There are 26 Christmas trees at the Sandy Hook memorial in Newtown, Conn., and 26 heart-wrenching little teddy bears lined up in row, each wearing a name-tag. And yet, when Adam Lanza went on his horrifying rampage last Friday before killing himself, there were 27 victims. His mother, Nancy, was the first, shot four times in the face by her own son.
But her name isn’t there. Her death is different, not just because it happened somewhere else. Nancy Lanza is a complicated victim in our very complicated grief.
We’re all asking the same questions: Why didn’t she know? Why didn’t she stop it? And most significantly, of all, how could she have those guns in her house, including the same one by which she died?
As Slate columnist Amanda Marcotte accurately reflects: “Though intellectually, we know that she almost surely had nothing to do with her son's choice to kill so many people, emotionally, for some of us, she feels like an accomplice.” And if not an accomplice, then certainly a passive, perhaps wilfully blind, bystander.
And yet that’s an overly simplistic rush-to-judgment, one that speaks more to society’s need for rational cause-and-effect, than reason itself. (In the same way, media reports have jumped on Adam Lanza’s Asperger’s diagnosis.)
What do we know of the mother figure central is this tragedy? Not much, as a recent Salon article, properly entitled “Imagining Nancy Lanza,” points out. She was a social person and even a charitable one, according to her friends at a local bar where she enjoyed beers (and maybe too many, the follow-up whisper implies). She had become increasingly worried about her troubled son, these unnamed friends say. According to 2009 divorce documents, she had vowed to keep him close and care for him as long as he needed it. She didn’t like to leave him alone. None of this sounds, on the face of it, like a “mommy dearest” who would stand by while her son plotted murder.
Perhaps, we are less sympathetic because she was a woman of means, thereby removing the excuse of poverty and lack of resources as a barrier to Adam Lanza getting the help he needed. Aside from simplifying complex mental health issues down to a little “good help,” families with children with disabilities and mental health issues will quickly point out that advocacy and money are no guarantee that help of any kind is forthcoming. Even the most outspoken parents in this country can not, on their own, shrink waiting lists for child psychiatrists, and relieve the burden on overwhelmed mental-health services.
But above all else, sympathy for Nancy Lanza is most certainly eroded by the fact that she was, as the Slate article calls her, “a gun nut” - a description that implies, especially in a Canadian context, that she was a little mentally unstable herself. What’s more, she was reportedly someone who had stocked up an “arsenal” in the event of social and economic unrest. And thus, the narrative expands: She becomes a rich women armed to the teeth to ward off angry poor people, too careless to lock up her weapons properly.
So where does she fit, if not among the Christmas trees and teddy bears? The fact is we don’t yet know enough about life inside that big white house isolated among the trees in Connecticut to say for sure. But while standing by the families who lost truly innocent souls in the school that day, it would be wrong, and just as careless, to shuffle her death to the fringes of the story.
As many have noted, the presence of guns – and the ease with which Adam Lanza accessed them – speaks more to a larger culture than his mother’s individual choice, as negligent as it may have been. After all, Marcotte writes, “Nancy Lanza is far from the only person who will die this year at the end of a gun she presumably bought to make herself feel powerful.”
And her fate should also start a second conversation about the kind of help more generally available (and more often not available at all) to families struggling with a troubled child, both from the health care and education system, and from their neighbours. And that conversation can’t be about pointing fingers. It’s one that asks: How can society better extend a hand? In that complicated discussion, there are no easy villains. And in that discussion, we may eventually count 28 victims