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Lessons from Sandy Hook: Disturbed people live among us

On Friday, the Connecticut State Police released documents related to the investigation into last year’s terrible school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

We know the broad strokes of what happened on Dec. 14, 2012: Adam Lanza, age 20, shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, in the home that they shared. Then he went to the nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

Released were thousands of documents, photos, audio recordings and videos. I downloaded one section of the report and opened some of the documents. One that was particularly chilling was the report of Newtown Police Lieutenant Christopher Vanghele, who was one of the first officers on the scene. My stomach was in knots as I read it.

It was very quiet and there was no sound. This led me to believe that Sgt. Bahamonde, Officer Penna and I were the first officers in the building. I could smell the gunpowder in the air and saw long gun, spent shells on the floor of the hallway near the front door. At this point we didn’t know if the shooter or shooters were still in a classroom or were hiding to ambush us. Since there was no active shooting we held our position of cover for several minutes to await extra officers. I noticed a little girl walk out of a classroom about sixty feet down the hallway. I yelled at her to go back into her classroom. She immediately went back into the classroom. She reappeared in the hallway about thirty seconds later and I told her again to get back into her room. She said, “I want to go home.” I told her she would be able to go home soon but right now she needed to get back into her room.

Read:

Lt. Christopher Vangele’s report

Why am I bringing up the Newtown tragedy? Because we all need to understand that disturbed and disordered people live among us.

Adam Lanza

According to the Associated Press, the police documents stated that Adam Lanza, the shooter, “was undoubtedly afflicted with mental health problems.” His parents named Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Read:

Police file on Newtown yields chilling portrait, on WashingtonPost.com.

A nurse was quoted as saying Adam Lanza had ritualistic behaviors, including changing his socks 20 times per day. He had refused to leave his room for three months before the shooting, and communicated with his mother only by email, even though they were living in the same house.

One of the facts that struck me was that Adam was six feet tall yet only weighed 120 pounds.

Adam exhibited other behaviors that were scary. He was preoccupied with mass murders, including the Columbine High School shooting in Jefferson County, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. A teacher reported that he wrote stories that were so graphically violent that they could not be shared with his class.

Searching Adam’s property, investigators discovered “The Big Book of Granny.” Here is how the police officer who reviewed the document described it:

The next section of the book is labeled as “Granny’s clubhouse of Happy Children.” This section is a typed dialog from an imaginary TV show. The main characters feature Granny, her son “Bobolicius” and several children. In the show, Granny and Bobolicious are talking to the group of children as if in a group. In the first episode, Granny punches one boy in the face, throws a match and causes an explosion and threatens to shoot and kill the children. The second episode, Granny’s Clubhouse of Happy Children 2, starts out with Bobolicious speaking to the children. Bobolicious said, “Hi, I’m Bobolicious the Explorer … Remember last time when everyone was slaughtered!? Well … you bread-brain leeches gave me 75 years of prison for that so called “Tragedy”! I was having fun!” The third and final episode, Granny’s Clubhouse of Happy Children 3, introduces two new characters, Dora the Berserker and her monkey, Shoes. Bobolicious says that they are going to play a game of “Hide and go Die.”

Read:

Adam Lanza’s ‘Book of Granny’ on ctpost.com

In hindsight, these behaviors seem like obvious warning signs. But at the time, people like his parents and mental health professionals did not interpret the behaviors as a threat.

Legally responsible

The summary report on the Newtown shooting, released in November 2013, pointed out that Adam Lanza had planned his crime and knew that he was breaking the law. From a legal perspective, if he were alive to stand trial, he could not have pleaded “temporary insanity” and won. Read:

History of mental health problems not a motive for Newtown shooter, on NationalJournal.com.

Still, even if Adam was legally responsible for his actions, I doubt anyone would disagree that his mental health problems contributed to his destructive behavior.

A couple of weeks after the attack, a psychiatrist, Paul Steinberg, wrote a provocative article for the New York Times stating his belief that Adam Lanza suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia. He also pointed out that teenagers and young adults with recent onset are not being institutionalized enough. He wrote:

Instead we have too much concern about privacy, labeling and stereotyping, about the civil liberties of people who have horrifically distorted thinking. In our concern for the rights of people with mental illness, we have come to neglect the rights of ordinary Americans to be safe from the fear of being shot — at home and at schools, in movie theaters, houses of worship and shopping malls.

Steinberg wrote the article despite the Goldwater Rule, an ethical standard of the American Psychiatric Association that prohibits psychiatrists from commenting on someone’s mental health if they have not examined the individual and gotten permission to discuss the case.

Read:

Our failed approach to schizophrenia, on NYTimes.com.

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, several states and the federal government are reviewing mental health policies. Changes may be made.

Read:

Legislature considers big changes in mental health policy after Newtown, on Courant.com.

Believing what we see

I’m sure Nancy Lanza tried her very best to take care of her son. And I’m sure mental health and other professionals who dealt with Adam Lanza were competent and caring. But maybe they underestimated the risk this troubled young man posed. Maybe they didn’t want to believe that his behavior was as bad as it really was.

This is just speculation on my part, but I believe, based on my own experience, and the experience of many Lovefraud readers, that it is a reasonable speculation.

How many of us, when we were dealing with the sociopath in our lives, refused to admit what was right in front of our eyes? How many of us glossed over, or made excuses for, bad behavior? How many of us kept thinking that the person would change, and everything would be okay?

We need to recognize that some people are capable of horrific behavior. Perhaps not as bad as what Adam Lanza did, but hurtful behavior nonetheless.

Disturbed and disordered people live among us. We need to be able to recognize them, and take appropriate action to protect ourselves — and others.

 



11 Comments on "Lessons from Sandy Hook: Disturbed people live among us"

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  1. onmyown says:

    Ok, I don’t understand why nobody thought those disturbing stories were a red flag.

    I also don’t understand, and never will, why Nancy Lanza thought it was ok to provide this disturbed young man with guns. I don’t care if he was never violent, don’t care if he NEVER wrote a gory story or kept a “mass murder” board for his own amusement, you just don’t turn a mentally ill person onto guns, period.



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    • Babs94540 says:

      My guess is that Adam Lanza’a mother probably had a mental disorder herself; the reports I read about the Sandy Hook incident mentioned that Adam’s mother evidenced “survivalist” type thinking and behaviors.

      (Survivalists mistrust authority / the government, expecting that sooner or later our government will either declare martial law and we citizens will be living in a dictatorship and forced into a civil uprising, or the government will dissolve entirely and we will be living in lawless, savage chaos. So survivalists stock up on guns and ammo and food; this type of thinking sounds rather paranoid to me.)

      I think that Adam’s mother was also in deep denial of how severe Adam’s level of dysfunction was, starting much earlier in his life. She insisted on Adam being mainstreamed into regular classrooms, when that probably felt like daily torture sessions for Adam.

      While some teachers and classmates apparently tried to be friendly with Adam and help him become more socialized, it just wasn’t working. Adam was too disordered to respond to normal socializing and instead he (I’m speculating) experienced years of being ignored by his classmates, or being actively persecuted / tormented by the bullies among them, and that built up a huge mass of rage and resentment in Adam.

      Instead of getting Adam into a residential treatment facility (with 24/7 supervision, psychiatric care and specialized schooling) years earlier, Adam’s mother wanted Adam to live at home with her and attend regular school. At home she allowed him the freedom to come and go at will, and to become increasingly self-isolated and uncommunicative with her. She was observed being very controlling of him when they were in public together, but admitted that she was afraid of her own son, and had been for years: she warned at least one babysitter she’d hired to watch Adam when she wasn’t there, to never turn his back on Adam. Her level of denial was such that when she did come across some of Adam’s more horrifically violent drawings, she took no action.

      My speculation is that when Adam’s mother finally did decide that Adam needed to move out, that is what lit the fuse on the “bomb” of rage Adam had been building up. At that point, Adam had gotten used to the total self-isolation (and freedom) he had in his mother’s home; he didn’t want to become an “inmate” with restricted freedom, constant supervision and forced socializing. Yet his self-isolation was making his violent fantasies worse, and he began elaborate plans of revenge via mass murder.

      Guns were the only thing that gave Adam Lanza a sense of having power, I’m guessing, so that’s what he used to exact his revenge.

      Adam wanted power, he wanted revenge (sadistic, violent revenge) and he wanted fame, so his “heroes” became the Columbine shooters and other mass-murderers.

      The bottom line is that its the family members of the mentally ill who have the first-hand, daily exposure to fellow family members who may be acting increasingly odd or dangerous, yet family members tend to be protective of each other, tend to not want “the family name” to be sullied, and so tend to cover up alarming, dangerous acts by their children, siblings, parents, grandparents, or other relatives.

      How many families experience criminal incidents perpetrated within the family (like incest) and don’t report the incidents to authorities out of fear of disgracing the family, having the family broken up, to avoid the shame of arrest and a public trial, possible incarceration and impoverishment?

      Well, this has turned into a novel so I’ll stop now. But I agree that there needs to be a healthier balance between the rights of individual mentally ill people, and the right of the public to expect to not be gunned down by strangers in public places.

      -Babs



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  2. Stargazer says:

    It’s the gun part that really boggles my mind. We had another shooting here in CO a few weeks ago. This teenager showed no signs of mental illness, but he just went out and bought a rifle. People say “guns don’t kill people,” etc. But I doubt these mass murderers would be quite as successful knifing masses of people. Or strangling them with their bare hands. We’ve now had 3 shootings here in CO since I’ve been here. The Aurora theater shootings and Columbine were the other two. In both cases it was ridiculously easy for the young shooters to amass assault weapons and buy bullets. The bullets for the Columbine shooting were purchased at K-Mart! People fight for their freedoms. But does it really make sense in one of the most violent countries in the world for anyone to just be allowed to go out and get a gun?



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    • onmyown says:

      No, it doesn’t! But if the Sandy Hook shooting didn’t bring about tougher gun laws and background checks, I don’t know what will. I don’t want to go off the rails with politics, but I’m very strongly of the opinion that the NRA has a foothold in our Congress it shouldn’t have, and we’re never going to get anywhere with gun violence until this lobbying group is forced to the sidelines.



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  3. muganji says:

    Unfortunately even if you know the person (like your own child) is at risk of hurting others, legally it is not possible to have them preventively detained or institutionalized for a lengthily period. The legal system does not give us tools to help these people who suffer from serious mental health issues, nor does it give us the right to oblige the use of medication which can improve these persons ability to reason and control their own actions. Combined with freely available firearms, this is a deadly combination.



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  4. Barb says:

    Nancy Lanza was clearly the culprit. The woman was ‘off her rocker’ in denial and extremely paranoid.



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  5. jm_short says:

    Unfortunately, mental health professionals do not look holistically at the child’s overall attitudinal pattern. Nor do they project the outcomes for clearly indicative behaviors. The existence of affective empathy in a child’s moral development has such a great impact, that it’s ironic we don’t hear far more about it.

    As a parent of an ED son, I saw that he had no empathy at a very young age. I wish one of the many therapists I took him to had told me what the outcome could be, and how to cure it. He had impulsivity, ADHD, and several other indicators. They would try to deal with his problem behaviors, but it was like putting a top on a leaking pot. The systemic cause of his condition was never addressed.

    I found it interesting to hear that Adam Lanza was believed to have Aspergers, because characteristic of this syndrome is a strong level of affective empathy and a weak level of cognitive empathy. This imbalance would generally lead to a behavior pattern of failure to perceive social boundaries, but feeling badly and repenting when it’s pointed out that they’ve offended someone. For example, if you’re walking down the street and they step on your toes, they may not realize they’ve done so. If you sit down and grab your foot, howling in pain; however, they’re likely to express genuine concern for your welfare. A person who lacked affective empathy would fail to do so. In fact, they might laugh as you sat nursing your injury.

    My son would laugh at my injury. Today, he has a fully developed case of Borderline Personality Disorder.



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    • shane says:

      Hi, I used to read and post on LF, up until, approximately a year, ago. I have had no contact with my ex-boyfriend/Psychopath for 2 years, and 1 month. I’ve returned here, because, I am still struggling not to perceive people as ‘bad’ or worse, based on particular behaviors they might exude… but, I don’t want to interrupt the topic at hand with this, therefore, I will find the appropriate topic/thread to express myself, on.

      I noticed this thread on the side bar, and read through most of it, as well as the comments. I have Asperger Syndrome, and I possess an extremely high level of effective (emotional) empathy, yet I have very little cognitive empathy, in comparison. When I see someone suffering in any way, whether it be from great loss, physical harm, or a paper cut, I feel deeply for them, and often, I feel, or rather, take on their pain. I become driven to do whatever I am capable of, in an effort to lessen or diminish the pain of others, yet, as I see you’ve touched on, jm-short, I do not pick up cues, especially social cues, and this trait is in fact in relation to my lack of cognitive empathy. I often cannot tell that a person is suffering, unless I am verbally made aware.

      I will just mention that, if Adam Lanza did, in fact, have Asperger Syndrome, he would have also had to have possessed some other type of condition, ie, a personality disorder, or mental illness, in addition to AS. Killing, hurting, harming people is not a trait of Asperger Syndrome. Due to what I have expressed, above, folks on the Autism Spectrum, particularly those with AS are incapable of purposely causing harm to others, unless there is a co-morbid condition that also exists.

      Nice to be back, here. Hope you are all well…

      Shane:)



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  6. jm_short says:

    And nice to have you back!

    I agree, there must have been some peculiarity there since a person with Aspergers would be more inclined to have a high level of affective empathy which would have caused great concern for others.

    Unfortunately, you would more frequently see a person with Aspergers victimized, then see them victimizing other people.

    Joyce!



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    • shane says:

      Thank you, Joyce! Indeed… folks on the spectrum make excellent targets. I have good gut instincts and have learned to rely on/trust them, and I will never forget all of the traits they (I had 2 experiences with Psychopaths) possessed, so I rely on my awareness of particular traits, immensely. You stated that “you are a parent of an ED son”. What exactly is ED? If you don’t mind me asking? Oh, perhaps that stands for Empathy Disorder…?

      Thanks, again-

      Shane



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  7. jm_short says:

    Hi Shane-

    Empathy Disorder would likely be a better expression than what is actually used. It stands for Emotionally Disturbed, but often, at the root of a child’s inability to manage their emotions, is their lack of affective empathy.

    Interestingly, ED could also mean a host of additional mental health problems other than those falling into the Cluster B zone. A child with schizophrenia, for example, would also be considered ED. So terming a child as ED gives the parent absolutely no insight into what is actually wrong.

    Donna ran a wonderful post by a Dr. Vissig, who is a nueroscientist. Her comment was that children don’t get “psychopathy” as a birthday present when they turn 18. By that, she meant that the character traits had been brewing for quite some time. It’s unfortunate that there is so little awareness in society of the impact of lack of affective empathy in the developing moral compass of a child so that parents could do more to nip the problem and prevent its growth.

    Best-
    Joyce



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