We struggle to understand the mind of mass killers. Their evil actions blast away at the moorings of civilization and blacken the soul of humanity.
One of these acts of violence was investigated this month in The New Yorker magazine. The article, written by author and psychiatry lecturer Andrew Solomon, examines the life of Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who shot and killed his mother, 20 children and six teachers, and then himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012.
Adam’s father, Peter Lanza, came forward to be interviewed by Solomon about his relationship with his son and about his understanding of his son’s mental health, in the hope of being helpful to others. Mr. Lanza has labored painfully since the day of the shootings to comprehend the horrific crime.
Adam Lanza, as Solomon’s article says, “was never typical.” He showed hypersensitivity at a young age, was diagnosed with sensory-integration disorder and later with Asperger’s syndrome (mild autism), and was susceptible to seizures. According to his father, he was “just a normal little weird kid” who displayed a sharp sense of humor and a keen intelligence. Although his emotional stability deteriorated through his teenage years, no one feared that he would become violent.
The article covers a lot of ground, yet still it leaves unanswered questions as to Adam’s motive for committing the atrocities. A forensic psychiatrist is quoted saying that Adam’s actions expressed this message: “I carry profound hurt—I’ll go ballistic and transfer it onto you.” Solomon, the author of the article, concludes that this statement reveals “as much motive as we’re likely to find.”
I believe, however, that we can acquire further insight into the killer’s state of mind, along with more understanding of his motive. I wish to offer some such considerations. These are put forward in the context of the magazine article’s abundance of information about Adam’s mental, emotional, and social life. We do have a need, as the article says, “to make sense of what seems senseless.” I believe that, through depth psychology, this dreadful crime can be made comprehensible, providing us with knowledge that might help prevent further violence and mass killings.
It appears that Adam was entrapped to an excruciating degree in an inner conflict, one that, in varying degrees, challenges us all. This is the conflict in our psyche between self-aggression (emanating from the inner critic or superego) and inner passivity (located in the unconscious or subordinate ego). The knowledge of inner conflict comes from classical psychoanalysis, which unfortunately has been pushed aside as modern psychiatry, in assessing and treating mental health, has veered toward medical theories, drug interventions, brain research, and the classification of symptoms.
The fact that Adam had Asperger’s syndrome (or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia) would appear to have made him more vulnerable to the ravages of this inner conflict between self-aggression and inner passivity. Because of this conflict, people can remain entangled in old unresolved experiences from childhood through which they feel weak, emotionally reactive, and even helpless.
(My books and many of the posts at my website speak in detail about this inner conflict and how it affects people in a wide variety of ways. In this post, I reference several of my previous posts for a fuller discussion of the origins of self-damaging behavior. These references show how the emotional and behavioral symptoms that manifested in Adam are problems, to a lesser degree, for a great many people.)
One of Adam’s notable symptoms was feeling overwhelmed. When he began middle school, he then had to move from room to room between classes, and he found this change to be disruptive and overwhelming. At that time, sensory overload “affected his ability to concentrate,” the article says. His mother photocopied his textbooks in black-and-white because of his sensitivity to the visual stimulus of color graphics. Over time, schoolwork more frequently triggered his sense of hopelessness. He was lethargic and unable to concentrate or do his homework. Feelings of being overwhelmed, hopeless, and powerless are very much related to inner passivity (read, “The Origins of Feeling Overwhelmed”).
Adam became less social, developed “a stiff, lumbering gait,” and started having panic attacks. Panic attacks are also directly related to inner passivity. The stricken person feels helpless in the face of what he or she experiences as overwhelming anxiety and fear (read, “Panic Attacks Arise from Within Our Psyche”).
When Adam was fourteen, he was assessed by a psychiatrist who noted evidence of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Adam was refusing to touch door-knobs and feared contamination from them. The basis for this sensitivity rests in the irrational, emotional conviction that one is going to be overwhelmed and defeated, and unable to resist, a contagion of germs. Again, this denotes the unconscious predisposition to experience life’s challenges through helplessness and passivity. (For more on the psychological origins of obsessive-compulsive disorder, read “The Missing Link in OCD.”)
After seeing a nurse specialist in psychiatry, Adam began to take Lexapro, an antidepressant for major depressive disorder that can be prescribed for children over twelve. Within three days, he became disoriented, lost speech coherence, and was unable to perform simple tasks. He was “practically vegetative,” his mother, Nancy Lanza, reported. He stopped taking the drug and never again took psychotropics. His reaction to the drug shows, in my view, how “easily” he could slip into profound passivity. Large deposits of passivity in the psyche activate a harsh inner critic—or demonic superego—that, charged with hostile aggression, can take command of the personality.
Adam became more withdrawn. His mother wrote at one point: “He is despondent and crying a lot and just can’t continue . . .” Adam was likely suffering intensely from depression. Clinical depression can, in some measure, be attributed to the inner conflict between aggression and passivity (see, “The Hidden Cause of Clinical Depression.”) The inner critic, as mentioned, can be harsh and cruel, and it often becomes particularly vicious when, through inner passivity, an individual is unable to protect himself or herself from its aggression. The ability to inwardly protect one’s integrity and sense of self is enhanced when the dynamics of this inner conflict become conscious.
Nancy at one point wrote to Peter: “Adam has been wondering why he is ‘such a loser.’” The inner critic can instigate the feeling that we’re somehow a phony, failure, or loser. The inner critic—as a primitive force of aggression—also harasses and condemns us for being passive. Intense guilt and shame can be felt when we absorb, or take to heart, these cruel allegations. Along with feeling like a loser, Adam avoided eye contact and may have felt shame at his psychological decay. This could account for why, during the last two years of his life, he refused to see his father and his older brother, Ryan.
Adam became more controlling with his mother (Nancy and Peter had been separated since 2001). Typically, a person with large deposits of inner passivity in the psyche often feels the need to be controlling. It’s an either-or feeling for them: Either they’re in control or they’ll be controlled. In other words, they feel that, in the controlling mode, they’re protecting themselves from being forced to submit to the requirements or dictates of others. (Read, “How Inner Passivity Robs Men of Power.”) Their impression of being in control is mainly an illusion that serves as a psychological defense erected to cover up their unconscious affinity for the passive state.
Adam had stated repeatedly to his mother that he would rather be homeless than take any more tests in a class in which he was performing poorly. Nancy believed he really meant it. While homelessness can certainly be influenced by economic conditions and social policies, it also often results when people burdened by inner conflict chose to forfeit self-responsibility and place themselves at the mercy of circumstances because they feel that everyday life is too overwhelming.
The article says that Adam’s “sharp” sense of humor endured through much of his teenage years. Of course, a sense of humor is an admirable quality. Yet sometimes humor is unconsciously used for inner self-defense. Humor can be employed as a way to deflect the aggressive inner critic by reducing to absurdity its judgments and pronouncements (see, “The Private Joke behind Our Laughter”). Adam, it appears, could not deflect his inner critic through inner strength, but got some sense of relief through humor. Often such humor is cynical, sardonic, or morbid, and it serves as an unstable defense against the inner critic.
It’s common for people with autism and other disorders to lack empathy. Yet this deficiency can also be traced to inner conflict. Inner conflict throws people into self-centeredness. It can feel that the world revolves around their preoccupations and suffering. The merciless aggression emanating from Adam’s inner critic would have stifled stirrings in him of compassion or love. As well, his sizeable deposits of inner passivity would have blocked him from connecting with his essence (authentic self) and from feeling goodness or value from within. When there’s little or no empathy or support for one’s own self, there will be little or none for others. When people connect with one another under these conditions, they do so in large measure for their own needs and validation.
All the evidence points to Adam’s descent into an abyss of inner passivity. A week before the shootings, Nancy reportedly told an acquaintance, “I’m worried I’m losing him.” He was apparently sinking into a dissociative state of despondent helplessness. Even then, Nancy, it appears, wasn’t afraid of the possibility of him becoming violent. She slept with her bedroom door unlocked and he had access to her guns.
With all this passivity, how did the young man’s aggressiveness arise? It’s important to understand that his act of mass murder was not true aggression but rather reactive aggression. Such reactive aggression is a defense against an emotional attachment to the underlying passivity. The defense might be presented in this way: “I’m not passive; look at all the aggressive fantasies I enjoy so much,” or “I’m not indulging in passivity; I’m really thinking about how thrilling and aggressive it would be to kill people.” At the bitter end, it appears that his act of evil was an escalation of his attempt to “prove” to his relentless inner critic that he was aggressive, not passive. (Read, “Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity.”)
Adam had planned his rampage and, at a basic level, understood what he was doing. But burdened with such intense inner conflict, he was compelled to act out some self-damaging expression or other of passive-aggressiveness or lethal aggressiveness. The degree of his vile aggressiveness may have mirrored the extraordinary degree to which he had plummeted into inner passivity. Such an intense experience of passivity can be so painful (in part, because it invites harsh intrusion from the inner critic) that people will do harm to others if doing so points to even momentary relief from the clutches of inner conflict. Or they are liable to do evil to themselves and, as ultimate self-aggression, commit suicide. Adam did both. (Read, “A Hidden Reason for Suicidal Thoughts.”)
An especially cruel inner critic directs against its host a negative drive that feels like hatred. In turn, the host (the person), weakened by large deposits of inner passivity, absorbs the hatred and eventually slips into self-hatred. It’s as if the person becomes the personification of the inner critic and turns against himself as he aligns emotionally (identifies) with its negative aggression. The person also begins to direct the hatred outward, thereby easing to some minor degree the intensity of the self-hatred. Adam appears to have acted out against others and himself to the degree that he felt his inner critic was “killing” him with hatred.
In fifth grade, Adam wrote a story called “The Big Book of Granny,” in which an old woman kills wantonly with a gun. A few years later, a teacher noted “disturbing violence” in his writing. Adam became fascinated with guns. He fired them at a shooting range with his mother (a gun enthusiast), and he considered joining the military when he came of age. Records of his online activities revealed that he developed, in his late teens, a preoccupation with mass murder. At some point, as his inner critic mocked and condemned him for his passivity, he would have begun to consider acting out his fantasies.
This profile of Adam can now go one step deeper, into some speculation concerning the presence of unconscious masochism. Did he, in fact, have a motive for the killings, albeit an unconscious one? Could it be that he needed to “prove” to his inner critic, which was mocking him for collapsing into a death spiral of hopeless passivity, that he had not masochistically embraced the death instinct and a descent into non-existence? If so, he would have felt the need to deny this fact (inner truth, much of the time, is instinctively, often vehemently, denied). At the point at which he may have slipped into insanity, he was tempted to make his denial terribly emphatic. With guns conveniently at hand, he would show the world how powerful he was and how great an impact he could have. His projected self-hatred identified the targets. He could, in his preparations, have visualized the helpless, terrified faces of the children and identified through them with the terror he felt in his own self-abnegation. The appeal of such a detonation of hatred, power, glory, and terror had become diabolically irresistible. (Read, “Terrorism and the Death Drive” and “Finding Inner Longitude.”)
The primary inner conflict between aggression and passivity is likely on the rampage in the psyche of all domestic mass killers. This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily mentally ill. It means instead that they’re more conflicted than the rest of us. The knowledge of inner conflicts can be taught in school to young people. The knowledge would give potential killers a better chance of self-regulation and a way to pull back from the brink. Like Adam, they might not be open to therapy. But they won’t be able to close their mind completely to lessons about how inner passivity can easily be embraced and how it can spawn violence and self-hatred.
This conflict between passivity and aggression flares up, in varying degrees of intensity, in the psyche of all humankind. The knowledge of it can help many of us to ease our misery and self-defeat.
See also, “The Psychology behind Mass Shootings,” “The Double Barrels of Gun Mania,” and “The Overlooked Factor in Criminal Behavior.”