Raising Adam Lanza: Who Was Nancy Lanza?
This article is the product of a joint investigation by FRONTLINE and the Hartford Courant. On Tuesday at 10 p.m. (check local listings) FRONTLINE will premiere a two-part episode that will explore answers to critical questions sparked by the tragedy: Who was Adam Lanza, and what was the nature of his relationship with his mother? Will this tragedy profoundly change the divisive debate over guns in America?
Explore the Courant‘s continuing coverage of “The Tragedy in Newtown.”
FRONTLINE’s Raising Adam Lanza and Newtown Divided are part of PBS’s “After Newtown” initiative, a series of documentaries, news reports and public affairs programs that provide thought-provoking context to the national conversation about gun violence in America.
Photo: Adam Lanza’s first grade class photo from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Adam is in the second row, the second from the left.
Shortly after her move from New Hampshire to Newtown in 1998, Nancy Lanza had good news about her troubled son.
“Adam is doing well here, and seems to be enjoying the new school,” Lanza wrote to a friend back in Kingston, N.H., in a Feb. 9, 1999, email.
But Adam, 6, then diagnosed with a condition that made it difficult for him to manage and respond to sights, touch and smell, eventually struggled in the first grade at his new school — Sandy Hook Elementary.
His mother would respond, touching off a 10-year educational shuffle with moves in and out of schools and programs that addressed his sensory integration disorder and another diagnosis that would come by middle school: Asperger’s syndrome.
Adam would attend public school, take lessons at home, try private school for a couple of months, return to public school and attend Newtown High School, although he left after his sophomore year. He went to college at 16 and earned A’s and B’s — but it didn’t last. He was out in a year. He then went to a community college, and dropped out in the first semester.
A series of significant life changes followed for Adam as the number of people with whom he had contact began to shrink.
His parents divorced. He abruptly cut off contact with his father, Peter, in 2010, and grew estranged from his older brother. He spent more time alone at home. His mother, who loved to travel, told friends she was grooming him to be independent someday. There were even plans to leave New England — their lifelong home — so Adam could study history and possibly earn a college degree.
But mother and son never left. Adam, now 20, had a plan of his own. He returned to Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
There, in a murderous rampage, he would join the lexicon of suicidal mass killers, leaving many to ponder the question of what led a 20-year-old to commit the second-deadliest school shooting in American history. A final police report has yet to be released.
In the weeks after the Newtown massacre, The Courant, in partnership with the PBS investigative news program FRONTLINE, contacted family members and friends on both Nancy Lanza’s and Peter Lanza’s side. Some who were interviewed agreed to be named while others shared information and recollections on the condition that they not be named.
Reporters also reviewed messages and emails spanning the 10 years in which Nancy Lanza wrote to close friends. In the notes, she chronicled portions of her own life, from her mysterious potentially fatal illness, to comments about her marriage, to progress reports on a young Adam.
What emerges in this exploration of a still unfolding story is a portrait of a mother, apparently devoted but perhaps misguided, struggling to find her son a place in society, and a boy, exceptionally smart in some areas, profoundly deficient in others, who never found a place in the world.
Although he had played musical instruments, studied foreign languages and had a part-time job at a computer shop, Adam remained isolated and distant.
Additional reporting by Frank Koughan for FRONTLINE.