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View from US: Meet the parents

January 13, 2013

Was Nancy Lanza to speak from beyond the grave where her ashes lie interred, she’d have a tragic tale as a single mother caring for a 20-year-old son with a mental disorder to tell. While America mourns the 26 children and teachers mowed down by Adam Lanza, rarely does Nancy’s name figure in the national narrative. She is exist-less.


Is the world still seething with hate, anger and revulsion against the well-to-do suburban divorcee? What about the father? Where is he? Why was he not there to pick up his son when he fell through the cracks? Why does the onus to raise and be responsible for kids always fall on the mother? When tragedy strikes, rarely is the identity of the dad ever revealed. He’s made irrelevant, immaterial and extraneous.

With a 50 per cent divorce rate in America, the father often moves on, leaving his ex-wife to deal with the kids. The phrase ‘single mom’ is a threadbare cliché. Since privacy is paramount in the institution of marriage and divorce, Americans elect to block the two out. Ruptures caused by divorce to a family are kept cloistered within the four walls of the home. The community has no business to know, nor has the school, or a doctor or any other caregiver the authority to probe.

The result? Nancy and Adam. We will never know whether their cry for help, if ever there was one, went unheeded. Did their own family, friends and neighbours abandon them? Or did Nancy herself chose privacy, preferring to deal with Adam as she deemed fit.

She loaded her home with assault firearms; took Adam to shooting ranges; allowed him to play violent video games involving killings. We will never know why she did it. We will never know why she purposely left a cache of high-power weapons around the house.

Peter Lanza divorced his wife Nancy four years ago. As a successful executive working for a Fortune 500 company, he left her a big house on a hill and money to live comfortably. They had two grown up sons. The eldest works and lives in New York. The youngest was the problem child. From age six, he existed in a shell of his own imagination. None could penetrate his secret world. Adam Lanza forbade intrusion. Not even his own mother knew he was a schizophrenic.

One morning, as Nancy slept in her bed, Adam aimed the semi-automatic gun at her and blew her brains out. He then sped away in her car to Sandy Hook Elementary School and rang the beeper of the entrance door. The principal recognised him on the close circuit TV and buzzed him in. He entered and went straight to her office, shooting her and the other teachers present.

Adam then headed to a classroom full of six-year-olds and mercilessly pumped multiple bullets in their tiny bodies. Eventually he killed himself. The final death toll: 28 dead.

The Department of Homeland Security set up after 9/11 spends billions in securing the lives of Americans. From body searches to pat downs and body X-ray screenings at airports, racial profiling, phone tapings and email hacking, security officials are helpless when 46 Americans are shot dead daily by guns that anyone can buy at a Wal-Mart without undergoing a background check. While the Department of Defence spends billions operating drones that kill many innocent people, including little children in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world, it is unable to get a gun control law passed in its own country.

President Obama has charged his Vice President Joe Biden to control the free flow of guns. Guess what? The sales of guns have soared since. Gun lovers fear, the military type assault weapons available to them, can be banned. The National Rifle Association, a powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, is aggressively pushing for more guns in schools, arguing that if a gunman or a guard is posted in the 98,817 public schools across America, kids will not die.

Will Biden win or will the NRA have the last word? Probably the NRA, whose strongest voice was the late Hollywood icon Charlton Heston. A fictitious news item satirising the actor reports that “outraged citizens, incensed by the shredding of children’s bodies at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week by a crazy with an assault rifle, turned out in droves at the grave of Charlton Heston, legendary CEO of the National Rifle Association, to rip him out of his entombment. Their goal was to tear the Bushmaster .223, the same assault weapon used in the Sandy Hook massacre, out of his hands that he was buried holding”.

Macabre as this sounds, it’s meant to merely scare gun lovers. Heston lies peacefully interred with his beloved gun.

Since Adam Lanza played violent video games, many in America are calling for an end to such games and movies produced by Hollywood. “It's dumb blaming everything on video games,” Jim Wellington, the manager of Video Games New York in the East Village hits back. “I don’t see any of our customers going out and trying to kill someone just because of a video game.” Other gamers argue that even the most offensive and outlandish game has nothing to do with a madman like Adam Lanza who goes far beyond Hollywood fantasy into real world horror. They blame the guns. The NRA hits back and accuses Hollywood of making “blood soaked films” and videos which are the “filthiest form of pornography”.

The back and forth blame game currently rages.

The missing piece in this debate is mental disorder. And providing a strong support system for the primary caregiver — the mother. Why does America always leave the father, whose last name the killer carries, off the hook? According to one report Adam was not in touch with his dad for the last two years. Shouldn’t Peter Lanza have done more to win Adam over? Some say, Adam felt rejected and abandoned when his dad left and married again.

One voice of reason in this mad melee of windjammers is a psychiatrist called Paul Steinberg. His column ‘Our failed approach to schizophrenia’ in New York Times lays bare the disease that if untreated can kill. “People with schizophrenia are unaware of how strange their thinking is and do not seek out treatment… It takes a village to stop a rampage. We need reasonable controls on semi-automatic weapons; criminal penalties for those who sell weapons to people with clear signs of psychosis…”

I wish Dr Steinberg had included the parents and why society and media always marginalises them despite being the vital link to their offspring’s act of violence. Shine a spotlight on them and come to their aid.