“Should I have known?”
That’s the question that will forever haunt the parents of young men who commit mass murder.
Elliot Rodger. Matthew de Grood. Adam Lanza.
Aside from the horrible atrocities that they committed — and the mental illness dogging them all — these three young men have something else in common: parents who love them.
Parents who once changed their dirty diapers, took them to school, did their laundry, taught them to drive. Parents who wanted their sons to grow into happy, successful men.
Parents who didn’t know until it was too late what was going on inside their son’s mind.
On Saturday, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people in Santa Barbara, California. Three were his housemates, three others were people he drove past on the street. Then he turned his gun on himself.
The day before the massacre, Elliot emailed a vicious manifesto to his therapist. That therapist phoned Elliot’s mother. She went to her son’s YouTube channel and saw a disturbing video that talked more about his plans to kill people.
Unable to reach their son, Elliot’s parents jumped into their car and started driving to Santa Barbara, where Elliot attended university.
By the time they got there, it was too late.
Last month, Matthew de Grood, also 22 years old, went to a house party in Calgary and stabbed five of his friends to death. He fled the scene but was quickly captured by the police. He is being held in a psychiatric facility awaiting court proceedings.
The night of the attacks, his parents, one a police inspector, received disturbing text messages from their son. Unable to reach him, they too began desperately driving through the city, convinced that Matthew was going to hurt himself.
Again, they were too late.
In December 2012, Adam Lanza, 20, shot his mother to death in her bed, then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 children and six adults, before killing himself.
Two months ago, Adam’s surviving parent, his father Peter, spoke about his son for the first time to reporter Andrew Solomon for a feature in the New Yorker.
When Adam was young, Peter described his son as a “normal, weird kid”. Adam was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 13, and his behaviour began to get more and more strange from that point onwards.
Two years before the Sandy Hook shootings, Adam, whose parents were divorced, shut down communication with his father. Numerous attempts to contact his son fell on deaf ears.
On the day of the massacre, Peter Lanza was at work when he noticed colleagues clustered around a television watching footage of Sandy Hook. At first, Peter just remarked that his sons had gone to school there. Then, when reports mentioned that the suspects were brothers, a 20-year-old and a 24-year-old (Ryan Lanza was later cleared; Adam had been carrying his brother’s ID), Peter grew concerned.
He went home and found a reporter on his driveway. Rushing inside, he phoned his second wife and said, over and over again, “It’s Adam, it’s Adam.”
Peter said the boy had never before shown violent tendencies.
Now Peter is haunted by what his son did, saying that not an hour goes by that it doesn’t cross his mind, and recognizing that if he could have, Adam would have killed him too.
This loving, ordinary father, who used to spend hours building Lego with his young son and take him on hiking trips, now wishes his son had never been born. Can you imagine the torment a parent has to go through to reach that point?
Peter Lanza spoke out, not to satisfy the insatiable quest for explanation from the public, but because he hopes that in talking about Adam’s troubled life, other parents might recognize something amiss in their own child.
“I want people to be afraid of the fact that this could happen to them,” he says.
Every parent makes dozens of decisions about their child every day — some good decisions, some bad.
The idea that parenting alone can have a significant impact on the murderous actions of a grown-up man is unfair and cruel.
The uncomfortable truth is that even people who grow up in middle-class homes with loving, doting parents can commit horrible crimes.
It’s natural when these atrocities happen for society to look for ways to prevent them in the future — and this is a noble pursuit. Gun control, better diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, enhanced security in schools — yes, let’s change it all.
But blaming parenting is not a valid justification.
Sally MacDonald is a reporter at the Cranbrook Daily Townsman.