data regarding police violence is shockingly insufficient, reading the FBI’s own statistics (which offer, at best, only a glimpse at numbers that are almost certainly much higher) reveals that, in incidents of the use of excessive force by police, “the less clear it is that force was necessary, the more likely the victim is to be black.”

If they’re not failed by our schools, or brutalized by police, the odds that black youth will end up in juvenile detention, restrictive residential placement, or prison are likewise disproportionately high. Black youth are four-and-half times more likely than whites to be arrested for the same crimes and four times more likely to wind up in residential placement. Together with other minorities, blacks make up two-thirds of all youth in the juvenile justice system – and while arrest rates for other minorities has steadily fallen to below 1980 levels, this trend has not extended to blacks. Meanwhile, the shameful over-representation of black adults in US prisons is a matter of common knowledge and public record; in 2010, when blacks made up 13% of the nation’s population overall, they comprised 40% of the prison population. In that same year, in Connecticut specifically, while only 10% of the state’s overall population was black, nearly 41% of the people held in its jails were.

When mental illness enters the mix, the risks faced by young people – and particularly by black youth – are even more acute. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that only 6% of Americans suffer from a serious mental health illness, and studies indicate that only 4% of violent crimes involve perpetrators who are mentally ill – in fact, mentally ill persons are considerably more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. And yet encounters between police and the mentally ill regularly turn tragic, fast. As my friend Harold Braswell has compellingly written, poorly-trained police consistently and disproportionately respond to calls involving mentally ill suspects (armed or otherwise) with overwhelming violence. The “irrationality” exhibited by mentally ill individuals can prompt police to apply deadly force when non-lethal means would otherwise suffice: in states like New Mexico, nearly 75% of suspects shot by police are mentally ill. And when the mentally ill person in question is also black – as the recent cases of Kajieme Powell and others suggest – the impulse to lethally “neutralize” them appears even harder for police to resist.

Unsurprisingly, a similar pattern – of acute discrimination against blacks, the mentally ill, and the black mentally ill in particular – plays out in our prisons. Our adult penal system essentially “warehouses” the mentally ill to the point that the three largest de facto “mental health institutions” in the country are Riker’s Island in New York, Cook County Jail in Chicago, and the LA County Jail. Likewise, the juvenile justice system is jam-packed with children who suffer from mental health issues, some of which are outright debilitating. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness outlined in a 2010 report: “Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system also experience mental health disorders, with 20 percent experiencing disorders so severe that their ability to function is significantly impaired.” Of some 13,000 people who were incarcerated in Connecticut in 2010, 3,400 were mentally ill – a number that does not take into account those held in local jails. Unsurprisingly, research data also indicates that, across the board, black youth with mental illnesses are drastically less likely to receive meaningful mental health treatment while in the penal system, or even to be flagged as in need of care in the first place. In fact, in states for which data is available, black youth with mental illness are considerably more likely to be sent to juvenile jails (as opposed to inpatient treatment centers) than their white counterparts. With this backdrop in mind – a continuum of systematic anti-black discrimination at every level of our nation’s educational, police, judicial, and penal infrastructures, and an intersecting and synergistic brutalization of the mentally ill – let’s turn to the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA)’s report on Sandy Hook.

Unlike previous reports, which have been primarily preoccupied with tracking the events on December 14 specifically, the OCA report concerns itself with what led up to the massacre, systematically chronicling all of Adam Lanza’s interactions with various institutions and individuals from teachers to school counselors to mental health specialists to ER doctors. And the picture of these interactions the OCA report paints is damning, not just because it reveals an utter lack of communication between these actors and institutions (a “silo-ing” of information), but also because it demonstrates that, while countless “red flags” about Lanza were raised, the consistent attitude of authority figures was to unquestioningly defer to and accommodate his wealthy mother’s tragically misguided insistence on overruling their recommendations as to Adam’s treatment in a way that the report itself makes clear would have been unthinkable if she were nonwhite or poor.

From the start, Adam Lanza clearly had problems – with sensory integration, language processing, and more. But unlike countless children, Adam’s parents had abundant financial resources and, at least as far as his mother was concerned, near-limitless time and willingness to devote to managing his issues. Until she lost her job in what appears to have been a case of workplace discrimination stemming from her second pregnancy, Adam’s mother, Nancy, was a high-powered, successful Boston stockbroker who left her job with a large settlement in her pocket and then turned her energies toward raising her children full-time. When Adam’s father, Peter, became a Vice President for Taxes at a major subsidiary of GE, he purchased the family a 3,100-square foot home in Newtown, a wealthy bedroom community where the median family income hovers around $100,000 a year. Peter was a workaholic and a self-identified “weekend father” who left the domestic labor to his wife, but when they divorced in 2009, their separation was amicable. Peter left Nancy the house and committed to making alimony payments that ranged from $250,000 to $290,000 a year, assuring her she would “never have to work another day in her life.” Crucially, Peter also committed to keeping Adam on his own insurance plan and to footing his medical bills.

Just as Adam’s family could afford to pay for the individual care he needed, there were dozens of providers willing and eager to offer it. The OCA report chronicles countless encounters with pediatricians, child development specialists, and mental health practitioners who diagnosed Adam with a more-or-less consistent suite of comorbid problems: Sensory Integration Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety and Major Depression, Anorexia, and Asperger’s (the latter of which has since been superseded in the DSM-V by the broader category of Autism spectrum disorders). As Adam’s primary caretaker, Nancy Lanza was regularly recommended treatments for Adam, ranging from boutique talk therapies to high-tech neurological scans, all of which she consistently declined. Instead, Nancy opted for a direct, hands-on approach in which she served as the primary, even sole caretaker of her son, and as the ultimate arbiter of what “truly” ailed him. To this end, Nancy retained the services of a “community psychiatrist,” a private practitioner who did not cooperate with the OCA, and who appears to have only seen Adam infrequently. This psychiatrist’s primary function seems to have been to write doctor’s notes for Adam, at first excusing him for missing classes and then justifying his withdrawal from school altogether – over and against the dire warnings of numerous mental health professionals that what Adam needed was not less interaction with children his own age, but more.

The OCA report exposes an undeniable pattern: as Adam’s symptoms worsened, as more people around him became more concerned about his welfare, and as more opportunities were made available to him for care, his mother correspondingly exerted herself to downplay the severity of his condition, to accommodate his symptoms, and to shelter him from institutional interventions. What matters here is less Nancy Lanza’s motivations – although I will address these below – than the fact that authority figures consistently deferred to her even when it was clear that her decisions were actively contributing to Adam’s deterioration.

As far as interactions with healthcare institutions are concerned, two examples will suffice. Consistent with his diagnostic profile, Adam’s OCD symptoms increased markedly during his middle school years, to the point that, in September of 2005, Nancy took him to a Danbury emergency room for a “crisis evaluation.” In the ER, the report documents, “Mrs. Lanza described AL [Adam Lanza] to health care providers as having had ‘borderline autism’ in the past, but having since outgrown it. She reported that AL was having trouble in school, trouble in groups, and exhibiting repetitive behaviors which had gotten worse in recent days…[She] reportedly feared the ‘beginning of possible autism.’” Staff psychiatrists, clearly troubled by Adam’s agitation, his unwillingness to be touched, his hyper-vigilance, and his cowering, “overwhelmed with fear,” recommended that he be held for an extended evaluation. They encouraged Nancy to pursue placement for Adam in a therapeutic educational program in Connecticut’s Center for Child and Adolescent Treatment Services (CCATS), and additionally offered to do a full clinical evaluation of Adam in order to expedite his admission into the program. Nancy declined both the evaluations and the referral, and instead demanded that Adam be discharged immediately so she could take him home, where he would be “better off” and “more comfortable.” In fact, as she explained to hospital staff, her sole reason for coming to the ER in the first place was to get Adam issued an absence note for missing several days of school due to the “agitation” produced by the hospital visit. ER staff gave her this note, with the caveat that she promise to seek a consultation with a specialist to arrange an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for Adam within three days. And yet this meeting did not occur until December, a full three months later. Why hospital staff were so quick to accede to Nancy’s insistence that Adam was better off with her than under their supervision, and why they appeared to have not followed up on his discharge remain unclear – but whatever image Nancy projected to them, they clearly deferred to it.

Nearly a year after that ER visit, Nancy (in part apparently due to Peter’s insistence) brought Adam in for evaluation at the prestigious Yale Child Study Center. The clinical psychiatrist who evaluated him was deeply alarmed by what he saw. Quoting the report:

“[The doctor] diagnosed Adam with “Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Autism Spectrum and he recommended further evaluation to clarify cognitive, social, and linguistic strengths and weakness. Psychological and speech and language evaluation was seen as essential. Treatment, the psychiatrist stated, would be difficult to implement outside of a broader therapeutic day school setting.”

Like the Danbury crisis team, the Yale evaluators stressed the need for Adam to be placed in a specialized therapeutic environment instead of keeping him in a traditional school. They were also clearly troubled by the character of Nancy’s engagement with Adam’s teachers: by this point, Nancy had been regularly maintaining an at-times daily correspondence with them, dictating details ranging from what Adam should do in class, to how he should be treated during fire drills, to what he should and shouldn’t be allowed to read (“[a]nother thing we might have trouble with,” she wrote, “is boy-meets-girl type [of literature]…an adapted reading list is being provided as a substitute for the standard curriculum.”). Against this type of hovering micro-management, the Yale clinicians wrote:

“We believe it is very important to reframe the discussion with school from issues of curricular content to much more urgent issues of how to accommodate AL’s severe social disabilities in a way that would permit him to be around peers and to progress, rather than regress, socially, as well as academically.”

They were even more worried by the possibility – which ultimately did come to pass – of Nancy withdrawing Adam from school altogether and securing “homebound” status for him:

“We believe that there is a significant risk to AL in creating, even with the best of intentions, a prosthetic environment which spares him having to encounter other students or to work to overcome his social difficulties. Having the emphasis on adapting the world to AL, rather than helping him to adapt to the world, is a recipe for him to be a homebound recluse, unable to attend college or work productively into his twenties and thirties and beyond with mother becoming increasingly isolated and burdened.”

The Yale team was also concerned about the extent to which Nancy herself appeared to have entered a relationship of toxic co-dependence with Adam and about her increasing accommodation of his OCD symptoms and controlling behavior – for example, changing her shoes so that the clicking of her heels would not trouble him, or taking particular, pre-determined routes through various rooms so as not to upset him. Presciently, one of the clinicians who evaluated him in a series of follow-up visits noted both the toxic situation in his own household and the potentially tragic trajectory that could result from increased confinement there:

“His judgment about how social/family dynamics work in a therapy situation is no more on target than his views regarding doorknobs and hand-washing…He wants to control how the treatment goes because his anxiety is nearly unbearable if he can’t feel he knows what’s going to happen. I understand that. At the same time, he can’t control the treatment because his thinking is distorted and irrational. I can’t agree to follow his lead! … I told him he’s living in a box right now, and the box will only get smaller over time if [he] doesn’t get some treatment.”

Predictably, Nancy was not happy with the Yale evaluators or with their recommendations. She told them that they were “torturing” her son – much as, a year earlier, she had perceived the Danbury ER Crisis Team’s holding him for evaluation as the equivalent of “abusing” him. In one of her last emails to the Yale group, Nancy struck the same business-like, directive tone she also adopted in communicating with his teachers:

“I wanted to let you know that the options you presented are not going to work at this time. I would like to save you any further investment of your time… As I mentioned during the telephone conversation previous to our meeting, AL’s OCD component is strongly tied to Asperger Syndrome and he is adamantly opposed to medication. The OCD component is now based on superstition or in an effort to influence outside events or luck. I thought I had been clear that I was looking for individual intervention, perhaps some sort of behavior modification, for the Asperger Syndrome foremost, sensory integration disorder, and the two OCD like components that are impacting his ability to attend school. His refusal to take medication would make it impossible for him to be part of the study group and will just further agitate him. He was quite angry about the line of questioning that the interview took. As you might expect from an Asperger child, he had no understanding of the metaphors, and was quite disturbed by the fairy godmother scenario you gave him. You mentioned that the wait list for treatment for Asperger is quite lengthy, and that the study group was the alternative. However, participation in a study group, with the implied possibility of medication, will not be helpful in this case. So while I very much appreciate your effort, this is not the right course of treatment for him.”

Nancy ultimately cut off further follow-ups with the Yale group, and when Adam reacted negatively to medications he had been prescribed, she stopped giving them to him. From then on, Adam’s sole encounters with mental health professionals appear to have been with his community psychiatrist, only infrequently at that. For her part, by this point, Nancy seems to have been preoccupied only with accommodating her son’s ever-increasing obsessive demands and palliating his symptoms, not with offering him meaningful treatment – much as, several years prior, when Adam’s obsessive hand-washing became so vigorous that his fingers and knuckles grew bloody, she had taken him to a pediatrician, who gave him a prescription for hand lotion and sent him home.¹ After 2008, it appears that Nancy no longer sought any medical treatment for Adam whatsoever.

When it came to Adam’s interactions with various teachers and school officials, the pattern should by now be familiar: Adam shuttled between numerous schools, watched over closely by his mother, who took a highly directive role in all aspects of his schooling. Nancy expended tremendous amounts of time and energy making sure that teachers treated Adam in the ways she deemed to be in his best interest. Working to formulate Adam’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), Nancy took a “hyper-vigilant” stance when it came to communicating with the “educational team” tasked with Adam’s care:

“There are times when emails between Mrs. Lanza and school staff were being exchanged every day of the week. The tone of the emails—which were often efforts to specifically manage AL’s day or his academic experience—was often one of cordiality and even partnership…It is clear in the correspondence as well from present-day interviews with district personnel, that the educational team felt they were ‘thinking outside the box’ for AL, and making deliberate and well- intended efforts to meet AL’s complex needs through careful and extensive partnership with his mother. However, the emails appear indicative of a partnership around a strategy of habituation, or even of appeasement, without a skilled, therapeutic, expert-driven approach that would help AL adapt to the world.”

Yet there were red flags throughout Adam’s time in school. In one particularly striking episode, Adam and a fifth grade classmate collaborated on an illustrated booklet called “The Big Book of Granny,” in which the eponymous “Granny” and her sidekick, “Dora the Berserker,” go on a series of ultra-violent adventures – shooting children, eating them, setting them on fire, and stuffing them to make taxidermic specimens. “I like hurting people . . . especially children,” Granny pronounces, before she herself is murdered by Dora. Although the assignment itself was only 500 words, “The Big Book of Granny” clocks in at no less than 34 pages. According to the OCA report:

“‘The Big Book of Granny’ suggests that while in many ways AL appeared to be positively developing, by the age of ten, on some level, he was deeply troubled by feelings of rage, hate, and (at least unconscious) murderous impulses…While many children, and especially boys, of this age contend with anger and violent impulses in their play and creative productions, “The Big Book of Granny” stands out, to mental health professionals, as a text marked by extreme thoughts of violence that should have signified a need for intervention and evaluation.”

Despite this, the report notes, “there is no evidence of communication in any form between the school and AL’s parents about this book.”² Meanwhile, as Adam matured, the red flags grew even more alarming. As one teacher recalled: “I remember giving creative writing assignments to students, instructing them to write a page or two on whatever they wanted to talk about . . . AL would write ten pages obsessing about battles, destruction and war…I have known 7th grade boys to talk about things like this, but AL’s level of violence was disturbing.” And still, no action was taken.

When Adam floundered in school, his mother would regularly intervene to prevent disciplinary action from being levied against him. The report notes:

“Mrs. Lanza appears to have navigated his disabilities entirely through hypervigilance and management of his symptoms. She wrote to a school staff in 2007 that AL had a bad day and therefore his homework was not complete. She explained that she had ‘interrupted him’ by cooking her dinner the night before, even though she knew the smell of food upset him. She added that a repairman had to come to the house in the morning and that as a result AL was ‘highly agitated.’ She said that the staff member should make the day ‘as smooth as possible,’ and that she would sit in the car and come if he couldn’t tolerate class.”

When Adam did manage to show up for classes, “[Nancy] seemed to want to set up each day for him as he could handle it, but to ensure that he would not know of any special treatment or accommodation.” As to why teachers and school administrators were so willing to accommodate not just Adam but her, the key factor appears, once again, to be her self-presentation as “on top of things”: “The overall impression school professionals had was of a concerned and engaged parent who knew how to manage her son’s unique needs.”

And when it came to pulling Adam out of school entirely, which Nancy did for two years – during the eighth and ninth grades – it appears that the system failed to provide any meaningful oversight or supervision, once again deferring to Nancy’s apparently unquestioned credibility. Despite the Yale team’s fervent recommendations that Adam be kept with children his own age in a therapeutic setting, Nancy got her community psychiatrist, who had previously been incredibly cooperative with absence notes, to sign off on a document formally recommending that Adam be placed on “homebound” status – a special category under Connecticut law distinct from home schooling that is reserved specifically for children “deemed too disabled to receive services in school even with modifications and supports.” On the community psychiatrist’s word, and apparently unaware of the Yale group’s recommendations, Adam’s school IEP team appears not to have “considered any potential detrimental effects of this home-bound placement for AL, [even though homebound status is] one of the most restrictive alternative educational options.” Moreover, the entire process of Adam’s placement on homebound status appears highly irregular, both from its inception to the blatant lack of supervision throughout:

“[Adam] was initially informally withdrawn from school by his family, provided a medical “excuse note,” and then via the special education planning process his IEP team agreed to a recommendation that he would be placed on homebound status…Although AL was entitled to receive up to ten hours per week of tutoring from the school district and to work towards the goals in his IEP, at certain times all educational supports from the district were refused. It is not evidenced that these hours were provided, or how many home visits or hours were refused and why.”

It is unclear what happened inside the Lanza household during these years. It appears that he became increasingly withdrawn, that his symptoms worsened, and that his codependence with his mother increased (as Andrew Solomon reports, Nancy was apparently shocked that her son could tie his shoes without her help – at the age of sixteen). When Adam eventually did return to school, his mother arranged not simply for him to graduate early, but even to begin taking classes as at a local community college, further isolating him from his peer group. By this point, his symptoms had worsened: from moving furniture from his room to blacking out its windows with garbage bags to cutting off contact with his father to communicating with his mother solely through email, nearly all of what the Yale nurse had predicted with her image of Adam’s living in a “box growing smaller” had proven true. Adam had almost entirely retreated from the world. And in the interim, he had developed a preoccupation with researching school shootings online, communicating with a network of like-minded murder enthusiasts, meticulously editing Wikipedia pages for serial killers, and otherwise developing an “obsession and attention to detail with mass killing” that the FBI Behavior Analysis Unit has described as entirely “unprecedented.”

How could all this happen? Time and again, it appears, the recurring theme in the OCA report is that Nancy Lanza tirelessly advocated for her child – no doubt with his best interest in mind, but in a way that clearly contributed to his decline. And she did so, time and again, in the face of virtually no resistance from institutions that treat other children quite differently indeed.

To be clear: I am not interested in vilifying Nancy Lanza on a personal level. She appears to have had troubles of her own, including clinical depression and a hypochondriacal conviction that she was suffering from a terminal illness – she told numerous friends that she had been diagnosed with MS, even though a postmortem survey of her medical records revealed no such diagnosis, and an autopsy showed no signs of the disease. Her apparent disconnect from reality also extended to her conviction not only that Adam was far less troubled than he actually was, but also that he was secretly brilliant.³ That said, I do think that her seeming willingness to ignore his increasing depression, abusive behavior, and preoccupation with violence, while simultaneously providing him with access to weapons and firearms training, crosses the line from negligent irresponsibility into the territory of outright denial and moral culpability. Nancy was a firearms enthusiast, and, as the report notes:

“AL grew up in a home where it was common place to use guns for recreational activity. It cannot be overlooked that as his mental health deteriorated and his isolation from the world increased dramatically, his access to guns did not diminish. His parents, and certainly his mother, seemed unaware of any potential detrimental impact of providing unfettered access to firearms to their son… Additionally, there is no mention of access to or use of firearms in any other available educational, medical, or mental health records.”

Nancy didn’t just let her son use her guns, she bought him guns of his own – potentially illegally, given his age – and took him with her to the firing range to “bond.” Between the two of them, Nancy and Adam owned at minimum five firearms – and when police raided their home, they discovered 1,600-odd rounds of ammunition, edged weapons including a spear and three samurai swords, and more. And although Adam reportedly “disliked birthdays, Christmas, and holidays,” police also discovered a check from Nancy made out to Adam as a gift, with a memo indicating that he was to use it to buy himself a CZ 75.

At which point, we can return to the question with which we started: would any of this be thinkable if Nancy and Adam Lanza had been black? We can work backwards, starting with the guns: in a nation where a black teenager can be shot when a federal marshal mistakes his Three Musketeers candy bar for a pistol, or where Tamir Rice can be summarily executed for holding a toy gun in public, how many black mothers would not just give their mentally ill teenager access to an unsecured arsenal, but actually gift him a handgun for his personal use?

And what about the interactions between Nancy, Adam, and his various teachers? Even if a black Adam Lanza had had as relentless an advocate as Nancy in his corner, would his teachers have been as willing to accommodate him when he acted out, or would they have just disciplined him or suspended him? Likewise, if a black child had written “The Big Book of Granny,” would his teachers have done nothing about it? It hardly seems likely, especially since “expressive play” (including violent imagery) by white children is often either ignored or praised, while similar conduct by black children is frequently stigmatized and punished.⁴

Likewise, whereas by all odds a black child with Adam’s attendance record would have had child services show up at his house and potentially haul him away for truancy, Adam’s mother kept him holed up in her cul de sac and hired a psychiatrist to write him notes, first excusing his absences and then pulling him out of school altogether.

The OCA’s report openly wonders: “We cannot know the degree to which Mrs. Lanza may have heightened or mollified the school’s concerns about AL, and she certainly presented as invested and concerned for his welfare.” Although much of that persuasive self-presentation may have derived from Nancy Lanza’s dogged willpower, managerial savvy, and fluency in navigating otherwise baroquely bureaucratic institutions, we’re kidding ourselves if we deny that a large part of it also depended on the simple fact that she was white and had money.

To be very clear: I am not calling out Nancy Lanza as a racist, or as a white supremacist. Nor still am I condoning the heavy-handed, racist interventions of the educational juvenile justice system or the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead, I am pointing out how, in this case, Nancy Lanza existed at the nexus of various intersecting social realities of privilege that allowed her to look the other way as her son deteriorated, that let her throw money at the problem as though that alone could fix it, and that ultimately enabled her son to commit an unspeakable crime. The OCA report itself is not blind to this issue. As its authors ask:

“Would a similar family from a different race or lower socio-economic status in the community have been given the same benefit of the doubt that AL’s family was given? Is the community more reluctant to intervene and more likely to provide deference to the parental judgment and decision-making of white, affluent parents than those caregivers who are poor or minority? Would AL’s caregivers’ reluctance to maintain him in school or a treatment program have gone under the radar if he were a child of color?”

The questions here may be rhetorical, but, by this point, we should have no hesitation in answering: “No, no, and no.”

Scientists are currently sequencing Adam Lanza’s DNA in hopes of somehow determining what went wrong with him. The boutique technologies his mother waved away from helping Adam while he was alive are now being used to examine him after both of their deaths, in the vain hopes of explaining what “caused” the Sandy Hook massacre. But we don’t need ultra-expensive laboratory equipment to see what facilitated Adam Lanza’s actions, what made them possible. The answer to that is staring us in the face.

Here’s the hard truth. If Adam Lanza had been a young black boy, raised by a working-class, single mother, the odds are we wouldn’t know his name. He’d likely be dead now, but not by his own hand – some cop would’ve seen to that, and quite possibly well before Lanza even hit his teens. Or Lanza would have spent his childhood shuttling between juvenile detention, foster care, and ultimately in and out of jail, a “frequent flier,” in police lingo. Or he’d be rotting in some high-security mental health facility, doped to the gills on Seroquel and on an indefinite psychiatric hold, with no release in sight. Or he’d be just another mentally ill young man, charged as an adult, thrown in with gen pop, left to fend for himself.

All of these alternative scenarios are unequivocally vile. If Adam Lanza had been black, and any of these things had happened to him, it would also have been horrible. The discrimination and violence inflicted upon black youth by our nation’s schools, police, and courts represents a travesty for which history will judge us and which we must strive to change in our lifetimes. But there’s also a vileness to the double standards that allowed Adam to escape scrutiny and intervention from institutions that were keen to help him even as they refuse to help, and indeed, actively persecute black children. Indeed, in a peculiar way, it was Nancy Lanza’s cultural and financial capital – her entitled attitude towards interacting with institutions on her terms alone, and her privileged blindness to the disaster brewing in her own home – that doomed her, her son, and the innocents that he killed. And here lurks another hard, vile truth. It’s something that becomes clear as you survey the wreckage Lanza wrought, and then contemplate what did (and didn’t) follow it. In less than five minutes, Lanza butchered twenty-six toddlers and teachers, nearly all white, in a posh suburban school in one of the wealthiest states in our country. And yet for all the hand-wringing that followed Adam Lanza’s rampage, not only has the subsequent lack of decisive legislative action been appalling, but gun manufacturers have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profit specifically because his actions ultimately increased market demand for their product.

In other words, the repulsive truth is that while we live in a nation where people are staging die-ins and bravely mounting protests to broadcast a message that should be obvious – that Black Lives Matter – we also live in a society where, from the start, Adam Lanza’s whiteness mattered still more, and where money mattered, and continues to matter, even more than that.


§1: The report describes this encounter, which occurred in 2005, as follows:  “Looking at the pediatric record, the pediatrician knew that AL [Adam Lanza] had significant diagnoses, was losing weight (at times), anxious, obsessive compulsive, had repetitive hand washing that led to excoriation, experienced numerous somatic and probably psychosomatic complaints, and was not attending school with his peers. The pediatrician knew that AL was, for a time at least, seeing a psychiatrist in the community, though there is no indication that the doctor had information from this mental health provider or knew what the frequency and duration of this service was. The doctor also seemed to know that despite his recommendation for a neurological consultation, none appeared to take place, as the doctor received no updates or reports from a specialist. Certainly, as stated earlier, this information was enough to warrant careful follow-up and care coordination from the pediatrician. There is no documentation of efforts by the pediatrician to engage this family with appropriate and sustained mental health care.”

§2: In light of Adam’s Lanza’s toxic home environment, and his highly enmeshed relationship with his mother (which is attested to in their email correspondence), the OCA’s interpretation of “The Big Book of Granny” is suggestive: “What the book does tend to show is a boy who is struggling with disturbing thoughts of extreme violence that seem to have poured out in the form of stories and visual images of a caregiver and child-like character who are alternately victimized by and victimizers of each other.”

§3: As the report notes: “While it is not uncommon for parents to struggle to identify and accept their child as suffering a disabling impairment, the Yale Child Study Center clinicians who evaluated and treated AL felt that his parents, and certainly his mother, may have had greater than average difficulty with accepting the extent of AL’s disabilities…Overall, the psychiatrist and APRN at Yale both indicated, in present-day interviews, their view that AL was profoundly impaired by anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and that his parents, and certainly AL, may not have understood the depth or implications of his disabilities. It may have been easier for the parents to accept that AL was a youth with a “high functioning” disorder, conceptualizing him as someone who was gifted but who had odd or challenging behaviors that needed behavioral modification… AL’s parents (and the school) appeared to conceptualize him as intellectually gifted, and much of AL’s high school experience catered to his curricular needs. In actuality, psychological testing performed by the school district in high school indicated AL’s cognitive abilities were average.”

Adam Lanza appears to have also maintained this impression of himself: not only was he apparently convinced that he would be able to attend college without difficulty, his first-choice school was Cornell – to which his academic transcript clearly precluded him from having even a tenuous chance of admission. Likewise, despite the counsel of his father, Adam adamantly insisted that he try to take no less than five courses a semester at the local community college he attended after graduating early from High School, all of which he either dropped out of or failed. The OCA report notes that these frustrations may have played a precipitating role in his decline.

§4: As psychology researcher Tuppett Yates has argued: “For white children, imaginative and expressive players were rated very positively [by teachers] but the reverse was true for black children. Imaginative and expressive black children were perceived as less ready for school, as less accepted by their peers, and as greater sources of conflict and tension.”


I want to thank Janelle Christensen for many of the resources I link to here – many of which are available via Sociological Images; I’m also grateful for the abundant and edifying resources produced and maintained by Mariame Kaba at Prison Culture. Finally, I’m grateful to my friend Jason Francisco for allowing me to share the photo from his remarkable series, “These are the Names,” and to Jim MacMillan of #GunCrisis:Philadelphia for directing me to police data about gun violence in the city.

Any errors in my writing are mine and mine alone – please reach out, let me know, and I will correct them accordingly.

Not Just For My Son

Earlier this week, I attended a Town Hall event in East Atlanta organized by State Senator Vincent Fort and a suite of community groups. The event focused on repealing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground legislation (SYG; GC 16-3-21) and was a deeply powerful experience.

Lucia McBath

Lucia McBath

Of the many phenomenal speakers that night, one in particular downright tore the roof off with her heartbreaking story and raw power: Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, a 17 year-old boy who was shot to death while sitting in a car with some friends in a gas station parking lot in Florida. Davis’ killer, Michael Dunn, a 46-year-old white man, apparently felt that the boys’ “thug music” was threatening, and when the boys refused to turn it down, he emptied the clip of his handgun into the vehicle. Dunn, who had allegedly been drinking heavily at the time, is pursuing a modified SYG defense because he claims he believed he saw one of the boys inside the car reach for a shotgun. Dunn immediately fled the scene; no such weapon was ever found.

McBath, whose father was for two decades the President of the Illinois NAACP, spoke movingly about how she had raised her son. “My son was taught and trained to stand up for himself, and he told Dunn they weren’t bothering anyone and that if he had a problem he could just roll his windows up… And Dunn, because they didn’t do what he told them, empowered by his gun, he fired ten rounds into the car and three of those bullets instantly killed my son.” McBath – whose bravery is humbling and inspiring and profound – ended her speech with a plangent appeal for recognition, for action: “I feel in my heart at times that I am a lonely warrior. That no one hears me. I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”

As McBath spoke, people yelled back – “We hear you! We hear you!” – and when the speaker asked for folks to pledge to sign petitions and march and call the Governor the audience response was tremendous. We held hands and prayed and sang and I for one walked out with faith in the capacity of righteous people in numbers to do good, to effect change. And I think these people will.

But then I got home and read an article in Mother Jones and it made me ill. It’s by a reporter named Josh Harkinson, and you should read it – it’s not long. In quick summary: Bushmaster Firearms International, the company which makes the XM-15, the AR-style assault rifle Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre last year, is a subsidiary of a company called the Freedom Group (AKA Remington Outdoor Company Inc.), which is in turn a property of Cerberus Capital Management, LP, a private equity firm that possesses nearly $20 billion in assets. Immediately after the shootings in Newtown, and in the face of public outcry, Cerberus pledged to liquidate its holdings in Freedom Group. A year later, it still hasn’t. Why not? Well, in large part, it’s because Freedom Group and Bushmaster are making more money than ever before. As Harkinson explains: “Between January and the end of September, the company raked in $94 million in profits on more than $1 billion in gun and ammo sales, compared with just $500,000 in net profits during the same period in 2012… According to the Freedom Group’s third quarter report, this year’s earnings spike came primarily from a $42 million bump in sales of “centerfire rifles,” a category which includes the XM-15.”

There is so much wrong here. Setting aside some of the more obscene ironies that Harkinson’s on-point reportage highlights (for example, the fact that the California State Teachers Retirement System continues to hold a $750 million dollar stake in Cerberus) the picture that emerges is of deep structures of power and embedded interests that stretch across multiple institutions, private, public, non-profit, and more – with the NRA serving, as it so often does, as the nexus at the heart of things. Because, of course, the folks who call the shots – so to speak – at Freedom Group are heavily represented on the NRA’s Nominating Committee, arguably the most important decision-making body in that institution, and as individuals are major donors to the NRA (in fact, they’re in the “Golded Ring of Freedom” club of million-dollar-plus contributors). And it’s not a far step from that, either, to note the confluences of interest and lobbying activities that link the NRA and the right-wing, corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – whose activities in promulgating SYG laws in conjunction with the NRA are a matter of public record.

My goal here isn’t to sketch out an org chart, nor to sniff out (not-so) secret pathways of converging interests, nor to finger individuals for blame – although there are plenty of folks in this story who deserve public shame (not that they give a damn about it). Instead, I want to make an observation, at once structural and personal, about our contemporary moment.

The continued, outrageous profits raked in by Bushmaster and the insulation of Cerberus in its hypocritical efforts to placate public scorn, combined with the successful legislative advocacy of industry-sponsored groups like ALEC – including but not limited to SYG – represent a twisted state of affairs that is at once classic American capitalism at its worst but also something  uniquely of our 21st Century moment. Industries manufacturing products that hurt people, making money hand over fist in the process, and then successfully protecting their interests through shaping legislation are as old as this country itself, as is the pervasive enmeshment of all our financial activities, however ostensibly benign they may seem, in such activities. But the degree of legislative power today’s firearms industry wields – power, I think, rivalling that of players in the financial sector – has no parallel with any other group thanks to the added element of its frankly ludicrous claim to uniquely patriotic standing and a misbegotten Constitutional warrant that has been twisted and deformed beyond all recognition by those with a financially motivated interest to do so.

But of course that’s not all of it. It’s not just about lobbyists and lawyers and businesspeople gaming the legislative system, shamelessly declaring their best intentions, and piously gesturing at doing the right thing even as they continue to enrich themselves. It’s about selling people fear, about cultivating their fears to stoke marketplace demand, and about enabling their clientele to act those fears out in the most violent ways imaginable.

Let’s get real: there are gun manufacturers and retailers who don’t mind mobilizing insurrectionist fantasies and white supremacist irredentism to move their product. That’s part of their business model. And not just that: they’ve acted, successfully, to change our legislative landscape so that when their clients act on those fears and kill others – children, even – both the killers and their enablers face no blowback whatsoever. Instead, they profit.

And let’s get even realer: if our society – with all its hideous double standards – does nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing – when twenty toddlers, nearly all of them white, and in a wealthy community in the Northeast to boot, are slaughtered, mercilessly – what in the name of God  would ever drive us to action?

“I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”

COPYRIGHT JASON FRANCISCOMy friend and frequent collaborator Jason Francisco does work photographing graffiti memorials to murder victims in the most blighted parts of North Philly – walking so-called “murder corridors” with his Leica. New memorials go up every week, sometimes, every day. So many. So many kids. Last year, he took a picture of a massive one, on the Corner of 5th and Cecil B. Moore. The mural stretches up and down, easily six feet tall, sprayed lovingly on a cinderblock wall mounted with barbed wire.  A childlike angel, faceless, its hands clasped in prayer, floats next to the epitaph: “Dedicated to Sandy Hook Elementary School.” Sending the photo to me, Jason remarked: “I hope there is an equally enlightened graffiti writer in Newtown, CT who remembers the victims of gun violence in Philadelphia.”

I’m not a gambling man, but I’m willing to make my bets on that one.

That Town Hall event earlier this week was powerful. It left me feeling hope and conviction. I still feel those things, and believe that SYG can be repealed, and my heart and solidarity is with those who fight towards that end. But against forces so powerful, against exploitation and oppression so thorough and vile and total – beyond simply repealing laws but to changing attitudes, to changing our culture, to changing our way of life – what is to be done? I wish I knew. But I do know that we have to try.


Note: I didn’t bring an audio recorder with me to the SYG event, and am working from my handwritten notes. If I’ve gotten any of the quotes – or any other details wrong – please let me know, and I will amend this accordingly. As always, the same goes for the rest of the content in this piece.

If you want read more about the NRA Board, you can do so here. If you want to learn more about the geographic breakdown of gun violence in America’s inner cities, I recommend this article.

Jason Francisco’s photoseries on Philadelphia’s Murder Corridors, “These Are the Names” is available here. It’s really worth checking out.

The Shooter

Copyright Jason Francisco

“Many people have asked why the shooter did what he did on December 14, 2012. Or in the vernacular of the criminal justice system,  ‘Did he have a motive to do what he did?’ This investigation, with the substantial information available, does not establish a concrete motive.”

It’s been a year since the massacre at Sandy Hook, and the Connecticut State Attorney’s report on what happened on that December morning has been public since just before Thanksgiving. Its conclusion is simple: we cannot determine what drove Adam Lanza to murder twenty-six people, twenty of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School (SHES), or what led him to shoot his own mother earlier that morning. Though these events can be described at painstaking length, and documented in voluminous appendices, his actions remain unexplainable. And with that the investigation is closed.

But the fact of the matter is that not every mystery is equally unexplainable, or at least, that different mysteries can be unexplainable in different ways. Not even the most credentialed physicist can definitively explain what transpired in the first instants after the Big Bang, and even the most eloquent poet cannot explain what precisely happens inside of a person those first moments when they fall in love. But as thinking and feeling humans we are closer to some unexplainable mysteries than to others, and we can sense the shape and tone of the questions they raise even if we cannot diagram or recite their answers.

What might bring an individual to commit an act of horrific violence is unexplainable in a different way from why violence is a feature of the human condition in the first place. Even though contemplating one mystery easily slides into a meditation on the other, their different modes of unexplainability ramify in different registers – psychology and theology, respectively. In the case of Sandy Hook in particular, the impulse to invoke the unexplainable is understandably acute. If Adam Lanza’s room, with its windows covered in garbage bags, remains a dark spot, impenetrable to our vision, then how much more mysterious must we feel were the goings-on inside his head or on his hard drive – both of which he took care to obliterate?

But in the case of some black boxes, you can hear the shadows move within, and question what fuels their rustling.

In the eyes of the law, of course, and the question of motive aside, certain determinations can be made, cut and dried. On the morning of December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, a twenty-year old man with a history of mental health issues, committed a minimum of thirty-eight felonies, actions that display clear premeditation. “It is clear that the shooter planned his crimes in advance and was under no extreme emotional disturbance for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse.” Here, as in elsewhere in the report, there appears a co-determination between logics of explanation and exculpation, reason and blame. Though Lanza did the unthinkable, he clearly thought it through, and thus, presumably, if he had survived, he would have had – in the State’s eyes at least – no grounds for defense by reason of insanity.

Reading these passages, and others, it is hard not to perceive in the Report a tension between competing logics of explainability and accountability. “It is known that the shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close. As an adult he did not recognize or help himself deal with those issues.” To those he should have been close. What does this mean? As early as 2005-2006, Lanza received a diagnosis of comorbid Asperger’s, Obsessive-Compulsive, and Pervasive Developmental Disorders – does this “should have been” reference his inability to achieve certain psychological milestones, specifically those prescribed by psychiatry? And yet: As an adult he did not recognize or help himself deal with those issues. This seems to suggest a rather different kind of failure – a moral one, an inability to take responsibility for himself. Without excusing Lanza for what he did that day in December, we must acknowledge that our effort to explain what led up to those events seems motivated, at least in part, by a desire to locate and judge previous moral failings, some sequence of transgressions that prefigured them.

To those he should have been close. By all accounts the person closest to Adam Lanza was his mother, Nancy. Demonstrating an even further conflicted concern for adjudicating both explanation and blame than it does in its treatment of Adam, the Report argues that Nancy was unaware of her son’s plans and thus not legally culpable as an accessory while sidestepping questions of her potential negligence in providing her son with access to weapons and training and even giving him guns of his own. To be clear: in addition to “many edged weapons, knives, swords, spears, etc.,” there were at at minimum five guns in the Lanzas’ Sandy Hook home – the two pistols, combat shotgun, and Bushmaster XM-15 which he took with him to SHES that morning in addition to the rifle with which he shot Nancy four times in the head while she slept. Although I find vilifying Nancy Lanza distasteful, with the release of this report some assumptions of  solidarity with her in the immediate aftermath of the shootings now seem woefully premature. How many mothers — or fathers — would surround a son like Lanza with weapons, or would cut him a check as a Christmas gift, writing in the memo that the money was to be used to buy yet another semiautomatic? And this despite the fact that, as the reporter notes: “The shooter disliked birthdays, Christmas and holidays. He would not allow his mother to put up a Christmas tree. The mother explained it by saying that shooter had no emotions or feelings.”

Far be it from me to judge the moral landscape of parenting a child as distant as Adam Lanza appears to have been, let alone how one would navigate doing so as a single mother, whatever your financial resources. I can only begin to imagine the yearning for connection with a son who does not appear to return your love, who won’t even let you touch him, how that void builds over years and years and leaves you desperate for something, anything, to share with him — to the point where you embrace and celebrate his mastery of technologies of death as at least one thing, the only thing, that you can share. But, Christ in Heaven, if your son makes explicit to you that he doesn’t care if you live or die, if you yourself are the first to say that he has no positive emotions whatsoever, if he collects videos of people shooting themselves and murdering others, if he tells those who ask that his own life is worthless, why, why, why would you keep giving him guns as gifts? What possibilities are you entertaining or even encouraging, consciously or otherwise, not just in terms of what might happen to your son, but to you? And does it ever rise to the surface of awareness, if only for a moment, that the catastrophe which you are courting may consume not just you and your child, but so many others as well?

These are all questions, not explanations, already far too many for this space, but to them I must add just one more. Nowhere is the Report more suggestively candid in acknowledging what it cannot explain than when it addresses Lanza’s choice of target. “The first question was whether the shooter had a reason specifically to target SHES or any student, teacher, or employee. No evidence suggests that he did. In fact, as best as can be determined, the shooter had no prior contact with anyone in the school that day. And, apart from having attended the school as a child, he appears to have had no continuing involvement with SHES.”

Apart from having attended the school as a child. The shortness of this clause belies the length of time Lanza spent there: nearly a quarter of his entire life.

In literary and linguistic circles, you may occasionally run across the phrase “hapax legomenon.” It’s a Greek term, literally meaning “something said once,” and is used to refer to a word or phrase that only occurs once in a given literary text or linguistic corpus. In the Sandy Hook Report, one word in particular only occurs twice – which technically makes a “dis legomenon,” but since the referent in both cases is the same, and they show up on the same page, the singularity remains. That word is “love,” and it appears when the report turns to Adam Lanza’s experiences as a child at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  “The shooter indicated that he loved the school, and liked to go there…He loved music and played saxophone.”

But then: “In 2006, the shooter’s mother noted that there were marked changes to the shooter’s behavior around the seventh grade. Prior to that, he would ride his bike and do adventurous things such as climbing trees or climbing a mountain. He had stopped playing the saxophone. He had been in a school band but dropped out. He had withdrawn from playing soccer or baseball which he said he did not enjoy.”

What happened to Adam Lanza? What changed the boy who loved his school into the young man who returned there to destroy it? What changed the boy who loved music and playing his instrument into someone who couldn’t tolerate even the sound of a barber’s razor or a lawn mower outside? What changed him from a boy who didn’t mind climbing trees and bruising his knees into one who would go through a box of tissues a day to avoid touching metal doorknobs? And what changed him from all these things into a man who strode, breathing calm despite the ear-splitting rapport of his assault rifle, as he mowed down a score of children in mere minutes?

These are the questions the unexplainable brings. Beyond that, all we have is wreckage, and grief.


Note: There are numerous points in which the report is elliptical and where even on the third or fourth reading certain details remain hard to pin down (for example, the exact number of weapons in the Lanza home). I’m thus glad to amend or correct anything I’ve gotten wrong, and I would certainly be eager for clarity on these details and others if someone else can provide them.

The photo which accompanies this piece is the work and property of my friend and collaborator Jason Francisco. You can view it, more from that series, and some of Jason’s other, fantastic work, here: http://bit.ly/1bfDjtE.

Updated for Clarity, 12/14