Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Adam Lanza

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 14, 2014

Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six teachers Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., in 2012. His father has spoken to the media for the first time since the incident.

Terry Gross interviews Andrew Solomon  who interviewed Peter Lanza about his deceased son/murderer Adam Lanza. Mr. Solomon concludes that the diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder narrowed the field for the parents that they did not think of Adam as a potential mass murderer. Mr. Solomon argues that diagnoses both help and hinder the understanding of a child. Although I have deep respect for Mr. Solomon, I think he missed the point. Adam Lanza’s behavior may not be the result of psychopathology or trauma. It may be an unknowable part of his motivational system, that he killed innocent children and then himself. The relationship of violence to psychopathology is never clear. Adam’s “Asperger’s” diagnosis does not narrow the field to say that he is or is not going to be aggressive towards others.The diagnosis did not stop the parents, the therapists or the teachers from postulating his potentially violent future. Apparently, the extent of his violence was shocking to all. As I have said many times in these posts, violence should not be shocking. As human beings, we all have the urge to become aggressive, and so destruction is part of the human condition. I am in no way saying that the professionals or the parents should have been able to predict his behavior, but I am saying that whenever anyone is off center, when their mental state tilts too far in one direction, then violence is always a possibility. The fact that we can’t forecast the future does not mean we should be shocked by it. Adam Lanza’s violence was one of the saddest days in recent US history; that is certain. To say that his diagnosis prevented further understanding of his mental condition does not capture the complexity of the human brain. I thank Andrew Solomon for taking the time to interview Peter Lanza, as Mr. Solomon helps us develop compassion for the parents of these very unstable and unpredictable offspring. Yet, he claims that he learned how diagnoses take away from deeper inquiry. By my way of thinking, deeper inquiry is an ongoing process, not related to a diagnostic label. This inquiry never stops, no matter how long or how intensely I work with patients.


8 Responses to “Adam Lanza”

  1. Ellen said

    I kind of think that your view as a psychiatrist who does therapy, is different from most peoples’. In my reading of the article, the point that once there was a diagnosis, any strange behaviour Adam exhibited was put down to that condition, made sense. For a lot of people, a diagnosis is the end point, and human motivation / behaviour / history is not questioned further. If you’re diagnosed as bipolar for instance, then any of your feelings or actions can be put down to that brain condition, without inquiring further.

    It seems like in your work you go beyond that, looking at patients’ personal histories and motivations. A whole lot of medical professionals, and the public in general, don’t do that – a diagnosis is enough of an explanation for them. Which is one of the big pitfalls of diagnosis IMO. It can be a cop out.

    • Thanks, Ellen. It makes me sad what you say, although I know it is true. A diagnosis should be a beginning point and not an end-point. I was trained to see each person as unique, and as such, a diagnosis is only a short-hand way to describe someone, but not the end-game. It only communicates a ball-park understanding, without the specifics of the individual person. Further inquiry is the fun part of my job.Seeing how each person navigates his/her world, is what makes psychiatry endlessly fascinating. I can’t imagine working any other way. Thanks again.

  2. Ashana M said

    I have to disagree that violence is a part of our natures. I side with Hannah Arendt. We may be aggressive by nature, but mass murder is against our nature. Most people must be taught to kill, because severely harming others causes most of us great empathic distress. It is only following a learning process that most of us are capable of setting aside our distress in order to do it, and many people who are capable of killing in the moment are traumatized by having done so. We are shocked by those who can simply choose to kill, because it represents a completely different mindset–one that is missing a core part of being human, namely affective empathy.

    I think it is right and appropriate we feel shock. Shock is a part of the empathic distress we feel even when we are far removed from the victim’s suffering. All human-caused trauma ultimately feels shocking and horrifying to the victim. As witnesses, we put ourselves in the place of the victim and suffer in a similar (although smaller) way. If we stop feeling that shock, it is because we have lost a part of what it means to be human.

  3. Shelly said

    Once Adam Lanza did what he did, we searched for meaning by looking for a mental diagnosis which fit. We found “Asperger’s” and said “Aha! Now it makes sense.” Asperger’s = violent. I don’t agree with Ashana that most people must be taught to kill…the young people that caused the Columbine disaster or Adam Lanza or other copy-cat disasters…who taught them to kill? Their parents? Certainly not. Their brains tricked them into thinking that the world was against them and they wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. I empathize with their victims but I empathize more with their parents–it is they who have to live with the guilt of what their offspring have done for the rest of their lives. The victims are naturally felt sorry for and are taken care of–they and their families. They can grieve and get past it. But can the parents of the perpetrators? No, never.

    • Ashana M said

      Given that mass murder is fairly rare, it is atypical behaviour, and mass murderers are far from being “most people.” The rarity of mass murder is especially striking in this country, because really anyone can procure a collection of weapons that will each, individually kill a hundred people in a matter of minutes. If this level of violence were instinctive for us, you would expect a mass murder every week–not a few times a year in a particularly bad year. There is a considerable body of research on genocide and mass killings that does indicate a learning process is involved for the majority of perpetrators. For the Adam Lanzas, this process need not occur. They don’t feel empathic distress and don’t need to find ways to overcome it.

    • The rarity of this type of violence is fortunate, although as with all diseases, rare events happen rarely, but they happen. I want to underscore Shelly’s point that the parents of these criminals suffer silently, often with tremendous guilt, even though they may not have contributed to the tragedy. Peter Lanza and Andrew Solomon have done a great service to these parents. Thanks.

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