Part of me wishes I hadn't read this book.
My interest in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, is deeply personal. One of the victims was 6-year-old Avielle Richman, whose mother and father, Jeremy Richman and Jennifer Hensel, are scientists who lived and worked in San Diego before moving to Newtown, Conn. Our families celebrated birthdays, enjoyed barbecues and went trick-or-treating together. Avielle loved archery and kung fu and had a passion for stories. She possessed an outsized personality, incorrigible and impossibly cute.
You won't find any of that in Newtown: An American Tragedy by Matthew Lysiak, and that's the way it should be. Lysiak went to Newtown to cover the story when it broke and then stayed in Connecticut for several months gathering material for the book. He talked to those who wanted to be talked to and respected the privacy of those who didn't. These are good people who have suffered enough, and Lysiak seems to have respected their wishes.
Unfortunately, it's one very bad person whose story dominates the narrative.
Adam Lanza is a person who resists knowing. His crime, his horrible actions that day, didn't make him that way. He was a cipher all his life. Even to his family. Normally, one says "friends and family" but Lanza didn't have any friends. Ever.
Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and sensory-perception disorder, a condition that left him vulnerable to loud noises and sudden movements. A walk down a school hallway could send him into an anxiety attack. A classmate remembered, "He always looked terrified as he walked down the hall. His shoulders would slump and he would cling to the wall."
Although Lanza was highly intelligent, with an intuitive understanding of computers, his mother, Nancy, pulled him out of high school after his sophomore year. He enrolled in St. Rose of Lima, but after eight weeks, he came home, this time for good. Nancy didn't know what to do: "If one more person tells me that he is going to grow out of it, I think I'm going to lose my mind."
Without school to draw him out, Lanza went deeper into isolation. He hated to be touched and insisted on being left alone, preferably in a darkened room, where he could indulge his passion for violent video games.
Everyone familiar with what happened that day knows that Nancy, who was Lanza's first victim, was a gun enthusiast and that her home was stockpiled with weapons and ammunition. Nancy is not entirely unsympathetic. Even when she was married, her husband worked long hours and was seldom home. She was fiercely protective of her son and tirelessly advocated on his behalf, sometimes going so far as to sit in on his classes.
But something changed after Lanza dropped out of school. Instead of taking the next step toward adulthood and independence, he retreated into his shell and could not be coaxed out. His mother, who'd likely burned out as her son's sole caregiver, started taking trips, leaving Lanza alone. Lanza's father had started a new family and when Adam's brother Ryan was brought in for questioning after the tragedy, he told authorities he hadn't seen his brother in more than a year. So what was Lanza doing?
Plotting, apparently. He combed over articles about mass shooters, leaving a trail of Wikipedia edits on the sites he visited, correcting the information about the type of weapons and ammunition the killers used. Police found a spreadsheet that was more than 7 feet long. It was a list of mass murderers that detailed their weapons and how many people they'd killed. Lanza was keeping score.
Lysiak doesn't presume to know what sent Lanza over the edge. He outlines scenarios and raises questions, but that's it. This isn't a book like Columbine by Dave Cullen, a comprehensive investigation with the benefit of 10 years of research, study and analysis. Newtown is a book that takes us inside Sandy Hook Elementary and describes what happened on one terrible day.
Which makes Lysiak's examination of our burgeoning mental-health crisis, and how poorly equipped our healthcare system is to handle the needs of those who suffer from mental-health issues, something of a welcome surprise.
He also profiles the Avielle Foundation that Jennifer and Jeremy established in their daughter's name to foster brain-health education and research. Lysiak is even donating a portion of his proceeds to the Avielle Foundation.
Of course, it's going to take more than well-intentioned donations to erase the pain, but it's a step toward a safer, saner society.