53. Pale Yellow House

August 2008

Pediatrician’s Office, Fairfield County

Adam stepped onto the scale. 112 pounds. His height had increased to just under 5’10, which meant his Body Mass Index was only at about 16; he was not diagnosed with Anorexia (and never would be) — but less-malnourished 16-year-olds often are.

The doctor did note that his patient was reporting being constipated, and that he had a history of this. (The Child Advocate would later observe that Adam’s constipation was “possibly linked to his weight and nutrition issues.”) The doctor handed Nancy a prescription for some laxatives.

* * *

Adam got a A and an A- in his summer classes at WCSU. There’s no indication that anything noteworthy happened in either one. These classes were held in the evening, in a building out on the western campus, and it seems that no one particularly noticed he was there. To him, that was ideal.

With the fall term approaching, Nancy assembled the Planning and Placement Team, and Adam’s IEP was updated for the 11th grade, again at WCSU: Nancy had registered him for Data Modeling, and Introduction to Ethical Theory. Again, he was to be provided up to 10 hours of tutoring a week, and a shortened school day, to match the college’s schedule. His primary disability was still registered as “Other Health Impaired.”

36 Yogananda Street — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

One night in August, Nancy must have noticed that her son was miserable. That was nothing new, but this time, she had already been dwelling on some of her life choices, and took it especially hard — she was about to turn 48 years old, and had sacrificed so much for her son, from the pain of bringing him into the world, to dropping her career to take care of him, and then moving, and changing everything, again and again… and for what? For all her hard work, she was getting the impression that the boy she was raising now regretted even being born.

Nancy made her feelings known to her son, and in response, Adam seems to have avoided answering the question — whether he regretted being born — and told his mother that regrets were irrelevant in life anyway. This comment, or one like it, set off an argument — one that still wasn’t resolved when Adam went back upstairs to his room.

Later that night, at 11:25pm, Nancy got an email from her son:

You do not seem to understand that I was attempting to comfort you with what I consider to be a maxim with which to live. You unfortunately probably still do not understand what I mean. As a disclaimer: I type nothing in this that is in a tone that as condescending, vindictive, malicious, snide, malignant, or any synonym that you can think of. I mean well.

If you believe that you wasted your life, as you seem to have insinuated, you will gain nothing from regretting it and will only depress yourself; you cannot change anything from the past. There is something that I can assure you of that will always be true: it does not matter if you live for the next one year, five years, ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, thirty years, fifty years or even 100 years; the day before you die you will regret ever worrying about your life instead of thinking of what you want to do.

Every new year that you do live, you will regret not having started anything that you wanted to do the year prior, only regretting the past more. What I mean is that you should think of what you want to do today; not starting next year or next month, but today. Thinking that you are not going to be able to do anything in the future will only ensure that fate. Also thinking that you are too “old” is going to ensure the same fate.

It is not as though I mean that you are homeless and begging; I would spend my life savings to prevent that out of obligation for what you have done for me. My personality is merely inherently unmoving; I will not be upset over something that you cannot change. And you should not be upset either. What you should do is think about what you want to do.

It is not clear what he meant by “life savings.” He had never worked a day in his life.

He ended his message to his mother by revealing that he had secretly done something nice for her, two weeks before: bought some RAM online for her laptop, and installed it, doubling the unit’s memory “without even saying anything until now.” He brought it up for a reason: “I do not try to avoid doing anything for you as you seem to think. I am glad that I was born, and I appreciate your having taken care of me.” As for the PC upgrade, “It is not my fault if you have not detected as much of an increase in speed as I would have liked, however; I blame its outdated processor.”

* * *

Nancy wrote back, an hour after midnight:

I appreciate your effort to be a comfort to me. I apologize if I seemed angry or antagonistic. I was simply over emotional and as it is often the case worrying about the future. I admit that I have been feeling a bit overwhelmed by my circumstances lately, but in no way do I regret having raised two wonderful children. I have high hopes for you both and will consider my life a success if you and Ryan live happy and productive lives.

There are a few things that I do regret… one of the biggest is that I dropped out of college, believing it to be more important to help your father get through college. Financially, it was impossible for us to afford a college education for both of us, and it seemed more important that he receive a diploma. In some ways I regret leaving the workforce as it has severely limited my prospects for the future, but again, it was a decision that I made to take more responsibility for the house and the children, and to allow your father to concentrate on his career. I do feel that I was able to be a better mother and have been able to put great effort into raising you and your brother, so that regret is mitigated in that respect. On the occasion that Ryan or you show some appreciation for my efforts, I feel completely justified in that choice and dually rewarded.

I know that it is harder for you to show appreciation, and that it does not come as a natural response. I really do not want you to feel obligated in that way. I do not expect any help, financial or otherwise, from you or your brother, and would not accept it if it were offered. I am certain that I will not be homeless or begging on a street corner, as your father is obligated by law and morality to see that my 30 years of service and sacrifice are compensated for. He has assured me that I will live a comfortable life and that my health expenses are covered. He is an honorable man. I am grateful that I was married to someone who honors his responsibilities. He has also taking [sic] responsibility to provide a college education for both you and your brother, so that neither of you will have to struggle and sacrifice as we did.

If you choose to, you will emerge from college with a master’s degree of your choice, debt free, to pursue any career in life that you wish. When I think of what I would like to do for the future, I think I would like to get my college degree first. I just thought of that tonight, as a direct result of my conversation with you. I think it would be possible as I dropped out only a year shy of my degree, and it seems as I might be spending quite a bit of time on campus waiting for you to take classes, so why not take advantage of that?! I suppose I could take classes at the same time you are taking classes. I agree with you when you say that I should try to think positively of the future and what I want to do today.

Nancy then brought up something that seems to explain some of the solemn atmosphere permeating their correspondence:

There is nothing that I can do about my diagnosis, and I do try to be as healthy as I can, despite the prognosis. I am sure that you noticed that I exercise regularly and do my best to stay in good shape. It’s not like I have the attitude that since I will be crippled anyway I may as well give up and get fat and sedentary now. I am working hard to stay as healthy as I can, for as long as I can.

Further in the message, Nancy returned to what had really hurt her feelings, and assured her son that now all was OK:

I would like you to know that no matter what, I am very proud of the person you are. I have no preconceived notion of how you should react or respond. I know that you tend to be more reserved and less emotional and I do not perceive that as condescending, malignant, or callous. You are pragmatic and stoical. These are fine attributes. I am glad to know that you are glad to be born and appreciate being taken care of. I love you very much and am more than happy to take care of you in any way I can. I suppose I have felt that you didn’t even notice how hard I try to make things as tolerable as possible for you and that has made me feel sad in a way. I am much happier now, knowing that you do not despise me for bringing you into this world. Above all, I want you to be happy, no matter what you choose to do.

She assured her son that she did indeed notice the increased speed on her laptop — “I was able to get baseball scores for all the games in a split second” — and she added “you should let me know when you do thoughtful things so that you can get credit!” Finally, she took ownership of the misunderstanding: “Thank you for taking the time to send me this email. I now understand your motive and meaning, and I truly appreciate it!”

The exchange took place in the middle of the night; most likely, she was home at the time (she kept her laptop in the den, downstairs.) As Nancy would later confess to family back in Kingston, this had become the norm in the house at 36 Yogananda, when it wasn’t a school day: Adam staying in his room all day and night, not even speaking to her. When he wanted to transmit a message, he would send her an email — the signal traveling all the way across Newtown to Charter Cable, and bouncing all the way back to the pale yellow house, one floor down. When things were bad, that was preferable to the alternative: opening the bedroom door, at the top of the stairs.

Fall 2008

Newport, Rhode Island

There was a guy named Russ who started frequenting My Place, around then. He had a home up in Rhode Island, and he owned a boat. When his birthday came that year, he invited all his friends from Newtown up to go sailing; later, when he uploaded the pictures to Facebook, he tagged his friend Nancy. She was in several of them, smiling under the clear blue sky: she looked serene, wearing a paisley silk blouse with jewel earrings, the wind blowing in her layered ash-blonde hair, and a glass of white wine in her hand. “That’s the kind of person she was,” Russ would say of the photos he took. “She loved to celebrate the moment.” He had gotten to know that side of her from the karaoke nights at My Place, when she would always be ready to belt out her favorite Beatles tune: “Here, There, and Everywhere.”

September 23, 2008

Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences — Kauhajoki, Finland

It had already seemed like the most random place on the globe for the phenomenon to appear — and yet, ten months after the YouTube shooter struck, it happened again: another Columbine wannabe in Finland, leaving gun-toting selfies and violent threats across the internet in the days before he finally laid siege to his school. His IRC-Galleria account had all the now-standard shooter tropes: the shooter dressed in black; the shooter pointing the gun at the camera; the shooter posing in a backwards ball cap. He had a YouTube channel, too, with one clip showing his target practice sessions under the title “my walther p22” — same as the gun the Virginia Tech shooter had ordered online. On the morning of the shooting, he posted his final video, entitled “Goodbye” — it showed him emptying a clip at a gun range, and then waving farewell.

He had taken notice of his predecessor at Jokela, naturally. He bought his gun from the same gun store. Sometimes, in the months before the attack, he got drunk and asked people on the street “humanity is overrated, isn’t it?” He had even improved on the Jokela plan — he brought fuel that he was actually able to ignite. When emergency services arrived, just as he took his own life, parts of the school were in flames.

The shooter’s friends knew that he suffered from anxiety and depression, and that he was obsessed with school shooters. They noticed that he was fixated on the Virginia Tech gunman, in particular, and the videos the young man from Harper Hall filmed of himself. He used to bring them up on his smartphone. “He told us to have a look at [the videos] and said ‘isn’t it great?’”

November 2008

Google UK Headquarters — London

The BBC’s investigative teams ran a story on the Six O’Clock news: with some simple searches, they had found YouTube to be full of videos “glorifying the Columbine High School Killers,” and they wanted Google — YouTube’s parent company — to give an explanation.

A spokesman for Google said that the site did have a policy against such content; if “Columbine videos” were reported to them, the company would take them down. But this mattered little; there was no effective way to preempt someone from uploading the same clips all over again — not with 13 hours of footage getting uploaded to the website every minute, a rate that increased every year. At the same time, there were free speech issues that YouTube wasn’t excited to get near; were they supposed to ban all videos covering the topic of Columbine? Or for all mass shootings? Did they only target the videos that “glorified” school shootings? Who was to say which videos did, and which ones were, say, tributes to the victims?

The BBC located one of the users who was hosting a video featuring the Columbine killers — he was a teenager from North England, who stammered that he “in no way meant” to cast the gunmen in a heroic light; he only “wanted to let people see behind the killers and see they were real people.”

Other clips online were not so ambiguous; one was just a music video, showing news footage of a Columbine victim, lying motionless on the concrete walkway outside the commons. The boy’s father, back in Colorado, told the BBC “YouTube should maintain a certain degree of morality. […] This is the type of thing that our culture promotes.”

In the ensuing controversy, YouTube appeared to take the heavy-handed approach. “We do not tolerate videos that glorify school shootings and have removed the videos that fall into that category,” Google UK’s head of communications told the BBC. Soon, videos showing the Columbine shooters — or the Jokela shooter, or any of their ilk — were disappearing from the site. It wasn’t going to last, as the spokesman had explained, but at least with the arrival of 2009, for a brief moment, YouTube’s cult of Columbine fell quiet.

Western Connecticut State University

Adam got a “W” in his Data Modeling course: Withdrew from class. “Students will design and implement a database application working from the E-R modeling stage through to the actual implementation,” the course description had read, but apparently, it wasn’t for him. Adam ditched the textbooks in his bedroom closet.

He finished his Ethical Theory class. The basics: Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Hobbes. That course brought him onto the campus proper — during the day, with the crowds. The lectures were held in White Hall, an old building that was once Danbury’s high school. He earned a C.

Nancy would be waiting in the parking lot every afternoon, to drive her son home. But sometimes, when class ended, he didn’t show up. She would go looking around campus, and then find him in the library: on one of the computers, on the internet, having skipped a class entirely. He already spent all night online at home, and when classes forced him to leave, sometimes he would just look for the nearest portal back.

* * *

Nancy sent Peter an update later that year, indicating a change in the environment at the top of the stairs. “Adam had a rough night. He moved EVERYTHING out of his room last night. He only kept his bed and wardrobe cabinet.”

* * *

The Columbine forum was staying up-to-date with their conversation topics, posting back and forth about President Obama’s staff nominations, and gun control, and wondering what would be on one Columbine killer or the other’s Facebook profile. Browsing through the topics, Adam noticed that in some of the ones sharing “tribute videos” from YouTube, now there were only dead links. But he had gotten diligent about saving copies of videos to his hard drive, for just that reason. He could still watch the clips left behind by the two Finland shooters, whenever he wanted.

November 12, 2008

Law Offices of Gary Oberst — Norwalk, Connecticut

Nancy and Peter Lanza’s marriage lasted 27 years. For the last seven, they had been separated. But that fall of 2008, Nancy finally decided to make it official: she signed the divorce papers on November 3rd, and a week later, Peter was served. Nancy’s lawyer declared, in the typical phrasing of divorce proceedings, “The marriage has broken down irretrievably and there is no possibility of getting back together.”

It would be what they call a “no fault” divorce — they cared too much about their sons to fight each other, and they had both moved on romantically. But even so, the process would take months of court dates, with settlement terms going back and forth. And although their older son was all grown up, and thus hardly mentioned in the documents, Adam was still a minor.

As the terms of the final agreement came into view, both Nancy and Peter would acknowledge, as parents, “the obligation to consult and discuss with each other major decisions affecting the minor child’s best interests,” from Adam’s schooling to his “general welfare.” They agreed to resolve any future disagreements about his care between each other — but, as had been the case informally before, “Mother shall make all decisions with respect to the minor child after having consulted with the Father.” The power structure in Adam’s universe became locked in place, and Nancy would always be at the center.