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Authors: Matthew Lysiak

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BOOK: Newtown: An American Tragedy
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“I’m not going!” he screamed at his mother, Nancy. “You can’t make me!”

Adam wasn’t worried about the teachers or the schoolwork. He’d always been a good student and the schoolwork never proved much of a challenge. It was the thought of entering the massive building and confronting the hundreds of students who would crowd around screaming, talking, and running that had set him off.

“I won’t go!” he shouted.

It was the type of showdown that Nancy Lanza had grown accustomed to. Her son Adam was first diagnosed at age five with
Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction. Shortly after the diagnosis Nancy began telling friends that Adam had a second condition, sensory processing disorder, something the family would spend the rest of their lives struggling to understand.

Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, affects the body’s sensory signals. The SPD Foundation describes the disorder as signals that are not organized into appropriate responses, creating a neurological traffic jam that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to correctly integrate sensory data.

Nancy Lanza turned on her calm, commanding voice and tried to reason with her son. “Adam, it will be okay,” she pleaded.

It was no use. Her son wasn’t in a state to reason with him. He was suffering.

“I’m not going,” he repeated again, his voice rising.

It was a power struggle that would repeat itself nearly every day through the first few weeks of the school year. At times, Nancy was able to persuade her son to go, but more commonly it was Adam who prevailed and would be allowed to stay home and play his video games or spend time on his computer.

Throughout the struggles, Nancy tried to keep her son’s issues in perspective. “Adam has been experiencing a lot of significant changes at home,” she confided to a relative in September 2006. “This is his way of working through it.”

And it
had
been a challenging time inside the Lanza household. Earlier that year Nancy had separated from Adam’s father, Peter—again.

Nancy Champion was a senior at Sanborn Regional High
School in Kingston, New Hampshire, in 1978 when she first met Peter Lanza. Nicknamed “Beanie,” the slender high school senior, with her inviting smile framed by long blond waves, melted over an older boy with “beautiful eyes” she met who had come from nearby Haver Hill High School in Massachusetts, fifteen miles north.

Peter Lanza was nicknamed “Mousey” in his high school yearbook, but his two brothers knew the shy, thin boy as P.J. He came from a modest upper-middle-class upbringing brought about from his father Peter Sr.’s income as a successful insurance salesman at John Hancock. Young and in love, the pair married three years afterward in 1981, though, in hindsight, Peter may have later realized that he’d overlooked Nancy’s inherently assertive and litigious nature when, after the couple got into a minor car accident, his girlfriend complained of injuries and filed suit against him for damages. Peter’s insurance company decided to settle.

The couple built a three-story Cape Cod–style house on two and a half acres of land on the six-acre lot owned by the Champion family next to the 1760s homestead where Nancy was born. The couple lived alone there for several years until 1988 when their first son, Ryan, was born on April 10. Four years later, on April 22, 1992, Nancy gave birth to Adam, a “beautiful, baby boy.”

During those years as a new mom, she worked as a stockbroker at the John Hancock mutual life insurance company in Boston’s financial district, while Peter went to get his undergraduate degree in accounting at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and then a master’s in taxation at Bentley University. Nancy wound up filing suit against John Hancock, claiming the company discriminated against her after conceiving Adam; she said she earned consistently
high marks on job evaluations for eight years, and it was only during her pregnancy—with bouts of morning sickness and other complications, including hypoglycemia—that her performance began to suffer. Nancy was forced to take a medical leave of absence while the company was going through departmental changes, but she was apparently told that she would still have a job after the restructuring. Just as she was about to return from maternity leave in 1993, Nancy learned she was among the employees who would be let go. She brought a suit against the company and the case was eventually settled.

In addition to winning this settlement, Nancy and Peter had their marriage blessed by tremendous financial success—Peter landed a highly paid position in Newtown with General Electric; so ultimately, the responsibility of raising the two boys fell primarily on Nancy.

The couple’s clashing personalities made them seem an off pairing to friends: Nancy was vivacious and passionate, arguably too much so at times, while Peter was more private and steered clear of social gatherings, preferring the comfort of his work to the company of others.

“Peter worked all the time. He would leave for work before the children woke up and not get home until after they’d gone to sleep,” said Nancy’s friend Marvin LaFontaine. “Nancy never complained about it, but it was obvious that she had a lot on her shoulders. She was essentially a single mom, but that was something she took great pride in.”

It wasn’t long after making the move to Newtown that their
marriage began to fall apart. In Nancy’s view they both had shortcomings.

“Peter has the wonderful ability of being able to talk to anyone, and get along with anyone in the short term. He is definitely very focused on his career, and rarely socializes . . . but when he finds himself forced into a social situation, he does very well,” Nancy wrote to a friend in an email on March 12, 1999. “Let’s not confuse the ability to seem friendly and sincere with the real thing. He can chitchat with someone and seem like best of friends, and then later say some of the most awful things about that person. It is pretty funny, really. One night I asked him if he could think of ANYTHING nice to say about ANYONE (personal . . . someone handling a business deal at work well would not qualify). He was silent for about five minutes . . . I thought he was ignoring my question. Finally he said, ‘Reagan was a good president.’ It took him that long to think of something nice to say, and even then, it wasn’t at all personal! He has few friends . . . no hobbies . . . but he certainly excels at his job.”

In another email she wrote, “Peter works incredible hours . . . he leaves at 5:00 to 5:30 in the morning and gets home usually around 10:00. Sometimes he comes home early . . . 7:30 . . . and sometimes later . . . 12:00. Major workaholic . . .”

In the same email thread, Nancy turned her critical eye inward: “I definitely am a very different person depending on the setting. I can come across as being very reserved in a group setting, but tend to relax more in small, intimate groups or with close friends. I tend to be more critical and judgmental . . . but I am like that all the time, not just in public or private. My dearest friends know that I am like
that . . . some other, more distant people might take me for a bit of a snob . . . but who cares about them? The best thing (I think) about me is that if I don’t like someone, I never feel the need to pretend or be fake about it. Everyone knows where they stand with me.”

By 2001, now settled in Newtown for thirteen years, Nancy asked Peter to move out. He would move back in twice more over the next seven years, but the couple couldn’t seem to make it work. Friends said it was Nancy who wanted the separation and eventually the divorce, which she filed for on December 9, 2008, stating that “the marriage has broken down irretrievably and there is no possibility of getting back together.” According to court records Nancy checked yes for financial disputes but no for parenting disputes as reasons for the split.

Adam didn’t take the news of his parents’ latest separation well. He was also upset by the prospect of another move. Nancy had been openly contemplating moving to Avon, Connecticut, a town sixty miles upstate, which would mean a whole new environment for Adam—something he found deeply unsettling.

In addition, a growing distance had developed between Adam and his brother, Ryan, four years his senior. Unlike Adam, Ryan was socially well adjusted, one of the popular kids at Newtown High. He had recently gotten a car, too, and like most teens, began spending more time away from home, hanging out with friends. It wouldn’t be much longer before Adam’s popular older brother would graduate from high school and go on to Quinnipiac University, leaving him alone in the house with his mother.

Adam, Nancy explained to friends, sees the world differently. The tantrums were just his way of coping. Still, she noticed that
the anxiety building inside Adam appeared to be gaining momentum. The outbursts were becoming more extreme, and what had started out as another typical episode that fall morning in 2006 had quickly morphed into something far more disturbing. Adam began hyperventilating and at times appeared unresponsive. There was something about his behavior that frightened Nancy. She was at a complete loss and feared her son was having a nervous breakdown. She corralled him into her car and drove him to Danbury Hospital.

Once in the emergency room, Nancy told the doctors that her son had been experiencing an increasing amount of anxiety. He was panicking at the idea of going to school and being placed in large groups of people. She also explained his hypersensitivity to touch caused by his sensory perception disorder.

Adam couldn’t always recognize physical pain or hot and cold temperatures like most children, but he could easily be overwhelmed by the fabrics of his own clothes as they brushed up against his skin or the texture of food inside his mouth as he chewed. The slightest involuntary touch from another person was sometimes enough to make him withdraw for hours.

Nancy wondered aloud whether her son had outgrown what had previously been diagnosed as borderline autism into something much more extreme. “Something is very wrong with him,” she told the doctor, imploring them to help her with her son.

The attending physician was not nearly as alarmed as the nervous mother. Adam had been handed a questionnaire to fill out. One question asked: “Are you suicidal?” He checked no. Another asked: “Would you hurt others?” Again, Adam answered no.

After the doctor had finished examining him, asking several
more questions while Nancy waited in another room, he concluded that the young boy wasn’t a danger to himself or to others, and was free to leave. No medication was needed, Nancy was told, but she should be sure to follow up later with her family pediatrician.

Nancy wasn’t having it and demanded an explanation. She had gone to school counselors, specialists, her family physician, and now an emergency room doctor, and no one could give her an answer—worse, no one seemed to be taking her concerns seriously.

“This isn’t normal behavior,” she insisted to the doctor.

Before leaving the emergency room Nancy asked for one more thing: a note to give to the school that would allow her to keep him at home for the remainder of his eighth-grade year. At home, Nancy believed, she could nurture her son into an improved state of mind and better prepare him for high school. The doctor refused.

I
t was clear from an early age that Adam Lanza was different. His aversion to social activities became apparent by age four. He rarely found enjoyment in playing with other children. The tot often tagged along when older brother, Ryan, went to Cub Scout meetings, only to separate himself from the crowd. He refused to engage in group activities and shrank away into the arms of his mother if another child touched him.

“It was obvious to everyone that as a child, Adam was different,” recalled Marvin LaFontaine, who often helped out at Scout meetings. “There was a weirdness about him. He wasn’t a normal child. Nancy would tell me: ‘Don’t touch Adam, he doesn’t like being touched.’ We all just thought he would grow out of it. He never did.”

There was, however, one child his age Adam did not seem to mind. Jordan LaFontaine, Marvin’s son, was one of Adam’s only friends. Nancy and Marvin would often take the two, along with Ryan, to a fifty-yard stretch Marvin had carved out on his property where they would shoot an aluminum Ruger 10/22 at paper bull’s-eyes and other targets in the shapes of woodchucks or crows. From an early age, Adam was comfortable with a firearm.

“Adam was four at the time he shot his first gun,” Marvin remembered. “We enjoyed target shooting. We were safe . . . Nancy and I were very strict about it . . . She was very, very detail oriented and very, very strict with her kids about safety.”

Nancy was always “fiercely protective” of her youngest son, checking and double-checking that he was wearing his safety goggles and earplugs before allowing him near the weapon.

The aluminum Ruger 10/22 was Adam’s first gun. It was lightweight and easy to handle and, in Nancy’s opinion, the ideal weapon for her young child. Adam’s tiny face would tense up as he concentrated while his mother would patiently go over, step-by-step, the proper hold and technique for the small firearm.

“From the beginning you could tell that Adam liked the feel of the gun in his hands and that he was a quick learner,” Marvin said. “When Adam was focused he could really focus and in no time he became a good shot.

“He seemed to really enjoy himself on the range—and Nancy, too. She would enjoy watching Adam as he would practice with the little rifle.”

Nancy was a country girl through and through. She grew up on a farm with her mother, Dorothy, a school nurse at the local
elementary school; her father, Donald, who worked as a pilot for TWA; her two brothers, James and Donnie; a sister, Carol; and a dozen kittens, chickens, sheep, and cows. (She painstakingly gave each one its own unique name. One particular hen was her favorite; she named it Phyllis Diller because of the big plume of feathers that came out of the top of its head.)

Nancy had developed a love of hunting from an early age and fancied herself one of the boys. As a young teen she would go out with her brothers in the lush acres of forest surrounding her hometown and hunt game. By the age of sixteen, she could skin her own deer. Her adolescent summers were spent playing in the great outdoors all day with her brothers, often with weapons.

BOOK: Newtown: An American Tragedy
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