47. Lost in the Wild

May 2007

130 Morgan Street — Stamford, Connecticut

Peter Lanza had reached a dead end. None of the therapeutic school programs in the Newtown area quite fit what the Yale doctors told him his son needed, and in the fallout from the February showdown with Nancy over medication, the foothold he established at the Yale Child Study Center had crumbled. If he wanted to play any significant role in his son’s education plan, he would have to start all over.

Quietly, Peter reached out to the school district in Stamford, inquiring about “what special education programming that district could provide if Adam came to live with him.” The options may well have been more abundant there, in the big city, but this plan never went far; they would have had to completely extricate the 15-year-old from his “comfort zone” of 36 Yogananda. Adam would never agree to it, which meant Nancy would never agree to it. And she would have been reinforced by Dr. Fox’s stated position: that the harm inflicted on his patient by removing him from his safe environment would outweigh any benefits.

Peter folded. The alternative course of treatment he had pursued for his son — initiated eight months before, with his call to the Employee Assistance line — had officially failed. As of the next IEP meeting, he decided to let Nancy take charge again. And this time, the arrangement would be permanent — Peter would stay informed as much as he could, but from now on, Nancy was in control.

* * *

During this time, Adam’s schoolwork was solid, as it nearly always was. He turned in a paper on “political and economic reforms in Japan under United States occupation,” as well as an essay on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, and the country’s nuclear weapons program. He kept up his solo Latin sessions, and was scheduled to take a “computer course,” in support of which there was one entry added to the “accommodations” section of his IEP: he would get a laptop computer.

He remained as emotionally stoic as ever. Nancy had grown to accept, and expect it. But while she had known since at least his third grade year that his silence could hide depression, the same shell also masked his stimulation — so no one knew just how excited he was, inside, about the Virginia Tech shooting. There was great activity underneath the surface, but no signal escaping.

On Wikipedia, Blarvink’s trail hints only at his school curriculum; that spring, he was updating pages on the “Gas constant” — likely part of his chemistry class, a subject which he would later claim he “taught himself” — and then pages on the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs. These likely reflect his “modified” history curriculum; Adam expressed frustration with the standard texts in an email conversation with his father that year, emphasizing that he was “not satisfied if information related to me is not profound enough. I could not learn anything from the ninth grade history textbook because it did not explain events to a sufficient extent and did not analyze the implementations of the events.”

May 3, 2007

State Assembly Chamber — Sacramento, California

The LA Times ran a retrospective piece that week, to mark a special anniversary: forty years had passed since the Black Panthers marched into the California Assembly building with their guns drawn, to protest the bill that would ban open-carry in California. The piece featured quotes from several who were there that day, including a retired political correspondent who remembered the scene well: Governor Reagan out on the lawn, enjoying a picnic with some schoolchildren, when the Panthers suddenly arrived, with their rifles and shotguns and revolvers out in the open. “They looked like an infantry company coming through the trees.”

It was a day that changed US history. The showdown in the assembly chamber not only launched the Black Panthers to national prominence, but it inadvertently sparked the modern era of gun rights activism, and legislation.

Another now-graying assemblyman, a freshman lawmaker at the time, chuckled, “It was a great initiation… Frankly, I wasn’t scared because I was too naive to realize what was happening.”

His career as a lawmaker turned out to be a long one. He would still be there when the Attorney General brought an unloaded semi-auto AK-47 into the chamber in 1989, after Stockton. In fact, he would be the sponsor of California’s Assault Weapons Ban, and lead the state Senate in getting it passed that year.

California’s ban had been the harbinger of all the gun laws — and attempts at gun laws — in the two decades since, and though the sun had long set on the federal version, Californians still had their state-level ban on “assault weapons,” for all its flaws; so did a lot of other states. Yet the phenomenon that struck Stockton seemed to strike everywhere now, all the same. Another Times reporter who was there in 1967 would reflect, “On that day 40 years ago, no shots were fired. Nobody was hurt. The Panthers looked scary, but really weren’t. Today, some people don’t look scary, but really are.”

August 2007

Former Campus of Fairfield Hills Hospital

It had been dark in the tunnels under the hospital campus for over ten years. Ever since the last patient left, and the power was cut. Then suddenly, the walls began to shake; the steel teeth of an excavator came crashing through the tunnel’s ceiling, and sunlight came pouring in. The jaws of the chugging industrial machine closed, and ripped away layers of concrete and tile, with a cacophony that echoed throughout the subterranean network.

Above-ground, a bulldozer surged forward, pushing a load of earth into the cavity, and leveling a hill outside of Fairfield House — the northeast section of Dr. Desmond’s original oval design for the campus.

From across Primrose Street, a foreman from Standard Demolition Services stood watching. Newtown’s Parks & Recreation department said the grass would need to be seeded soon if the new baseball diamond was going to be ready for next fall, but the construction couldn’t start until Fairfield House was gone: it was a three-story treatment facility built in 1940, where the tunnels once brought patients from all over the campus to take their medications. But now the windows of Fairfield House were all boarded over, and the only residents inside were the wildlife and insects that wandered into its confines. “The biggest obstacle in the way of a [baseball] field is this building,” the demolition foreman told the Newtown Bee, as one of the giant machines set about tearing away it walls.

Given the construction materials Dr. Leak’s contractors had used back in the 1940’s, the demolition team couldn’t just knock down the majority of Fairfield House; that would risk contaminating the very ground set for the baseball field. “We’re essentially dismantling it and it will come down in a process, not wildly,” the foreman said.

So, Fairfield House was slowly erased from Newtown, vanishing over a course of weeks, the team chipping away layers of brick and tile and plaster, until all that remained of the structure was a concrete outline on the ground, next to a pile of rubble.

August 23, 2007

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

In the 22 months since November 2005, Dr. Fox had billed Nancy Lanza for his services a total of 19 times. But after July 2007, the payments to Adam’s community psychiatrist suddenly stopped.

* * *

The Lanzas received a document from Newtown High School on August 23rd: the schedule for their son’s upcoming sophomore year. Sociology, AP U.S. History, AP Chemistry, AP Physics, English, Math, and Latin — then, almost as if it were nothing, the file noted that the “[s]tudent will participate fully in regular classes.”

It wasn’t a typo. Another note in the file confirmed it: Adam’s very own stated goal for that year was “to be a typical student.”

Three days later, Adam’s IEP file was updated again, to include correspondence from an unnamed “psychiatrist,” who stated that they had “reviewed [Adam’s] history with Mrs. Lanza,” and that they were “confident that Adam was prepared and ready to attend Newtown High School as a full time student that fall.”

This psychiatrist never appears anywhere else in the official records; when investigators contacted him in 2014, he confirmed that he had simply been filling in for Dr. Fox at that time, taking on patients while his colleague was on a leave-of-absence. The Child Advocate would determine that this stand-in for Dr. Fox “may have written the letter strictly on the basis of communications from Mrs. Lanza.”

August 27, 2007

Newtown High School

The day after the surrogate psychiatrist’s note, the Planning and Placement Team convened to discuss the changes to Adam’s IEP. Nancy told them that her son was determined to return to school, and told one staff member that he “insists on walking through that front door,” and that he was “prepared” for the mainstream. He was just going to be a normal student — almost like he didn’t have an IEP at all. There were no objectives for his peer relationships, no therapeutic goals, and no standard services outlined to help improve his communication and behavior issues.

It was a curious decision, in retrospect: Nancy had spent years trying to get special treatment for her son, and now, seemed to be demanding none at all. One possible explanation is that the brief appearance of Yale in the family’s orbit, and the aborted plan to medicate Adam, indirectly presented her with an opportunity to shift responsibility for things that she had been in denial about until then: whether her son actually took the Celexa or not, Nancy’s observation of him during those two days — sitting idle in his room, sweating, unable to feed himself due to anxiety, losing weight and not having any appetite — was, in large part, already accurate to his daily behavior over the previous few years. It appears that Nancy took those long-building problems, offloaded them onto Yale’s shoulders, and then adopted the new position that Adam did not actually have a problem; it was Yale that was the problem. Peter’s interference, and forcing of medication in contradiction of her and her son’s wishes, was the problem. So, they fixed the problem. And now Adam, resentful of all his disability assessments over the years, was demanding to be “mainstreamed.” He was finally about to prove them all wrong.

Or at least, that was something she had allowed Adam to convince himself of. Nancy’s goal, meanwhile, was not to actually meet his demands, but only to enable him to think that she had. Her and the IEP team were instead going to shift toward implementing his special accommodations in ways that were invisible to him; Adam would indeed be in “normal” classes with the rest of the teenagers that year, but beforehand, the teachers would be prepped with special rules, detailing how to treat him in class. And he would be kept totally in the dark that this was going on, whenever possible; if he knew the supports were there, he would surely refuse them, and then he really would be left to fend for himself.

The school nurse at NHS — who had spoken to Kathleen Koenig “about Adam’s presentment” back when the APRN was still in the picture — gave detailed instructions to all of Adam’s teachers. She described their incoming student as having “high functioning” Asperger’s Syndrome, and anxiety. She said that he wanted to be at the school, despite his anxiety, because he was interested in increasing his knowledge, and that he had “come a long way” with his “crisis team” over the course of the previous school year. She went on to explain that it had all been accomplished with the help of one staff member, in particular: the school’s head of security, Richard Novia.

The nurse wrote that Adam was “bright” and, specifically, that he did not want to be viewed as “defective.” That’s why it was so important that the staff were careful to reinforce the reality that Nancy and the team were trying to prop up around him: she wrote (apparently quoting Nancy) that, “It is ‘more scary if he does not understand and rocks and withdraws. Being unclear can be devastating to this child and his family.’ […] He is non-emotional.” And as she later recalled of the system they worked out, “He was to email teachers if he wanted to ask questions. There was concern that fire drills ‘might freak him out.’ This was to be addressed by having a teacher stay with him.”

The nurse advised NHS’s staff that Adam would come to class early, before most of the kids got there. He would leave later, after most of them had already gone. And no matter what, teachers could expect a “continuing high level of anxiety, germ phobia, and sensitivity to smells,” now that he was going to participate fully in their regular classes.

During the IEP meeting where all of this was decided, Nancy also raised a concern familiar from Adam’s elementary school years: that if he ever hurt himself, it would likely be an accident attributable to his “sensory-motor integration deficit,” which could prevent him from even noticing it happened. And even if he did know he had hurt himself, he would still be reluctant to tell anyone — but only because of his shyness.

* * *

The day after the IEP team met, at 12:59 in the afternoon, Blarvink signed into Wikipedia, and made an edit to the page for Newtown High School. He updated the total count of students attending for the new school year, and (in leaving his source citation) revealed that it was first-hand knowledge:

Blarvink: According to what the surrogate vice principal stated in the auditorioum to the 9th and 10th grades on 8/28, there are 1,737 students in Newtown High School this year. I Updated the page accordingly.

A few days later, Adam walked stiffly upright, past the spot where the Class of 1999 had planted the weeping red willow tree, and he opened the front door of Newtown High School. He entered NHS as a normal student — mixed in with all the other normal students, for the first time since the seventh grade.

* * *

From the very first day of the school year, many of the other students at NHS found Adam to be a strange, even fascinating presence in their classroom. He was the mostly-silent boy who wore the same giant outfit every day, accessorized with a pocket protector and pens, and he carried a briefcase. They noticed that the teacher never, ever called on him — but this seemed to be done deferentially, like he had nothing to prove.

His Latin teacher remembers him from her mainstream class that year, the frightened boy from the portable now sitting right alongside all the other students, as she always hoped he would. “There was never any meanness or bullying,” she says. “They’d ask Adam to sit with them.”

One of the students, a boy named Kyle, remembers that Adam “didn’t have any friends, but he was a nice kid if you got to know him.” Kyle was one of the few who did make the effort, but familiarity with Adam still brought no real insight: “He was very, very shy. He wouldn’t look you in the eyes when he talked. He didn’t really want to lock eyes with you for very long.” Although Adam never spoke about himself or engaged in much chit-chat, he would correct his classmates’ Latin assignments when asked to, and the students saw that he was adept at the language.

Adam’s English class viewed him similarly. A girl who sat in the desk behind him remembers that he would communicate to some extent, but, “It was almost painful to have a conversation with him, because he felt so uncomfortable.” That semester, they read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The girl behind Adam kept finding herself glancing over his shoulder; “I spent so much time in my English class wondering what he was thinking.”

Another girl, in the same class, also remembers that Adam’s intelligence was evident — “You could tell that he was, I would say, a genius” — but it seemed to almost be too much. “There was something [to Adam] that was above the rest of us.”

September 10, 2007

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Blarvink opened Wikipedia again, and looked up the article for the “Darwin Awards.” These were a morbid, tongue-in-cheek honor, bestowed posthumously from the internet, upon humans who had gotten themselves killed in exceptionally stupid or humorous ways. Blarvink clicked Wikipedia’s “edit” button, and erased the article’s “Controversy” section — which until then had read:

The Darwin Awards are a self-confessed mockery of premature, accidental deaths by their very nature. Because of this many find them vulgar and offensive. The families of mentally retarded individuals also take offence to the awards. In general the Darwin Awards overtly promote the dangerous idea that greater intelligence means greater validity of existence.

Blarvink wrote that his basis for his deletion of the above was its “point of view,” which ran counter to Wikipedia’s aim for objectivity: “I have removed unsourced POV liberal propaganda.”

Within a day of that edit, he was reading the wiki page for the book Into the Wild, written by Jon Krakauer. The book tells the story Chris McCandless, who in 1990, at age twenty-two, had suddenly cut off all contact with his family, and set out on a nomadic quest to “make each day a new horizon” — what eventually develops into a pursuit of a primitive, instinctual, wilderness existence (in the tradition of Thoreau’s Walden). Embarking out onto the Alaskan frontier, McCandless writes of himself in his journal: “No longer to be poisoned by civilization, he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.”

Four years later, Into the Wild became a best-seller; it was the same book that the Oklahoma City bomber had gifted to his friend Ted Kaczynski back at Supermax in 2001; by 2007, it was often part of the English curriculum at American high schools (as it was in Newtown).

Part of the book’s appeal was that, over the course of telling McCandless’s mysterious story, Krakauer also analyzed his subject’s precursors: the archetype of the modern man who tried to return to the cave. One such specimen had spent more than ten years living in the Alaskan wild in the 1980s, dressed in rags and hunting game with a stone-tipped spear. “I was interested in knowing if it was possible to be independent of modern technology,” the mountaineer later told an Anchorage Daily News reporter; she, in turn, wrote of the man, “He became convinced that humans had devolved into progressively inferior beings, and it was his goal to return to a natural state.” It wasn’t as if the wanderer did this out of physical necessity, either: he was born wealthy in Seattle, and had a strong college education. His need for nature came from within.

Into the Wild’s main story thread had a similar hook: McCandless was a child born of some privilege, and he wanted to forsake all of it, to brave the frontier. This was also the aspect of the story that Blarvink focused on: reading Wikipedia’s summary of Into the Wild, he had paused at the sentence “McCandless changed his name, ceased communicating with his family, gave away his savings of $25,000 to OXFAM and disappeared, later abandoning his car and burning all the money in his wallet.”

The only problem with this sentence was that the sum given to charity was wrong; Krakauer actually wrote “more than twenty-four thousand dollars.” Adam made a single-digit edit, noting to other wikipedians that “$25,000 has been changed to $24,000.” Details mattered.