(WOMENSENEWS)–He shot his mother in the face in the bedroom of the home they shared. He obliterated her identity while she was in her bed wearing her pajamas in the place where she homeschooled him for the last few years of his life.
By now the world knows quite well that last Friday Nancy Lanza’s 20-year-old son, Adam Lanza, shot her first before killing 20 children, six adults and himself.
As investigations continue, we learn more about the mother of the young man reviled as a monster. And it is Nancy Lanza I can’t stop thinking about. Was she, as some report, a monster too?
Necessarily the world –including President Barack Obama–openly mourns the children, teachers and administrators who were brutally massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as Hanukah was ending and 10 days before Christmas, in Newtown, Conn.–as do I.
Like so many of us parents, I cannot imagine the slaying of my own child in a safe classroom–or anywhere. I know we parents spend our lives striving to protect our children from every imaginable threat, from bacteria to bullies. As parents we are hard-wired to nurture, nourish, save them from any possible harm. We install hand sanitizers at the doors of schools. Yet a killer shoots his way through the door.
Certainly I am in no position to judge the difficulty of raising a child with mental illness. I am blessed with three healthy, successful sons, ages 24, 21 and 18. Though others have felt free to judge and even blame.
Yet, I ask what happens when a mother cannot save the world from her son? Or herself? And what happens if the mother herself may have contributed to the grooming of someone we see as a monster? I have no easy answers and I can’t stop wondering: Are the sins of the children ever really Mom’s fault?
Extreme Form of Erasure
“I wouldn’t say she is a monster,” said Rita Weinberg, a Chicago-area clinical psychologist for more than 60 years and professor emerita of the city’s National Louis University.
Weinberg consulted at a nearby pre-school following the shootings of school children in 1988 by Laurie Dann in the northern Chicago suburbs, a rare case when a woman does the shooting and both parents were blamed. In fact, they were both sued by the pre-school children’s parents and settled the final case for at least $1 million, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Lanza’s shooting his mother in the face is “the most extreme kind of erasure,” said Weinberg. “The face is how you know a person.” It is what she called “obliteration.”
Whatever happened in their home, Nancy Lanza’s legacy is as the mother of a son now to be immortalized as a demon. That will not be obliterated.
Some sensational news accounts paint Nancy Lanza as a survivalist, someone who was prepping for the end of the world, stockpiling weapons and urging her sons to do target shooting, particularly after the 2009 divorce from her husband, Peter Lanza.
Other reports blatantly deny that Nancy Lanza was anything but a good mother.
“There was nothing odd and weird about her,” said her friend John Tambascio, according to NBC News. “She was completely normal and tried to help her kids just like all of us would.”
One friend called her “bubbly.” I see from photographs that she was beautiful.
Her 24-year-old son, Ryan Lanza, who was not involved in this massacre, will forever bear the stigma of his brother’s evil. But does he have to live with the notion that his own mother may own part of the blame? Or not?
It is so unnatural a notion that the concept of mothering a monster is the stuff of horror films such as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Demon Seed,” “The Omen,” “Alien” and all their sequels and remakes.
More Young Adult Murderers
Unfortunately it is all too real. The number of parents killed by their children in the United States has been increasing since 1980, when that group accounted for 9.7 percent of all homicides, according to the FBI. In 2008, parents killed by their children rose to 13 percent of all homicides.
The FBI lists offending rates for homicides as highest among those 18-24 years old. For the period of 1980-2008, there were 43.1 violent offenders per 100,000 people in that age group. That is nearly double the rate of 22.1 murderous youth per 100,000 people in the same age range for 1985.
Worse yet, it has become more commonplace to read American news accounts of sons who kill their mothers.
Jeffrey Pyne was on trial until last week for the brutal stabbing of his mother, Ruth. The Michigan son is now awaiting the verdict in the trial of his mother’s murder.
In September, a 16-year-old Bronx son was accused of killing his mother and placing her body in a plastic trash bin.
Earlier this summer, a Chicago man shot his 62-year-old mother, reportedly because she nagged him. In October, a 17-year old in Texas called 911 after killing his mother and his sisters and explained he “wasn’t even really angry.” In New Delhi, India, the day after the Newtown massacre, a 25-year-old man stabbed his mother.
Half of all murders committed by 19-34 year olds in the U.S. were of family members, FBI statistics show. Most of those, or 66 percent, use guns as a weapon. More than 28 percent of all victims killed from 1980-2008 were family members.
‘Product of My Life’s Work’
“There was no way to atone for my son’s behavior,” wrote Susan Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of two killers responsible for the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. In the November 2009 issue of O magazine, she continued: “Dylan was a product of my life’s work, but his final actions implied that he had never been taught the fundamentals of right and wrong.”
Arlene Holmes, the mother of James Holmes, the 24-year-old Aurora, Colo., shooter who killed 12 people and injured 58 others earlier this year, has begged for privacy and expressed condolences to the victims’ families, though she has stated she will stand by her son.
All sorts of influences other than mothers have been blamed for Adam Lanza’s actions. Ultra violent video games, films and television shows, the lack of gun and ammunition control, the news media’s habit of sensationalizing the rampages, the cutbacks in services for the mentally ill.
Is it just being labeled as different that can cause this type of action? Kathleen M. Heide, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has spent decades studying parricide, or the murder of parents by children. Heide wrote in the 2011 Encyclopedia of Adolescence that humiliation is a key trigger for an act of revenge on the person instigating the feeling of humiliation, or even others who are not involved.
Was Adam Lanza humiliated at home by his mother? Maybe. Maybe not.
“I do not want to make a conclusion without substantial evidence, but maybe there was anger towards her. Suddenly it can burst forth with this combination of things and can result in an action that is lethal,” said Weinberg.
As the questions surrounding cultural faults and personal blame continue to be asked by so many of us, I cannot stop thinking about Nancy Lanza.
Her final moments were looking at the face of a monster; a monster who belonged to her, who was of her, who was her own. We only have speculation. And we will never get her side of the story.
Where shall we assign responsibility when a mother raises the boy who grows to kill her? And what if the responsibility is hinged on the mother? Does she deserve our scorn or our prayers? My vote is for prayers.
Michele Weldon is an author, an assistant professor of journalism at the Medill School, Northwestern University, and a leader with The OpEd Project.
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