According to author Matthew Lysiak, mainstream media accounts of the Newtown, Conn. Massacre may not tell the full story regarding one of the grimmest tragedies in U.S. history.
“Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us…the observers…every person in this house. And I think -- I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us.”
-- William Peter Blatty, “The Exorcist” (1971)
“We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.”
I remain somewhat conflicted about Matthew Lysiak’s new book, “Newtown: An American Tragedy.” On one hand, it is a spectacularly written account of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, filled to the brim with (most likely reputable) information on one of the gravest mass shootings in the nation’s history. At the same time, however, I question whether the author’s claims that his work is “the definitive journalistic account” of the incident is truly a credible statement, especially when you consider that the “definitive journalistic account” of the Columbine massacre wasn’t released until a decade after the incident. Indeed, the full Connecticut state police write-up has only recently been released, and who knows whether full documentation regarding Adam Lanza’s education and medical histories will ever see the light of day. When Lysiak calls his own work -- a relatively scant 250 page read, at that -- the be-all, end-all write up on Sandy Hook, I can’t help but remain more than a little skeptical of his assertions.
Lysiak spent a year more or less living in Newtown, speaking to individuals impacted by the Dec. 14 massacre. Of course, a lot of the author’s contacts are quoted under pseudonyms, but since a majority of his details match up with the precious few details officials actually have revealed about Adam Lanza and the shooting itself, I’d venture to guess that Lysiak is a pretty credible source. Of course, it’s where Lysiak diverges from the “accepted narrative” regarding Sandy Hook that makes the book most intriguing.
The few “official” documents we’ve been given about the massacre and the Lanza household paint Adam’s mother as a deeply committed, if not ridiculously naïve, caregiver. Citing friends and family of Nancy Lanza, however, Lysiak said that she was more than aware of her youngest son’s weirder proclivities, telling her beer drinking buddies that she had snooped through Adam’s room and uncovered seriously disturbing drawings, and even confided in some that her kid was beyond the point of hopelessness shortly before he embarked upon his murderous spree. Really, the author’s portrait of Nancy is one of the more intriguing elements of the entire book, as he describes her as a super-obsessive, highly-combative country girl (financially buttressed by a $200,000 plus a year alimony) that may or may not have been in the first stages of developing multiple sclerosis prior to her execution. Really, it’s the small details that make the book so entrenching, like when the author cites Nancy’s street assault in the 1980s as a possible trigger for her gun fetish, and how Lysiak completely flips the script about her uber-protective image by describing how she took numerous cross-country trips in 2012, leaving Adam at home for days on end without even bothering to call him. Regarding Peter Lanza, there’s not a whole lot here, although the author feels fit to tell us that he was a workaholic Reaganite, however.
The portrait of Adam Lanza in the book is pretty much what we’d expect. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age five, Lysiak also claims that he was diagnosed with the non-DSM-certified “illness” of sensory processing disorder, which explains the his highly-documented aversion to lights and hallway chatter. He is also described as having some sort of physical tactile disorder (unable to differentiate between hot and cold, yet highly irritated by certain fabrics and food textures), which several analysts later in the book posit as a root cause to Lanza’s future behavior, with one pundit going as far as to say that it was Lanza’s inability to properly communicate his dismay with others that ultimately led to his mass murder of 27 individuals.
The big turning point, the author suggests, was when Nancy took Adam out of Newtown High. As a member of the Tech Club, Lanza’s one-time mentor Robert Novia said that he was getting pretty close to adjusting to high school life, and that with a little bit more time and assistance from the faculty (who went as far as to giving the boy an escort every time he ventured out into the hallways), his interaction and communication skills were surely on the precipice of improving. With Novia leaving the school, however, the author said that Nancy lost the one school personnel figure she could trust, and as a result, decided to homeschool her kid and sign him up for community college classes instead. It was Nancy’s utter spite of the local school system, Lysiak seems to be stating, that perhaps represented the first toppled domino in a chain reaction that would eventually lead to the gruesome murders of 20 children and six educators…not to mention her own demise.
There’s really not much new in the book about Lanza himself at all. We hear about his video gaming and Internet addiction, and his obsession with military weaponry. Ultimately, the only new facts I learned from the book about Adam was that he was a vegan and he really, really wanted to join the Marines. One of the interesting points brought up by the book is that it very well could have been Nancy telling Adam that he wasn’t cut out for military duty that served as her son’s final breaking point -- according to Lysiak, that’s precisely what she told Adam, just days before the massacre.
Perhaps now is a good time to trudge up Lysiak’s most incendiary claim in the entire book -- that Lanza’s original destination that morning wasn’t the elementary school, but Newtown High. According to an unnamed source, Lanza’s vehicle was picked up on the school’s security cameras, and apparently, he floored it out of there upon seeing two cop cars in the parking lot. Needless to say, for those of you out there that feel as if the Sandy Hook Massacre could’ve have potentially been averted had school resource officers been on campus…well, feel free to put a feather in your cap anytime you’d like, I suppose.
The accounts of the Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre itself is one of the most gripping, disturbing, and horrifyingly mesmerizing slices of nonfiction that I’ve read in a long time. Lysiak’s graphic, highly-detailed account of the morning of the massacre -- and a bit later on in the book, the funerals for all 26 victims -- is reason enough to purchase the tome. The heroics of Jesse Lewis, Rick Thorne and Dawn Hochsprung described by the author provide an amazing counterbalance to the sheer horror of the morning’s bloodshed, which is painted in an almost unbearably visceral, detached style, sure to inspire nightmares for all but the most deadened readers. The classroom-by-classroom account of the morning is unforgettably tense and nerve-wracking, and without question the most intricate documentation of the incident out there. Prepare to feel nauseous when you read that some of the teachers in the building didn’t even have keys for their own classrooms -- meaning that, in spite of all of the politicking about gun control and mental health and other sociocultural influences, the one element most responsible for the deaths of two dozen innocent people was the school simply not giving its personnel the ability to lock their own goddamn doors.
The final fourth of Lysiak’s book is the most philosophical section of the book, in which he glosses over the shooting’s political and cultural impact. We hear your usual stuff about gun control (all you need to know there? After the massacre, five states intensified their gun laws, while 15 loosened them), mental health access (surprise, in the U.S., it’s not very good) and whether or not Adam Lanza was a bona-fide psychopath (which, considering the fact that the APA doesn’t recognize “psychopathy” as an actual mental illness, is something of a moot point.)
And then we get to perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, in which we hear comments from Monsignor Robert Weiss, who was also asked by the author to pen the book’s foreword. After hearing all of this standard rhetoric about autism and violent video games and bad parenting and psychiatric drugs and gun laws, Nicole Hockley -- whose son Dylan Hockley, was among the 26 killed in the rampage -- turns everything around and makes the following statement:
“Perhaps if there was more engagement within a community with neighbors looking out for each other, supporting each other, then maybe they would have gotten help in a different sort of way. But to know everyone on your street except for one house, and that happens to be a house with people that -- or a person who does this -- that’s kind of hard to swallow.”
I’m not sure if the author really intended on making a central message to his book, but if I had to venture a guess, that would be my key takeaway. At the end of the day, could it have been that the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre may have been prevented had others in the lives of Nancy and Adam Lanza simply talked to them? If anything, what “Newtown: An American Tragedy” screams loudest is the unmistakable power of community involvement. Half the book is about how a family, completely isolated from the world around them, spiraled into absolute madness, and the other half of the book is about how individuals broke away from their own self-induced seclusion and came together for one another in a time of unthinkable chaos. Pro-social bonds is what gave Newtown life after an unspeakable tragedy, and it appears that a lack of pro-social bonds is what -- more than guns, mental illness and violent media combined -- sparked the deranged thoughts of a total shut-in.
As stated earlier, I’m still a little on the fence about the work, as a journalistic offering. Yes, it is incredibly well written and definitely worth reading for the narrative alone, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel as if the total book is a bit empty and devoid of hard information. Clearly, there is a LOT of info about the incident and Adam Lanza that hasn’t been publicized yet, and that official information may indeed invalidate everything the author posits here. I feel as if Lysiak himself knew he was a bit light on material, as he trudges up several tidbits over and over again throughout the novel -- something tells me he was trying DESPERATELY to beef up his word count and get that thing out there for the holiday season. That, and there are some flat out bullshit miffs in the tome, including a passage in which he says the kids at Columbine shot up their school because their video game systems were taken away from them. The fact that Lysiak doesn’t cite ANY sources in the book is another point of contention; just remember that the information you read here, while very solid-sounding, may not be the utter and complete “truth” about the incident.
So all in all? “Newtown” is a very engaging book, with some downright masterful accounts of one of our nation’s darkest hours. And in some ways, it’s an interesting philosophical treatise on the human condition -- the incredibly complicated thing that it is, especially in today’s machine-assisted, highly impersonalized cyber-society. That said, I still believe it’s a far cry from being the “ultimate” book on the Sandy Hook slayings; it’s an excellent summary, no doubt, but it’s most certainly not the all-encompassing report that the author -- or his publishing company, at least -- claims it to be.