5. Earth Day

October 1991

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance — Boston, Massachusetts

There was something wrong in Nancy Lanza’s womb.

She knew how it was supposed to go; two years before, when she was pregnant with her first son, she had kept working, commuting down to her office in Boston right up to her third trimester. She had gotten morning sickness, and mood swings; nothing she couldn’t handle. But now, after only three months carrying her second child, she could tell something was definitely wrong. She was starting to worry.

Every day it got worse. Without warning, Nancy’s blood sugar would plummet, throwing her off-balance — then the waves of nausea came, increasing in frequency and intensity the more she tried to power through. It was as if the force growing inside her belly wanted something that its mother could not provide, and so it just took, and took, and took from her, sapping her strength.

The complications lingered, their drain even surfacing in Nancy’s work performance — and as she told friends, any dip her stats would be something that her supervisors at John Hancock would not hesitate to bring to her attention. Even when she was with child. Her fears compounded her stress.

She could feel the baby growing in her, and yet, as the due date approached, she noticed it actually moving less and less. By November, her own symptoms would spiral into a list that included “episodes of physical pain, distress, headaches, insomnia, crying spells, nausea and increased nervousness.” That month, she took a medical leave of absence from John Hancock, seeking refuge at home, in Kingston, for the remaining five months of her term.

April 22, 1992

Exeter Hospital — Exeter, New Hampshire

When the day came, Peter drove Nancy to the hospital for a planned cesarean section, and she gave birth to her second son: Adam Peter Lanza.

A local paper, the Exeter News-Letter, would run a photo of the newborn boy along with a birth announcement, one among a collection that recorded all of the children brought into the world at Exeter Hospital that year. Adam’s birth weight was listed at precisely eight pounds, and he appeared no different from the other babies in the maternity ward that day. His mother, relieved that the troubled pregnancy was finally over, brought him home to Kingston, a “healthy baby boy.”

Soon, Nancy was rushing Adam back to the hospital in a panic, telling the staff that her baby had stopped breathing.

It turned out to be a false alarm; Adam woke back up, his breath returned, and the doctors recorded that it had likely been nothing more than a simple episode of apnea. But this marked the first instance in available records when Adam Lanza’s parents were concerned for his health; he was eight days old.

Kingston, New Hampshire

With the hardship finally gone from her belly, Nancy regained her strength. The Lanzas were seeing the returns from Peter’s years of hard work by then; he had finished his masters in taxation at Bentley University, and then accepted a position as Vice President of Tax for PaineWebber, an asset management firm. It was a respected, and well-compensated role. The family’s financial concerns began to fade.

Nancy had been at John Hancock for more than six years by then, and she was planning on returning to the office once she recovered, dropping Adam off at daycare on her way to Hancock Tower as she had been doing with her first son, Ryan. At the time she filed for her medical leave, late in 1991, she knew that the firm was already planning to restructure her department; that meant cutting costs, which meant cutting jobs, but Nancy told family that her bosses had promised her they would still have her spot waiting for her when she was ready to come back.

Then, one day, there was a letter in the mailbox on Depot Road, from John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, bearing the bad news: Nancy had been laid off, after all.

She was deeply offended, taking it as both a personal betrayal and a professional slight. But then again, the Lanzas had been overdue to shift to the long-term phase of their plans. As Nancy would later write of this juncture in her family’s history, “It was a decision that I made to take more responsibility for the house and the children, and to allow [Peter] to concentrate on his career.” But the knife twisted all the same; her bosses had cited her sinking job performance in the dismissal, and so Nancy felt that in a way, she was being faulted for the suffering she had endured while bearing Adam into the world. She made up her mind not to let the firing go unanswered… but her response would have to wait. She had more immediate concerns, at home.

* * *

For the first three years of Adam Lanza’s life, he did not speak. He would babble, making noises that sounded like words, but not words that anyone else could understand. Within the family, it became accepted that he was “making up his own language.”

Nancy would pick up some of her son’s unique vocabulary by the time he was a toddler — enough to interpret what he wanted, and what he wanted to say. So, as long as his mother was around, Adam was normal enough to get by.

It wasn’t quite that he was failing to learn English, either — it was evident that he was able to understand what adults were saying, most of the time. And he would follow commands, if somewhat clumsily. But the total absence of any intelligible speech at all could not be ignored.

New Hampshire’s “early intervention” system — intended to spot any developmental issues in young children — provides for “transition planning” when a child is between 27 and 32 months, to determine if preschool special education is needed to prepare them for entering the public school system. In late 1994, as this window of time was about to close for Nancy’s young son, someone contacted the state, and an evaluation was scheduled.

Most likely, it was a pediatrician that wrote the referral; he or she was the first doctor to regularly evaluate Adam, and they recorded that the toddler presented with “several developmental challenges,” the foremost being his significant speech and language delays. The doctor had concerns about Adam’s physical movements as well, noting repetitive behaviors as well as both fine and gross “motor difficulties.” The good news was, all of these things were treatable.

Late 1994

Office of Child Health Services — Manchester, New Hampshire

Nancy brought Adam in for the state’s “birth to three” assessment, which would determine the level of supports the state would approve toward his development. During the testing session, the state’s evaluators made note that they could not understand any of Adam’s speech at all; they needed his mother to act as interpreter. However, they noted positive signs as well, observing that two-year-old Adam demonstrated “a good attention span,” coupled with “creative play skills.”

The conclusions the doctors drew from this evaluation would echo those from Adam’s pediatrician, and expand on them — that Nancy’s child, as he was entering preschool, “fell well below expectations in social-personal development,” and presented with “significantly delayed development of articulation and expressive language skills.”

Adam was going to need help, and that meant an IEP: Individualized Education Plan. Per federal law, every incoming student with a disability would need one to plot out their special education needs. And in each child’s plan, a doctor was required to specify the student’s primary learning disability; on his very first IEP, Adam was listed as having “Oral Expression Disability.”

It is not always easy for a parent to accept that their child has a learning disability. To the family or student impacted, the stigma can make it feel as though a weakness has been exposed. In fact, the very New Hampshire government organization that managed Adam’s transition to public schooling in 1995 also underwent a name change that same year; they switched from “Family Centered Early Intervention” to “Family-Centered Early Supports and Services,” with the state explaining in a statement that the change “came about as a result of a group of parents talking to their legislators about the negative connotation associated with the term ‘Early Intervention,’ as the term implied that they and their children needed to have their lives intervened with simply because the children had developmental issues.”

Indeed, as would have been explained to Nancy at the time, Adam’s having qualified for special education supports merely meant that her son’s development was atypical. He had different needs than other children, and it was best that his learning curriculum be tailored accordingly: Adam’s evaluators prescribed him regular speech supports, and occupational therapy sessions. Beyond this, their only recommendation was for Adam to begin regular preschool attendance, in order to “stimulate development in all domains.”

February 1995

Kingston School District Children’s Center — Unit No. 17

Nancy took Adam to a preschool in Kingston for the next two years. Initially, his speech therapy was geared almost exclusively toward improving articulation: strengthening his mechanics in forming recognizable words. As his Planning and Placement Team (PPT) saw it, Adam was sending out scrambled messages. Their task was to unscramble them.

At the same time, the preschool reported that Adam “appeared to be beginning to understand that others could not understand him.” Until this point, the child apparently thought that the words he was using were not just his own. One document from the time shows Nancy and Peter recording that their almost-three-year-old son’s speech attempts “were not easily understood, and that [he] became quickly frustrated when others asked him to repeat himself … Recently Adam reportedly began hitting, spitting and crying when he could not make his needs known.”

In another document, Adam’s assigned speech therapist confirmed that “most of his speech attempts were unintelligible… When not understood, Adam raised his voice volume and repeated the same utterance in a frustrated way. He did not attempt to supplement his speech facial expressions, gestures or body movements to help his listeners understand him better.”

Shortly after this, another scrap records that Nancy “was very concerned” about her young son’s speech delays.

As a result of this shortfall in Adam’s expression, part of his therapy was meant to teach him “strategies” to help “compensate for the limited intelligibility of his speech when talking with unfamiliar listeners,” with the hope that he would start communicating with someone, anyone, beyond his mother. But reports from his preschool over the months that followed indicate that Adam instead fell back on a more simple strategy: when he realized that he was talking differently than everyone else, he stopped talking altogether. The signals from his interior world, scrambled before, suddenly went silent.

According to doctors who would review Adam’s pediatric records in later years, his retreat into muteness should have been recognized as a delay in the development of his expressive language — a facet which is distinct from articulation. It is the ability to demonstrate “communicative intent,” i.e. the will to communicate. Yet, despite this branching in his development, it appears that Adam’s education plan continued unchanged, still focusing on improving his articulation. The underlying problem was left largely unaddressed: that whatever was inside, it no longer wanted to come out.

Texas State Capitol Building — Austin, Texas

The doors to the State Senate chambers opened, and a woman named Suzanna entered. Texas legislators were seated at a long, rectangular table, listening to witnesses they had invited that day to comment a proposed gun bill.

Suzanna was there to tell her story. When her turn came at the microphone, she spoke about the day she had gone for lunch at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, a few years before — when the blue truck had come crashing through the front window. Recounting the events for the state’s subcommittee, she described the initial fear and confusion she felt, as she took cover with her family and listened to the seemingly endless gunfire coming from the man with the giant eyes. She described how it had dawned on her, exactly what the gunman was there to do. And what she had to do.

“I got him!” she thought in that moment, her mind’s eye jumping to the pistol she kept in her purse. “I had a perfect place to prop my hand. Everyone else in the restaurant was down, he was up, perhaps fifteen feet from me, and I have hit much smaller targets at much greater distances.” She reached for her purse, and then, just as suddenly as her hopes were raised, they came crashing back down: she remembered a seemingly-minor decision she had made a month or two before, when she had taken the .38 revolver from her purse, and left it in her car. “In the State of Texas,” she reminded the committee, “it is a felony offense to carry a concealed firearm anywhere where wine or beer or any alcohol is served.” She had been worried it could cost her her chiropractor’s license if she was caught. So there, in her car, the .38 pistol sat, “a hundred yards away, completely useless to me.” There was nothing she could do but hide, and wait for the police. Or the end.

Suddenly, the circumstances changed. A customer at the far end of the restaurant from the blue truck had been throwing himself against a window, and when the glass finally gave way, Suzanna was among the terrified survivors that came pouring through the gap, into the alley behind Luby’s. She thought that her mother was following her through the makeshift exit, but Suzanna later found out that her mother had stayed behind — to be with her husband of 47 years, Al Gratia, who lay mortally wounded after trying to rush the shooter. Suzanna’s mother had been the last victim at Luby’s, shot in a moment that signaled to police who the bad guy with the gun was. Her sacrifice marked the end of the bloodshed.

Midway through telling her story, Suzanna Gratia asked for permission to stand, and then she gave a demonstration of what it was like to be in the cafeteria that day: she placed her hands together, forming a “gun” sign, and narrated the scene as she paced down the row of lawmakers, miming “shooting” each of them. She came to a stop when one senator — a vocal opponent of the bill they were discussing that day — snapped at her, “Get that finger out of my face!”

Suzanna obliged, but then she posed a question, nodding to the next man seated at the table: “Tell me, Senator: would you like him to have a concealed weapon at this point, or not?”

The subcommittee’s hearings that day were for a bill that would establish a “license to carry” system for Texans, and their handguns. As Suzanna expected, footage of her tense confrontation in the chamber made every evening news broadcast in the state that night. It was just the boost that the bill needed.

The Concealed-Carry Law passed; within the year, any Texan over age 21 who did not have a criminal record, and who was not “chemically dependent” or “of unsound mind,” could get a permit. They would just have to pay a $140 fee, and complete a ten-hour class on gun safety and the use of force. The bill Suzanna championed was signed into law by Governor George W. Bush, the son of the president, and he proclaimed that the new legislation would make his state “a better and safer place to live.”