Thursday, December 20, 2012

Adam Lanza and All of Us

Adam Lanza in sixth grade
by Miki Kashtan

I am a Jew from Israel, where the Holocaust is a core formative story we all imbibed. One of the most astonishing experiences of my life was the moment in which I felt compassion for 7-year old Adolf Hitler. So astonishing, in fact, that I am a little afraid to expose this in public. I was reading Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, and I felt my inside shifting and changing as I was reading. Almost every word fell into a clear place, my heart and mind opened and stretched and realigned, and then, without knowing it was coming, there it was. The monster became human, so painfully human. I no longer hated him. It was a milestone on my path. Over time, I lost my ability to hate altogether.

From Alice Miller, and from many other sources, I have come to accept without any doubt that no one does violence to others without violence having been done to them earlier. From James Gilligan, whose work I have mentioned here before (e.g. here and here), I have come to understand the mechanism that translates violence received into violence enacted on others. From Marshall Rosenberg and my years of working with Nonviolent Communication, I now have a clear frame for making sense of the work of Miller, Gilligan and others. The language of human needs helps me understand violence with an open heart, without collapsing, without blaming, without shaming. 

By far not everyone who experiences violence passes it on to others. I am no expert, I have done no research, and I cannot claim to know anything. My humanity is strained when I hear of what happened in Newtown last Friday. I am aware, mostly, of helplessness, of profound, unspeakable grief, of a fundamental inability to change the violence I know about, or to even grasp the violence that remains hidden. And, yet, my heart aches to say something, to summon my strained humanity, in all its limitations, to the task of bringing love and understanding to what I have learned about violence and how it may apply to Adam Lanza and our thinking about what he has done.

Violence as Tragedy

Both Gilligan and Rosenberg have helped me see that violence is best understood as tragic, not immoral. Violence, especially of the kind that Adam Lanza committed, is a response to suffering that cannot be contained within one’s body and nervous system. The suffering, as Gilligan describes in his meticulous description of one murderer after another he had worked with as a prison psychiatrist, is the result of shame, most often shame related to the very experience of being human, sensitive, and having vulnerable needs. Gilligan talks about soul murder, which he believes has happened to all the people he interviewed in his 25 year career in the Massachusetts prison system. Unlike me, he speaks with the authority of countless encounters. I can only echo and make sense.

Last week, before knowing any of this would happen, I wrote about institutionalizing the experience of mattering. I am convinced, in the visceral, clear inner intuitive knowing that I sometimes have, that people who don’t know they matter are more likely to cause harm than those who have a clear sense of their place in the human family. Lanza had no friends, nothing he knew to do to make a life for himself, nothing to look forward to in life. I have no doubt he carried enormous shame about being so dependent on his mother, so unable to fend for himself. I have seen rage, shame, and numbness before being intertwined - both individually and in whole groups of humans.

The other strand of sense-making I got from Gilligan is that he believes every act of violence is an attempt to create justice, to right a wrong. When I first read this line, a puzzle was finally solved for me. It’s all about the inner reality, not about any kind of objective reality. While others may not see the “injustice” that is being addressed, the tortured soul of the one who commits violence knows.

It’s hard to salvage information from what I read about Adam Lanza, because the general tenor of what I read is already tainted by the assumption of evil, and therefore his own experience, what might have actually been going on inside of him over the years and as he set out to do his act, doesn’t feature. So I am left to guess, to imagine. I have no doubt that the precursor to violence is excruciating pain and discomfort, not a clear, calm resolve to inflict harm; enough inner turmoil that our natural human care gets turned off.

What might have happened to Adam Lanza early on in his life, maybe around the time of moving to the school where he executed his deadly actions, that created such a gulf of pain and anguish? I am thinking of that age, because Alice Miller points out that the specific acts of killers often give us direct clues to what happened to them. I doubt we will ever know. I still find asking the questions worthwhile, because they point me in the direction of prevention and of healing. At the very least, they allow me to mourn and grieve without turning anyone into a monster. We are all human, and something terrible happens to some of us. What can we do to have less, or none, of this horror happen?

Mental Illness or Social Problem

I then read an article written by Liza Long, the mother of a 13-year old who exhibits intensely violent behavior, and many of the comments written in response. Liza maintains that the issue is mental illness, not gun control. I am actively unsure, even as I attempt to maintain a most humble stance. Along with Gilligan, I see violence, and the specific problem of mass shootings, as a form of horrific and tragic feedback to society that we are not providing the conditions that allow people to thrive. I am troubled by what I see as medicalizing and individualizing a social problem, because I want the issue to be addressed on a societal level, and I worry that the individual lens will distract us away from the issues I want us to focus on.

I have a personal dear friend whose son struggles with similar issues to what Liza Long describes. My friend has had numerous wrenching, poignant conversations with her son, and has learned a lot about the level of his suffering. Like Long’s son, my friend’s son experiences sensory overload. He finds just being alive in the world so challenging. She has two other children who have none of these issues. Of course there is individual variation, and not everyone, no matter what has happened to them, will respond violently. My friend struggles to understand, to connect deeply with her son, to find ways of responding, reaching, supporting his body and soul without labeling him, without resorting to drugs or a system that is in any event broken. She uses the experience to learn, to help everyone grow, to become humble. I want to keep asking: what is happening on a larger scale that is affecting more and more children? What are we doing, collectively, that is resulting in so many children having so little capacity to manage their inner and outer lives? How can we  take societal responsibility for the conditions we have created that affect many more than those who engage in overt violence?

Last week, while away and not knowing of the killings, I listened to the book on tape version of The Freedom Writers Diary - the diary entries of a group of high school children who had been deemed unteachable, and who had the extraordinary good fortune of being assigned a teacher who found her way to their hearts to create lasting transformation. Many of these youngsters were gang members or drug addicts. The repeating theme from their diaries was that prior to meeting their teacher and working with her over time, they had no sense that they mattered, that their lives meant anything to anyone, including themselves, that anyone cared. How can it be that we have created an environment in which this experience is so common?

Part of what leaves me so doubtful about the idea that the issue is one of mental illness is its acknowledged correlation with low income. If poor people are more likely to experience mental health issues, I am once again drawn to seeing the social dimension rather than the medicalized, individualized picture. I would prefer to see depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other forms of emotional suffering as responses to intolerable conditions rather than as the issue itself. Treating the symptoms rather than the underlying conditions is, as I wrote about some time ago, a form of eliminating feedback loops. By labeling something as mental illness we are not seeing the patterns and are less likely to shift them. 

What Can We Do?

The very first thing I wish for is honesty about the role of violence in our lives. At every turn we learn, again and again, that violence is an acceptable solution to conflicts and issues. The media, video games, our foreign policy, and our criminal justice system all demonstrate the same logic. Whatever the personal traits of a single individual, and whatever else we want to say about access to guns, Adam Lanza didn’t invent the option of a violent response. Blaming specific individuals and calling them monsters when so much violence is a daily presence will not create any real shift. If we are serious about reducing or eliminating violence, I believe it would take a fundamental and deeper examination of the very premises and foundations of how we live our lives, from the metaphors we use to the role models we look up to.
Before concluding this piece, I read a response that spoke deeply to me. Sharif Abdullah, with whose message I find frequent resonance, is inviting us to break out of the soul pain and emptiness we feel, and aim to transform the culture of violence we live in. Nothing can undo the horror that happened. I can’t begin to imagine how the families and friends of those who died, as well as the rest of the children and staff at the school will ever heal from this trauma. I can only hope that enough of us learn to identify the true causes of such horror, and come together to create a truly nonviolent culture in which pain is met with love every step of the way. Since violence is inevitably born of unmet needs, there is no question that the path to eliminating violence is the path of finding ways of meeting more and more needs for many more of us.

Although, ultimately, I see the solution as societal transformation, until such time, and to support its possible coming, I know we can each take steps in this direction. Years ago, I lived in a building where I regularly saw a girl I believed was being abused. There were odd sounds coming from the apartment where she lived. When I saw her, she always looked sad. I was haunted by the question, I still think about her from time to time. I did nothing at the time, because, like most of us, most of the time, I succumbed to fear and isolation. I’d like to believe that were this to happen today, I would find a way to reach out, to her, to her family, whose generational configuration eluded me, and make human contact. When I look at Adam Lanza’s picture, and hear the stories about him clutching his briefcase and being so withdrawn, I wonder if anyone, ever, listened to him, invited him to pour out his soul. There is much we can’t do, and yet I want us to transcend, each and all, the despair and apathy that keep us isolated and protected. It’s one microscopic step we can take, because we all know how to let people know they matter. We can model, at whatever scale we operate, the world we want to create.

Please note: "If you want to talk with me, about this blog and beyond, you can always join my ongoing weekly class that brings together people who are committed to implementing these ideas in their lives." 


  1. Beautiful writing Miki. I had the same reaction when I read Alice Miller—after I finished sobbing for myself and my hidden pain!

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    1. There are more like him, walking next to you in your country. They are enjoying now and I am afraid it will give them boost to repeat it somewhere else. What causes the violance? Yes, you are right, violance -but first violance towards animals. Every muurderer sees the power of pain in younger siblings, domestic animals, farm animals and it expands further.

      My experience in life is that children first learn about violance and pain and it's power when we teach them that in order to eat, animals have to be tortured, killed and cooked by our own parents, sometimes all of it done solely by them.

      And what is more: we teach our own children to kill. He was learning to shoot. I am sure his mother told him to shoot at birds, rodents and he continued to people. It takes step by step, othwerwise he would stop at first sight of blood.

    2. Dear Leo,

      First of all, I want to say I applaud your courage and willingness to express what was going on for you, and to look inside to see what may be going on.

      I have been thinking about your words since I first read them, and I don't want to give you any facile answer. I see that I am a little concerned about lumping all violence into one group. I like Gilligan's theory because it makes room for many reasons for shame, and many "wrongs" that one might want to "correct" by violence. I can totally see that one very core possibility is that when we don't perceive ourselves as having value, as being able to affect the people around us and the world, this, in itself can be an experience painful enough to generate feelings of shame and, in the mysterious context of all else in life, could be a trigger for violence. I still want to leave open the possibility that other paths to such extreme shame also exist. Ultimately, despite all that I said or anyone else, I remain profoundly humbled by this event and others like it, and want to remain in this state of truly not knowing what it all is. The purpose of coming up with a theory is not so much to "get it right". Rather, it's about having at least one way of making human sense of it, because that gives me some amount of peace and hope.

      Thank you, Leo, for raising these questions and continuing to wrestle with it so openly.


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  4. I am reminded of a heard a story recently from someone who is doing research on rising rates of maternal mortality in the U.S. A woman who gave birth to twins went home to her apartment with her babies, a single mom, and bled to death. (Hemorrhage after birth is the most common cause of maternal death.) She was found 10 days after she died. One baby was dead and the other one was only discovered because of a soft whimpering coming from the small space between the bed and the wall where the baby was wedged.

    Such an incident begs the question: How can it happen that a woman gets sent home from the hospital with newborn twins and absolutely no-one to look after her and her babies? How is it that she could die in an apartment building, where surely others would hear the constant wailing of hungry babies, and no-one came to see if she needed help?

    To me, this is entirely related to violence as a social problem. How does someone has deeply pained and disturbed as Adam Lanza manage to fall through the cracks of society such that no one knew he was in trouble?

    Society does itself massive harm by leaving the responsibility for children entirely to parents. A society that truly cares about its own health would, in my view, treat children as its most precious asset and many more resources than are currently being dedicated to children would go toward the health and well being of childbearing women, infants, and children. A child, or young man, in this case, that is not doing well, needs the support of others to find his way in life. I imagine Adam to be an extremely lonely and disconnected person to be able to do what he did.

    Any individual amongst us that does not have relationships with people that care is a danger to everyone. My question as I hear and ponder what has happened, on top of so many other similar incidents in recent years, is what can we do to create social safety nets that catch every person eventually, so that no person is left to fend for themselves, materially or emotionally?

    Morality as a response is almost insulting. Gun control seems extremely sensible but really only the first step. Processing and healing trauma is essential. In the long run, taking care of each other and making that a high social priority, seems to me what can keep up from being in this position of scrambling for answers after the fact.

    Miki I appreciate the way you consistently come back to the bigger picture of the society we are living in and creating.

  5. Thanks, Miki, for your work and words on this. I appreciated your (short) list of contributors to our culture of violence - "the media, video games, our foreign policy, and our criminal justice system" - and just wanted to add some of the other more subtle but just as powerful contributors, such as our habits of 1) judgment and blame in every day communication, 2) punishment as a means of behavior control, 3) majority rule as our default means of decision making, and 4) our obsession with and glorification of competition (and maybe hierarchy). Not only are there many things we need to do and incorporate into our individual habits and collective norms, but also things that are so deeply embedded we rarely even notice them, give them lip service at best, and experience cognitive dissonance when confronted with ideas like doing away with punishment. I think many people who think of themselves asa "peaceful", who obviously are not knowingly participating in any overt forms of violence, are definitely unintentionally contributing to the culture that feeds it by continuing to accept and even participate in these things without, understandably, seeing the larger picture. The principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication, Dynamic Governance and Restorative Justice hold pretty much everything we need to know to create the culture you speak of (and that I yearn for), except the intention itself, which I think most people, if asked, would say they have. If we can get the two together we have hope! Otherwise, nope.

  6. I appreciate this article and also the thoughtful comments. The sensationalism surrounding this event made me sicker than the event itself.

    Have you heard the demands to arm teachers so they can "defend" their students from attacks? Can you imagine your young teenager's backpack on the conveyer belt going through the inspection machine while an armed security guard ushers him through a metal detector at the entrance to his school?

    These are not the fantasies of my sick imagination. These are "solutions" I've seen in writing from authoritative sources. These are the kind of collective responses you can expect from a culture of violence.

    I especially appreciate the way you linked shame and violence. Do you think we can persuade "non-violent" social change activists to stop shaming cops? In my experience, Brene Brown's work and the literature on "bullying" have not been adequate.

    I don't agree that mental illness is more prevalent among the poor, regardless of how you define it. It's just that rich folks have easy access to designer drugs, skilled accomplices, designer lawyers, and other such disguises. I believe that shame is more prevalent among the poor in a materialistic society.

    Personally, Sarah, I trust parental prerogative far more than political whim. The occasional human aberration is far less terrifying to me than the uniformity of the rule of law. We are such youth-worshipers! How about a "safety net" for parents?

    1. I certainly don't want politics telling me how to parent my kids! I am certainly not talking about overriding parental judgement except in extreme cases. Safety net for parents and families is exactly what I would want...and for the children as well. Maybe I didn't explain well. I want community solutions, not necessarily political or legal ones. I would love for many more people than parents to take on the task of supporting children and new mothers and families. To raise a child well takes far more than a mother and a father. I am raising three children...speaking from my own experience. I hope this is clearer.

  7. Thank you, Miki. I've been longing to read something that helped me make sense of how I've been feeling about this tragedy. I feel lots of relief, and finally tears coming. I had been kind of in a sense of shock since I first heard about it until now. I appreciate the guidance I got from reading this that is helping me to grieve and connect to what matters to me.

  8. The only thing I would like to add to the ideas contained in this essay and the responses is something I read years ago that really stuck with me. I am pretty sure the author was Erich Fromm. The idea was that once a person resolved to view the world and his/her life as being a hopeless situation, their hopelessness might foster a recklessness in their behavior. The problem would be worsened if the person decided that not only was his life hopeless but that life itself was hopeless, thus, perpetrating his reckless behavior on others as a way of expressing the certainty of his viewpoint.

  9. Thank you Miki for this post. I have been struggling to put into words what I have been feeling around this and your words are very meaningful for me.

    I also came across a letter to Adam Lanza from Brother Phap Luu, a monk at Plum Village. He grew up in Newtown, Connecticut. Perhaps some of you would be interested in reading this. I found it to be very poignant.

  10. "We all know how to let people know they matter." I love your quote here. It's simple and truthful. At the end of the day we all just want to feel that we matter to someone and to ourselves.
    Thank you for your insightful post Miki

  11. I am grateful for all the thughtful and heartfelt comments. My basic question, unanswered so far, is 'what are WE going to do about it?'
    Miki, you commented about a young girl you thought was being abused, yet chose to not get involved, and to me, this is the source of the issue. You see, the solution does not lie in gun control or the government, but rather, it depends on each and every one of us, reaching out, getting involved with our fellow human being brothers and sisters. Peace and nonviolence begin with ME.
    Having said this, I see our societal trends leaning toward the opposite end of the spectrum. More and more digital devices that disconnect us from others are more and more prevalent, people tend to 'text' each other, rather than taking face-to-face. The only way to reverse this trend is for each and every one of us to make an effort, no, make a committment, to connect empathically with our friends and strangers.

  12. I appreciate the broader perspective that sees how a culture of violence contributes to this sort of tragedy, and sees it as a tragedy. Even though (or maybe becaue) I am licensed as a mental health counselor, I too have been dismayed by the medicalization of the problem. This goes far beyond individual mental illness or biochemistry. My take on is that the problem, ultimately is the problem of forgetting that we have inherent mattering. And my take on "what can we do?" is that there are many possible places for intervention. We each are called to do whatever we can. It could be on the level of the individuals we know -- taking time to befriend others, esp. in situations you describe with the young girl who looked so sad. It could be on the level of mental health -- making sure there is counseling and/or medication available for those who need it. It could be on the level of supporting parents and strengthening community bonds. Or on the level of reducing availability of guns, or changing media images of violence, or working to change a consciousness of separation, scarcity, and sense of not being "enough" and not mattering -- and in some cases not being seen. (Doing this via meditation, workshops, spiritual teachings, modeling it, etc.) It could be increasing the value of creative forms of self-expression, so there are other ways to make a difference and be heard. Or sharing ways of changing the paradigm of how we see and communicate with each other. Or doing trauma healing work. Multiple layers of "problem" with multiple layers of "solution." I do know of situations where there was a loving parent who did try to listen to a child, and the child still acted in ways that could be deemed "violent." Compassion for parents, for children, for mental health professionals who have clients like this, for teachers -- so much fear can arise. May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

  13. I want to add one more comment, sparked by thinking about how socio-economic status fits in. I read something (can't remember now who wrote it, sadly) about how it is worth noting that in most of the school shootings, the shooter is a white male who is not poor. People say things like, "We didn't think it could happen here." The question is -- why not? Because we don't think this kind of thing can or should happen in white middle or upper middle class neighborhoods? Is there something about being white that leads people to minimize the issues? That is, if a similar person were of another race, would that person possibly have been removed from the home? (I am not in this case assuming the problem was his mother; I am pointing instead to the different responses the "system" has for people of different means.) And it's worth noting the many things in this culture that might particularly predispose a male to take this kind of action. It is worth looking at race, class, and gender along with mental health and biochemistry and access to guns. I would also say that in some ways, I find myself wanting to say, "Yes, this is a tragedy. And so is climate change, and so is war." Many more people have died from both already, but they don't receive the kind of acute, focused media attention and outrage that a school shooting does. I would love to see politicians mobilize to change those tragedies. (Yes, I know some do; but there is not the same kind of national mourning and outcry that I see with school shootings. I was touched to see President Obama cry when he spoke about the shootings. I wish the same would happen for these other, massive tragedies. I also know if he did, he would most likely be called "weak" and "unfit to be our commander in chief.")

  14. Lanza killed because he had Asperger's disorder: Dead inside = dead outside. The only societal contribution was allowing him to become unsupervised by family and professionals and allowing access to weaponry.

    Multiple other shooters who engaged in ruthless targeting of victims had signs and/or diagnoses of autism or Aspergers: Colorado, Norway, Port Arthur, etc.

    1. Dear Anonymous, This issue of Lanza's probable Asperger's has been widely debated and the consensus that has emerged is summed up well by the New York Times' mea culpa for having suggested something similar to your comment here. See
      Dr. Ami Klin, an expert on autism at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said that any tie between the Newtown shootings and Asperger’s or autism “is an enormous disservice” to those whose lives are affected by these developmental disorders, which should not be confused with mental illness.

      “Any human condition can coexist with violence,” he said, but no correlation should be drawn.

      In fact, he said, those with Asperger’s “are much more likely to be victims rather than victimizers.”

  15. Miki,

    Nice article, thanks.

    Seems like most of the people I meet react to the Newtown incident with the will to punish back. People tell each other gruesome stories of the pain they would inflict on the "monster" if they had the chance, and it's all "good". I'm not comfortable with any of that, even if it is only words.

    There is another slice of the population that is willing to believe that mental illness plays a role, and that the killer is a victim too. However, many of these define mental illness only in terms of genetics, medicines, restraints, programs and paperwork, all at a very high administrative cost. This is a safe kind of belief to hold, because this is a territory in which solutions are hinted at, but deemed mostly out of reach. It's as if we just lack enough technology. But someday...

    Meanwhile, I have been through some of this same hell with my own family, my oldest son to be exact. He had been hospitalized multiple times, treated with anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs, moved to therapeutic school, remanded to the local police, threatened suicide, harmed himself, heaped abuse on his parents, etc. This behavior ruled out household for years until I finally reached out to help myself and inadvertently stumbled on the resources that allowed me to change the pattern for good. Things changed when I started to learn how to listen, and made the commitment to do so, no matter what it felt like to be me and listening and not controlling or fighting back. It is paradoxical in that it is simple, yet not easy. It is common, and yet not obvious. It is both very near, and yet when you need it most, also very far away.

    I'd like other parents and families in distress to know that where psychiatry and medicine and institution failed us, simple compassion pulled us through. It's been three years now, and I can tell you we are not going back to the way we were. I would not make the promise that every family can find what mine did, and especially not without outside help. But we don't need bigger hospitals or bigger prison systems or smarter PhD's or new legislation. We need to find our hearts and hold onto them.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I so so appreciated reading your comment. I have a friend who has a similar struggle, and she would like to talk with you. If you are open to that, please contact me through the BayNVC website. Thank you so much.