Aspie Adam Lanza? Aspergers, the killings in Sandy Hook, and living together as humans

Adam Lanza in middle school

Adam Lanza in middle school

The killings in Connecticut had a profound effect on me. I couldn’t manage to do much of anything on Saturday, but I talked to my wife and friends, went to church on Sunday and I started feeling better. The other recent mass killings didn’t affect me so deeply, not Aurora or the Sikh temple or Gabby Giffords or Virginia Tech. Maybe it was because it was little kids, or because there were so many of them.  Maybe it was because Adam Lanza seems to have had Aspergers.

One of my rotating topics is something I call Aspie Guy. I was in my 30’s when Aspergers made its first appearance in the DSM. I’ve never been officially tested or diagnosed, but I definitely have some of the classic symptoms, along with my brother and father. I’ve been working on the next Aspie Guy installment for the last couple weeks. My brother made an appointment to get tested with the woman who wrote the definitive book on Aspergers in adults (Indiebound listing here). I’m reading her book. In it she recommends a book called Loving Mr. Spock (Indiebound listing here)  which I’m also reading. It’s a memoir and guide for people emotionally entangled with Aspies.  Her approach to her Aspie lover is so loving and accepting as to seem nearly impossible.

We’re different, those with Asperger might say, we don’t always make sense to you, we’re hard to deal with, but we’re not really all that different. We were born this way and all we can do is to cope and assimilate as best we can. Being liked, accepted, loved and included is just as important to us as it is to you. We have had to work very hard, through confusion and frustration and nearly always on our own, for every bit of inclusion we’ve managed to find, inclusion you take for granted.

So Danny, the beloved Aspie in Loving Mr. Spock, and Adam Lanza had much different lives.  Both were strange, incomprehensible to those they grew up with, not well liked. Unhappy, confused, angry. People in the press are saying Aspergers, and for the practiced eye the signs are unamiguous.  Aspergers is a different neurology, it’s inborn, permanent and causes manifestations just like those remembered by Adam Lanza’s peers. “When called upon, he was intelligent, but nervous and fidgety, spitting his words out, as if having to speak up were painful,” “a troubled ‘genius’ who had a hard time fitting in during high school,” “He lugged around a black briefcase … and walked the hallways of his high school with his arms at his sides.”

“‘I never saw him with anyone. I can’t even think of one person that was associated with him,’ Olivia DeVivo told the Times. DeVivo added that she and other former classmates were not surprised by the killings.”

“‘He always seemed like he was someone who was capable of that because he just didn’t really connect with our high school, and didn’t really connect with our town,’ DeVivo said.”

“It’s not like people picked on him for it,” Matt Baier said. “From what I saw, people just let him be, and that was that.”

And that was that. Leaving a person out of the only culture he can possibly join doesn’t require a ringleader and doesn’t require cruelty. It only requires that a whole tapestry of non-required efforts and considerations never be made.

Many people with Aspergers are actively bullied and humiliated, so being left alone is a kind of blessing. But for people who have never had a taste of it it’s hard to imagine how almost supernaturally painful it is to live without being included.  Clifford Geertz, my favorite structural anthropologist, says that to be fully human a person must be accepted into a human culture.  “Man’s nervous system does not merely enable him to acquire culture, it positively demands that he do so if he is going to function at all. . . .A cultureless human being would probably turn out to be not an intrinsically talented though unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity.”

And here we arrive, from an unanticipated direction, at the description of Adam Lanza as a monster. People say “evil,” people say “monster,” like they’ve explained something.  What I mostly hear is relief that the person being described is forever assigned a category that couldn’t possibly include the person speaking. But Adam Lanza was perhaps a monster in the most fundamental sense – a being beyond the pale, like a ghost or one of the headless men with eyes in their shoulders.  Beings which are not included within the borders of humanity.  Clifford Geertz says, “without culture there are no men.”  Imagining people without a culture he describes a situation not dissimilar to the horrific events in Newtown: “Without the direction of cultural norms, the system of meaningful symbols, human behavior would be absolutely ungoverned. It would turn into chaos and a pandemonium of meaningless actions and emotional outbursts.”

I have to be careful here. I am not saying Adam Lanza is somehow absolved of responsibility for what he did on Friday, or that the crimes, grief, pain and devastation he caused shouldn’t be on his head. Though here things get both filled with passionate emotion and rather unclear. Adam Lanza is not the victim here, blame can’t be shifted away from him and onto some vague thing called “culture.” If he were still alive, maybe he’d be found “not guilty by reason of insanity.” If not, he’d be guilty, guilty of being evil, guilty of being a murderer, a criminal. Whatever category we put him in now, what happened has already happened, so it’s unclear how such categorization might help. Some people are angry, they believe he should be punished, they would seek revenge. In the immediate aftermath, when Ryan was the name given in the press, this sentiment gained some fair amount of currency: “I hope Ryan Lanza is hanging by his nutsack in the hottest pit of hell.”

Just to be clear. There is no connection between violence and Aspergers. People with Aspergers are not insane. Aspergers is not a mental illness. Nearly everyone with Aspergers is gentle, honest and vulnerable. They are completely at odds with prevailing images of what modern Americans are like, but they are not evil or dangerous or monsters.  Some of our most treasured human beings, hundreds who made indelible contributions to our culture and world, almost certainly had Aspergers. The danger is real that many people who have never heard of Aspergers will take this tragedy as their introduction and understanding of Aspergers, which would bring uncountable additional person-hours of misery into the world. See a heartfelt and cogent exploration of that possibility here.

The story we’re getting in bits and pieces seems like the product of a brilliant if somewhat unbalanced screenwriter. The basics are simple enough and quite vivid. Aspergers has a strong genetic component, is found more commonly among the males of particular genetic lineages. It’s sometimes called the Engineer’s Disease because Aspies often find success is fields like engineering, with its precise and clear cut materials and procedures, its mathematical and predictable nature, and undemanding requirements for social interaction. Peter Lanza, Adam’s father, is a very successful tax accountant, and his big brother Ryan is following in Dad’s footsteps. Dad used to work for Ernst & Young and now works at GE Energy Financial Services. Ryan’s living in Hoboken and doing well at Ernst & Young in Times Square. He’s a sweet-faced young man with “a sweet disposition.”

Aspies’ role in the economy brings to mind the film “A Day Without a Mexican.” It’s an open secret that certain professions – accounting, engineering, computer programming, scientific research – would substantially collapse if all our Aspies suddenly disappeared into a mysterious bank of fog.  Interesting too that huge corporations like GE rely on armies of tax accountants to manage to pay no federal corporate income taxes. You may not really connect with our high school or our town, but you sure can connect with the US tax code.

But the story quickly takes on stranger and darker aspects. Did Adam really have his big brother’s ID at the scene?  It’s been reported that he didn’t finish high school, didn’t have a job, lived in Newtown with his mother and didn’t leave the house too often. The house his mother was very reluctant to let people inside of. Living in Hoboken and working in Times Square must have seemed like paradise to Adam.

His mother Nancy, killed in her own home with her own gun, seems to have had issues of her own. She was a gun collector (avidly keeping collections of one kind or another is a common Asperger behavior, by the way). According to her landscaper, who couldn’t come in the house but could admire her guns on the front porch, “guns were her hobby. She told me she liked the single-mindedness of shooting.” Many people she knew didn’t even know she had a son Adam living at home. “Members of Nancy Lanza’s regular neighborhood dice game never got inside her home, either.” There was a regular neighborhood dice game?

These remarks from Olivia DeVivo’s are chilling, and could have been made by any of us, “You could tell that he felt so uncomfortable about being put on the spot. I think that maybe he wasn’t given the right kind of attention or help. I think he went so unnoticed that people didn’t even stop to realize that maybe there’s actually something else going on here — that maybe he needs to be talking or getting some kind of mental help. In high school, no one really takes the time to look and think, ‘Why is he acting this way?’ ”

I keep coming back to how this story might have come out differently if we lived in different kinds of communities, if even one person had made a different kind of effort.

You can find on the internet a fair number of stories meant to “restore our faith in humanity.” Incidents of people being decent to each other, doing the right thing and following their native impulses to care for their fellow humans, often quite creatively. My twitter friend Steve Morton (‏@srm1138) recently sent this: “I was needing this.—> from buzzfeed.  The impulses which lead to doing such things, and the impulse to witness and share these stories may well be decisive factors in whether the future of our species is remarkably challenging or merely impossible.

At any rate, a story which really got me from early last week involved someone who was curious about a guy at work. This guy was friendly to everyone, not matter how indifferent or hostile they might be. When he asked him about it, they decided to go out for a drink. His story involved being deeply in love with a girl and not having any friends. She wanted to get married, and he loved her profoundly, but didn’t want to get married without having any friends, no one to ask to be his best man, feeling like a failure and an embarrassment to her family. She eventually got married to someone else, a drug addict who beat her, and getting pregnant didn’t turn things around. In her unhappiness and despair she killed herself.  He was devastated, of course, and heartbroken. His relentless cheerfulness was an attempt to be ready, should he ever meet someone else, to have friends, especially someone who could stand up for him as best man. The two did in fact become friends, he did meet someone else, he is getting married, and the first new friend he made will be there as his best man.  There’s a hint of Aspergers in this story, the sparse social life, the decision to be indiscriminately friendly in what must have seemed pretty odd and unnatural behavior.

It’s not surprising that Aspies have a hard time of it. Their neurological differences end up exposing something fundamental in the arbitrary nature of the social construct and how deep our need for it is. The web of rules and procedures which constitute the culture we all need to be fully human is taken for granted – by those who can – to the point of near invisibility. Until someone comes along who doesn’t, who can’t, participate. It’s perhaps the most disturbing kind of otherness, a foreignness most people can’t abide. Travelling Americans like the people they meet to speak English so they don’t have the experience of not knowing what’s going on, of feeling confused and at sea. Aspies who learn to cope do so by learning social conventions and non-verbal cues as a foreign language, and many are able to find some kind of inclusion.

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 80 books which have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.  His most famous books are the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Another series is The Sunday Philosophy Club  (Indiebound listing here) which follows the close-to-home adventures of Isabel Dalhousie, an Edinburgh philosopher and the editor of The Review of Applied Ethics.  She has a tendency to mix in, one which invariably leads to complications and which her friends try to talk her out of. She explains she acts from a principle of “moral proximity,” the idea that when people you know are in need, you have no choice but to try to help them. Alexander McCall Smith suggests that the appeal of his books has to do with creating characters “in whom generosity of spirit is very strong.”

The killings in Newtown were a terrible thing, a blinding tragedy, so many dead, so many trains of human possibilities rendered moot,  and the living left behind, what they’ve now seen, and who they’ll have to learn to live without.

There’s a response that involves otherness. Can’t we construct a Great Wall to keep us safe on one side by keeping on the other side all the monsters, the maniacs, the unknowable madmen bent on senseless and unspeakable violence?  Something should be done. We should start a national conversation about gun control (and we should); we should take a fresh look at whether dismantling so much of our mental health infrastructure was a good idea (it wasn’t); we should get to work on screening, on profiles, on putting more security in place in our schools.  We should call for action, should pressure our leaders to do something.

Curiously, the most extreme and unthinkable events lead us to the ordinary, the every day, the close-to-home. This is, after all, our culture, our world, our towns and neighborhoods, and new laws and new procedures will not remake that.  They will not protect us because ultimately there’s not an us and them, we’re just an us. And how we’re living won’t keep working even this well.

We need to change how we’re living not just to prevent these kinds of horrors, but because it’s the right way to live. It’s bad for people to be treated the way Adam Lanza was treated, and bad for him and the people who treated him that way. There’s thousands and thousands of others who will never commit violence but who suffer every day because there’s not a table in the world with a place for them.

It was okay to ignore Adam Lanza in high school and forget about him after that. He was strange and he didn’t fit in. A genius maybe, but with that briefcase and walking with his arms strangely at his sides.  Everyone was living their own lives with their own friends and their own futures. It’s too bad about the weird guy, all the weird guys, but we’ve all got our lives to live. Shouldn’t a social worker or someone have made sure he was getting the help he needed?

There was a time when we knew each other’s business, when it was normal to comprehend each other’s lives and mix in, to offer to help, a time when even the village idiot and the town drunk had a place, were recognized, accepted, cared about. And maybe that’s not as true as I’d like to think and yes, many bad things took place in the imagined small town goodness of supposedly simpler times.

No matter how much it happened then, it desperately needs to be happening now. There are so many reasons that we need to build ourselves a community of connected, interdependent individuals and families, so there’s a place at a table somewhere for every one of us. If we don’t, I don’t think we’ll make it much longer without losing a fundamental part of ourselves we can’t live without. And as hard as things are for just about all of us now, things are going to start getting quite a bit tougher, and if a whole lot of us don’t start generating from within our own personal selves some new social capital, new ties that bind us to one another, we might very well find ourselves with lives that aren’t just difficult but are going toward impossible.

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