Last week, I reacted to a story about a child who has learned to manage his autism through Disney videos, a story that spent a week at the top of the New York Times’ most-read list. As it turns out, last week there was another story from another New York-based periodical that was also going viral (well, let’s say “print-viral,” hardly as important as the fake “first kisses” video) that was also about a father’s communication, and lack of it, with his 20-year-old son who was also diagnosed on the autism spectrum. But if sweet, adorable Owen Suskind (the article concludes with Owen saying, “You can get so lonely talking to yourself, you have to live in the world”) is some kind of yin, then the 20-year-old at the heart of the other article, Adam Lanza, is just about the worst kind of yang. In some odd recognition of cosmic balance, I want to spend this week reacting – as an autism dad – to another autism dad’s anguishes and revelations.
I hesitate now, because part of me hates to give the Adam Lanza story even one more sub-atomic particle of oxygen, partly because I’m sure some people just recoil at the mention of the name, like they would to the thought of a “torture museum” or idea of visiting Auschwitz. I do believe that mass murderers like Lanza desperately seek a notoriety that is otherwise difficult to achieve, and that by talking about them, we may be facilitating the next such horror. I don’t believe anyone should have made a movie about Charles Manson or Mark David Chapman (but they did. Not favoring censorship, just saying I don’t like it). The other side is that if we leave such people and events unexamined, we may be facilitating the next such horror. As Adam Lanza’s father explains in the article, he is only making his first public comments since that unthinkable day in an effort to help the victim families and/or prevent another such event. And I’ve been to torture museums. I’ve been to Auschwitz. Man’s inhumanity to man isn’t something I ignore.
Still, I hardly blame anyone for refusing to read further. And like the article’s author, Andrew Solomon, I take no position here on gun rights or gun safety. For some of my more liberal friends, that will be a reason to refuse to read further. However, there is one sort of person that I wish to refrain from reading further, and that’s the sort of person that believes that the Sandy Hook Massacre never happened or was ginned-up by gun-control supporters or something. I have a real-life (not internet) “friend” who believes this. Now, it’s one thing to believe that we never landed on the moon or that TWA 800 was shot out of the sky or World Trade Center 7 was demolished by something other than debris. None of those things change the amount of dead people or the basic facts as they relate to our history. But to suggest that these 20 kids are still alive somewhere, or were murdered in some other way for a partisan political agenda? (I refuse to link to sites that peddle this garbage; if you doubt they exist, type “sandy hook” into the google search field and notice what the first fill-in is.) How disrespectful can you be to these grieving parents? Or as Peter Lanza said to Solomon, “It’s real; it doesn’t have to be understood to be real.” Not unlike autism.
Speaking of grieving parents, is Peter Lanza a grieving parent worthy of respect? Depends who you ask. The article mentions the 26 stars on the local firehouse roof; Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 first- and second-grade students, 6 teachers, his mother, and himself. Some people say his mother Nancy was too lenient, too indulgent of him, and the massacre was partly her fault. I doubt this, but if you are someone like Nancy’s sister, what a nightmare to consider every day.
I was struck by this passage: “All parenting involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s error seems to have been that she always focussed on the day, in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son. She thought that she could keep the years at bay by making each day as good as possible, but her willingness to indulge his isolation may well have exacerbated the problems it was intended to ameliorate.” I considered how often my wife and I choose the day over the years. I haven’t really discussed it here, but Dar’s tantrums can be somewhat epic, and since he has no way of telling us what he wants (don’t react to this with “have you tried…?” because we have), it can preserve our sanity just to leave on a table all the foods and toys he could possibly want. On some level, I feel Nancy Lanza’s pain.
This is where I hasten to add that autism did not kill 26 people in a school in Connecticut on December 14, 2012, because Adam Lanza did not have “real” autism, was only ever diagnosed with Asperger’s (on the same spectrum, though that’s evolving now), and as the article says, “Peter gets annoyed when people speculate that Asperger’s was the cause of Adam’s rampage. ‘Asperger’s makes people unusual, but it doesn’t make people like this,’ he said, and expressed the view that the condition ‘veiled a contaminant’ that was not Asperger’s: ‘I was thinking it could mask schizophrenia.’ Violence by autistic people is more commonly reactive than planned—triggered, for example, by an invasion of personal space.”
Peter Lanza now regrets that he missed Adam’s more sinister anti-social clues because he lumped those in with an Asperger’s diagnosis (which Adam, for his part, never accepted). I can tell you that Peter’s regrets pale before those of the wider autism community, who generally feel that the Sandy Hook Massacre may have set back 20 years public empathy for people with autism. Rain Man is one stereotype to deal with. Rain-Bullets Man is quite another. Or as Peter told Solomon, “You can’t get any more evil.” He added, “How much do I beat up on myself about the fact that he’s my son? A lot.”
On some level, I get Peter Lanza’s pain as well. I sincerely, highly doubt that Dar is capable of a Sandy Hook – right now, he’s not capable of taking turns or signaling the need for a diaper change, but he is getting more physical (moving glass bottles, scaring the dog), without understanding consequences any more than he ever has. Of course I’m not going to become the father of a mass murderer, but I grok how you can try your best and still feel entirely isolated from your son, and then blame it on a diagnosis. During Dar’s tantrums, I’ve sometimes told wifey to let him be – I think I used the phrase “This is just the background noise of our lives now.” Because after a certain amount of effort, you tell yourself you’ve done what you can for the days and for the years. But did you? “Any variation on what I did and how my relationship was had to be good, because no outcome could be worse,” Peter told Solomon. What is Dar’s worst-case scenario, outside of the absolutely unimaginable (like being mowed down in his school by some sick f—)? Probably close to the Suskinds’ worst-case, Dar watching videos in our basement when he’s 50. When that happens, am I going to have a reckoning like Peter Lanza’s? Sure, sure, we’re not comparable, yet on the cosmic scale I think we are.
I like to think that a future like Peter Lanza’s is no more likely for me than it is for any of you reading, that severe psychopathy could come from anyone, and it wouldn’t be any parent’s fault. Clearly, films like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Elephant ask us to ruminate about this. Speaking of films, I know the Oscar-winning song says to “Let it Go” (I got it, really, I did), but in any parent’s world, is it really that easy to let go and accept that you did enough?