In Peter Lanza’s new house, on a secluded private road in Fairfield County, Connecticut, is an attic room overflowing with shipping crates of what he calls “the stuff.” Since the day in December, 2012, when his son Adam killed his own mother, himself, and twenty-six people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, strangers from across the world have sent thousands upon thousands of letters and other keepsakes: prayer shawls, Bibles, Teddy bears, homemade toys; stories with titles such as “My First Christmas in Heaven”; crosses, including one made by prison inmates. People sent candy, too, and when I visited Peter, last fall, he showed me a bag of year-old caramels. He had not wanted to throw away anything that people sent. But he said, “I was wary about eating anything,” and he didn’t let Shelley Lanza—his second wife—eat any of the candy, either. There was no way to be sure it wasn’t poisoned. Downstairs, in Peter’s home office, I spotted a box of family photographs. He used to display them, he told me, but now he couldn’t look at Adam, and it seemed strange to put up photos of his older son, Ryan, without Adam’s. “I’m not dealing with it,” he said. Later, he added, “You can’t mourn for the little boy he once was. You can’t fool yourself.”
Since the shootings, Peter has avoided the press, but in September, as the first anniversary of his son’s rampage approached, he contacted me to say that he was ready to tell his story. We met six times, for interviews lasting as long as seven hours. Shelley, a librarian at the University of Connecticut, usually joined us and made soup or chili or salads for lunch. Sometimes we played with their German shepherd. When Peter speaks, you can still hear a strong trace of rural Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, where he and his first wife—Nancy, Adam’s mother—grew up. He is an affable man with a poise that often hides his despair. An accountant who is a vice-president for taxes at a General Electric subsidiary, he maintains a nearly fanatical insistence on facts, and nothing annoyed him more in our conversations than speculation—by me, the media, or anyone else. He is not by nature given to self-examination, and often it was Shelley who underlined the emotional ramifications of what he said.
Peter hadn’t seen his son for two years at the time of the Sandy Hook killings, and, even with hindsight, he doesn’t think that the catastrophe could have been predicted. But he constantly thinks about what he could have done differently and wishes he had pushed harder to see Adam. “Any variation on what I did and how my relationship was had to be good, because no outcome could be worse,” he said. Another time, he said, “You can’t get any more evil,” and added, “How much do I beat up on myself about the fact that he’s my son? A lot.”
Depending on whom you ask, there were twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight victims in Newtown. It’s twenty-six if you count only those who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School; twenty-seven if you include Nancy Lanza; twenty-eight if you judge Adam’s suicide a loss. There are twenty-six stars on the local firehouse roof. On the anniversary of the shootings, President Obama referred to “six dedicated school workers and twenty beautiful children” who had been killed, and the governor of Connecticut asked churches to ring their bells twenty-six times. Some churches in Newtown had previously commemorated the victims by ringing twenty-eight times, but a popular narrative had taken hold in which Nancy—a gun enthusiast who had taught Adam to shoot—was an accessory to the crime, rather than its victim. Emily Miller, an editor at the Washington Times, wrote, “We can’t blame lax gun-control laws, access to mental health treatment, prescription drugs or video games for Lanza’s terrible killing spree. We can point to a mother who should have been more aware of how sick her son had become and forced treatment.”
Inadequate gun control and poor mental-health care are problems that invariably define the debate after atrocities such as the one at Newtown. But, important as those issues are, our impulse to grasp for reasons comes, arguably, from a more basic need—to make sense of what seems senseless. When the Connecticut state’s attorney issued a report, in December, CNN announced, “Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza took motive to his grave.” A Times headline ran “CHILLING LOOK AT NEWTOWN KILLER, BUT NO ‘WHY.’ ” Yet no “motive” can mitigate the horror of a bloodbath involving children. Had we found out—which we did not—that Adam had schizophrenia, or had been a pedophile or a victim of childhood abuse, we still wouldn’t know why he acted as he did.
Interview subjects usually have a story they want to tell, but Peter Lanza came to these conversations as much to ask questions as to answer them. It’s strange to live in a state of sustained incomprehension about what has become the most important fact about you. “I want people to be afraid of the fact that this could happen to them,” he said. It took six months after the shootings for a sense of reality to settle on Peter. “But it’s real,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be understood to be real.”
BACKGROUND: AP/Western Connecticut State University; Family Photograph: Courtesy Peter Lanza